Analysis

Netanyahu's Dilemma: How, and If, He Should Influence Appointment of New Army Chief

The High Court froze the meeting of a vetting committee that is set to name Israel's new police commissioner and chief of staff because two members are closely linked to the premier. Now Netanyahu faces two options

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 5, 2018.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

The appointments of the next Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and the new police commissioner are expected to be delayed.

Israel's High Court of Justice issued a temporary injunction on Thursday in a petition challenging the makeup of the committee that vets such high-level appointments.

The court's injunction will keep the committee from meeting before October 7.

This means that Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman will not be able to name his candidate for IDF chief of staff before the Rosh Hashanah holiday on Monday.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, September 2018.
Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry

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The petition to the High Court was filed by the Movement for Integrity (Tohar Midot), whose chairman is former National Security Adviser Prof. Uzi Arad. The petition was directed against the appointment of two of the three members of the committee because they are closely linked to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Accountant Iris Stark and Brig. Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel, formerly acting National Security Adviser.

Supreme Court justices Menachem Mazuz, David Mintz and Ofer Grosskopf granted the request to issue a temporary injunction preventing the committee from meeting. The High Court gave the government until October 7 to reconsider the nominations of the committee members. The committee is headed by retired Supreme Court justice Eliezer Goldberg.

The practical implications of the injunction mean a delay in appointing the IDF chief of staff, and it may well have an effect on the appointment of the police commissioner too. Lieberman had planned on submitting the names of his candidates for the chief of staff position by the end of August, but the process was delayed because of the petition.

Defense sources say Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit was convinced that the High Court would accept the government’s position and would not cause any further delays in the appointment process.

Lieberman therefore planned to announce the names of the two candidates on Thursday, or by Sunday at the latest – after the court rejected the petition. The assumption was that this time the proposed candidates would pass the committee’s vetting easily, since they have no skeletons hiding in their past. Therefore, Lieberman assumed this would have allowed the decision between the two candidates to be made very quickly.

Iris Stark, 2015
Eyal Toueg

As opposed to the appointment of the IDF chief of staff, the choice of the next police commissioner who will replace Roni Alsheich has yet to reach the next stage. However, the media debate over the appointment has expanded in the past few days because of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan’s expected decision not to extend Alsheich’s term for an additional, fourth year.

Netanyahu's Dilemma

Netanyahu now has two choices: insisting on the appointments of Stark and Nagel to the committee and thereby postponing the appointment of the next chief of staff, who is scheduled to take office on January 1, 2019; or quickly folding and appointing two new members in their place – people who are unquestionably not linked closely to the premier – which would make any further legal proceedings on the matter moot.

Replacing Stark and Nagel would make it easier for Netanyahu to get rid of Alsheich, once Erdan announces that the police commissioner's term will not be extended.

On the other hand, the defense minister wants to expedite the process for electing the chief of staff in order to abide by the schedule he's set and demonstrate that he is in full control. On Friday of last week, Lieberman was asked by Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth whether he intends to invite the four candidates for the chief of staff position for personal interviews with the prime minister, as has sometimes been the case in the past. "Of course not! The prime minister will interview the candidate I recommend," Lieberman said. Now, Lieberman's plans are being delayed by the High Court, and Netanyahu has extra time to interfere in the process, if he so wishes.

Netanyahu holds the key: ditching Stark and Nagel and appointing alternate committee members will expedite the process for nominating a new chief of staff and police commissioner. Insisting on them will allow him additional time and space to influence the choice of a new chief of staff. The prime minister's decision will make it clear what his real interests are.