How Netanyahu's Military Secretary Became His Most Trusted Adviser

The appointment of a new IAF commander is causing turbulence in the political arena, with talk focused on the relationship between military secretary Yohanan Locker and the prime minister.

Two weeks ago, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz came to the Knesset to speak to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The official topic of discussion was the tense situation in the Gaza Strip, but MK Isaac Herzog (Labor ) surprised Gantz with an unrelated question. "I have been reading articles, from all sides, about skirmishing within the army over an appointment to a certain position," said Herzog. "Is there a war of generals going on in the IDF General Staff?"

Committee chairman MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima ) asked Herzog to clarify. Herzog explained that he was referring to the appointment of the next commander of the Israel Air Force, which in April 2012 will replace Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan. "Does the office of the defense minister interfere with your appointments?" Herzog asked Gantz. "I'm not attacking you, but I am concerned. I read commentaries and I am fearing outside intervention in this appointment."

Gantz refuted the allegation. "These days, there are no wars between generals in the IDF," he declared. "I've interviewed the three candidates for the position, and in the end one of them will be chosen. It happened to me, too. One time I was not chosen for the position, and one time I was chosen."

Nevertheless, despite the chief of staff's denial, the appointment of the next Israel Air Force commander is causing a storm in the political sphere, due to two related reasons. The first is because the commander of the IAF is responsible for preparing Israel's strategic capability for D-Day. His opposition at the cabinet session could cause many ministers to think again before raising their hands in favor of dispatching fighter planes to Iran.

The second reason is the candidates themselves, and particularly Maj. Gen. Yohanan Locker, who for the past two years has served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's military secretary. Two other men are competing against Locker for the position - head of the General Staff's Plans and Policy Directorate, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, and Air Force Chief of Staff Brig. Gen. Nimrod Shefer.

Natural candidate

Senior IDF officers contend that Eshel is the natural candidate for the position. As a veteran fighter pilot who has made his way up the entire chain of IAF command positions, Eshel was responsible over the past three years for the interface between the army and the government on sensitive political and security issues. He is considered a brilliant and knowledgeable officer, and is held in high esteem not only in the bureaus of the prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister, but also in the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House. In the past few months, Eshel played a decisive role in the sensitive contacts with the Supreme Military Council in Egypt, which helped to ease tensions and preserve the peace treaty.

Shefer is not considered a favorite, if only for the fact that he has not yet served as a general on the General Staff. Locker, somewhat unjustly, has turned into the candidate of contention. In the articles to which MK Herzog was referring, it was hinted that Netanyahu and Barak were putting pressure on Gantz, in an attempt to promote Locker's candidacy.

Among high-ranking figures in the IDF and the political establishment, there is a sense that the Prime Minister's Office is smartening up Locker's image for public consumption. In an unusual move, a few days after Netanyahu returned from September's UN gathering in New York, his office released a photo of a working session he held with the IDF chief of staff. When the meeting was over, Netanyahu asked to raise a glass to commemorate the Rosh Hashanah holiday. The photograph distributed to media outlets in Israel showed Netanyahu with Gantz on one side of him and his military secretary, Locker, on the other.

Two weeks later, the PMO released another photo of Netanyahu standing alongside Locker, this time as they walked into the special cabinet session about the deal to release Gilad Shalit. Netanyahu's spokesmen even briefed reporters that evening on the "major and decisive role" that Locker played in contacts for Shalit's release.

In a third photo that was distributed a few days later, the envoy David Meidan and Locker are updating Netanyahu on preparations for carrying out the exchange. The following day, some newspapers not only printed the photo but also quotes of statements Locker had made to Netanyahu.

In private conversations this week, Locker stressed: "I haven't spoken about the position with the prime minister or with the defense minister even once. The only person I've spoken with is the chief of staff, as part of the round of interviews he held."

A senior officer close to Locker explains, "Locker is always trying to get out of the frame, so as not to be in photos, but there isn't a lot you can do when the prime minister and his spokesmen sometimes want to have a uniformed officer in the picture."

Mistaken identity

Locker, 53, enlisted in 1976 and graduated flight school as a combat navigator. In June 1982, at the start of the first Lebanon war, Capt. Locker embarked on a bombing mission on the Syria-Lebanon border with pilot Lt. Col. Daniel Shaki. The target was a Syrian commando force moving in the direction of IDF forces. The report of the commission of inquiry, which was quoted in an article in Maariv in 2006, stated that an argument broke out between Locker and Shaki, who were leading the formation. Locker asserted that Shaki had misidentified the target, but Shaki ordered him to release their cluster bombs.

The target that they bombed was indeed mistaken, and the aircraft in the formation bombed an Israeli armored force. The consequences were catastrophic - 24 Israeli dead and 100 casualties. The commission of inquiry that was set up in the IAF cleared Locker of responsibility for the mishap, but asked that a comment be placed in his file. A few years ago, the Tel Aviv weekly, Ha'ir, revealed that Brig. Gen. Rafi Harlev, who headed the commission of inquiry, was related to Locker and knew him from early childhood.

Locker was the first navigator to have been promoted to the post of combat squadron commander, and a few years later he became the first navigator to be appointed commander of an operational air base (Hatzerim Air Base, in 2001 ). He also set a precedent in the PMO when he became the first military secretary to come from the ranks of the IAF.

Locker was appointed to his PMO position in January 2010, and he replaced Maj. Gen. Meir Klifi. In advance of Klifi's departure, then chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi passed on to Netanyahu's bureau the names of three brigadier generals that he recommended for the position. A few days later, Ashkenazi was surprised to receive a request from the PMO to also send over Brig. Gen. Yohanan Locker, who at the time was the IAF chief of staff, for an interview with Netanyahu.

A high-ranking army officer who was involved in what was happening at that time says Netanyahu had heard that Locker's father, a Holocaust survivor, was active in the Betar movement and had immigrated to Israel on the deck of the Altalena, the weapons ship of pre-state underground group Etzel. Another party said that Locker's cousin is Dov Eichenwald, the director general of Yedioth Ahronoth Publishing House. Eichenwald is close to the Netanyahu family and has even published several books by Sara Netanyahu's late father, the author and Etzel member Shmuel Ben-Artzi. There is no proof that the family's connections had anything to do with the appointment, but they did enable Netanyahu to get another, unofficial, opinion about Locker.

A source in the PMO revealed that Locker quickly became one of Netanyahu's closest advisers, no less so than political adviser Ron Dermer, and at times even more so than National Security Adviser Uzi Arad. "Locker is very discreet, and Bibi liked that very much," says a source in Netanyahu's bureau. "Locker works quietly and gets involved in a lot of fields, at times straying beyond his classic mandate. Locker is also calmer, more stable and more levelheaded than other people in the office. It was easy for Bibi to work with him simply because there were a lot fewer dramas with him, and he delivered the goods."

The prime minister's military secretary is the individual who links him to secret intelligence data and to operational activity of the IDF, the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service. The military secretary attends the most intimate meetings, in which the real decisions are made. "Bibi usually arrives highly prepared for meetings of the octet and the cabinet," says a source in the PMO. "Locker takes part in the intimate process of this preparation, and the fact that Netanyahu works in compartmentalized fashion only increases his power."

In April 2010, a sharp dispute erupted between Uzi Arad and Locker concerning Netanyahu's attendance at the Nuclear Security Summit, a meeting convened by President Barack Obama in Washington with the participation of more than 40 leaders from around the world. Arad pressed Netanyahu to go, but at the last minute the prime minister changed his mind and remained in Israel. "Bibi had already decided that he was flying, but then Locker whispered in his ear that several Arab leaders would be giving speeches against the Israeli nuclear program. Bibi was alarmed, and sent Dan Meridor in his place," related a high-ranking official who was involved in the affair. "It was a provincial move, and the Americans were boiling mad. Arad did not forgive Locker for it."

The report by the State Comptroller on the Turkish flotilla to Gaza in April-May 2010, which will soon be made public, is expected to address in detail the problematic relationship between Locker and Arad, and the mishaps it caused. Arad's lieutenant on the National Security Staff convened a session to discuss the flotilla deployment, but the army officers failed to appear. Arad checked with the defense minister's military secretary to see why the officers were absent from the discussion, and the latter explained that it was Locker who issued the no-show directive. Boiling mad, Arad went into the office of the head of the prime minister's staff, Natan Eshel. "This is a change in the world order. It goes against the NSS Law," he fumed. "I resign." Netanyahu immediately ordered that Locker's directive be canceled.

Involvement in political matters

Five days before the flotilla started, Arad wanted to convene the high-ranking cabinet ministers to discuss the matter but, according to a source involved in the affair, "Locker argued that it was a military, not a political matter, and that the NSS doesn't know anything about military operations. It is now obvious to everyone that the flotilla was a lot more political than military."

In the course of the state comptroller's inquiry, it emerged that in the period leading up to and following the flotilla, Locker had maintained a direct channel of communication with Turkey's ambassador to the U.S., Namik Tan, and passed various messages to him, unbeknownst to Uzi Arad, the Foreign Ministry and the defense establishment. Sources in the PMO commented that Netanyahu had ultimately overruled the remonstrative Arad in Locker's favor.

Netanyahu granted Locker broad authorities, the likes of which have not been given to practically any previous military secretary. These include involvement in political matters. For example, Locker was part of the delegation to the short-lived peace talks with the Palestinians, and was party to consultations regarding Netanyahu's speech to Congress in May. He even appeared in uniform in the UN general assembly hall when Netanyahu gave his speech there in late September.

As the prime minister made his way north on the Monday of the Carmel forest fire last December, his military secretary conducted a Google search and found the site of Evergreen, the company that operates the 747 supertanker that was subsequently summoned to Israel. Locker's supertanker soon became an in-house idiomatic expression for putting out all fires, such as the reform of the Israel Lands Authority and the summer social protests.

Arad's replacement, maj. gen. (res. ) Yaakov Amidror, felt the same frustration that his predecessor felt in the face of Locker's favored status. While there is tension between Locker and Amidror, it is still in check.

As part of the general murky atmosphere that exists between the office of the chief of staff and the offices of the prime minister and defense minister, Gabi Ashkenazi felt that Locker was not conducting himself as the IDF representative in the PMO, but as Netanyahu's representative in the army.

Does Locker support an Israeli attack on Iran? A retired senior-ranking officer who is very familiar with all of the candidates for the position of IAF commander argues that "Locker does have a more attack-oriented image, and therefore is better suited to Bibi. Amir Eshel is more knowledgeable and does not hold back on his opinions when it comes to appointments." Conversely, another senior officer who worked with Locker closely during his first year as military secretary comments that he does hold have any decisive opinion on the matter.

A source in the PMO claims that Locker is not politically right-wing. "Locker's approach to every matter, including the Iranian issue, is extremely rational. He feels that any decision should be reached on the basis of pros and cons, cost and effect," says the source. Other parties in the PMO note that despite Locker's interest in being the next IAF commander, and the media discourse about Netanyahu preparing his way for that position, it could transpire that the prime minister himself will choose to foil the appointment. "Until Bibi finds someone so close to him, and who works with him in such harmony, it isn't at all certain that he would be willing to give him [Locker] up," says a close associate of Netanyahu's.

A few weeks ago it emerged that attorney Harel Locker, the younger brother of the military secretary, was Netanyahu's leading candidate as the director general of his bureau, a job that has been vacant for several months. The PMO denied that Locker Jr. found his way to the bureau as a result of his older brother's recommendation. One assumes, however, that it didn't hurt.

Harel Locker earns many compliments from Israel's top lawyers. On the other hand, he has no senior managerial experience in the private or public sectors. Netanyahu is expected to receive the report of the Kucik Committee - which he himself appointed - with its recommendations on the structure of the PMO and position-holders within it soon. The younger Locker, who according to the committee recommendations would not meet the criteria for the position of PMO director general, would be the person responsible for implementing these recommendations.