IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel Navy commander Eliezer Mar
Then-IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak and then-Israel Navy commander Eliezer Marom speak to reporters following the deadly raid of the Gaza flotilla on May 31, 2010. Photo by Nir Kafri
Text size

The Basic Law on the Army was passed in 1976 and has not been amended since, despite various bills tabled over the years and de facto departures from its dictates. For example, the law does not grant the prime minister any standing in the area of defense and does not even mention the position at all. But in practice, prime ministers are highly involved in defense matters.

Under the law, which sets out the fundamental principle of the army's subordination to civil authority, the defense minister is in charge of the army on behalf of the government. The IDF chief of staff must carry out its directives, but the prime minister is not authorized to issue any direct orders to the chief of staff.

The chief of staff's duty to obey the defense minister remains in effect, unless and until the cabinet expresses an opinion on a specific matter - a conclusion derived from a clause specifying that the chief of staff is subject to the authority of the government and subordinate to the defense minister. "Subject to" implies control, and takes precedence over "subordinate to."

A ruling handed down by the High Court of Justice in 1979, regarding the settlements in the West Bank, emphasized that a cabinet resolution on a given issue takes precedence over a directive from the defense minister.

According to an academic article on the Basic Law on the Army, published in 2000 by professors Mordechai Kremnitzer and Ariel Bendor, there is "no room to doubt the chief of staff's status as subordinate to the minister of defense and to the government."

According to the law, the chief of staff "shall be appointed by the government upon the recommendation of the defense minister." This provision grants special authority to the minister of defense: Without the minister's recommendation, the cabinet cannot appoint a chief of staff. It can be assumed that the minister's recommendation is also required in the event the cabinet decides to dismiss the chief of staff.

The minister's authority in this matter is heightened by the absence of a clearly defined vetting process on the part of a search committee, as is required with the office of attorney general. In that case, the cabinet may only appoint a candidate approved by an independent search committee.

A 2000 cabinet resolution includes the IDF chief of staff among the positions whose appointments must be approved by a panel after the defense minister makes his choice. In contrast to the search committee for the attorney general, this committee's approval is mainly pro forma.

In light of the chief of staff's great power and influence in critical decision making, the creation of an independent search committee for this post should be considered. The defense minister would then be required to choose from among the candidates recommended by the panel.