Israel Pulse

How IDF chief shapes Israeli military

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Article Summary
The decision by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot not to promote Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter has sparked fury within the national religious stream.

Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter is the darling of Religious Zionists in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). A combat officer, he has made his way up the IDF ladder in the toughest units, on the hottest military fronts and through the IDF’s most dangerous operations in the last decade. In recent years, Winter has become a symbol of the Zionist religious stream that has taken the military by storm in every branch — i.e., land, air and sea.

The number of Religious Zionists in the army’s elite units, infantry and armored units is much greater than their percentage of the population. According to Israel’s Bureau of Statistics, 11% of Israeli Jews aged 20 and above self-identify as “religious.” About 40% of the soldiers who had completed the IDF’s officer training course as of 2017 were from the Zionist religious population. Even in the upper echelons, such as the infantry divisions, many of the commanding officers belong to this stream. There are not, however, brigadier generals from the Religious Zionist sector on the next highest rung of the IDF ladder, such as commanders of infantry divisions, the most prestigious commanding roles in the army. This statistic infuriates the national-religious Jews.

Some believe that the army’s highest echelons are blocking their youth from the highest levels for political reasons. Religious Zionists are known as right-wing ideologists. Prior to the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, there was concern that some of them would refuse to follow military orders and instead obey their rabbis. They are part of Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi electoral pool. Despite the fact that they have, to date, passed all the “military versus religious tests,” they still bear an automatic burden of proof. The round of IDF appointments announced June 11 transformed Religious Zionist infuriation into a real uproar.

Despite expectations, and after Winter’s promotion had been frozen in the past, the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, did not promote him to division commander. Instead, Winter remains in the lackluster division to which he was appointed after he concluded his stint as brigade commander of Givati. This can mean only one thing: The chief of staff is showing Winter the door. Thus, one of the bravest and most creative officers in the army, the man who was supposed to be the next religious general and potential leader, will evidently not become a member of the IDF’s prestigious chief of staff forum. Thus, Eizenkot has branded himself as the person out to get the Zionist religious sector in the IDF.

Those who really know Eizenkot know that he distances himself from politics. The officers promoted over Winter’s head are also worthy soldiers. The group includes a former member of the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit and a former naval commander unit officer. The chief of staff has the absolute authority to appoint officers on this level, and his decisions cannot be appealed. All anyone can do is criticize his decisions.

Eizenkot’s high valuation of Winter suffered somewhat after the 2014 Operation Protective Edge campaign in Gaza, when Winter commanded the Givati Brigade. In that campaign, Lt. Hadar Goldin was killed in a Hamas ambush of Givati during a humanitarian cease-fire. Hamas then seized Goldin’s body. Under Winter, Givati conducted the famed Hannibal Procedure: The IDF rained heavy fire on the Rafah area, causing numerous Palestinian casualties. This, in turn, led to heavy criticism of Israel and the IDF’s fire procedures. Despite this, it is believed that Winter’s actions in other contexts are what truly undercut Eizenkot’s image of Winter.

During the operation, Winter met at least once with Naftali Bennett, Cabinet member and head of HaBayit HaYehudi, the party of the Zionist religious stream. Winter and Bennett are brothers in arms. They served together in the IDF’s elite Maglan Special Forces unit and remained close friends from then on. It was based on Winter’s information and briefings that Bennett sharply criticized IDF policy and conduct in Cabinet meetings. Bennett especially criticized Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.

Winter’s tie to politicians behind the army's back angered many among the IDF’s top echelons. Winter also rang warning bells in the IDF during Protective Edge by circulating a letter among his subordinate officers in which he said that they were chosen to spearhead the fighting against “the terrorist ‘Gazan’ enemy which abuses, blasphemes and curses the God of Israel’s [defense] forces.” One highly placed chief of staff forum officer who objected to Winter's language told Al-Monitor at the time, on the condition of anonymity, “Jihad is something we leave to the other side.”

Winter recanted his statement, but his message appeared to continue to resonate in the public arena. Thus, the outstanding officer, brave and creative, crossed several red lines while trying to make his way to the top. One of these lines was especially sensitive and explosive: the huge gap separating the worldviews of secular or traditional IDF soldiers and those of Religious Zionist fighters, who are much more committed to their rabbis’ dictates and to Jewish religious law, including when these collide with military orders.

In the last decade, Religious Zionist members have largely replaced the collective secular pioneers and kibbutz movement members in the IDF’s combat and command backbone. In the first decades after the establishment of the state, multitudes of kibbutz and moshav (village) members filled the combat fighter ranks. This sector raised thousands of fighters, hundreds of officers and a significant proportion of military leaders who later became the state’s leaders. Societal evolution in Israel changed this.

While a significant percentage of kibbutz members still serve in the army — as combat soldiers and officers and after compulsory service — the Religious Zionists have stolen the show. The face of the IDF is slowly changing. Religion is seeping into places and events where it never had before. This raises concern among many over the way the army is changing. The IDF has always tried to remain focused on its military goals without a hidden agenda, free of messianism and unprofessional “foreign” interests.

Recent years have seen storms in the Israeli public, surrounding statements made by prominent Religious Zionist rabbis who not infrequently crossed the line into the ostensibly isolated sphere of the army. The IDF has already imposed sanctions on pre-military religious academies that failed to close ranks with army orders. The atmosphere surrounding this sensitive issue is steadily heating up. Religious Zionist soldiers feel betrayed. They feel that while they constitute a significant proportion of the IDF’s combat ranks, the army is trying to push them away instead of thanking them.

Now Eizenkot is in their crosshairs, and not for the first time. True, Bennett and his crowd know that the chief of staff is not driven by any political agenda and has no secret plans to edge the Religious Zionists out of the IDF. Nevertheless, right-wing tweeters and “professional troublemakers” continue to spread accusations against Eizenkot and other IDF elites and “count kippot” (Jewish skullcaps) in the chief of staff forum. When will this end? Perhaps when the IDF appoints its first Religious Zionist chief of staff. In other words, not in the foreseeable future.

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Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit

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