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Israel’s President Implores Top Army Brass to Speak Up Despite Political Pressure

As Netanyahu vows to annex, Rivlin warns IDF officers that political deadlock may continue. The responsibility to put out the fires, he implies, rests with them

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi at an army base, September 2019.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi at an army base, September 2019.Credit: Mark Neiman / GPO
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

President Reuven Rivlin came to the Glilot army base on Monday to meet with army officers holding the rank of brigadier general or higher. This was part of a conference at which Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi presented his five-year plan for the IDF to his senior officers.

Kochavi invested great effort in this plan, which is currently on ice. It was supposed to take effect in January, but fell victim to the reigning political paralysis.

Netanyahu's 'annexation nation' is ready to strike again. Listen

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With a permanent transitional government, it’s impossible to approve the annual budget. And with no budget, the plan is meaningless in practical terms, even if the army says it has redirected funds from within its own budget to meet some of the plan’s goals.

Meanwhile, the IDF has launched a public and media campaign promoting the plan. The meeting with Rivlin will be followed by meetings with journalists and retired senior officers later this week.

Presidents have always been the allies of IDF chiefs of staff. Kochavi, like his predecessors, sees the President’s Residence as a place where the army will always get attention and support.

Sometimes, this strategic alliance leads both sides astray. Last autumn, when the generals warned Rivlin about urgent security needs, he leveraged this to urge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz to overcome their disagreements and form a unity government.

Netanyahu, who is currently concerned solely with his political survival, went even further. He harnessed the army’s warnings and new developments on the Iranian front (the cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabia and reports of Iranian missile deployments in Yemen) to portray Gantz as neglecting Israel’s security needs out of petty political considerations.

Even the General Staff was dragged, against its will, into serving as a prop in Netanyahu’s show. He routinely warned of security dangers during visits to IDF units.

But Gantz wasn’t convinced. The result is a third election in which Iran has somehow been mostly forgotten, while annexing the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements has become the rock of our existence.

Rivlin came to Glilot to show support for the army’s constraints and hopes, but also to send a message. I’d like to tell you, he told the officers, that everything will be solved soon, that stability will return after March’s election, enabling you to operate with a feeling of certainty. “But that isn’t the situation, gentlemen, and I’m not in the habit of lying. What led us to a third election could also bring us to a fourth, fifth or sixth.” At that, one person present said, “the officers’ jaws simply dropped.”

This pessimistic prediction led Rivlin to explain what he sees as the responsibility that senior officers now bear. In a prolonged period of political transition, the IDF is the rock of the country’s existence.

Therefore, he said, senior officers must do two things: “Navigate this enormous ship called national security wisely, responsibly and fearlessly,” and say what they think “without fear of what they’ll say, what they’ll tweet ... without interference from people with irrelevant considerations.”

These comments were no accident. After the unveiling of the Trump peace plan and the promises of immediate annexation by Netanyahu’s associates (which have since been scrapped under pressure from Washington), the silence of senior defense officials reverberated. Aside from one Haaretz article about their fears that annexing the Jordan Valley would undermine the peace treaty with Jordan, their voices haven’t been heard.

Rivlin therefore told them: It’s your duty to obey the government’s orders, but also to voice your professional opinion about what’s happening. And he knows that’s no small thing. Given the way Netanyahu’s bureau and his Likud party’s campaign have mobilized ministers, MKs and supporters on social media, an aggressive, effective public attack on anyone who dares express a different view is guaranteed, and especially on anyone who does so publicly.

While Rivlin was meeting with senior IDF officers, Netanyahu was touring the Jordan Valley and once again promising to annex it. Following America’s intervention, the timetable is clear. Netanyahu admits that annexation will happen only after next month’s election, and he also says it will happen only if Likud wins.

But all the talk about annexation has an impact on the ground. We were reminded of that by 24 hours of serious terror attacks last week. And the people who will have to put out the fire ignited by this empty talk (and even more so by steps on the ground, should any occur) were sitting in the front rows at Glilot on Monday, listening to the president.

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