Gantz rejects far-right push to extend political ‘cool off’ for retiring IDF chiefs

Outgoing defense minister says it is ‘not damaging’ for top commanders to enter Knesset 3 years after leaving military, as Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit call for extension

Outgoing defense minister and National Unity party chief Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Outgoing defense minister and National Unity party chief Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 19, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Tuesday rejected an Otzma Yehudit proposal to extend the amount of time retiring senior IDF officials must wait before entering politics, as far-right members of the incoming government appear increasingly at odds with the military.

Otzma Yehudit MK Almog Cohen has proposed extending the so-called cooling-off period to five years. Currently, senior IDF officials must wait three years after completing their service to enter politics.

On Tuesday, Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich suggested extending the cooling-off period to 10 years “in order to leave the IDF out of politics.” Otzma Yehudit chief Itamar Ben Gvir later expressed his support for the move.

Gantz, himself a former IDF chief of staff, criticized the proposal to extend the cooling-off period in an interview Tuesday with Channel 12 news.

“The law for the cooling-off period doesn’t need to be lengthened. I followed it, Gadi Eisenkot followed it, others followed it,” Gantz said, referring to a fellow former military chief who is a member of his National Unity party.

“I think that former IDF chiefs of staff and generals are senior figures in the public sphere that can contribute to the political system, and it’s not damaging,” Gantz added. “They are not less able than anyone else.”

He warned that the incoming government was extreme and dangerous to “society, dangerous for security and there will be international damage.”

Otzma Yehudit party leader Itamar Ben Gvir after a Knesset vote, December 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The back-and-forth came amid mounting friction between the incoming government’s far-right and defense officials. Prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition includes his Likud party, its longtime Haredi allies United Torah Judaism and Shas, and Otzma Yehudit, Religious Zionism and the far-right Noam faction.

Former IDF chiefs of staff have a long history of entering politics. Over the past 30 years, all but one military chief has later run for the Knesset, with Gantz, Eisenkot, Gabi Ashkenazi, Moshe Ya’alon, Ehud Barak, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Shaul Mofaz all doing so with varying degrees of success. Most were in centrist or center-left parties, though Ya’alon and Mofaz each served for periods with Likud.

The incoming government’s planned policies, including reworking the defense ministry’s command structure to give Smotrich authority over West Bank settlements and transferring West Bank Border Police to Ben Gvir, have alarmed some of the security establishment.

Ben Gvir did not serve in the military and Smotrich did a shortened service in a minor position.

Earlier Tuesday, Smotrich assailed IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, accusing him of attempting to politicize the military, a day after reports emerged of a recent phone call between Kohavi and Netanyahu in which the military commander expressed concerns over coalition legislation that alters military authority.

Smotrich cited Ynet reporter Yossi Yehoshua, who claimed that Kohavi is likely eyeing a political career in the future, and said he was seeking to add to his resume a proven willingness to stand up to Netanyahu.

“Yossi Yehoshua is telling the truth about the blatant politicization Kohavi is introducing into the IDF,” tweeted Smotrich.

The MK added that “anyone who wants to preserve a united IDF as the military of the people, within the consensus and outside of politics, should pass legislation mandating at least a 10-year cooling-off period for chiefs of staff.”

Smotrich’s comments came hours after news broke that Kohavi had initiated a conversation with Netanyahu over concerns about “possible legislation related to the IDF,” which the military confirmed.

The IDF said that Netanyahu and Kohavi agreed “that decisions that are tied to the IDF will be made only after the IDF presents the consequences and significance of such decisions.”

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at Ben Gurion University, November 30, 2022. (Dani Machlis/BGU)

The call last week — between the IDF chief and a man who is not yet prime minister — represents a rare instance of a military chief wading directly into political machinations, underlining the alarm in a number of Israeli institutions regarding reforms planned by Netanyahu and his coalition partners when they take power.

These include a plan to provide Smotrich with a new independent office as a minister within the Defense Ministry to oversee civil affairs in areas of the West Bank fully controlled by Israel, known as Area C; and plans for Ben Gvir to take control of the West Bank Border Police as part of his promised expanded role as minister in charge of police. The unit is currently subordinate to the army and Defense Ministry.

Gantz has defended Kohavi and slammed Smotrich for his comments.

“Someone who wants to preserve a united IDF would not legislate a draft-dodging bill and would not break up the IDF into subordinate bodies,” Gantz tweeted, also referencing the incoming coalition’s promises to pass laws exempting ultra-Orthodox Israelis from enlistment.

Religious Zionist party leader Bezalel Smotrich after coalition talks with Shas’s Aryeh Deri and Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem, December 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz said he offers his full support to Kohavi, “who has an obligation to state his professional opinion against steps that will harm security and the functioning of the IDF.” He also accused Smotrich of trying to silence the current and incoming chiefs of staff with “threats.”

Kohavi is slated to end his tenure as IDF chief on January 17, when he will be replaced by Herzi Halevi.

Kohavi has not announced any plans for his post-military life, after spending 40 years serving in the IDF.

In recent weeks, Kohavi has made several comments warning against efforts to politicize the IDF or subvert its authority.

Last month, the IDF chief said that political interference in military decisions was “unacceptable,” after a political outcry, including by Ben Gvir, over a soldier who was sentenced to 10 days in military prison for taunting left-wing activists.

“We will not allow any politician, neither from the right nor from the left, to interfere in command decisions and use the army to promote a political agenda,” Kohavi said at the time. “Political interference in the IDF directly harms the army’s ability to carry out its tasks, and its legitimacy.”

And last week, reacting to a settler leader who called the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit “extreme left,” Kohavi warned against an “ugly campaign that must stop immediately.”

He added that the military “is an apolitical army of the people, operating… without bias or a political agenda.”

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