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Political Crisis May Allow Netanyahu to Shape Israel's Top Security Brass

Defense Minister Gantz might not be the one to choose Israel's next chief of staff if elections are called, and the Netanyahu loyalists are already questioning his authority – and his choices

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjmain Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjmain Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny GantzCredit: ADINA VALMAN / KNESSET SPOKESPER
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Defense Minister Benny Gantz may have already missed the train. It’s not as if nobody warned him; Haaretz reported over a month ago that he had been advised to hurry up and start the process of appointing the next IDF chief of staff. Gantz, who has designated Maj. Gen. Herzl “Herzi” Halevi for the job – although he has refrained from announcing it officially – thought there was no reason to rush. Maybe he didn’t want to anger the present chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, and turn him into a lame duck by announcing his successor too early, six months before his term ends in January.

On Monday, Gantz announced that he would soon begin the process of appointing the next chief of staff. Halevi and the other two candidates with poorer chances – Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir and Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick – will be invited for personal interviews with Gantz, who also plans on consulting with previous defense ministers and chiefs of staff, as is customary. What he doesn’t intend to do is to have Prime Minister Naftali Bennett actively participate in the process. Except for the official announcement of the beginning of consultations that was already sent to Bennett, Gantz will want to keep his cards close. Given the shaky state of the governing coalition, it is doubtful whether Bennett will want to take the risk of another confrontation with his defense minister. Gantz will decide, the cabinet will approve – at most he will update Bennett a little in advance as to whom he chose.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz with Maj. Gen. Herzl “Herzi” Halevi, last month.Credit: אלעד מלכה

But Gantz’s problem is not Bennett, it’s the state of the government. Within weeks, it is liable to become a caretaker government, if the coalition falls apart and a date is set for new elections. The legal circumstances in such a case are not completely clear: Does a caretaker government have the authority to decide on such a senior appointment? Will the High Court of Justice decide to intervene and delay it?

In January 2021, then-Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit issued his instructions on making appointments during an election campaign. His document quotes a court ruling stating that continuity in the government’s operations may also apply during an election period, but the ministers in a caretaker government “are committed to the restraint appropriate for the status of the outgoing government,” when it comes to using their authority for matters that are not necessary or urgent. That is why, as the document quotes the court, “a balance between restraint and action” is required during the transition period, and it would be proper for “appointments in the public service to wait for the establishment of a new government.”

This equation of balance leaves the present Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara quite a lot of room for interpretation. On one hand, this is a critical appointment that would seemingly be best to leave for a government whose time will not run out in a few months. On the other hand, it is impossible to put off appointing the Israel Defense Force's chief of staff forever, and there is no certainty that another round of elections will lead to a quick victory and the establishment of a new government. Kochavi – who is already deeply involved in shaping his legacy – has no interest in volunteering for an extended term.

Despite the catatonic coalition, so long as the law to dissolve the Knesset has not passed three readings in the parliament, Gantz can still complete the process. But if he does not do so in the coming weeks, he will lose the opportunity to choose the next chief of staff.

On Monday, another threat to the process popped up, and the media frenzy had begun. Less than an hour after Gantz’s announcement, the media lackeys of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu began attacking Gantz’s intention of appointing a chief of staff. They are not just claiming that he lacks the authority to do so – based on the growing chance that the government may fall – but against his choice for the post. Halevi is described in these circles as “very left wing,” while Zamir must be appointed in order to build the ground forces and end “the red hegemony” – referring both to the color of the Paratroopers’ berets and perhaps to the perceived left-wing leanings of the military's General Staff.

This is a crude politicization of the appointments, and, as usual, accompanied by the complete distortion of the truth. Halevi is actually from a family that takes pride in its pre-state Etzel militia roots and went to national religious schools in Jerusalem. It is doubtful if anyone, in the military or the media, knows where to place him on the political map. And despite the fact that Zamir served as Netanyahu’s military aide when he was prime minister, he behaved professionally and was never sullied by politics, as opposed to many of the public servants who passed through the Prime Minister’s Office.

None of this interests the chaos-loving Netanyahu devotees, who slap the label of leftist on a serving general if they wish to, and remove it just as easily. But the problem seems to lie more with Netanyahu than it does with them. If the criteria that determine the next chief of staff are personal loyalty and political image, it will be bad news for the military. Gantz woke up too late – and in doing so, he may have played into the hands of Netanyahu, who, if victorious in the next election, will shape the defense leadership in his own likeness and image.

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