Israeli journalist Yigal Sarna, writing in Yediot, has unearthed a troubling scandal from Naftali Bennett’s past service in the IDF. And just in time for the upcoming Israeli elections! How convenient!
His article is called Colonel Kurtz, Captain Bennett. In April 1996, he was Capt. Naftali Bennett of the elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal. He commanded 67 soldiers who were a special paratroopers unit that often fought behind enemy lines and engaged in covert operations.
During Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon, Bennett was filled with contempt for a military command marked by hesitation and timidity and as cautious as the then-prime minister, Shimon Peres. Following eight days in which Bennett followed Hezbollah forces and scouted their rocket launch locations, he took it upon himself to deviate from his orders. He acted like a man with a knife in his teeth, according to a friend’s account: someone who sought action, engaging the enemy, and killing. At the time, he boasted proudly that about changing his operational mission without consulting his superiors.
He was a field commander in the mold of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, skilled, violent, daring and rash. He believed it was in his power to vanquish the enemy if he could only free himself from the limitations of the orders given him by politicians and commanders too timid for his taste. Kurtz wanted to do it his way: to kill and prevail. But it ended badly for him.
That April day, Bennett’s force met with highly effective mortar fire of a Hezbollah unit near Kafr Qana. It was then that he realized he couldn’t prevail on his own. He needed a battery of IDF 155mm howitzers [to come to his rescue], which hit a refugee camp and killed 102 civilians.
Sarna refers to IDF fire, which struck a refugee camp in which hundreds of Lebanese were taking shelter. Nearby was a UN facility housing peacekeepers. Besides the civilians, four UN troops were killed.
In a Facebook post last night, Israeli journalist Raviv Drucker recounts a story he heard from an IDF officer and eyewitness of the events of that day. According to him, a hysterical Bennett pressured his superiors to bring far more firepower than necessary to bear save his ass. The result was this “terrible catastrophe.”
The massacre, like a similar one that occurred in the same place during the 2006 Lebanon war, shocked the world and led to the end of the conflict. However, Israel refused in both instances to apologize for the huge death toll. Shimon Peres, prime minister at the time of the first Kafr Qana massacre said: “We regret, but we will never apologize.” But apologize he did, in the form of bowing to the enormous pressure exerted on him by the international community, which was shocked by the carnage. Peres quickly ended the operation, to the disgust of then-Captain Bennett.
Sarna points out that if Bennett ever becomes prime minister it will mean that Israel will have had three leaders in a row with combat experience in Sayeret Matkal. While military heroes often make attractive political leaders, the journalist argues that this particular elite force, schooled in secrecy, discipline and absolute command, makes for exceedingly bad prime ministers as proven by Ehud Barak and Netanyahu himself, both veterans of this special forces unit.
Successful political leaders consult with both allies and opponents. They compromise. They decide when it’s wise to fight and when it’s wise to withdraw. For the good politician, discretion is the better part of valor.
A Sayeret Matkalnik knows only one gear: forward. He doesn’t hesitate, he charges forward. He acts and worries about consequences afterward. He knows his bosses will have his back and doesn’t worry about those vacillators in sitting in ministries. The very contempt for compromise that makes a good special forces commanders makes for a bad commander in chief.
That’s why the failures of Naftali Bennett as a soldier are instrumental and instructive as to what sort of political leader he might be. This is not to say that Israeli voters will mind. They’re exceedingly forgiving when it comes to carnage, as long as Arabs are the ones killed. In fact, Arabs are like “Indians” in American frontier military lore. The more scalps you have under your belt the more highly regarded you are.
Incidents like this are far more important to foreigners like many of you reading this, who view events in Israel through a broader perspective. For many of us, the thought of an Israeli leader who caused a war crime is repugnant. Let that be clearly marked on his record, so that those of us who care will know, and not let others who are more forgiving, forget.
If Bennett does rise to the highest seat of power it wouldn’t be the first time an Israeli leader arose from the ranks of terrorists and war criminals. The examples of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir precede him.