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Ex-IDF chief rabbi denies leaking info to Bennett

Army boots Avichai Rontzki from reserves over alleged transmission of army data on Hamas tunnels to minister during Gaza war

Naftali Bennett (r) with former IDF chief rabbi Avichai Rontzki. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Naftali Bennett (r) with former IDF chief rabbi Avichai Rontzki. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Former IDF chief rabbi Avichai Rontzki denied on Tuesday that he had leaked information on the IDF’s discoveries of the scale of Hamas’s tunnel infrastructure during the Gaza war to Economy Minister Naftali Bennett.

“I don’t know what this is about,” Rontzki told Channel 10 news. “It’s very strange.”

According to reports in the Hebrew-language press, senior defense officials are charging that Rontzki put on his reservist’s uniform, including brigadier-general insignia — despite not having been called-up — and wandered among IDF units in the south during the fighting, then passed information he heard from soldiers and commanders to Bennett.

Bennett, a member of the inner security cabinet who heads the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party, was an outspoken critic of how Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conducted the Gaza war. Bennett’s statements in cabinet meetings about the IDF’s findings in Gaza reportedly raised suspicions that led Ya’alon to order Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz to investigate whether Bennett was receiving information from IDF sources that did not come through regular Defense Ministry channels.

Defense officials accused Bennett of opening “a private, unapproved channel” to gain information about IDF findings and deployments.

Bennett was “using military information for political ends,” Ya’alon charged at the time.

Brig.-Gen. Avichai Ronsky (screen capture: Channel 1)
Brig.-Gen. Avichai Ronsky (screen capture: Channel 1)

The IDF soon pointed the finger at Rontzki, who was reportedly visiting IDF units while in his brigadier general’s uniform without having been called up to reserve duty. The chief of staff ordered Rontzki removed from the IDF reserves and placed a formal complaint in his record, according to news reports.

In a brief interview with Channel 2 on Tuesday, Rontzki denied he was removed from IDF Reserves.

Sources close to Bennett rejected the accusations leveled by the Defense Ministry officials.

“Minister Bennett is proud of his actions [during the Gaza war], which led to the tunnel operation and saved lives,” an official in Bennett’s office told Channel 10.

“These anonymous smears are outrageous. [Bennett’s] actions during [Operation] Protective Edge, at the height of the tunnel fiasco, saved the residents of Netiv Haasara and Nahal Oz,” two Gaza periphery villages. “For several weeks, while Minister Bennett demanded again and again an operation to destroy the tunnels, there were political defense officials who prevented the operation and dismissed the threat with contempt.”

Bennett’s information, the sources added, “didn’t come from astrologers, but from his visits to the field, and repeated meetings with defense and intelligence officials, and other experts. Saving lives is more important than political briefings.”

The news divided lawmakers on Tuesday.

Former IDF spokesperson MK Miri Regev (Likud) emphatically sided with Ya’alon and the IDF. “It is unacceptable that soldiers or commanders, whether active-duty, officers or in reserves, will leak information from the IDF to anyone whatsoever. The IDF stands on its hierarchy and discipline, and anyone who leaks must be punished severely.”

MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), who chairs the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, criticized the army’s handling of the incident in a statement Tuesday evening, and slammed the “persecution” of Rontzki.

“I suggest that the chief of staff show the same determination and speed in dealing with the refuseniks of Unit 8200, who are causing terrible damage to the IDF and the State of Israel, rather than searching for a scapegoat in order to silence other voices within the army who may not have agreed with the chief of staff during the operation,” said Elkin.

“Even if it is true that Rabbi Rontzki gave unsettling information to a member of the cabinet (and this has not been proven), out of an honest concern for the security of Israel’s citizens, this is far less serious than the regular press briefings given during the operation by the IDF’s top officers in an effort to deal with the media’s and the public’s criticism,” he said.

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