Gantz: IDF chief obligated to share his professional opinion

Smotrich accuses IDF chief of politicization after he warns against coalition plans

Kohavi spoke to Netanyahu about bills that impact IDF chain of command; Religious Zionism leader suggests he’s aiming for political career, urges 10-year cooling-off period

Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich after coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem, December 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich after coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem, December 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich assailed IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi Tuesday, accusing him of attempting to politicize the military.

His comments came a day after reports emerged of a recent phone call between Kohavi, who is set to end his term next month, and incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which the former 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.”

Currently, senior IDF officials must wait three years between completing their service and entering politics.

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.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at Ben Gurion University, November 30, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

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.”

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 far-right Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar 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.

Outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz — a former IDF chief himself — 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 tweets, also refencing the incoming coalition’s promises to pass laws exempting ultra-Orthodox Israelis from enlistment.

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.

Incoming IDF chief of staff Maj. Gen Herzi Halevi (left) with outgoing IDF chief Aviv Kohavi (right), in a photo published October 23, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Outgoing Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, who nominated Kohavi for the post when he served as defense minister under Netanyahu, praised the IDF chief of staff for his professional behavior.

Kohavi is “a high-caliber commander, devoid of any political considerations — a man who has dedicated his entire life to the security of Israel, working night and day for the success of the IDF and the nation,” Liberman said.

Ben Gvir, meanwhile, offered his support for Smotrich and backed his proposal to lengthen the current cooling-off period.

“In recent years we have seen a parade of IDF chiefs rushing into politics after a short cooling-off period,” said Ben Gvir. That short gap between serving in the IDF and the Knesset “leads to a feeling in the public that there is politicization in the IDF, and that there is a real concern that an IDF chief who aspires to join politics will attempt to score points with the public to help him politically.”

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

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, Gadi Eisenkot, Gabi Ashkenazi, Moshe Ya’alon, Ehud Barak, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Shaul Mofaz all doing so to varying degrees of success.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz (R) and party MKs Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi at a faction meeting in Tel Aviv on January 8, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

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.”

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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