Former IDF Chief Rabbi Suspected of Leaking Secret Gaza War Info to Bennett

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Rabbi Avichai Ronsky.Credit: Moti Milrod

The Israel Defense Forces kept former IDF Chief Rabbi Brig. Gen. (res.) Avichai Ronsky away from the border with the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge, amid suspicions that he was illegally passing along secret operational intelligence to cabinet minister Naftali Bennett.

During the preparations for the ground operation, military figures learned that Bennett had information that had not been divulged to the cabinet. Bennett himself boasted in a number of interviews that he had knowledge of the operation as a result of his own service as an officer in special forces units as well of his acquaintance with senior IDF officers.

The IDF found a possible trail leading to Ronsky, who is known to be close to Bennet. It was also discovered that Ronsky was not called up for reserve duty during the Gaza operation in Gaza but of his own initiative joined patrols carried out by various IDF units. In consequence, the army decided to bar him from the headquarters of the various IDF units, though no other disciplinary action has yet been taken against him.

Ronsky is the head of the hesder yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, which combines religious study with military service. He and Bennett have been close for years, and the rabbi played a major role in Bennett’s election, around two years ago, as chairman of the Habayit Hayehudi party. Ronsky is involved with the Jewish Identity Administration, which was spearheaded by Bennett and created as part of his party’s coalition agreement with Likud, but Bennett’s attempts to have Ronsky appointed official head of the agency met with legal difficulties.

In late July, as Operation Protective Edge began to wind down, Bennett criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s goal in the fighting, which Bennett said should have been “to destroy Hamas” rather than addressing the threat posed by the tunnels. At the same time, Bennett said he did not support Israel’s reoccupation of Gaza or leaving IDF troops in the territory indefinitely. He argued that Israel needs to “forcefully ruin Hamas’ belief that it can win.”

“The tunnels are not the root of the problem. They are a means for Hamas to carry out their strategy of destruction,” said Bennett, adding, “What should be done? Name the target: demilitarization of Gaza, like Judea and Samaria. No rockets, no tunnels. The IDF must be given a clear objective — make that a reality.”

Bennett said at the time that the cabinet should direct the IDF not to delay or stop until this goal is achieved, whether by force or through agreement, and that any requests for humanitarian cease-fires should be denied. “Strike Hamas unmercifully, day and night. On weekdays and holidays. Without cease-fire, without rest, until it is defeated,” said Bennett.

Bennett also stated that the tunnel objective must be more clearly defined as destroying all of the tunnels in Gaza. He also proposed creating a security buffer zone on the western side of the Gaza border to continue the tunnel-destroying operation.

In a response statement, Bennett’s office said: “Anonymous slander is chutzpah. Minister Bennett is proud of his actions that led to the life-saving tunnel operation ... “Minister Bennett’s actions during Operation Protective Edge, at the height of the operation against the tunnels, saved the lives of residents of Netiv Ha’asara and Nahal Oz. For two long weeks, as the minister frequently demanded that the tunnels be destroyed, there were other political factions that halted the operation, or irresponsibly dismissed the value of the tunnel threat, which left residents of the south exposed to terror attacks. Such behavior is appropriate, even required, of a member of Israel’s cabinet.

“Minister Bennett’s demands that the tunnels be dealt with did not come to him from astrologers, but rather from touring the field and meeting with various security and intelligence experts. Saving human life is more important than political briefings. We hope that all of the ramifications of delaying the tunnel operation will soon be understood, and Minister Bennett would be glad to discuss this subject. In general, we are deeply impressed with the fighting spirit that has come to certain politicians in late September.”

Bennett associates: Ya'alon using IDF to further political interests

Senior officials in the Habayit Hayehudi party slammed Ya'alon for his remarks on Bennett. "The defense minister is making an improper use of the IDF to further his political interests. Ya'alon fears Bennett's power, and that's why he tries to harm him in the public arena. His motive is purely political, and isn't about security."

According to the officials, "Ya'alon tried to frame the religious commander of the Givati Brigade, Ofer Winter, and when he didn't succeed he shifted to Ronsky. He knows Ronsky is close to Naftali (Bennett), that they have collaborated politically for a while, and identified him as an easy target. What information exactly does Ronsky have had? About the kashrut of the mezuzot?"

"Bennett went to the staging area every two or three days. He's proud of it," they added. "He doesn't deny there were meetings and that he had information from officers on the ground. But there wasn't any other choice. This information wasn't given to the cabinet. He didn't get it in any other way. Bennett is proud of that."

Bennett's associates rebuffed the accusations that Bennett went to southern Israel in order to prop up his public image and "rake in 'likes' on Facebook." According to them, "Bennett went down south to get a picture of the events. It can be seen that he made no use of that on Facebook at the time."

In response to claims sounded by associates of Ya'alon a senior political official told Haaretz on Tuesday that the accusations against Bennett were "surreal" and that Rabbi Ronsky was falsely accused. According to the official, Bennett has many contacts among high-ranking officers in the standing army and in the reserves, who kept him informed during the fighting.

The senior official added: "It's only thanks to this information and Bennett's frequent demands in the cabinet that the security establishment was prodded toward effective action against the tunnels. If it was up to Ya'alon, no significant action would have been taken." The official added that "Ronsky had no operational information for Bennett. What could you have asked him? What's the units' kugel situation?" 

With reporting from Jonathan Lis.

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