Israel’s chief of staff revealing his political preferences

The decision by IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi to promote Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter reflects his future political aspirations.

al-monitor Incoming Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi walks out at the end of a handover ceremony where he replaces Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel, Jan. 15, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Jul 9, 2019

Israel has its own version of Napoleon’s famous saying, “Every soldier carries a marshal's baton in his pack.” In these parts, every general carries a prime minister’s baton — or at least that of a defense minister — in his pack. Three former army chiefs are now eyeing the seats of power from the leadership of the opposition Blue and White party. A fourth, Ehud Barak, who changed his fatigues for a suit and tie when he became prime minister 20 years ago, has formed a new party — Democratic Israel — bringing on board yet another general, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yair Golan.

There was also much talk recently about former Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. (Res.) Gadi Eizenkot as a possible reinforcement for those challenging the Likud party’s hold on power. Ordinarily, Eizenkot would have had to wait three years after leaving the military to run for the Knesset, but given the language of the law and the disbanding of the Knesset on May 29, just weeks after it was sworn in, Eizenkot could potentially run in the upcoming Sept. 17 elections. The law, however, does not prevent generals from paving their way into politics while still in uniform. Barak, for example, was state politics champion even as a young general in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

As illustrated by the results of the April 9 elections, three batons of former lieutenant generals are not sufficient to defeat the religious right-wing bloc led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party. When incumbent IDF chief Aviv Kochavi takes the plunge into politics, as his comrades in arms predict, he will be able to count on strong references from this political bloc. Kochavi’s recent decision to promote Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter, clearly identified with religious Zionism, and to restore him to a field command will serve Kochavi the politician well in overcoming any pockets of dissent among the right-wing settlers. Kochavi’s appointment of Winter to command the so-called Fire Division has already earned him a medal of honor from Makor Rishon, a paper owned by arch-conservatives Sheldon and Miriam Adelson and closely affiliated with religious settler circles. Its editor Hagai Segal was a member of the Jewish Underground and served jail time in the 1980s for his role in planting a bomb that blew off the leg of a Palestinian mayor.

“Chief of Staff Kochavi proves yet again that his point of view is different from that of his predecessor, Lt. Gen. (Res.) Gadi Eizenkot,” Makor Rishon wrote in praise. “After a four-year saga during which Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter was held back in rank and position, he is now getting the promotion he deserves.”

The “saga” in question refers to a dispatch Winter, then commander of the Givati Brigade, sent to his troops as they were readying for combat in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014. Winter urged “the God of Israel” to “make our path successful as we go and stand to fight for the sake of your people of Israel against a foe that curses your name.” In essence, Winter turned Israel’s people’s army into an army of God. A similar text written by a Palestinian youth would have catapulted him to the top of Israel’s Most Wanted jihadis list.

The decision by two former army chiefs, Eizenkot and his predecessor, Lt. Gen. (Res.) Benny Gantz, to pass Winter over for a field command and stick him behind a desk stemmed not only from his troubling worldview, but also from the operational performance of his infantry brigade during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, including various allegations investigated by the military police. One of the suspicions investigated was the misuse of funds donated to the unit under Winter’s command. Another was the suicide of a Givati fighter harassed by his unit and the suicide of a noncommissioned officer who was summoned for questioning about a missing weapon. Suspicions also arose that Winter had covered up several sexual harassment incidents.

“Winter was given a position that carries the keys and entry ticket to the chief of staff’s office,” the mouthpiece of the right wing exulted (Makor Rishon), mentioning that two former Fire Division commanders, the late Dan Shimron and Kochavi himself, had been appointed IDF chiefs.

Winter is not unusual in the IDF’s top echelons. Thus, for example, Rabbi Eli Sadan, the founder and head of the military preparatory academy Bnei David in the settlement of Eli boasts that half of his academy’s 5,000 graduates are officers in the IDF, and 45% of graduates serve in elite units. Sadan flaunted these figures in response to remarks last week by former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman who said the academies had become private militias answerable to rabbis rather than to their commanders.

Liberman’s definition does not relate to Winter and his academy friends. Graduates of the pre-military academies are not members of private militias, such as the unruly young Israelis known as hilltop youth, who set Palestinian fields on fire and harass IDF soldiers. Sadan, his fellow rabbis and their students are Trojan horses, taking over the civilian and military establishment from within. They have studied the Achilles' heel of the enemy and have latched onto him gradually, with infinite patience, in a loving, conciliatory embrace.

Now and then, fragments of these rabbis’ teachings come to light, exposing some of the values with which students such as Winter are imbued. For example, Rabbi Eliezer Kashtiel of the Eli yeshiva ruled that Arabs “are genetically deficient and should be our slaves.” His colleague Rabbi Giora Redler told his students, “The real Holocaust was not when they murdered the Jews. … Humanism and the secular culture of 'We believe in man' — that’s the Holocaust.” In order to overcome this “Holocaust,” religious Zionism encourages its disciples, as Sadan says, “to enter the existing networks of the army, the Shin Bet, the Mossad and the police.”

The State of Israel has honored Sadan with the country’s most prestigious award, the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement. The achievement, as he put it in a September 2017 interview with Makor Rishon, obviously consists of settling all parts of the land of Israel, “building up the Torah and its authority over the state, struggling to imbue Israeli law with the fundamental principles of Jewish religious law, influencing education, culture and the media in the public sphere.”

And what did Gantz have to say about Kochavi’s decision to parachute his problematic subordinate, a meritorious disciple of primitive rabbis, into the divisional command? Not a word. On the other hand, the leader of the Blue and White party was quick to tweet against Liberman’s “challenge” of the “important Zionist enterprise,” i.e., the preparatory military academies, slamming the hurt he had caused “our best sons and daughters” who constitute, according to Gantz, “the spearhead of the perennial struggle for Israel’s security.” Spearhead and perhaps double-edged sword. That's what happens when generals never leave home without the prime minister’s baton in their backpacks.

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