Analysis

Israel's Army Chief Under Fire From Right Wing for Not Promoting Like-minded General

The IDF chief picked other candidates because he thought they were more suitable than Ofer Winter – not because Winter wears a kippa, as critics claim

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot takes a tour of a division in the West Bank, May 16, 2018.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

The officers promoted to top-level posts in the last round of appointments, approved by the Israeli army on Monday, didn’t even receive a smidgen of the attention given the one who didn’t get promoted – Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter.

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The chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, who had enjoyed a respite in the wake of the events in Syria and the Gaza Strip, is once again being hung out to dry on the social networks.

Ofer Winter at an exercise of the Givati Brigade in 2014.
IDF Spokesperson

His decision not to promote Winter to command one of the main divisions where there was an opening – the 91st Division (also known as the Galilee Division) and the 162nd Armor Division (also known as the Steel Formation) – caused a great storm and accusations of intentional discrimination, mainly from religious Zionists.

Winter, an officer with decades of experience in the army’s advanced guard, became the darling of the religious Zionist camp through no wish of his own.

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Two years ago, a ruckus erupted when he was promoted to brigadier general but given the less prestigious job of heading Central Command. Those cries have grown stronger now, after he was passed over again with the divisional command appointments.

Making divisional commander is considered a necessary stepping stone to vie for a spot in the General Staff. It seems that there has not been so much interest in a kippa-wearing senior officer since Brig. Gen. Effi Eitam nearly two decades ago.

Winter was commander of the reconnaissance battalion of the Givati Brigade during the fighting in Gaza during the second intifada. He was commander of the Duvdevan Arab-infiltration unit and later Givati Brigade commander during Operation Protective Edge. He won accolades for bravery and his performance in battle in these roles.

His high public profile is connected to his being one of the prominent graduates of the pre-army preparatory program in the settlement of Eli. It is also connected to the letter as Givati commander that he issued on the eve of Operation Protective Edge to his troops, in which he declared war against “a blasphemous enemy that defiles the God of Israel,” as well as to the relations he maintained without permission with his friend from his days in compulsory military service, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, during the first days of the fighting.

Contrary to the impression likely to be made from the Twitter cries of emergency on Monday morning, the decision not to promote Winter lies entirely within the chief of staff’s authority – and is an entirely reasonable decision.

Eisenkot also decided not to promote Brig. Gen. Ghassan Alian and Brig. Gen. Guy Hazut, who served alongside Winter as infantry brigade commanders. It’s the chief of staff’s right to conclude that there are people more suitable than they, as well as more suitable than Winter.

One can guess that Eisenkot had two main reasons. The first is related to certain critiques about his functioning during the battle in Rafiah at the height of Protective Edge, after the snatching of the body of Lt. Hadar Goldin (events called “Black Friday” that somehow have been under army investigation for four years).

The second reason relates to Winter’s emerging tendency to rally political forces outside the organization, ties with journalists and sometimes even with political activists as part of the promotion fights. It is not the first phenomenon of its kind, and there are other offices fought over by such means.

However, when any chief of staff receives directives through the press and the social networks on the eve of his decision on who should be appointed, he feels like doing the opposite. That urge is even stronger with Eisenkot. The chief of staff knew that he would take heat for the decision. It seems he treats it like a national team coach would – ignoring the pressure of the sports writers and fans trying to dictate to him the pre-game lineup.

Winter’s fans had two complaints on Monday: that he is being methodically discriminated against as part of Eisenkot’s alienating attitude toward religious officers, and that Eisenkot, like many of his predecessors, fears original-thinking, brave officers, so he promotes mediocre, obedient commanders.

The first claim seems absurd. As has been written here more than once, the gap between the increased presence of kippa-wearing officers at the lower and intermediate levels and the kippa-free General Staff can be explained primarily by time.

The stream of religious youths to the combat units started around the time Winter was drafted, in the 1990s. It will take a few more years for this historic trend to bear fruit at the rank of general. Even now there are kippa-wearing officers at the rank of brigadier general who are expected to be promoted. In contrast, there are other Orthodox officers who recently left the service because of disciplinary issues unrelated to their religious identity.

The second claim requires discussion. Gen. (Res.) Gershon Hacohen warned a few years ago about the growing shortage in the army of “bandit” commanders, those make it hard for their superiors during routine times but can be depended upon to lead the fighters full tilt in time of war.

The long list and reasons for retirement are varied, but the fact is that some of the combat commanders who were talked about as being destined for greatness, like Moshe “Chico” Tamir, Imad Fares and Ofek Buchris, were forced out for various reasons. Even experienced officers in the General Staff, like Gen. Ronny Numa, struggle to find their place and are liable to retire eventually.

Traditionally, the senior command has a tendency to part in the end from those perceived as troublemakers in favor of those who will toe the line. Among the complaints that Winter’s devotees raise, this one bears some weight.

The trouble is that this claim expunges with one swipe the record of other combat commanders who were recently promoted. You can’t write off the rest of his colleagues as a gang of bureaucrats, just to aggrandize the officer who was seemingly discriminated against.

What will happen now? The campaign for Winter will die in the end, unless politicians get involved. A year ago the possibility was raised that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would choose Winter as his military secretary. Eisenkot objected to the idea.

Netanyahu has since met with Winter, but it seems he was not necessarily convinced of Winter’s compatibility for the military secretary’s role, which requires a set of other talents.

The wait for naming the replacement of the current secretary, Brig. Gen. Eliezer Toledano (who was supposed to already have been appointed commander of the Gaza Division) continues, while more and more candidates make the pilgrimage to the office.

If a senior position isn’t found soon for Winter that matches his talents, he is expected to leave the army. Unlike other generals who are discharged, Winter will not have to undergo a cooling-off period. One can surmise that politicians will welcome him with open arms.