IDF spokesman nominee withdraws candidacy amid hubbub over role in graft probe

IDF spokesman nominee withdraws candidacy amid hubbub over role in graft probe

In a letter, Gil Messing says he doesn’t want controversy surrounding his 2015 actions in fulfillment of his civic duty to damage the army’s reputation

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Gil Messing, who was tapped to take over as IDF spokesperson, in an undated photograph. (Sigal Naftali Kessel/Israel Defense Forces)
Gil Messing, who was tapped to take over as IDF spokesperson, in an undated photograph. (Sigal Naftali Kessel/Israel Defense Forces)

Gil Messing withdrew his candidacy for the position of military spokesman on Sunday, following controversy that erupted last month after it came to light that he had acted as a police agent in the Yisrael Beytenu corruption investigation in 2015.

Messing was not a suspect in the investigation, nor was he accused of any wrongdoing. During the probe, he recorded a friend and colleague, Moshe Ronen, who was a suspect in the case, which led to a conviction.

Messing, 35, said he worked on behalf of the police out of a sense of civic duty. The State’s Attorney’s Office said his assistance in the case “deserves appreciation.”

Yet, when the Haaretz newspaper broke the news of his previously unknown role in the graft probe, his already controversial appointment for the sensitive, high-profile position was quickly called into question.

Beyond his youth and relative lack of military experience, Messing, who is close to IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, was already a controversial choice for the position, as he has an indisputably political background, having worked as a spokesman for former foreign minister Tzipi Livni for several years. In general, the military looks to avoid even the appearance of partisanship.

The military had announced on April 29 that Messing had been tapped to succeed Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis as spokesperson. The nomination was approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also serves as defense minister. The following evening, Haaretz revealed Messing’s role in the police probe in 2015.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman presents his right-wing party’s candidates for the upcoming Knesset elections, during an event in Ashkelon on February 19, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A day later, the Ynet news site reported that Messing had also surreptitiously recorded a number of other officials in the investigation against the Yisrael Beytenu party, including its head, then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, who is now seen as a potential candidate for defense minister and who could thus have become Messing’s superior. No evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Liberman was found in the probe.

On Sunday, Messing sent a letter to Kohavi saying he no longer wanted to be considered for the position of spokesperson so that his personal history is “not used as a battering ram against the chief of staff or the IDF.”

In his missive, Messing said that immediately after his nomination was announced, “a witch hunt began, full of lies and manipulations, that tried to tarnish my name and motivations. I could not, and will not, stand idly by as these efforts are directed against me, my family, the chief of staff and the institution of the IDF spokesperson, only because I agreed to accept a civil post.”

In a statement, Kohavi said he “sadly” accepted Messing’s decision to revoke his candidacy.

“The chief of staff stressed that assisting law enforcement and the institutions of the state are among the civic responsibilities that citizens of Israel have,” the army said.

In his letter, Messing said that despite the personal price he is paying for his role in the Yisrael Beytenu corruption investigation, he still believes that “law abiding citizens ought to assist law enforcement for no other benefit than the good of the public.”

Kohavi had not known of Messing’s involvement in the investigation prior to the Haaretz report.

New IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi receives his epaulets by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Yael, during a handover ceremony on January 15, 2019, at the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The three-year investigation centered around Yisrael Beytenu, known as Case 242, is one of the most far-reaching public corruption cases in Israel’s history. The sprawling investigation revealed allegations of a widespread kickback scheme involving national and local politicians, as well as non-governmental organizations and private firms.

It became public in December 2014 with the arrest of 36 serving and former officials. The arrests came about four months before the 2015 election, which saw Yisrael Beytenu shrink to six seats, leading to accusations by party officials that it amounted to a political witch hunt.

The most prominent public official to be felled by the probe was former tourism minister and Yisrael Beytenu lawmaker Stas Misezhnikov, who began serving a 15-month prison term in October after he was convicted of attempting to secure employment for his romantic partner in 2012 by funding a student festival in Eilat using ministry funds.

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