Analysis |

Despite Looming Elections, Gantz Still Has Wiggle Room to Appoint New Army Chief

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has asked the attorney general to stop the process immediately, claiming that it is an illegitimate political power-grab

Amos Harel
Defense Minister Benny Gantz during a vote at the Knesset in June.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz during a vote at the Knesset in June.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara was asked to decide between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu in their dispute over the appointment of the next IDF chief of staff. But she didn’t really issue a bottom line. Instead, Baharav-Miara found a topical loophole and announced that “senior appointments should be avoided during elections, unless there is a vital need for the immediate and permanent filling of a position, and no other reasonable and proper solution can be found, under the circumstances.”

Supposedly, Baharav-Miara leaves open a crack for Gantz to wiggle through and quickly push the appointment of the chief of staff, despite the elections. But senior Justice Ministry personnel told Haaretz’s Chen Maanit that the attorney general’s opinion meant to suggest that, under the circumstances, the right thing to do is to extend the term of current Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi.

A reminder about the schedule: Kochavi is supposed to end a four-year term (minus two weeks) at a nice, round, predetermined date – January 1, 2023. Gantz began the procedure of appointing a successor to Kochavi last week, attempting to preempt the government’s dissolution. But then his coalition partners Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid decided to disperse the Knesset and hold elections in October. Gantz wishes to complete the appointment process before the final vote to disperse the Knesset next week, or immediately following it. He insists there is no political interest here, and that he simply wants to ensure that the replacement will be done in an orderly fashion, and that the army’s stability will not be compromised. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has asked the attorney general to stop the process immediately, claiming that it is an illegitimate political power-grab.

In her statement, Baharav-Miara passes the buck to the Defense Ministry’s legal counsel, Alon Ophir. She asks that he urgently hold an “individual examination of the possibility of appointing a chief of staff during election time, while addressing the urgency of advancing the process,” and then update her on his conclusions. Gantz was quick to respond to this at a conference of the Israel Democracy Institute. Appointing a chief of staff quickly, he said, is “a vital strategic need of the highest order.” He intends to continue managing the process in an orderly, professional manner and consult all relevant figures, including Netanyahu, as a former minister of defense.

The move is unlikely to mollify Netanyahu or appease the attorney general. Gantz is right that postponing the decision may prove harmful. There is no certainty that a government will be formed shortly after the elections. Appointing of a chief of staff only in November or December will leave the incoming chief too little time to prepare, and will force him to carry out a round of appointments, including that of his own new deputy, without the possibility of sufficient overlap for the generals in their new posts.

The solution, as pointed out by senior Justice Ministry figures, is probably already on the table: turn to Kochavi and ask him to stay in office until the next government is established, in the hope that the upcoming elections will end decisively. Then, the argument goes, the appointment can be easily completed. If presented to Kochavi as a vital need, in the best interest of the IDF, it is hard to see him declining.

But in his statements and actions, Gantz has already locked himself into an impending decision on the next chief of staff. He will find it hard to back down unless Baharav-Miara forces him to. The issue may find itself on the docket of the High Court of Justice.

Meanwhile, drawn against their will into the midst of the political fray, the IDF and the generals suffer the damage. The main victim is Maj.-Gen. Hertzi Halevi, considered Gantz’s man for the job. Netanyahu’s objection to his appointment at this time, and the direct attacks by his mouthpieces against Halevi, paint the general in unfounded political colors. Under these circumstances, it is hard to see Halevi appointed as chief of staff should the decision be postponed for several months (as seems likely), and especially should Netanyahu return to power.

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