Analysis

Israeli Army's New Spokesman Might Lose Position Over Prior Role as Police Agent

The timing of the appointment of Gil Messing as spokesman is particularly sensitive because he was an agent in the investigation of Yisrael Beiteinu, whose leader, Avigdor Lieberman, is eyeing a return as defense minister

Israeli army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi
Moti Milrod

Gil Messing, tapped by his confidant, army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, as the next Israeli army spokesman, is facing three potential obstacles. One of them could even trip him up in his new job even before he starts.

The first obstacle relates to the army’s public relations in general. The spokesman’s office that Messing will be inheriting has doubled in size, without justification, over the past 20 years to 600 soldiers.

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The army spokesman is increasingly involved in public campaigns against the enemy that are coordinates with the intelligence community and the country’s political leadership. The unit is also very actively involved with social media aimed at the Arab world and to a global audience in general, although the efforts sometimes stray into the rather juvenile. Messing will have to keep close tabs on that, but more importantly, he will have to speak on behalf of the soldier at the West Bank checkpoint and at the border observation post. And even though the natural tendency would be for him to spend most of his time representing the chief of staff, that’s where the potential for real trouble lies.

The second obstacle has to do with politics, which is the field that Messing comes from. And more so than his predecessors, Messing’s is a personal appointment of the chief of staff, who is himself nearly a political personality by virtue of the extensive coverage that he receives and the fact that most former chiefs of staff have eagerly leaped into politics following their retirement.

That creates the potential for friction, both with the Prime Minister’s Office and with the next defense minister, who may again be Yisrael Beiteinu party leader Avigdor Lieberman, who has been showing increasing signs that he intends to return to the job. Messing’s approach to his work has also been political, meaning that the prospects are not small that things could ultimately blow up.

Gil Messing
Sigal Naftali-Kessel

Surprisingly we haven’t yet seen the prime minister’s troops storming the media over the appointment, even though Messing’s career path took him through the office of former Knesset opposition leader Tzipi Livni. Vocal witch hunts have ensued from the Prime Minister’s Office over much less. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the matter of the appointment is settled.

The outgoing army spokesman, Ronen Manelis, was a constant target for attack, as statements that he made were taken out of context and blown out of proportion. Messing will get the same treatment from the moment that he, or his commander, are identified as a threat.

Taking the general staff by surprise

The third conundrum, and possibly the most relevant when it comes to Messing taking the job at all, has to do with Haaretz reporter Gidi Weitz’s story, which broke on Tuesday and came as a total shock to the army’s general staff. It turns out that Messing worked as a police agent attempting to incriminate suspects in the investigation of corruption in Yisrael Beiteinu. The police have a tape on which Messing coaxes media adviser Ronen Moshe to admit that he gave bribes to top people in Yisrael Beiteinu – the same party that is led by the leading candidate as the next defense minister.

Neither Lieberman nor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are known to be fans of the police, and while some might view Messing as a warrior against corruption who helped the police out of civic duty and a developed sense of justice, others might view him as a snitch and rat. This second group might ask how did the police convinced Messing to engage in such an exercise, which is so removed from his regular life.

Kochavi heard about the case for the first time on Tuesday afternoon, when he was contacted by the Haaretz reporter. Messing’s closest friends hadn’t known a thing either. The army spokesman’s office, which Messing is slated to head as of this summer, said that from an inquiry with law enforcement officials, it turns out that Messing was never a suspect in the case and that his conduct in the matter was impeccable.

Will he still get the job?

Will he get the appointment, after all this? Will Netanyahu and Lieberman use the report about Messing to get rid of a man who was once a spokesman for Livni, albeit nearly a decade ago? Will Kochavi continue to back his man? We should know by the end of the week.

If his appointment is withdrawn, Messing will join a club with just two other members: Lior Lotan passed up the spokesman job after Yoav Gallant’s appointment as army chief of staff was killed.

And before that, Danny Naveh, who was media adviser to the defense minister at the time, saw his appointment as army spokesman quashed by Chief of Staff Ehud Barak. Naveh had been a member of the Likud central committee and later served as cabinet secretary and as a cabinet minister. (Messing’s political past pales by comparison).

Somebody with a long memory brought a Haaretz article to my attention from June 1991 by Yoel Marcus. That was just before Naveh’s appointment was withdrawn.

“Danny Naveh is a pleasant person,” Marcus wrote. “Such a pleasant guy that, if I had a daughter, I would be happy to have him as a son-in-law. But the decision to appoint him as Israeli army spokesman is a bad one, mainly not well thought out. The more that time passes, and we are witness to decisions that provoke a public outcry, we see a new aspect that we had not been familiar with in the chief of staff. He doesn’t know how to admit mistakes.”

“History doesn’t repeat itself,” goes a saying that has been attributed to Mark Twain, “but it often rhymes.”