Analysis

To Protect Netanyahu, Israel's Foreign Minister Is Happy to Throw Army Chief Under the Bus

With a tweet, Minister Katz tries to blur responsibility for violating Israel's policy of ambiguity

Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to Yisrael Katz, at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, May 12, 2019.
Gali Tibbon/Pool Photo via AP

Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz isn’t one of the wilder or more extremist of the transition government’s ministers. You probably won’t hear him making the logically extraordinary claim uttered in recent weeks by ministers David Amsalem and Yariv Levin, that the police lack the resources they need to combat femicide in Israeli Arab society because it’s invested “a quarter of a billion shekels” (an insane and preposterous amount) in investigations of Netanyahu. But now and then the metaphorical student running the social media account snares Katz, too.

In the winter of 2016 it happened to Katz with the chief of general staff at the time, Gadi Eisenkot, who met with high school students at the height of the so-called “lone wolf intifada” of knifings. Eisenkot said that soldiers protected by barriers don’t have to empty entire magazines of ammunition at some Palestinian girl armed with a pair of scissors and there are other ways to handle such threats. The next day an unarmed soldier on furlough was stabbed near Ramallah. Katz wrote on Facebook that he hoped the murderers didn’t derive their inspiration from Eisenkot.

Yesterday Katz struck again, tweeting a quote from the current chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, from the Sunday cabinet meeting. “Remember the argument over rescinding the opacity over the IDF’s activities to frustrate Iranian drone attacks from Syria, and Yair Lapid attacking the government?” the minister tweeted. “Now the elections are over and the chief of staff clarified that he’s the one who initiated the report, for professional reasons.”

This was all wrong, at many levels. First of all, as army spokesman Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman told reporters, cabinet discussions are confidential. In other words, Katz shouldn’t quote from the cabinet even if it suits his purposes.

Secondly, Katz was confusing a number of events. The IDF did state that it had thwarted a drone attack in late August, which means Kochavi had not deviated from previous policy. When an Iranian operation by the border is thwarted, the IDF says so. It usually doesn’t relate to other attacks that Israel initiates that are other than the immediate thwarting of a terror attack and are usually far from the border.

The criticism about the eroding ambiguity, which was heard from many – including Eisenkot – related to a far broader deviation from Israel’s longstanding policy. During one 24-hour period in August, there were three attacks attributed to Israel, leading a week later to antitank missile fire by Hezbollah that missed an armored military vehicle on the Lebanese border. During this period, Israel frequently issued details about the attack targets and repeated warnings against Iran and Hezbollah. Not long before last month’s election, Netanyahu even dragged Kochavi to the Golan Heights for a joint appearance, with soldiers positioned in the background as an election backdrop.

In other words, the eroding ambiguity has had many partners, first and foremost Netanyahu. That’s why it’s hard to buy the rather clumsy effort by Katz to blame Kochavi, who supposedly confessed to the crime.

That leads to a third, most important point: What Eisenkot has already forgotten about how to deal with politicians, Kochavi has yet to learn.  Perhaps Katz throwing him under the bus will serve as a lesson to him. If the chief of staff doesn’t start drawing a firm line between the army and the politicians, Katz’s tweet will just be an initial, small sample of what else is liable to happen.