Basic Law: The Military says only defense minister in charge

Kohavi said to tell Netanyahu IDF won’t answer in any way to Smotrich and Ben Gvir

Coalition deals that give the Religious Zionism leader authority over COGAT, and Otzma Yehudit head partial control of Border Police, breach chain of command, outgoing CoS insists

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi during an event honoring outstanding IDF reservists, at the President's residence in Jerusalem on July 1, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi during an event honoring outstanding IDF reservists, at the President's residence in Jerusalem on July 1, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Outgoing military chief of staff Aviv Kohavi has reportedly told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and other senior coalition politicians that the Israel Defense Forces will not be answerable in any way to ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, even though the two far-right leaders have been given ministerial responsibility for some aspects of the IDF as part of their coalition agreements.

Kohavi regards the handing of IDF-related responsibilities to any minister other than the defense minister as an unacceptable breach of the IDF chain of command, and is determined to ensure that the military does not allow it to happen, Channel 12 news reported Thursday evening.

It is understood, indeed, that Kohavi regards any requirement for the chief of staff to report to anyone other than the defense minister as a breach of the quasi-constitutional Basic Law: The Military, whose Clause 2 (b) specifies: “The Minister in charge of the army on behalf of the Government is the Minister of Defense.”

“The chief of staff will not work with any additional minister, under any circumstances, other than the defense minister,” Channel 12 news quoted Kohavi telling Netanyahu and others in recent days.

“If control of the Border Police is transferred out of the IDF’s command in Judea and Samaria, and out of the command of the blue [national] police [inside Israel], we will deploy soldiers and reservists [rather than the Border Police],” he reportedly added. “Forces operating together will not have two commanders.”

Kohavi, who steps down as IDF chief on January 16 and hands over to Herzi Halevi, spoke by telephone two weeks ago with Netanyahu to express concern about coalition deals that provide for Religious Zionism leader Smotrich, who is now both the finance minister and a sort of junior minister in the Defense Ministry, and Otzma Yehudit leader Ben Gvir, the new minister of national security, to gain new powers that would impact the IDF.

Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich with Otzma Yehudit party head MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset, on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Specifically, Smotrich’s role as a minister within the Defense Ministry ostensibly allows him to appoint the generals leading the hybrid civil-military Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories and its office overseeing many settlement issues, the Civil Administration, subject to Netanyahu’s approval.

Currently, the major general in charge of COGAT is appointed by the defense minister at the recommendation of the IDF chief of staff, and the brigadier general overseeing the Civil Administration is appointed by the IDF chief of staff.

Ben Gvir, meanwhile, was awarded control of the West Bank Border Police as part of his expanded role as minister in charge of police. The unit is currently subordinate to the army and Defense Ministry. His coalition deal also specified that he would be given direct control over the entire Border Police.

After news of their phone call was leaked, an IDF spokesman said Netanyahu and Kohavi had agreed “that decisions that are tied to the IDF will be made only after the IDF presents the consequences and significance of such decisions.”

Kohavi’s reported further remarks to Netanyahu would suggest that he remains concerned by the new ministerial arrangements, and is determined to resist them — both by opposing them in principle and by taking steps to ensure they are not put into practical effect.

The TV report said Netanyahu and Gallant both encouraged Kohavi to “calm down” and assured him that he and his successor Halevi would be able to present their concerns before the cabinet, and that decisions would be taken only after that.

Earlier Thursday, Netanyahu convened the first meeting of the key decision-making, 11-minister security cabinet, which includes Gallant, Smotrich and Ben Gvir.

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