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Israel's new army chief Herzi Halevi forced to navigate multiple bosses, far-right whims

Israel's incoming IDF Chief of Staff Hezri Halevi will have to deal with the fallout from the whims of a new government run by Israel’s most right-wing, regressive and ultra-nationalist forces.

Lt. Gen. Herzl Halevi took over as Israel’s army new chief of staff Monday, replacing Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who had served in the position since 2019. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Galant placed the insignia on the the incoming IDF chief's shoulders together. But after the festive ceremony, Halevi will have to face a multitude of challenges in the coming months, not just on Israel’s frontiers but also within the country.

Israel has long prided itself on being the Middle East's only true democracy, but the new government has embarked on comprehensive judicial and legal reforms that critics warn will destroy it. The ideological leader of these deeply controversial measures is newly installed Justice Minister Yariv Levin, but the man who made them possible is Netanyahu, whose personal legal troubles they are intended to bury.

Netanyahu’s sixth government has tasked its most radical members with the most explosive issues and given their ministerial positions much expanded powers.

Control over the Civil Administration, the Defense Ministry division tasked with administering the daily lives of Palestinians under Israeli control in the West Bank, has been given to far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. It means that managing the friction between West Bank Jewish settlers and Palestinian residents is now in the hands of a man who favors Israeli annexation of the area. Control of the Border Police, which until now operated under the Defense Ministry, has been transferred to National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

It is Halevi and Shin Bet director Ronen Bar who will have to deal with the fallout from the whims of a new government run by Israel’s most right-wing, regressive and ultra-nationalist forces. As civil servants, both are required by law to obey the orders of the elected government. Halevi reports to the Knesset, while Bar works under the direct authority of the prime minister.

The only person authorized to give the military orders is the IDF chief of staff, and the IDF will not disobey the government and the Shin Bet will not challenge the prime minister. But while military coups are out of the question, clashes between the heads of these agencies and the political echelon over issues such as the use of force and international law are not.

There is broad public opposition to the government’s plans, made evident on Jan. 14 when 80,000 Israelis took the streets in heavy rain to mount one of the largest anti-government protests in Israeli history.

Halevi’s predecessor Kochavi publicly avoided controversial issues throughout his four-year term. But in a blitz of recent interviews summing up his command, he made his opinions clear on the new government’s plans to hand over control of certain military and police units to hard-line politicians.

Only the chief of staff authorizes any changes to the rules of engagement in every sector,” Kochavi told Haaretz. “No way,” he said of the plans to subordinate Border Police forces in the West Bank to Ben-Gvir. “Not a single officer can be subordinate to any authority except the IDF. … Any other arrangement is untenable,” he said. Halevi, added Kochavi, holds the same views.

Halevi may very well be of the same mind, but he differs from Kochavi in terms of stubbornness. How will he respond, for example, to the planned move of the Civil Administration to the purview of Smotrich? How will he respond to government orders to change the rules of engagement with Palestinian assailants? What will he do now that Ben-Gvir has been given control of the Border Police in the West Bank?

Former National Security Adviser Giora Eiland told Al-Monitor last week that transferring control of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (which commands the Civil Administration) from the Ministry of Defense and the IDF chief to a minister like Smotrich is a recipe for disaster.

"People don't understand that the Civil Administration doesn't just deal with civilian issues," said Eiland. "It's also responsible for security coordination with the Palestinian Authority mechanisms. Imagine an operation by the IDF and the Shin Bet in [the West Bank town of] Qalqiliya while another arm, torn from the IDF, conducts the coordination with the Palestinians during the operation. It can't happen."

Eiland also addressed the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories being appointed by a Smotrich rather than the defense minister: "It's not just the officer, who has the rank of major general. There are other generals and colonels in his headquarters. Who will appoint them? To whom do they report? How is it possible to manage in such a complex reality in such chaos?"

How will Halevi deal with these anomalies, and will he enjoy the backing of Defense Minister Yoav Galant? Galant was forced to accept the transfer of sections of his ministry to Smotrich, on whose party the government depends for its survival. But in his speech at the handover ceremony for the IDF chiefs this week, Galant said, "For every soldier and officer, [there is] one commander, and above them all [there is] the chief of staff, the highest command in the army, subordinate to the minister of defense and subject to the government. External pressures — political, legal and otherwise — stop with me and do not reach the IDF gates."

Galant's remarks were echoed by Halevi at the same ceremony: "We will keep one IDF, businesslike, moral and professional, free of any consideration other than security."

And we have yet to talk about the challenge facing the Shin Bet with Ben-Gvir, a representative of the extremist settlers (themselves a minority among the settlers), now at the top of the decision-making circles.

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