Netanyahu's Call Not to Appoint Military Chief Before Elections Contradicts His Own Precedent

The former Israeli prime minister says the naming of a new IDF Chief of Staff should be delayed, even though he made such an appointment in 2014 under similar circumstances

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Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 12, 2019.
Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 12, 2019. Credit: AP Photo/Oded Balilty

The demand by leaders of several opposition parties, and chiefly by opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, that Israel's attorney general halt the process of appointing a new chief of staff due to the current election campaign goes against a precedent from 2014 that Netanyahu himself set.

The caretaker government at the time, led by none other than Netanyahu, approved the appointment of Gadi Eizenkot as the Israeli military's chief of staff. That appointment process got the go ahead from then-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and then Military Advocate General Dan Efroni, at the request of then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. They concluded there was no legal impediment to the candidacies of Eizenkot and Yair Naveh being considered at that time.

In November 2014, Netanyahu and Ya’alon were deliberating between appointing Eizenkot or Naveh as chief of staff, but before the government had a chance to discuss the issue and approve the appointment, Netanyahu called for early elections. Ya’alon continued advancing the appointment process even after the Knesset formally dissolved itself on December 8, 2014.

Weinstein’s professional opinion was presented at the cabinet meeting the following week. “Pursuant to an inquiry by the defense minister, the deputy attorney general determined that there is no legal impediment to considering the candidacies of generals Gadi Eizenkot and Yair Naveh for the position of military chief of staff,” it stated. At the same meeting, the government approved Eizenkot’s appointment to the position, despite the restrictions that apply to a caretaker government.

Weinstein cited the opinion of Efroni who said that delaying the appointment of a new chief of staff because of an election campaign would be an unreasonable action.

“The balance between restraint and acting during the time of an outgoing government requires that the appointment of the chief of staff be immediately completed. It certainly cannot be said that the decision to act – i.e., to appoint a chief of staff – does not fall within the bounds of what is reasonable,” Efroni wrote.

“The unique nature of military appointments to a very large extent blunts the concern over the politicization of appointments, which is a central basis for the restriction of public sector appointments during an election season. There is good reason that this instruction by the attorney general was not applied to the government regarding military appointments.”

Netanyahu is now calling to halt the appointment of a new chief of staff. He argues that Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi’s term could be extended by a year, or that an acting chief of staff could be appointed instead. But in 2014, when he decided to appoint Eizenkot, Netanyahu relied upon a professional opinion – Efroni’s – that said just the opposite.

“It is clear that temporary solutions, such as extending the term of the present chief of staff or appointing a temporary acting chief of staff, would lead to instability in the management of the army and would harm security,” Efroni wrote back then. “This instance clearly justifies the appointment of a permanent chief of staff. Temporary solutions are not satisfactory.”

There is one difference between Eizenkot’s appointment and the appointment process that is happening now: Two days before early elections were called, Ya’alon let it be known that Eizenkot was his preferred candidate, and Naveh as an alternate. Currently, Defense Minister Benny Gantz is deliberating between three candidates: Herzi Halevi, Eyal Zamir and Yoel Strick, but he has not named anyone as his final choice.

However, legal experts say the difference between the two cases is insignificant and should have no bearing on the attorney general’s considerations. “The difference does not change the principle,” says one legal expert. “A past caretaker government carried out the process of appointing the chief of staff. The difference between having named three candidates, and having named a top candidate and an alternate, is not significant enough to deviate from the principle that was set then.”

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