Israel Defense Forces chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi hit back on Monday at criticism by right-wing activists after a controversial officer was not promoted during a recent shuffle in the military’s top brass.
“The selection of commanders in the IDF — standing and reserves — is made with pure professional considerations, and there are no other considerations,” Halevi said at an event in Tel Aviv honoring outstanding reservists.
Last week, the IDF announced a series of appointments in the General Staff, a forum of senior commanders responsible for the various branches and departments of the military. One officer, Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter, was passed over for promotion yet again, and was reportedly expected to retire from the military.
Winter came under considerable criticism during the 2014 Gaza war for comments he made at the time that framed the operation as a religious fight, for allegedly passing information to politicians without proper approval, and for his actions during the highly controversial “Black Friday” battle in Rafah.
Since the war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, Winter’s career has somewhat stagnated, despite him previously having shown significant promise for advancement to the upper echelons of the IDF.
Winter is often held up as a shining example of the national-religious community. Right-wing activists have repeatedly called for him to be promoted in the military, and expressed outrage following the announcement of the latest promotions that did not include Winter.
“It is not the color of the beret, not a group of friends, not religious beliefs, but only the best and the most suitable for the position,” Halevi said.
“Decisions on appointments in the IDF are made by those who are responsible for them. Any attempt at external intervention or introducing foreign considerations into this process is unacceptable and even dangerous,” he continued.
“It is good that we get to choose from very good ones, it is our duty to choose the most suitable ones,” Halevi added.
Winter was promoted from colonel to brigadier general in 2015 and was made chief of staff for the Central Command. In 2017, he was appointed military secretary to then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman, and only in 2019 was he given command over a division. Winter served as head of the Central Command’s 98th Division until September 2022, and has been without a role since.
In the army’s normal trajectory for promotion, Winter would have been on track to take command of a division in 2018, but he was passed over for promotion by then-IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot.
Winter came under criticism during Protective Edge, when he served as commander of the Givati Brigade, for a letter to his subordinate officers in which he described the operation as a religious war against a “blasphemous” foe.
In media interviews, the officer also described his troops as being protected in battle by “clouds of glory,” raising concerns among religious freedom activists that Winter was “theocratizing” the military.
The former Givati Brigade commander was also later accused of passing along sensitive information about the war effort to then-economy minister Naftali Bennett, bypassing the usual chain of command.
He commanded the forces in the bloody “Black Friday” battle in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza on August 1, 2014. The fighting there became a central issue in a United Nations report on the war, with accusations that war crimes had been committed. In its own investigation, the Israeli military identified failures in how the battle was waged, but no criminal acts.
At the event on Monday, Halevi also hailed members of the reserve army for being “exemplary citizens” as some reservists have been berated in recent months for protesting against the government’s highly controversial judicial overhaul plans.
“Since its establishment, the IDF has relied on reserve personnel, the unique ‘people’s army’ model, there is no other like it in the world,” Halevi said.
“The right and duty to carry out the task of reserves are shared by a handful in Israeli society, whose experience and competence make them necessary for the security of the state,” he said.
Halevi said the reservists “aren’t suckers” but rather “exemplary citizens.”
The IDF chief of staff said “commanders at all levels understand very well that the spirit of volunteerism of the reserve officers and their willingness to serve is essential in facing the many and complex threats and challenges in all arenas: from distant Iran, through its branches along the northern and southern borders, to the Palestinian terrorism.”
“Faced with this security reality, we need you, the reserve members. Today, more than ever,” Halevi continued.
But Halevi said that “at the same time, and in order to preserve this wonder… it is also necessary to say in a loud and clear voice: it is forbidden to use reserve service for purposes other than security.”
“Show up and serve to defend the country, without reservations and without conditions,” he added.
Many IDF reservists — who are a key part of the army’s routine activities, including in top units — warned that they would not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which some charge the country will become under the government’s judicial overhaul plans.
Soldiers have expressed concern that a lack of international trust in the independence of Israel’s judiciary could expose them to prosecution in international tribunals over actions they were ordered to carry out during service.