Analysis

New IDF Spokesman Is Army Chief's First Test

The controversy surrounding Gil Messing constitutes the first leadership crisis for the new chief of staff, less than four months after he took up the position

Israel's Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi during his swearing-in ceremony in HaKirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, on January 15, 2019.
\ Moti Milrod

The Messing affair will be decided in the end between the chief of staff and the elected officials. Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi’s plan to appoint his close associate Gil Messing to the position of military spokesman leapt two hurdles with relative ease, but this week it came up against an unexpected complication that is endangering the appointment.

Apparently Kochavi decided to appoint Messing as his spokesman even before he took up the position of chief of staff at the beginning of the year.

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He overcame the reservations about appointing a 36-year-old civilian with a minimal military background to the senior position. Indeed, he chose to ignore such reservations entirely. And at some point not long ago, Kochavi also succeeded in getting the appointment authorized by Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This, despite Messing’s years in politics as an influential media adviser to Tzipi Livni, who at various times was leader of the opposition or a senior but hostile member of Netanyahu’s government.

Last Monday the free daily newspaper Yisrael Hayom, which is closely associated with Netanyahu, reported that Kochavi intended to complete Messing’s appointment as IDF spokesman. The report spurred the chief of staff to move quickly and he officially announced the appointment that same evening. Gidi Weitz’s bombshell report in Haaretz landed the following afternoon: It turns out that about four years ago, Messing served as a police agent and was personally involved in the efforts to investigate the knotty corruption affair in the Yisrael Beiteinu party, headed by MK Avigdor Lieberman.

Things are getting complicated now because Lieberman is seriously considering the possibility of returning to the bureau of the minister of defense. The IDF spokesman is by definition close to the chief of staff and also works relatively closely with the minister, because a large number of the media moves by the two systems are coordinated, and the army needs authorizations from the defense minister.

However, it seems that the long years Lieberman spent under police investigation have left him severely allergic to police agents and state’s witnesses. The recent affairs in his party toppled many of its key people, even if Lieberman himself was not investigated at all, following the defeat suffered by law enforcement authorities when he was acquitted of the charges against him in the previous round. 

Messing, it turned out this week, took an active part in the final effort to snare Lieberman’s people. Presumably, those who expose corruption do not enjoy much affection from potential members of the future coalition, the head of which is now trying to evade being brought to trial, with some of his senior partners awaiting decisions as to their own fate in an assortment of criminal investigations. 

Yesterday there were two more developments in the tangled affair. The Kan Public Broadcasting Corporation reported that media consultant Ronen Moshe will summon Messing as a defense witness in his trial, with the aim of attacking him on the witness stand. It will be an interesting scene if the witness shows up in military uniform. And in the meantime, at Messing’s request, the head of the economic department at the State Attorney’s Office, Dan Eldad, has issued him a resounding certification of good conduct.

The Messing affair constitutes the first leadership crisis for the new chief of staff, less than four months after he took up the position. His conduct until now is not indicative of an orderly and profound appointment process – and that the intended spokesman did not share with his future commander details of the affair does not make a good impression.

Nevertheless, it’s better that the scandal concern the appointment of a spokesman and not that of air force commander or another senior role.

It seems that the potential for a long-term problem in Kochavi’s tenure is now being seen. He tends to build and enabling, non-challenging environment for himself, revolving around a chief of staff who is convinced he is right and is not enthusiastic about hearing or accepting other opinions. At the moment, in Kochavi’s inner circle there is no one prepared to challenge this management style. 

In reports about Kochavi’s appointments, there was particular stress on the experience he accumulated in a demanding series of roles, among them head of Military Intelligence, head of Northern Command and deputy chief of staff. There was, however, no discussion of Kochavi’s relatively minimal engagement over the years with elected officials. 

Things that his predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot, knew almost instinctively after two very educational years as military secretary to prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon are things Kochavi is just beginning to learn.

Some of the people who meet with him are surprised by the mileage that is lacking, sometimes to the point of naïveté, in his understanding of the circuitous ways the political system works, and of the complex and interest-laden relations between it and the various media outlets.

In the near future, as noted, there could be a third side added to the defense triad alongside the prime minister and the chief of staff – Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned as defense minister last November and might well return to it in the new coalition. Despite the disagreements concerning conversion to Judaism, conscription of ultra-Orthodox boys and all the other issues having to do with religion and state, Netanyahu needs Yisrael Beiteinu as a key member of his coalition. Without Liberman, he doesn’t have a government.

Lieberman is well aware that the two and a half years he spent at the ministry last time did not leave any significant mark. There he met Eisenkot, an experienced and very powerful chief of staff, who afforded the minister only limited room for maneuver and more than once decelerated implementation of his intentions. Towards the end of the period when the two men worked together, the differences of opinion and tensions between them were apparent.

Relations with Kochavi, whom Lieberman selected for the position, will be somewhat different. People who talk to Lieberman are saying he is determined to make a very different impression this time. Among other things, we can expect the return of the Missile Force, this time in a much more ambitious format.

A key question, if indeed the political disagreements with the ultra-Orthodox parties are resolved, concerns the next government’s policy in the Gaza Strip. Over the past few months Netanyahu pushed for a long-term agreement with Hamas. Lieberman preached a directly opposite policy and resigned from the government over the disagreements on this matter.