Netanyahu Distrusts Army Chief, Keeps Him in the Dark on Sensitive Issues, Defense Officials Say

U.S.'s F-35 sale to UAE and annexation were not disclosed to IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, and he only learned of Netanyahu's trip to Saudi Arabia from the media, sources claim

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi ahead of a press briefing at the Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv, November 12, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi ahead of a press briefing at the Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv, November 12, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is displaying an extreme lack of confidence in Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi, excluding him from sensitive decisions on issues critical to state security, senior defense officials say.

According to these officials, the prime minister is repeatedly ignoring Kochavi’s demands for decisions and budgets to carry out various security missions. And when it comes to sensitive topics, there is almost no cooperation. Both the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman and the Prime Minister’s Office denied there was any disconnect between Netanyahu and Kochavi.

A concrete example of the relationship between the two was provided this week, when Netanyahu did not tell the military’s leaders about his trip to Saudi Arabia. Kochavi learned of it from the media, after the Israeli delegation had already returned home. The membership of the delegation also caused consternation in the General Staff. Along with Mossad head Yossi Cohen, Netanyahu’s military secretary, Brig. Gen. Avi Bluth, was also on the trip. But he did not update Kochavi, to whom he is subordinate.

Defense sources told Haaretz that this is one of many examples indicating Netanyahu’s blatant distrust of Kochavi, which has prevailed since the latter assumed his post, and which intensified when Benny Gantz became defense minister. “As far as Netanyahu is concerned, Gantz and Kochavi are the same person,” said a source close to the defense minister. “They are together since the Paratroops Brigade and Gantz [was the one who] appointed Kochavi to a series of positions that paved his way to the post of chief of general staff.”

Gantz, it must be recalled, did not appoint Kochavi chief of staff. He was appointed by then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in what at the time was considered a compromise with Netanyahu. (While Kochavi was a leading candidate, the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman preferred Nitzan Alon, while Netanyahu was pushing to appoint his former military secretary Eyal Zamir.) When Kochavi’s appointment was announced, Netanyahu waited several hours before issuing a statement of support for the new chief of general staff. That’s when the lack of confidence started, and it became worse once Gantz became defense minister.

Benny Gantz (right) and Aviv Kochavi at the swearing in ceremony for a new Northern Command chief, 2014.Credit: Rami Shllush

“Netanyahu thinks that Kochavi’s first loyalty would be to Gantz,” says a close associate of the Kahol Lavan chairman. “He really believes that Kochavi will share with Gantz things that Netanyahu would want to keep from him, for example, every detail related to the normalization with the Gulf states and other countries they’re talking about.”

But a senior official, who knows the people involved well and attends classified meetings, believes that the prime minister also sees Kochavi as a future political threat.

“Like Gantz, he’s a paratrooper, an admired officer, handsome, tall, and avoids making controversial statements,” the source said. “From Netanyahu’s perspective, that makes him a potential future prime minister. He won’t give him the statements that will serve him in election campaign broadcasts four years from now.” The source added that it doesn’t even matter whether Kochavi actually has any political ambitions. “He learned a lesson with Gantz, and Eisenkot is right around the corner,” he said, referring to former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who is rumored to be mulling an entry into politics as a rival to Netanyahu. “He doesn’t intend to make the same mistake with Kochavi.”

The need to update

With regard to the trip to Saudi Arabia, both the Prime Minister’s Office and the IDF tried to take the public position that there is no duty to inform the chief of general staff about secret missions of this type, and that even if the military secretary participates, one can demand that he not report it to his commander. But senior defense officials both past and present say that’s ridiculous. When there is a sensitive diplomatic journey to a country with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations, there’s an obligation to update the military, and so it was during Netanyahu’s previous trips and those of his predecessors.

File photo: Netanyahu boarding the private plane that took him to Saudi Arabia. Credit: Koby Gideon / GPO

“A few hours before takeoff the military secretary calls the chief of staff or his close associates and informs them of the journey,” said a former military official who is familiar with the issue. “There is no need to give details about the subject of the talks or who will be participating, but just the fact of the flight, the time of takeoff, the flight path, and the estimated time of return.”

This is not just about protocol and appearances, says another military source who was involved in making decisions on this specific issue; for safety reason the itinerary must be reported. “Many of these trips are made on private planes,” he explains. “It’s a flight that takes place under the radar, quietly. Generally, landing is not in that country’s international airport.”

That’s why it’s crucial that the army be informed. “What would happen if a plane carrying the prime minister, the head of the Mossad, and the military secretary would be forced to make an emergency landing in hostile territory because of a malfunction?” he asks. “What would happen if they had to bail out and it would be necessary to rescue them from the sea or from hostile territory? It’s simply scandalous that the chief of staff or the defense minister isn’t informed about such a flight. IDF officials must make sure the plane landed at the destination and returned without being under threat.”

But according to senior defense sources, the issue is much broader than just the operational-security aspects. “When the prime minister has a minor medical procedure that requires anesthesia, he updates the defense minister or the person replacing him to preserve government continuity,” said one, who has been part of sensitive delegations. “What would happen if the plane crashed – who would know who replaces the prime minister? Who takes responsibility? It’s the most blatant abandonment of Israel’s security that could possibly occur. What’s the story about it being secret? The chief of staff is exposed to the most sensitive state secrets, but he can’t keep a secret about a flight to a country that’s been flown several times over the past few years?”

The flight also raised another volatile question, about the military secretary and from whom he is meant to take orders. “The whole issue of the military secretary is problematic,” says a former senior security source who is well acquainted with the job and its complexity. “It’s a job in which a senior IDF officer has two bosses. If the two bosses work well together it’s less problematic. But when the prime minister doesn’t trust the chief of general staff it creates a crisis within the army about the status of the chief of general staff vis a vis his officers.”

Excluded from discussions

While there was great anger in the security establishment, it’s hard to say that its members were totally shocked by Netanyahu’s decision to leave Kochavi in the dark about the Saudi Arabia trip. According to senior sources, in the two years since Kochavi became chief of general staff there has been other evidence of the problematic attitude of the prime minister toward him, including his exclusion from weighty discussions. “Kochavi wasn’t part of all the agreements and conversations about the arrangement with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain,” said a senior government official familiar with the details. “He learned about the agreements almost at the same time they were reported in the media.”

For example, this source says, Kochavi didn’t know that the agreement with the UAE included a deal to sell that country F-35 warplanes and other advanced weapons. “One can see this as a blunder or bad judgment,” said the source. “But the fact that before the approval of the deal, the prime minister asked the head of the National Security Council to run the issue by the air force commander – and no one told Kochavi about that conversation – that’s another story. That’s already a situation where it’s clear to everyone that Netanyahu doesn’t value the chief of general staff, that he doesn’t trust him and doesn’t respect his opinion on issues that are the heart and soul of the defense establishment.”

After it was revealed that National Security Council chairman Meir Ben-Shabbat had had that conversation with Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, Kochavi summoned the latter for a dressing down.

“The attempt to portray the conversation between Norkin and Ben-Shabbat as if it was a friend from the Scouts calling to ask, ‘so what do you think about the F-35 going to countries in the Middle East’ and Norkin simply saying, ‘I’m against,” is light years away from the significance of this incident and how serious it is,” said a security source who is familiar with the tensions between the chief of staff and the air force commander. “Norkin should have picked up the phone to Kochavi that very moment and updated him. It’s inconceivable that the National Security Council head should tell the air force commander ‘keep this between us’ and he should do what he did.”

If in that case one could say that this was a move of no-confidence through an emissary, there are enough examples that demonstrate the problematic relationship between Netanyahu and Kochavi more clearly. For example, what happened before U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan was released and the discourse about the possible annexing of the West Bank that followed.

“No one in the IDF was in on the issues or knew anything, and that includes the chief of general staff,” says a security official who played a major role in the teams set up after the plan was published to prepare for the impact of annexing the West Bank. “To this day the IDF doesn’t have maps of this plan and to this day Kochavi cannot explain what was meant to happen with regard to annexation,” the source said. “Kochavi understands the situation, he’s not stupid. When we sat with senior officials about the issue Kochavi would sit quietly, he didn’t say much and allowed the officers to present him with the IDF’s position.” The reason for his silence, according to this source, was that, “Kochavi knew that if he spoke, everyone in the room would know he had been excluded from this whole thing.”

Onward to the coronavirus crisis, also fertile ground for the tensions between the Prime Minister’s Office and the army chief, according to a senior security source. Here the main story was the procurement policy. “The security establishment and the IDF have envoys in all the important countries,” said the source, who had a central role in purchasing means to deal with the pandemic. “They also have purchasing and transport capabilities that no other agency in Israel has, not even the Mossad, the Shin Bet or the Foreign Ministry.”

But the army and its representatives abroad were left out.

“The decision by Netanyahu not to activate the IDF and Defense Ministry channels to bring the vaccines, the ventilators and personal protective equipment and [instead] to give credit and resources to the Mossad, to Yossi Cohen, was deliberate,” the source said. “Every day there were reports about ‘secret operations’ by the Mossad to bring masks or coronavirus tests and messages of support for the organization from the prime minister.” Meanwhile, he said, the prime minister ignored the IDF, which sent thousands of soldiers to nursing homes, to distribute food in Bnei Brak and to set up coronavirus recovery hotels. “Then they said it was to deny [then-Defense Minister Naftali] Bennett the credit, but his behavior toward Kochavi never changed at any stage and had nothing to do with the identity of the defense minister. Netanyahu simply doesn’t trust him.”

If the trip to Saudi Arabia, the negotiations with the Gulf States and the coronavirus are pinpoint issues, there’s another matter that has been impacted by the relationship between the two for many long months – the military’s Tenufa multiyear plan that Kochavi is trying to advance, to no avail. “To this day the prime minister has expressed no interest in holding a security cabinet discussion to either approve or dismiss Kochavi’s plan,” said a senior government official involved with the issue. “Let’s not even talk about approving the budget for the plan, which everyone knows won’t ever be approved as is, if ever.”

The IDF Spokesman said in response: “The article is groundless. The IDF and the chief of general staff operate in full cooperation with the prime minister and the political echelon.”

The Prime Minister’s Office said: “The claims are incorrect. Chief of General Staff Kochavi has the full confidence of the prime minister.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics: