Analysis

Netanyahu Excluded From Defense Minister's Announcement of Next Army Chief

Lieberman took an unusual step when he unilaterally announced his pick

Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in October, 2018
Moti Milrod

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s announcement Friday that he’s nominating Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi to succeed Gadi Eisenkot as military chief of staff was a unilateral one. According to Friday’s statement by Lieberman’s office, the defense minister had informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the choice.

But it wasn’t a joint statement, and several hours passed before Netanyahu, returning from an official visit to Oman, issued a statement in support of the choice.

Defense officials have told Haaretz that Lieberman didn’t coordinate his announcement with Netanyahu, while sources close to the prime minister said his visit to Oman had kept him busy. 

It appears there's a more complex explanation. Lieberman, who for two months tried to get the chief of staff appointed and was delayed because of disagreements with Netanyahu, got tired of waiting.

Issuing the statement while Netanyahu was still in Oman – on a visit that was kept under wraps until he returned to Israel – let Lieberman present Netanyahu with a fait accompli and maybe overshadow the Oman headlines. Their relationship hasn't been great lately, mostly because of disagreements over Hamas policy and the fact that the prime minister this week told Lieberman to lift some of the sanctions he had placed on Gaza.

Lieberman's announcement locked in Netanyahu. In the military, Kochavi is thought to be the best candidate for the job. A disavowal of Lieberman's decision by Netanyahu would have sparked a fiery, public spat with the defense minister. But the prime minister made sure he added a  zinger. "Sources close to Netanyahu" told political reporters that Kochavi is really a compromise candidate who was agreed on only after the defense minister "gave up on his first choice of Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon."

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Lieberman's move was unusual. Four years ago, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon pushed for the appointment of Eisenkot as chief of staff. Netanyahu mulled it over for months, and in the end the decision in November 2014 came in a joint statement.

The assumption among defense officials and politicians has been that Netanyahu wanted his former military secretary, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, as the next chief of staff. Lieberman was considering pushing for Alon, about whom some of the prime minister’s associates have reservations; some people on the right consider Alon a “leftist.”

Perhaps unfairly, Kochavi has been seen as a candidate who offered a compromise for Netanyahu and Lieberman, but the announcement was still delayed – until Friday. In the release, Lieberman noted that Kochavi’s nomination would be submitted Sunday to the committee on senior government appointments headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg.

Originally, Lieberman intended to submit the names of two candidates, in case one was rejected, but Goldberg had already signaled that one name would suffice. (This signaling went to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who had sought to submit three candidates for police commissioner to the committee on senior appointments.)

In any case, Kochavi hasn’t been linked to any ethical problem, so it appears the chances that Goldberg’s committee would balk at his appointment are slim. But there is a possible legal obstacle unrelated to Kochavi: a petition filed with the High Court of Justice challenging Netanyahu’s decision to appoint Prof. Talia Einhorn to Goldberg’s committee. On Thursday, the court asked the prime minister to give his reasoning in seeking Einhorn’s appointment to the panel.

Under the circumstances, including the de facto exclusion of Maj. Gen. Yair Golan as a chief-of-staff candidate because of a speech he made on Holocaust Remembrance Day two years ago, Kochavi has long been considered the top candidate. Kochavi is a smart and experienced officer who has filled all the relevant positions; he headed operations, Military Intelligence and the Northern Command before becoming deputy chief of staff.

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His nomination is also expected to be accepted by the major generals. Major generals Alon and Zamir, the two other contenders for the position, have already told Lieberman they would agree (and according to one account even prefer) to be Kochavi’s deputy, based on the latter’s seniority and experience.

In any case, it’s clearly in the General Staff’s interest that the appointment be made quickly and that Eisenkot work with his successor on the transition; the changing of the guard is due on January 1. The last thing the army wants is political wrangling between Netanyahu and Lieberman. After all, it’s critical who Israel chooses to lead its military.