Analysis |

Israel's Defense Minister Waited Too Long. Now, Key Appointment Could Fall to Netanyahu

With the government disintegrating, Benny Gantz's scramble to appoint a new chief of staff for the Israeli army could be too little too late

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Defense Minister Benny Ganz on a tour with General Halevi in the West Bank, in April.
Defense Minister Benny Ganz on a tour with General Halevi in the West Bank, in April.Credit: Elad Malka
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The problem should have been recognized long ago – and now it threatens to drag the Israel Defense Forces and the three chief-of-staff candidates deep into a needless game of politics.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who had delayed beginning the appointment process, is trying now to hurriedly complete it even though the government is disintegrating. Benjamin Netanyahu, the chairman of the opposition, is seeking to thwart him. The one who deciding on the matter will Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who has yet to state her position publicly. On Wednesday, she said that she is examining the option for an election-period appointment, but it is far from a foregone conclusion.

Gali Baharav-Miara, this month.Credit: David Bachar

Because of the enormous influence every chief of staff has over the army’s image, deciding on the next one is among a defense minister's most important tasks. It’s important for Gantz to have a say in this, but since his partners in the government – Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid – decided on Monday to dissolve the Knesset, very little time remains for him to accomplish that. Gantz can’t possibly know right now whether he will remain defense minister after the upcoming Knesset elections, which are likely to occur at the end of October. The current chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, is due to end his term January 1, 2023.

One of the problems Gantz faces is that there is no binding procedure in Israel. The appointment of a new chief of staff has in the past generally been announced at least two months before the changeover is scheduled to occur. At least once in the past, for Yoav Gallant in 2011, an appointment was rescinded at the last minute, and a dispute over the timing of that appointment strained relations between the then-defense minister and chief of staff (Ehud Barak and Gabi Ashkenazi, respectively) in the months prior.

Aviv Kochavi, in April.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Gantz officially began the vetting process last week after delaying it for close to two months, in defiance of advisers, out of concern it would undermine Kochavi. It is now claimed that he has begun the process not in order to prevent Netanyahu from deciding on the next chief of staff, assuming he emerges victorious in the elections, but in order to ensure stability for the IDF. While Israel was undergoing a grueling series of back-to-back elections over the last four years, the Israel Police was forced to operate under the command of an interim commissioner. Gantz is determined not to let that happen to the army. So he plans to complete the round of candidate interviews for chief of staff on Wednesday. If he can, he will announce the appointment on Friday.

In order to avoid delaying the process, Gantz has no intention of asking the attorney general any questions for which he doesn’t want to know the answer. Baharav-Miara is also in no hurry to rule, and on Tuesday her office said in response to questions from journalists that she is still examining the matter.

Here is where Netanyahu, who fears a political end run, enters the picture. On Tuesday he sent a letter to the attorney general, cosigned by the other opposition party heads, calling on Baharav-Miara to act in accordance with a document that her predecessor, Avichai Mendelblit, issued a year and a half ago. His directive calls for a caretaker government to refrain from making senior appointments (although Mendelblit left room for interpretation, a point that Netanyahu ignored in his letter).

Beyond Netanyahu’s impressive yet surprising concern for good governance, it stands to reason that there is another issue at stake: The chairman of the opposition needs to exhibit strength – and, no less important, to ensure that those holding senior jobs owe him a personal debt for their appointments. It is certainly no accident that his wife, Sara, found her way into many of the interviews for key posts (supposedly by chance) and, according to many, intervened directly in the appointments themselves.

In response to Netanyahu’s letter, Gantz said on Tuesday that he intended to continue the vetting process. “I propose to keep politics away from the process, and I intend as much as I can to advance it from a governmental perspective,” he told reporters.

The Mendelblit directive, as well as court rulings that relate to the issue, appear to stand in his way. So does the calendar. The decision on a new chief of staff can wait until after the next election and the formation of a new government, which could happen during November-December. In any case, Kochavi can always be asked to stay on for several months beyond the end of his term while the political establishment gets its act together. As a good soldier, the chief of staff can’t really refuse.

Gantz had a chance to name the next chief of staff, but this week it seems he missed the train. If Baharav-Miara does rule decisively on the matter, Netanyahu may turn to the High Court of Justice. Under the circumstances, it is probable that even Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, who is believed to be Gantz’s preferred candidate, may prefer the appointment be postponed. Otherwise, it will be portrayed as an end run, and Netanyahu's Likud party will look for an excuse to thwart it, if it wins the election.

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