JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Naftali Bennett, leader of an ultra-nationalist Israeli party and a potential future defense minister, is in the spotlight over his indirect role in an army shelling attack that killed more than 100 Lebanese civilians nearly two decades ago.
Bennett, whose Jewish Home party is in Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition and is expected to perform well in elections in March, was a junior commando officer during Israel's 1996 Lebanon offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas.
After his troops were pinned down, an artillery strike was called in to help cover their retreat near the village of Kafr Qana, killing 102 locals who were sheltering at a U.N. facility. International outrage prompted Israel to curtail the operation.
Two unsourced Israeli media reports over the past week have questioned Bennett's soldiering. One said he had undertaken risky maneuvers without authorization from commanders he deemed "cowardly and not steadfast enough". The other suggested his "hysterical" distress calls precipitated the errant shelling.
Invoked now, months after the war in Gaza, which was condemned abroad but which Bennett said should have been more aggressive, the episode has tapped into pre-election debate on national security and diplomacy.
Bennett, a former tech entrepreneur who urges Israelis to "stop saying sorry" for their country's policies, has denied any wrongdoing at Kafr Qana. In a speech on Tuesday, he reiterated his vociferous defense of Israeli soldiers facing investigation over the latest Gaza war.
"Attack me as much as you want," said Bennett, the economy minister. He said of critics: "They were never in the battlefield and are unworthy of the sacrifice these warriors make for them."
Bennett's conduct at Kafr Qana drew surprising endorsement from the liberal newspaper Haaretz, which said its investigation had found that the young officer had "functioned excellently".
But Haaretz argued Bennett may lack sufficient experience to serve as defense minister, a post some Israeli analysts predict Netanyahu will offer him if re-elected.
Such an appointment would anger Palestinians, whose goal of statehood in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem is rejected by Bennett, and likely deepen U.S. concerns about stalled peacemaking.
David Zonsheine, Bennett's former deputy in the army and now chairman of the board of B'Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights group, said: "I find it unbelievable that, instead of dealing with the bad things Naftali is bringing on Israel, some left-wing journalists, with a badly reported story, have compelled someone like me to come to his defense and confirm that he was a good officer."
Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Janet Lawrence