At defense handover, Gantz warns Gallant not to allow political interference in IDF
With Bezalel Smotrich taking ministerial control of unit in charge of civilian affairs in West Bank, outgoing minister cautions about ‘disintegration of the defense establishment’
Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.
Outgoing defense minister Benny Gantz wished the incoming minister, Likud’s Yoav Gallant, success in his role, at a handover ceremony at the military’s headquarters in Tel Aviv on Sunday, while cautioning him not to permit political interference in the army.
“Erect a high and solid protective wall between the IDF and political involvement in operational decisions, and do not allow the disintegration of the defense establishment into subunits that are subject to political interference and disconnected from the chain of command,” Gantz told his successor.
The outgoing minister was referring to recent worries by military chief Aviv Kohavi over increasing political control over the army.
In accordance with Likud’s coalition deal with the far-right Religious Zionism, party leader and new Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich was also named as a minister in the Defense Ministry, with authority over the military-run bodies handling civil affairs in the West Bank and coordination with the Palestinians.
Under the terms of the agreements, Smotrich’s role as a minister within the Defense Ministry allows him to appoint the generals leading the hybrid civil-military Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories, with its office overseeing many settlement issues, and the Civil Administration, subject to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approval.
The major general in charge of COGAT has thus far been appointed by the defense minister at the recommendation of the IDF chief of staff, with the brigadier general overseeing the Civil Administration being appointed by the IDF chief of staff.
Smotrich has yet to make any decisions using his new authority in the Defense Ministry.
Meanwhile, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, in charge of the police, has been reported by Hebrew-language media to be planning to pull a Border Police division out of the West Bank and place its 16 companies in southern Israel to tackle crime instead. The unit is currently subordinate to the army in operational matters.
According to a coalition deal signed between Ben Gvir’s extreme-right Otzma Yehudit party and Netanyahu’s Likud, Border Police may later be sliced off entirely from the Israel Police, and the gendarmerie force would be placed under the direct control of the new National Security Ministry.
The military believes Ben Gvir’s planned move of forces to the south of the country would significantly harm its operations in the West Bank and require it to summon dozens more reservist units to make up for the loss of forces that routinely conduct security operations in the area alongside the army.
In his own remarks Sunday, Gallant said he would work to “strengthen” the military.
“The IDF is above all controversy,” he said.
Later, Channel 13 news quoted Gallant as telling senior officers during a meeting with the IDF’s General Staff Forum: “I will not allow harm to the chain of command. Each officer in the army has one commander, and this is the chief of staff.”
His office published different remarks from the meeting, and the network’s report remained unconfirmed.
During the handover ceremony itself, Gallant said: “I take upon myself the role of defense minister out of a longstanding commitment to Israel’s security and out of a deep recognition of the importance of the mission.”
Gallant vowed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and to take harsh actions against rocket fire on Israel from the Gaza Strip.
“We will fight terror with no compromises,” he said.
Gallant, a former top general who began his military career in the elite Shayetet 13 naval commando unit, is a highly regarded military strategist.
Though once in the running to be IDF chief of staff, he had to pull out, after becoming embroiled in a scandal regarding the encroachment of his house and garden onto public lands.
After he was disqualified, the position went to Gantz, the outgoing defense minister.
Gallant has not yet selected a new director-general for the ministry. The current director-general, Amir Eshel, announced he would resign from his post when Gantz leaves. Eshel entered the role shortly after Gantz took over the Defense Ministry in May 2020.