Israel's Defense Chief Takes Flak for Gaza Talks, but There's Still One Area Where He Holds Sway

The choice of the Israeli army's next chief of staff is mainly Avigdor Lierberman's ■ Army manages to steer clear of nation-state law controversy ■ How Mueller's probe could spell trouble for the Middle East

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Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot visit the army's Gaza Division.
Defense MiniDefense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot visit the army's Gaza Division. Credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel’s defense ministers don’t get much satisfaction. The current holder of the defense portfolio, Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, is having an even harder time than his predecessors. Military successes for the most part get attributed to (or appropriated by) the prime minister and the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, the polls suggest electoral distress on the horizon, and Lieberman is taking flak from right and left alike.

Shortly after assuming his post, Lieberman discovered how fitting Ariel Sharon’s comment, made when he surprised himself and became prime minister in the election declared after the outbreak of the second intifada and the collapse of Ehud Barak’s government, was: Things you see from here you don’t see from there, Sharon said, quoting a popular Israeli song.

The Gaza Strip, in particular, is hounding Lieberman. Both the right and the left keep reminding him of the threat he made to the life of Hamas politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh, about a month before Netanyahu proposed that Lieberman join the government, in 2016. Against his will, Lieberman is being compelled to accept the agreement that is emerging, with none other than Hamas, on a long-term cease-fire in Gaza, while Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) continues to flank him from the right and reject any of the arrangements that have been suggested.

Israel arrives at this accord holding a mediocre hand, and projecting only limited deterrence. The fact that officials played down an incident earlier this week – in which a Palestinian shot at an IDF unit next to the border fence, and was killed by Givati Brigade officers – shows that the die has already been cast: The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is moving toward an agreement on the Strip and doesn’t intend to allow a specific incident sabotage the effort. The contacts between the sides will resume following Id al-Adha, the Muslim feast of the sacrifice (which ends on Saturday night), and the accord will collapse only if Hamas is bent on torpedoing it.

Real-world constraints give rise to verbal and logical gymnastics. Thus Lieberman was pushed to deny the cease-fire understandings of two weeks ago, to reject the (credible) claims that Israel has been talking to Hamas indirectly – and this week to market a new concept, according to which Gaza’s Palestinians can be expected to rise up against their leaders and foment a revolution.

Still, a fleeting happy moment is in store for the defense minister. The decision on the appointment of the next IDF chief of staff is almost entirely in Lieberman’s hands and will win him a hefty dose of public attention. Even defense ministers who have emerged bruised from the job, such as Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Amir Peretz, experienced the pleasure of being able to influence the army for years to come.

Lieberman’s original plan was to announce the identity of the next army chief before the Jewish holidays in September. However, a petition to the High Court of Justice against two proposed members of the senior appointments advisory committee who are close to Netanyahu, may delay that process by several weeks.

In the meantime, Lieberman has completed a round of consultations with former prime ministers, defense ministers and chiefs of staff, as well as a number of retired senior officers. The four candidates – Maj. Gens. Aviv Kochavi, Yair Golan, Nitzan Alon and Eyal Zamir – have all been interviewed personally by the minister. It has been reported that the names of two of the four will be conveyed to the appointments committee as Lieberman’s candidates. The idea is to preclude a possible repeat of what happened when the appointment of Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant (now the housing minister) was canceled because of alleged improprieties involving real-estate deals by him. At the time, Defense Minister Ehud Barak didn’t have an alternative candidate.

This time an effort is clearly being made to go by the book, in accordance with procedures recommended by the state comptroller and in his wake by Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. Lieberman is keeping mum as to the identity of the two who will move on to the next stage. Journalists who have spoken with him recently got conflicting impressions about the candidates. But a major part of the process has yet to take place, as far as is known, and in any event will occur far from the public eye – that is, the bargaining between the prime minister and the defense minister.

In the past, Netanyahu hasn’t intervened much in these decisions. During his first term as premier, in 1998, he went along with then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai with respect to the top IDF spot, opting for Shaul Mofaz, the younger candidate, over the heir-apparent, Matan Vilnai. Possibly Netanyahu also felt some satisfaction then at the defeat of a member of one of the elites – although Vilnai grew up with him in Jerusalem’s upscale Rehavia neighborhood. Mofaz, by the way, turned out to be an excellent chief of staff.

In the following rounds, Netanyahu accepted Barak’s choice of Galant and then of Benny Gantz in his place (in 2010-11), and also yielded to Moshe Ya’alon, who promoted Eisenkot’s appointment in 2015. Last week, Ya’alon, in a television interview, confirmed what had been published here in real-time: that Netanyahu preferred Yair Golan at the time, and invited him for a personal interview, but in the end agreed to promote Eisenkot. Golan seems to have a problem with timing. When Netanyahu wanted him for the job, he didn’t push; now it might be too late.

Clockwise from top left: Eyal Zamir, Yair Golan, Aviv Kochavi, and Nitzan Alon.Credit: Amit Shabi, Tomer Appelbaum, Moti Milrod

Four’s a crowd

It’s difficult if not impossible to predict Lieberman’s moves with respect to the army chief, but the prevailing view among the IDF General Staff is that his two candidates are probably Kochavi and Alon. Yair Golan is talented, experienced and knowledgeable, but there are reservations about the judgment he exercised in the past with respect to several operational decisions. And above all, hovering above him is the storm of his remarks of Holocaust Day 2016 (when he likened certain trends in Israeli society to those of pre-World War II Germany), which have made him anathema to broad circles on the right. Lieberman would have to bend over backward to get Golan’s appointment passed, and he’s unlikely to be willing to pay the political price it would entail.

Eyal Zamir is younger than the other contenders and is thought not to have held all the requisite positions to be anointed chief of staff. His appointment would be considered a generational leap over the others. Perhaps Netanyahu and Lieberman will tap him as the first deputy for the next chief.

Zamir has so far held two General Staff posts: GOC Southern Command and, earlier, military secretary of the prime minister. The latter position could be useful to him, of course. Netanyahu esteems Zamir, and his tenure in the Prime Minister’s Bureau did not downgrade him in the eyes of his General Staff colleagues, as has happened with others. The choice of Zamir would show that Netanyahu was unusually involved in the appointment process, unlike in the past.

If the premier doesn’t intervene, Kochavi, and to a lesser degree Alon, will remain the candidates with the best prospects – with the proviso that Lieberman has adopted a tactic of compartmentalization, and could be tempted to surprise everyone and show up the commentariat as ill-informed. In comparing the two competitors, Kochavi has what’s known in the army as a full “work card”: commander of a territorial brigade in southern Lebanon before the withdrawal from the security zone; commander of the Paratroops Brigade during Operation Defensive Shield; commander of the elite 98th Paratroops Division; commander of the Gaza Division (during the period of the disengagement); head of the Operations Directorate; director of Military Intelligence; head of Northern Command; and deputy chief of staff.

Kochavi was “marked” for greatness from a young age and was also properly prepared for it. Along the way, he sprouted a few white hairs from the loss of soldiers in battle, being involved in events investigated by various panels and by the state comptroller (i.e., the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, when Kochavi served in Gaza; the dispute over the quality of the intelligence during Operation Protective Edge). At those junctions he acquired powerful rivals – notably, among the top ranks of the Shin Bet security service – but those who favor his appointment see them as requisite experience for the most senior post of all.

Still, those who have served in the top post say that nothing really prepares you in advance for the hefty responsibility it demands. Benny Gantz liked to say that there’s no greater substantive distance than the 24 steps that separate the office of the deputy chief from the office of his boss. When Eisenkot, whose track was similar to that of Gantz, was asked about this, he replied that it’s true for him, too, but in his case, considering his short stature, it was 48 steps.

In contrast to Kochavi, the military career of Nitzan Alon is like a building that wasn’t thought out adequately. He commanded the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, where he served both as a soldier and an officer. On the other hand, he’s held a relatively limited range of positions outside that unit. He served as commander of a territorial brigade and of a territorial division in the West Bank, but not as commander of a regular brigade or division. Alon also has no experience in the two most troublesome arenas for Israel today: the north and the Gaza Strip. His acquaintance with the IDF, other than his most recent assignment as head of the Operations Directorate, is limited to the Intelligence branch and Central Command.

When Barak, as defense minister, pushed for Alon’s appointment as head of Central Command, Moshe Ya’alon, who was minister for strategic affairs at the time, said it was a “twisted appointment” that would only dog Alon later, when he eventually vied for the post of chief of staff and lacked the necessary variety in his C.V. But two years later, when Alon contested the directorship of Military Intelligence, the settlers tagged him as a “leftist,” Netanyahu became unnerved – and Defense Minister Ya’alon didn’t insist on Alon’s appointment as MI chief.

The leftist tag was attached to Alon primarily because of his refusal to yield to the hysteria drummed up by settler leaders concerning the demand to lift restrictions from the rules of engagement in cases of Palestinians throwing stones on the roads. Alon, like other top brass who served in the West Bank before and after him, was accused of defeatism and weakness. In the background was also his stubborn refusal to kowtow to the dictates of the settler-leaders and permit illegal construction. But in comparison to the powerful emotions that Golan evokes on the right, opposition to Alon’s appointment will likely be less intense – particularly because the attacks on Alon were not echoed by Bennett, and because some of the settler leaders later retracted their.

The decision on the appointment of the chief of staff, in the hope that process will concentrate solely on substantive issues, can be expected to focus on three in particular: the candidate’s potential performance in a future war; his ability to conduct the campaign “between the wars,” which involves intelligence and cross-border aerial operations; and his ideas about building up the IDF’s forces, particularly the essential upgrading of the ground forces’ capability. Lieberman and Netanyahu will need to consider what each of the candidates – and each is worthy and talented in himself – brings with him to cope with these challenges.

In the background will be a fourth element as well, elusive and more difficult to define: personality. Kochavi and Alon are total opposites in this realm. Kochavi is more extroverted and charismatic. Alon is the only senior officer I’ve encountered who never offered information about himself in a face-to face meeting. Anyone who doesn’t look up his biographical details on the internet would never hear from him that he was commander of the celebrated Matkal commando unit, or that previously, as a young squad commander in that unit, he was awarded the chief of staff’s ribbon for some unknown activity. It’s likely that at least some of the people who recommended Alon to Lieberman did so also because of personal opposition to Kochavi.

And while we’re on the subject of extraneous reasons, here’s another, from the realm of paranoia: In the case of Alon, Netanyahu and Lieberman have no cause to fear that they are cultivating a future political threat. He’s even less likely to enter that swamp, after the mandatory three-year cooling-off period, than the present chief of staff.

Brothers in arms

Last Friday, Eisenkot and a few other top IDF brass visited the heads of the Druze community in Israel on the occasion of their Id al-Adha celebrations. This time the annual visit took place in the shadow of the passage of the nation-state law, an event that rocked the Druze just a few weeks ago. The speakers, among them the community’s spiritual leader, Muwafak Tarif, and several heads of Druze local councils, praised the chief of staff for what they described as the army’s rapid and sensitive handling of the crisis.

The IDF did in fact take disciplinary measures against a young career officer who slammed the legislation on Facebook. However, while politicians on the right attacked the community, Eisenkot was quick to issue a calming announcement in which he played up the esprit de corps among members of the minorities in the army, and noted that full equality of rights exists among those serving in the IDF. The Druze leaders told the chief that they had been moved by the manifestations of support among the Jewish public, and repeated their position that the army must remain outside the whole controversy. Serving in the IDF, they told Eisenkot, is our civic duty, and we will continue to fulfill it without any connection to the nation-state law.

As is customary, Eisenkot quoted David Ben-Gurion to them – to the effect that the strength of the State of Israel rests also on the wisdom of the leaders and the justness of the path. Some listeners thought they heard in this an implicit critique of the government’s behavior in introducing and pushing through the nation-state law.

In the meantime, the government’s handling of the Druze demands is progressing lethargically. I asked an old friend from my army days, who took part in meetings with the prime minister and his staff, about how the crisis was being managed. He replied curtly. “Let’s say, I want to believe that, at least when it comes to security matters, things are managed differently here.”

U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make their way to the Oval Office for a meeting at the White House on March 5, 2018 in Washington, DC.Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP

Stormy seas

The “butterfly effect” from Washington – the two blows that special prosecutor Robert Mueller landed on U.S. President Donald Trump this week – could reach the Middle East in the form of a tornado. Within a few hours on Tuesday, Trump’s personal lawyer signed a plea deal that implicates the president himself, and his former campaign manager was convicted on eight counts of fraud. Trump has emerged unscathed from many snafus in the past, to the astonishment of his foes. Even now the road to his impeachment looks long. But given the close personal ties he shares with Netanyahu and their almost completely identical interests, which were underscored this week with the visit to Israel of National Security Adviser John Bolton – Jerusalem, too is following the president’s legal troubles with concern.

This past spring, Netanyahu chalked up a series of diplomatic successes that were translated into a substantial political advantage in the polls, and which were due in large measure to his relations with the president: the withdrawal of the United States from the nuclear agreement with Iran; the transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem; and the series of declarations by Trump that seemed to have come straight from an Israeli government message sheet. The more immersed Trump became in domestic crises, the more praise Netanyahu heaped on him and the more the president lauded his true friendship with the Jewish state. At the same time, the hostility between Netanyahu’s circle and the Democratic Party, former officials and aides to Barack Obama, and in particular the left wing of the party, intensified.

If Mueller’s investigation of Trump begins to gather additional momentum, despite Trump’s denials of a conspiracy with the Russians that ensured his presidential victory – the American people can expect an even more frenetic and bizarre tenure in the White House than what they’ve seen so far. This could have repercussions in the Middle East: from a possible decision to postpone the “deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians, whose presentation has already been delayed for long months, to greater reluctance by Trump to block Iranian and Russian influence in the region.

Because it’s Trump, almost any extreme scenario is possible. But the rest of his term is liable to show the Netanyahu government that exaggerated reliance on a U.S. president, strong and popular as he may be, can be a risky enterprise. The balance of forces between the two countries is clear. Every American president weighs domestic considerations that might end up triumphing over his personal sympathies. No president is in Israel’s pocket – and navigation in the international arena always depends in part on relations with power centers other than that in Washington.

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