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Netanyahu Sacrifices His Military Secretary to Appease Settlers Ahead of Election

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his military secretary, Col. Avi Bluth
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his military secretary, Col. Avi BluthCredit: Kobi Gideon/GPO

Brig. Gen. Avi Bluth, Benjamin Netanyahu’s military secretary, made a mistake when he did not immediately deliver to the army the prime minister’s instructions to halt the removal of mobile homes at the unauthorized West Bank settlement outpost of Amona on Wednesday night. That was the conclusion of the inquiry conducted Friday by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. Bluth decided to wait until the next morning, and by then the evacuation operation had already begun. This is why Eisenkot made the extraordinary decision to place a note on the matter in Bluth’s personnel file.

But what is even more notable about this otherwise rather trivial episode is the fact of the disciplinary proceeding and the public embarrassment Bluth suffered — on Netanyahu’s instructions. The leak of the claims against Bluth, and as a result the order to Eisenkot to summon Bluth for a hearing, both stemmed from Netanyahu’s fears of trouble with the settlers, with the election campaign in the background.

When the prime minister is also the defense minister, there was no middle layer of officials who could be blamed for carrying out an action unpopular with the right.

Netanyahu is now deep inside his campaign, which is being conducted entirely under the shadow of progress in the criminal investigations against him. Given this situation, Netanyahu is taking no prisoners, even when the casualty is a senior Israel Defense Forces officer, one of the people who works alongside him in the closest way possible. How can the two manage to work together now after the hazing Bluth went through? Only Netanyahu has the answers.

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A settler being evicted from the illegal outpost in Amona, January 3, 2019. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Previous military aides — Eisenkot himself (for Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon), Moshe Kaplinsky and Yoav Gallant (Sharon), Gadi Shamni (Ehud Olmert) – never underwent any similar experience. Nonetheless, there is one precedent: Maj. Gen. Meir Klifi, a short time after Netanyahu returned to office back in 2009. Netanyahu’s new bureau ran into trouble by deceiving the media about a secret visit he made to Russia. Then too, the military secretary, a relic from Olmert’s days, was sacrificed without any sentiment and blamed for the fiasco.

Placing mobile homes on privately owned Palestinian land on the site of Amona, which the state had evacuated previously, is considered a “fresh trespass” by the IDF’s Civil Administration in the West Bank, certainly as long as the settlers have not provided proof of their claims to have purchased the land. The procedure in such cases is for the commander of the IDF regional brigade to order the evacuation within 60 days after the discovery of the new offense. After a legal clarification, on Wednesday morning the obstacles to the evacuation were removed.

In principle, neither the prime minister nor the chief of staff has the authority to intervene in the removal process. But if Netanyahu thinks it necessary to wait with the evacuation, as a result of diplomatic or other considerations, he can step in and ask the army to reconsider.

It is not clear whether Netanyahu knew about the legal situation completely, or justified his considerations, but at 1:30 A.M. Thursday he informed Bluth that it was necessary to stop the evacuation. Bluth waited until about 6:30, and even then he conveyed the instructions not to the chief of staff’s office but to other addresses (as far as is known, to the Civil Administration and the Central Command). At that time, the evacuation had already started, a company of Border Police was already on the scene and a violent confrontation was under way between hundreds of young right-wing activists and the police.

It seems that Bluth did not know the operation was about to start so quickly, and as a result he took his time in passing on Netanyahu’s instructions. This is why he was reprimanded. Still, there is something rather strange and surprising about an incident in which over 20 police officers, including an officer who was stabbed — not a single protestor has remained under arrest and the only person to pay any price was the prime minister’s military secretary.

Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman attacked Netanyahu’s actions and defended Bluth on Facebook Friday morning. Lieberman noted that Bluth had grown up on the settlement of Halamish and studied in the religious premilitary academy in Eli in the West Bank. Maybe it is more important that Bluth also filled a number of military posts with excellence and was wounded during combat in the Gaza Strip, as a battalion commander during Operation Cast Lead.

Even an outstanding officer can make a mistake. The problem lies in the impression that the punishment is not the result of just a mistake, but as part of a desire to placate the extreme right wing. This approach blurs the lines of appropriate leadership. A quite direct line connects the decision to publicize Bluth’s error and punish him, to sending National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat in November to convince Rabbi Haim Druckman to stop the ministers from Habayit Hayehudi from leaving the government coalition. (Netanyahu and Ben-Shabbat deny the claim that Druckman was shown classified information at this this meeting.)

In the past, the prime minister’s military aides held the rank of major general. Eisenkot, who served in the post as a brigadier general, thought the major general rank was unnecessary — and wanted to economize on the number of majors general in the military. In 2015, he convinced Netanyahu to lower the rank for the post back to brigadier general. Bluth arrived in the post directly from the command of the Commando Brigade as a colonel. His period of command of the brigade was even cut in half to hasten his entry to the post in the Prime Minister’s Bureau.

But maybe the military needs to complain about itself, too: When chiefs of staff and candidates for the post of military secretary accept the presence — supposedly coincidental but nonetheless recurring — of the prime minister’s wife in interviews with the candidates, we cannot be surprised when in the end one of them finds himself as the scapegoat for political complications. By the way, there were candidates who identified this problem in time and asked the chief of staff to spare them the honor of serving in the post.

With the conflict with Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit hovering in the background, and the free for all fight that is splintering parties into pieces, political commentators have already agreed that the coming election period is expected to be exceptionally ugly. In the second week of the election campaign, it seems that things are already spilling over into the interface between politics and security issues, which all in all, Netanyahu has handled quite well in recent years.

All this is far from being the ideal circumstances for the next chief staff, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who will be sworn in on January 15. The power of a new chief of staff is not comparable to that of one near the end of his term — and even the latter, Eisenkot, was forced to waste his time on Friday morning on cleaning up after the political crisis that befell Netanyahu.

We must admit that Kochavi is also beginning his tenure with a less experienced and less independent team than the one Eisenkot had at his side. In addition to Eisenkot, who is retiring, in the past two years, the General Staff has said farewell to majors general Yair Golan, Amir Eshel, Nitzan Alon, Roni Numa and Yoav Mordechai. Something has changed in the balance of forces — the practical, not legal aspect — between the political leadership and the military side. Given the atmosphere of extreme madness that is taking control of the political and public debate, these cannot be viewed as good tidings.

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