How Israel's Military Censor Became a Political Pawn in the Election

Politicians use their access to information as a campaigning tool, while the chief of staff basks in partisan love from the right. And what is the censor doing about it?

Kochavi, right, and Netanyahu, center at the Sirkin army base in January, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Since the 20th Knesset was dissolved at the end of 2018, an increasing number of politicians on both right and left have been violating gag orders on sensitive security information for political gain, and the military censor has failed to react. (For the latest election polls – click here)

In Israel, public figures, like mainstream media outlets, are usually meticulous about following the orders of the military censor, although its power to prevent the dissemination of security information has weakened considerably in the past decade.

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This trend has put the Israel Defense Forces in a tricky position, damaging its image of neutrality and its strict policy of confidentiality.

Sources in the defense establishment say it has now become almost impossible to prevent politicians from speaking about sensitive national security matters. "This is definitely a difficult period," one says. "Nobody can go to the prime minister or the ministers, and tell them not to speak or publicize certain sensitive matters, even if doing so causes significant damage."

Just this week, Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant was interviewed by Army Radio shortly after the firing of anti-tank missiles from Lebanon to the Galilee, and said: "According to all the reports we have received, there are no casualties." At exactly the same time, the IDF was conducting a diversionary maneuver that included the "evacuation of the wounded" in order to prevent escalation on the border, with media outlets barred by the censor from reporting it.

Galant later claimed his statement was made in coordination with the IDF, but sources in the defense establishment said they were not aware of any arrangements. Shortly afterwards, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself boasted: "There are no wounded, not even scratched."

Sources in the IDF who were involved in managing the incident have pointed a finger at the censor's office, claiming it should have withstood the pressure and removed all reports on the subject. It should have maintained the secrecy of the diversionary tactic, they argue, but instead fell to pressure from the political leadership.

Others joined in the criticism of the military censor's office and of the woman who has headed it since 2015, Brig. Gen. Ariella Ben Avraham. Political and military figures have claimed that it often seems like Ben Avraham does not even attempt to act when secrecy is violated – and the motives for that are unclear.

In January, Netanyahu went out of his way to embarrass her when he revealed that Israel was responsible for attacks in Syria – information that, although it was obvious to most, was embargoed by the military censor. In Ben Avraham's defense, forcing the prime minister to comply with regulations must be full of challenges when he also occupies the defense post, and is therefore your boss. Even before he served as defense minister, Netanyahu revealed the Israeli discovery of the Iranian nuclear program archive at a press conference last year. Senior officials in the intelligence community said that the revelation had caused damage.

Another example of the helplessness of the censor's office vis-a-vis the executive took place last month, when Acting Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz unexpectedly revealed that Israel is part of the U.S.-led coalition to protect trade routes in the Persian Gulf. According to a source in the defense establishment, whether or not the statement is true, "it causes significant harm to state security – and if it's true, it's also likely to harm IDF soldiers."

Other right-wing politicians saw that things were going well - and started to join in: Last week Yisrael Beitenu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman and Yamina Chairman Ayelet Shaked reported the capture of the murderers of teenager Rina Shnerb. Lieberman hastened to call for the death penalty, while Shaked said that she had heard the news along with the family when she was paying a call during the traditional seven-day mourning period. There was still a gag order on details of the affair, including information about capturing the attackers (if the arrest even really took place). Uncharacteristically, the Shin Bet security service was forced to announce it had not approved the reports.

"To this day I don't understand what caused them to do that," says a security source who was involved in the details of the affair. "Arrests of terrorist squad members are carried out secretly. Detaining a terrorist could be the beginning of the operation. Reports like these warn other members of the unit that we're coming for them. At best they can flee, but worse, they could carry out another attack – because they have nothing to lose. It's irresponsible."

After the failed IDF Special Forces operation in Gaza's Khan Younis in November, the military censor was forced to take the unusual step of informing the media that "Hamas is busy attempting to decipher the incident" and that "any item of information is likely to endanger lives and to cause damage to state security." Ben Avraham asked the public to refrain from posting pictures and details about those involved in the incident, but then-MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) posted on Facebook the picture of the officer who was killed and other information about him.

The post is still on the platform, and Yacimovich says that she wasn't asked to remove it. "There was absolutely no censorship violation in this post," she told Haaretz. "Those who did turn to me were the most senior officials in Netanyahu's office, and they begged me to remove it." She added: "I told them – no problem, give me one security reason and I'll do it immediately. In the evening there was even an urgent meeting with Netanyahu's emissary. He admitted that there was no censorship violation, but that 'there's sensitivity.'"

Yacimovich has said she believes the pressure on her stemmed from her criticism of Netanyahu's support for the nation-state law, and she has claimed that this, and not national security, was also the censor's motive. "It was clear that the controversy around the nation-state law was driving them crazy on the political level," she said. "Hours later the head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Shmuel Latko, came to me and said that the censor had spoken to him and that she was very hurt by the fact that I linked it to the nation-state law. I told him that with all due respect, that's none of her business. It's a political matter. In hindsight, I realized that I had been subject to tremendous pressure from the Prime Minister's Office."

Dispelling ambiguity harms the IDF, defense establishment sources say, and in that context, the extent of the harm is measured cumulatively, rather than individually. A defense source adds that, as opposed to anonymous leaks, publication of the details by senior public figures is damaging to the most sensitive activity and attributes public responsibility to Israel for incidents that could impact regional tensions.

General edging rightwards

Meanwhile, Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, who in his previous role often spoke about the need for ambiguity, has refrained from expressing his opinion and confronting the political leadership on the eve of the election.

Since assuming his position he has managed to maintain the IDF's operational advantage on almost all fronts, but he finds it difficult to set limits in the battle for the army's neutrality.

His silence on politically explosive subjects has made him into a right-wing darling, in a clear break from his predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot. "Kochavi seems to be enjoying all the praise he gets on social media about 'restoring deterrence,'" said a left-wing politician, who has participated in security discussions with him. "Apparently, he also feels comfortable being embraced by the right."

The state comptroller's report about the conduct of the army during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014 has been perfect fodder for Netanyahu's attacks on his main challenger, Benny Gantz, who was army chief at the time. Kochavi, who was Gantz's chief of Military Intelligence, is frequently mentioned in the report, which asserted that he did not provide details to the security cabinet about the severity of the threat of the tunnels from Gaza.

He's aware that any statement on the subject will bring him into the political arena, and he is avoiding that. At military ceremonies, he usually talks about operational or economic matters, which won't upset anyone. Matters such as religious indoctrination in the IDF, gender equality, combat ethics or the importance of ambiguity are not mentioned in his speeches.

Take the protests by Ethiopian Israelis. The chief of Central Command, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, ordered that soldiers be allowed to participate because "It's a legitimate, understandable and necessary protest." Only three weeks later, when the storm had already died down, did Kochavi invite troops from the Ethiopian community to his office after allegations of a racist incident.

Kochavi never commented on the controversial "graves video" Likud filmed in the military cemetery on Mount Herzl. Nor did he speak out when right-wing politicians opposed new army registration forms, which, in a nod to the LGBTQ community, replaced "Name of mother" and "Name of father" on intake forms with "Parent 1" and "Parent 2." There was no response to the campaign against drafting women for combat roles, which focused on criticism about the number of abortions in the army.

Instead, the towering vegetarian decided to cancel the integration of female combat soldiers in the Armored Corps, causing senior IDF officials to wonder about his fear of politicians. Throughout the scheme's pilot period, prominent national religious figures conducted an aggressive campaign designed to denigrate female fighters and Eisenkot. The IDF, for its part, praised the experimental program, and the head of the Armored Corps, Brig. Gen. Guy Hasson, declared that "A crew of female Armored Corp fighters under the command of a female tank commander can certainly conduct operational activity."

Legal experts looking at the decision to cancel the scheme warned Kochavi that the "cost-benefit considerations" argument would not hold water in the High Court of Justice, because the findings attested to the fact that women are indeed fit to serve as tank crew. The chief of staff nevertheless decided to cancel, without announcing the decision publicly. The Armored Corps commander who had declared the success of the pilot was sent to announce its cancellation.

Kochavi wants to maintain his image as an "offensive officer," who has restored the army's fighting spirit and the desire to win. In a video posted after the Four Seasons exercise, which lasted for half a year and was designed to prepare the troops for a possible operation in Gaza, he said: "We have undergone a very significant upgrade. The level of preparedness is very high."

"There's a significant gap between the way Four Seasons was presented and the changes required on the ground," a security source said, adding that, despite Kochavi's boast, operational plans have not changed substantially.

Even in his inaugural speech, Kochavi used strong rhetoric: He spoke of "putting a lethal army in place" and shortly afterwards he initiated the "victory workshop," reportedly designed to achieve a clear victory. Even if the words "lethal" and "victory" or "destroying the enemy" are empty of content.` In the present situation, Kochavi understands that he will get credit for them and, importantly, they won't disturb the political leadership.

It is also important for Kochavi to include Netanyahu in this image overhaul. He allows him to come to security zones and to send political messages – although the chairman of the Elections Committee told him not to. In recent months, by dint of Netanyahu's role as defense minister, announcements by the IDF spokesperson have been confirmed by the prime minister's spokesperson.

In March, when the IDF announced that Netanyahu had instructed Kochavi to send forces to the south, commentators were enthusiastic: "The ray of light from the short operation against the wild animals in Gaza is Chief of Staff Kochavi," wrote journalist Shimon Riklin. Former Education Minister Naftali Bennett said recently on IDF Radio: "I have the impression that Kochavi has brought something new to the army. He talks about victory."

The decision that helped Kochavi to win over the right (and apparently the prime minister's circle as well) was the appointment of Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter in July as commander of the prestigious 98th Division. Eisenkot was opposed to promoting Winter, who is reportedly close to right-wing activists, and Kochavi's actions could not have been entirely non-partisan.

Education Minister Rafi Peretz (Yamina) congratulated Kochavi on the choice, and congratulations also came from Bennett, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and a few rabbis. Additional appointments announced by Kochavi did not receive similar attention.

Asked to comment on the findings of this piece, the military censor said that it "operates with complete independence, in instances where there is near certainty of genuine damage to state security. The policy is determined in a businesslike and professional manner. The examples brought in the article are not accurate, to say the least."