Benny Gantz has once again snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat. The defense minister took a decisive step Thursday in appointing the next Israeli military chief of staff. Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara announced that she has granted emergency approval to the appointment by the caretaker government ahead of Israel’s fifth election in four years.
Gantz is expected to announce his choice – most likely the deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi – within weeks. Before that, he will finish consulting with former defense ministers and chiefs of staff. It would be a huge surprise if he announces anyone else after the consultations.
The timing of Baharav-Miara’s announcement, during U.S. President Joe Biden’s headline-grabbing visit and just before the weekend, is a bit odd. It’s a positive development for Gantz, after it seemed he had missed the train. The tenure of the current chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, ends January 1. Some advised him in April, when it was clear the Bennett-Lapid government was faltering, to hurry up and start the appointment process.
But Gantz hesitated, probably because he didn’t want to make Kochavi feel like a lame duck. Shortly after finally declaring the start of the interview process for the three candidates, the government collapsed. The attorney general issued a vague statement that she’d have to seriously consider whether the step would be too exceptional prior to an election. The Likud party immediately poured fuel on the fire in a series of statements attacking Gantz, slandering Halevi in vain along the way while vilifying the others without justification.
Gantz, however, almost always lucks out, or perhaps he simply has become a more talented politician than we tend to give him credit for over the past three years. Precedents abound. Gantz became chief of staff after coming to terms with the thought that he wouldn’t because of last-minute complications with Yoav Galant. And he ran an impressive campaign last election, well after his political career was thoroughly eulogized. It's no coincidence it’s been written here before that Gantz could win the lottery even if he forgot to send in his form.
How did he do it again? In her announcement, Baharav-Miara wrote that she was convinced by confidential reports illuminating the seriousness of the security situation and plans to build up military forces. In fact, there’s no dramatic change from the complex situation known to every newspaper reader in Israel. No security official sees a high probability of war this summer relative to previous years. The issue is something else; the military and the country need an organized transfer of the army’s reins.
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The attempt by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu to postpone the appointment and craft an omnipresent self-image wherein nothing moves without him represents a problematic breach of protocol. The fact that Netanyahu sent his political lackeys, Likud backbenchers, to threaten the attorney general with firing her if she didn’t accept his dictates probably led to the opposite result. No one likes being threatened, and no public servant wants to be seen as folding under pressure.
And another thing: Without attacking her talents, Baharav-Miara herself was appointed just a few months ago by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. He just merged his New Hope party with Gantz’s Kahol Lavan ahead of the election. Their list needs a public win. Appointing a new chief of staff, with the significant influence it will have on the face of the military in the coming years, could be considered such a win. Gantz may get daily press coverage as defense minister, but it’s clear why he’s interested in putting his stamp – both during the election campaign and for the long run – with such an appointment.
At least in this round, the attorney general’s declaration signifies a win for Gantz over Netanyahu, who insisted on going to battle over the chief of staff appointment. Now they will have to deliberate in Likud whether to risk a high court appeal against Baharav-Miara. The chances that the High Court of Justice would intervene in a reasoned decision look miniscule. In contrast, Likud could go another round with this story as part of its incessant war by the indicted former prime minister against the legal system.
The attorney general’s approval will give the next chief of staff enough time to prepare for the job, an organized transition (so the army thinks, as opposed to Netanyahu) and to decide with Gantz on senior appointments, namely the next deputy chief of staff. Kochavi, in contrast, will be given a complicated mission in itself – leading the military during the sensitive election period, avoiding clashes that could mire a government with fairly limited diplomatic experience in a superfluous security crisis.