Israeli Defense Force soldiers take part in a night-time tracking drill near Tze'elim in southern Israel, June 9, 2014.
Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters

Next week, Israel will be transfixed by the trial of Elor Azaria, a sergeant in the Israeli Defense Forces who was indicted for manslaughter in the Jaffa Military Court for allegedly shooting a Palestinian stabber who was wounded and lying motionless on the ground. The whole incident, which took place in Hebron in March, was captured on video and quickly went viral.

Immediately after the shooting, right-wing politicians rose to Azaria’s defense, noting that the Palestinian was no innocent. After all, he had tried to stab an Israeli first in what was one of more than 200 similar cases since October. They have accused the government of abandoning the soldier; many say that he feared that the Palestinian assailant had an explosive device. Meanwhile, Knesset House Committee Chairman David Bitan, a member of the right-wing Likud Party, kicked off a campaign to petition the Israeli president to pardon Azaria. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, from the right-wing Jewish Home Party, has also publically supported him.

Throughout the controversy, the Israeli security establishment has remained steadfast. Following the incident, Gadi Eisenkot, the IDF chief of staff, took the unusual step of writing a letter to all soldiers, in which he defended the trial and noted that “safeguarding the IDF’s values is not a right but a duty.” For him, a major principle is at stake: Israel has rules of engagement that should not be ignored. Some right-wing politicians have urged the IDF to adopt a shoot-to-kill policy in cases of threat, rather than current policy, which dictates using the minimum force required to neutralize the threat.

Israeli soldier Elor Azaria (C) is greeted by friends and relatives as he arrives to his home in the city of Ramle near Tel Aviv April 22, 2016.
Israeli soldier Elor Azaria (C) is greeted by friends and relatives as he arrives to his home in the city of Ramle near Tel Aviv April 22, 2016.
Moti Kimchi / Reuters
In this, even Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who is considered a hawk on Palestinian issues, has backed Eisenkot. “The IDF chief, and not gang leaders, will determine the rules of engagement,” he said. After depictions of Yaalon’s face in the cross-hairs went viral on social media, Yaalon said, “The good of the country is more important than my own.”

The incident captures the IDF’s growing involvement in the Palestinian issue. Seeing a diplomatic vacuum in Israeli politics since the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2014, the IDF has increasingly worked to assert itself as a guardian of democratic values and a stabilizer in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. As the citizens’ army, the IDF has long viewed itself as acting above the political fray, able to look strategically at the needs of the state, rather than getting bogged down by political considerations. To be sure, the forces have no interest in taking the place of diplomats and hammering out a final agreement with the Palestinians, but the top brass knows how quickly the Palestinian situation can escalate.

And so the IDF has promoted initiatives to ease the situation. For example, in February, the Israeli defense establishment announced a plan to allow 30,000 more Palestinians to work in Israel, despite the continued escalation in stabbings of Israelis. Eisenkot has repeatedly stressed the need for distinguishing between those who stab and the general population and the harm to Israeli interests that would come from preventing Palestinians from working in Israeli towns or West Bank industrial zones. “There are 120,000 Palestinians who provide livelihood for 600,000–700,000 family members. It’s a moderating influence, and I think it is in our interest to allow this,” Eisenkot said, in a rare speech, in January at the annual conference of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Supporters of Elor Azaria take part in a protest calling for his release in Tel Aviv, Israel April 19, 2016.
Supporters of Elor Azaria take part in a protest calling for his release in Tel Aviv, Israel April 19, 2016.
Baz Ratner / Reuters
Further, on Monday this week, Yaalon announced that Israel would reopen the Erez crossing, one of the main crossing points into the Gaza Strip, which has been closed for the past eight years. “It is in our interests that a significant amount of truckloads of food continues to go to Gaza,” Yaalon said in a statement indicating the military’s concern about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. “It is our interest that Gazans live in dignity, both from a humanitarian point of view and because this is a way to protect the peace, in addition to existing security deterrents.”

Yaalon acknowledged that Hamas does use some of the materials that make it into Gaza to rebuild destroyed tunnels and stockpiles, and for a short while Israel did stop the supply of cement for residential reconstruction. Yet the IDF seems to believe that homelessness in Gaza could contribute more to extremism than cement, and so it has championed the rebuilding of Gaza, allowing around 900 trucks carrying goods from reconstruction materials to bring food and medicine into Gaza each day. In doing so, the IDF also helped make the Palestinians understand that they would have something to lose in any future conflict.

Along with easing restrictions on access and movement in the West Bank, the Israeli defense establishment has stressed the importance of strengthening the PA security forces and maintaining security cooperation, even as Palestinian negotiators say the bilateral security talks are suspended. (Such pauses have been announced before on the Palestinian side, but the security coordination has continued.) In March, Eisenkot briefed the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on talks between IDF officials and their Palestinian counterparts. The talks had involved a plan for reducing Israeli military incursions into and gradually reestablishing full Palestinian control over the Palestinian urban areas, known in diplomatic parlance as Area A. The 1995 interim agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip (known as Oslo II), placed Area A under PA civil and security control. This arrangement remained in effect until the second intifada, in 2000, when suicide bombs and other forms of violence convinced Israel that Area A was no longer sacrosanct. It thus went into Palestinian urban areas in a bid to defeat the uprising.

Reestablishing Palestinian control has long been a contentious issue. The IDF insists that it avoids entering Palestinian urban areas unless absolutely necessary, such as cases in which the IDF feels it cannot share a very sensitive intelligence source with Palestinian counterparts (an argument Palestinians believe is used rather too frequently). Under the new proposal, the IDF would agree to end all operations in Area A except for “ticking time bomb” cases.

Although Area A talks are now stalled because of political conditions on both sides, the Israeli defense establishment’s initiative reflects growing concern that the Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation could collapse—along with the Palestinian Authority—as well as a heightened willingness to do something about it. To be sure, Bennett and other politicians have publicly opposed the Area A talks, but the IDF has pushed forward.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits next to Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon (2nd L), Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot (L), acting Police Commissioner Bentzi Sau (R) and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (2nd R), as he spea
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits next to Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon (2nd L), Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot (L), acting Police Commissioner Bentzi Sau (R) and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (2nd R), as he speaks during a joint news conference in Jerusalem, October 8, 2015.
Ronen Zvulun / Reuters
However, the IDF is not detached from the Israeli cabinet. Key to this complex relationship is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is often caught between the political right and the defense establishment that is convinced that the Palestinian issue cannot be ignored. For him, it is convenient that the IDF publicly recognizes what he already knows to be true but is hesitant to say because of pressure both within his coalition and from external forces calling for further concessions.

As head of a center-right coalition, in other words, Netanyahu has an easier time acceding to the assessment of the Israeli defense establishment than actively leading such initiatives. For now, Netanyahu has been willing to defer to the IDF. For example, on Wednesday, the prime minister’s bureau released a statement noting that the issue of returning terrorists’ bodies to their families would now be under the purview of the defense minister and the public security minister. In the past, Netanyahu has been vocal in his opposition to such a policy. Right-wing politicians say that returning the bodies generates politically charged funerals. However, the defense establishment believes that withholding the bodies generates even more Palestinian resentment. Meanwhile, as right-wing attacks against Eisenkot intensify, it could get harder for Netanyahu to give the IDF room to work.

In Eisenkot’s recent letter, he reminded his soldiers that the fate of Israel depends on both its strength and its righteousness, evoking the words of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. It is too bad that his style of leadership, embodied by today’s defense establishment, is not to the liking of some Israeli politicians today.

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  • DAVID MAKOVSKY is the Director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute. He served on Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s negotiating team during the 2013–2014 Israeli-Palestinian talks.
  • GABRIELLE CHEFITZ is a research assistant at the Washington Institute.
  • More By David Makovsky
  • More By Gabrielle Chefitz