Israel Pulse

Political Agenda Seeps into Israeli Army's Top Brass

Article Summary
There is an effort afoot by right-wing activists in the national religious camp to influence the top Israeli military leadership, writes Akiva Eldar.

Last week, the release of the Harpaz report rocked the entire country. The state comptroller revealed each and every one of the skeletons that was kept in the closets of Israel's military-political leadership — and there were many. Much has been said, broadcast and written about the highlights of the affair over the past three years since the discovery of the forged document known as the Harpaz document: the troubling relations between top military leaders and politicians, the no less troubling relations between figures at the top of the government and the reporters they court, about the poor norms and values of some of the people at the top of military command. The media focused on the scheme that was mapped out in the office of the chief of general staff to tarnish the reputation of Minister of Defense Barak and his aides, but ignored the most important finding in the report, which indicates that politics has penetrated into the IDF's most senior command.

The most scathing criticism in the report is leveled at Col. Erez Weiner, the aide to former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. The state comptroller reports how Weiner worked with Lt. Col. Boaz Harpaz (res.) to collect information against Defense Minister Ehud Barak, given the bad blood between both offices. According to the state comptroller, Weiner's conduct was improper, not in keeping with the spirit of the IDF and not appropriate for a senior officer.

And to think that the very same senior officer described this way by the state comptroller is the person the previous chief of staff appointed as chief education officer of the IDF. No more, no less. (The appointment was blocked by current Chief of Staff Benny Gantz following publication of the report, and a few days later Col. Weiner was forced to leave the army).

In a conversation to be quoted below, Col. Weiner tarnished the reputation of the IDF by maintaining strong ties with clearly political organizations. As can be seen in the transcription, Col. Weiner shares inside information with the former chief of staff regarding the monitoring performed by organizations such as “NGO Monitor” and “Im Tirtzu,” of the “New Israel Fund” [NIF], an organization that in Israel is associated with the left, and which operates lawfully in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world. The conversation between Weiner and Ashkenazi took place against the backdrop of a campaign of incitement at that time against the organization and its president at the time, Professor Naomi Chazan.

The same organizations that tasked themselves with monitoring the sources of funding of human rights organizations in Israel, argued that the [NIF] Fund supported NGOs that testified before the [UN] committee headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, which investigated the events of Operation Cast Lead. A bill proposed by right-wing Knesset members, that was designed to limit the steps that could be taken by human rights and left-wing organizations by hurting their fundraising efforts gave rise to a heated debate in the Knesset and among the public. It also led to international criticism. In the end, due to the intervention of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, who understood how dangerous the bill was to democracy, it was removed from the agenda.

The following is a summary of the conversation held on Oct. 14, 2010, as taken from the state comptroller's report:

Weiner: They left a document here for me this evening, related to the whole business with [NGO A] (referring to the New Israel Fund – A.E.).

Ashkenazi: And?

Weiner: What is troubling … based on the investigations they conducted on [NGO A], also connect Mr. Yoni (Koren, Barak's campaign chief – A.E.], and his boss.

Ashkenazi: Very good, let them start publishing that.

Weiner: I asked him, "What are you doing with that?" And he said that they met with the minister of justice.

Ashkenazi: And?

Weiner: I don't know what they'll do with it next, but he said that they presented all of this material to [Minister of Justice Yaakov] Neeman.

Ashkenazi: And?

Weiner: And they know there are connections. While not in their direction, because they are more interested in stopping [NGO A]… and its affiliates. Oh, well.

Ashkenazi: Is that written there? Are there things that connect them?

In his defense, Weiner told the state comptroller that the connection between the information he gathered and Defense Minister Barak and his aide Yoni Koren was "based on the minister's activity to prevent legislation on the activity of the NGO" and that the IDF's interest in the affair was "activity of organizations affiliated with the NGO to harm IDF soldiers." Is that so? Who authorized an officer in uniform to interfere in legislative matters in the Knesset? Who is he to determine that human rights organizations, who work within the law, "harm IDF soldiers?" Since when does a military body take a stand on a controversial political issue?

And this, in my opinion, is where the worst of all evils lies. What bothers me much more than a top military officer gathering information to use against the upper echelons of government – which in and of itself is serious – is that the type of information collected shows just how deeply politics has penetrated the top brass of the IDF. However, as difficult as it is to believe, the issue is even more serious. I contend that what the state comptroller revealed about Col. Weiner is only an individual case of a general trend and that the state comptroller did not even touch the tip of the iceberg: an organized and planned effort by right wing activists in the national religious camp to capture the centers of power in Israeli society, chiefly the military and political leadership.

The same week the state comptroller issued the report, an article titled, "On the Road to Control" was published on Srugim, a website that targets the national-religious audience. Among other things, it claimed that every third member of the next Knesset will be religious, and most will be national-religious. The most prominent of them will be the leader of HaBayit HaYehudi, a graduate of the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, Naftali Bennett. The day after the announcement of Weiner's appointment as chief education officer — as previously mentioned was overturned because of his role in the Harpaz affair — Weiner was characterized by another [right-wing Orthodox] website, "Kipa," as "a resident of Beit Horon [settlement], in the Matte Binyamin Regional Council, who is Orthodox through and through." They also wrote, "As opposed to current chief education officer, Brig. Gen. Sharmeister, Weiner is viewed as an officer with strong opinions, who is not afraid to make his opinions known." Indeed, it would seem that the uniform does not stop Weiner from sharing his opinions with the public.

We can learn a few things about the very opinions espoused by the aide to the former chief of staff from an interview he gave in September 2002 to the website “Ynet,” marking the end of his tenure as commander of the Duchifat Battalion of the infantry. He commented: "We went in to destroy some buildings — that's what the soldiers liked best, like kids, just let them destroy things and blow them up." The interviewer asked Weiner if he would obey an order to evacuate a settlement, for example, the settlement on which he or his parents live. "That's a very tough question," he replied. "I don't see myself disobeying an order or taking other extreme action," and immediately added, "I don't think that it (the question) is relevant, so I don't think that I need to answer it today." By the way, in the same interview, he also referred sharply and crudely to peace activist Uri Avnery, saying that he "makes his blood boil." He also took the opportunity for some harsh words against Amira Hass, the journalist who writes for Haaretz and lives in Ramallah, and cynically referred to both of them as "good Jews."

The ambiguousness and difficulty reflected by Weiner in questions addressing protecting the ideals and interests of the group to which he belongs are reminiscent of the "slip of the tongue" by the leader of the HaBayit HaYehudi party, Naftali Bennett, a few weeks ago regarding refusal to evacuate settlements.

They reveal one of the most important, yet least talked about trends with which the IDF and Israeli society must grapple. At a conference held in 2009, Professor Yagil Levy, recipient of the [Tshetshik] Prize for Strategic Studies on Israel's Security and researcher at the Open University, said that the main interest of the national-religious establishment in increasing recruitment rates is, in fact, a struggle for political control of the defense system (in 2010, military magazine Bamachane reported that 13% of company commanders are settlers — five times their representation in the population. The percentage of Orthodox graduates of infantry officer training courses grew 12-fold over the last 17 years).

Levy's research shows that the military command is losing control of its forces in the West Bank, and that the understanding that the IDF will face massive insubordination by soldiers is a key factor in refraining from evacuating Israeli outposts. "As far as these soldiers and their leadership are concerned, a situation in which they are called on to evacuate settlements is in contravention with their recruitment contract," wrote Levy in his study.

Back in September 2004, Haaretz published that the military establishment had decided to rent a satellite to take pictures of the West Bank in order to document the settlement project. The senior analyst at that time, Ze'ev Schiff, who passed away about six years ago, wrote that this was proposed because of the difficulty getting complete and credible information about the settlements, for among other reasons, because for many years the head of the infrastructure department of the civilian administration, which is responsible for the collection of the information, has been an officer who is himself a settler.

The 2005 Talia Sasson Report on the illegal outposts painted a picture of two systems — one formal and the other informal — in terms of the political-military control of the settlement project. The report stated that the military's failure to enforce the law is attributable in part to the "spirit of the commander."

About one year ago, Brig. Gen. Nitzan Alon, commander of the Judea and Samaria Division (and currently commander of Central Command), recommended that soldiers known to have clear ideological backgrounds be excluded from advance knowledge of preparations for evacuation of new outposts. In view of this suggestion, Alon became "public enemy no. 1" for the settlers. Right-wing extremists called for him to be removed and even "thrown out of the IDF," but Alon stated simply and clearly what many in the IDF know, but refrain from saying: that the IDF is politicized.

The incident with Col. Weiner is an extreme example, but it is not the only one. What is especially worrying is that the trend of right-wingers to take control of the upper military and political echelons, in a conscious effort to force their worldview on the ground is only growing.

It is hard to find a better example of this than what [reporter] Kalman Liebskind wrote in Maariv. The very same Liebskind (who, as a side note, was one of those who blew the top off the scandal that led Yoav Galant not to be appointed general chief of staff) wrote an incisive and even thought-provoking response to another column that ran in the same newspaper about the criticism directed at the penetration of members of the national-religious camp into the power centers of Israeli society and which was titled, "The Revolution is Over."

Liebskind responded: "The revolution is not over. It has not even begun. And even if it may tarry — it will come."

Akiva Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Ha'aretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book ( with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, German and Arabic. In 2006, the Financial Times named him among the world’s most influential commentators.

Found in: settlers, right wing, right, israel, idf, harpaz affair, harpaz, barak, ashkenazi

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.


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