Concern Grows in Israel’s Military as Netanyahu Nears Coalition Deal

JERUSALEM — When a serving Israeli soldier expressed his approval last month of a far-right politician who is set to become a minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s likely new coalition government, it set off a national furor.

The politician, Itamar Ben-Gvir, was deemed too extremist to serve in the army himself. Until 2020, he displayed in his home a portrait of a Jewish gunman who in 1994 shot dead 29 Palestinians inside a mosque.

The Israeli military’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, quickly released a rare public letter warning soldiers against getting involved in politics, while the soldier was sent to military jail for several days.

“Soldiers are prohibited from expressing political views,” General Kochavi wrote. “They are certainly prohibited from behaving and acting out of political inclination,” he added.

The episode was just one of several recent incidents that have threatened the cohesion of an institution, the Israel Defense Forces, that has historically been viewed by Jewish Israelis as an emblem of stability and unity.

To Palestinians, the military is the face of Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza, raids on West Bank cities and two-tier legal system in the territory that some critics liken to a form of apartheid, a claim denied by Israel.

But among Jewish Israelis, the military is among the country’s most trusted institutions, a melting pot in which most of them serve for three years of conscription, shoring up the country against an unusually high range of security threats from across the Middle East.

Now, leading members of the Israeli security establishment fear that image and role is under threat. A significant proportion of rank-and-file soldiers voted for the far right in last month’s general election — mirroring a wider shift in the country at large, but increasing the likelihood of friction between low-ranking soldiers and their commanders.

Israeli soldiers participating in a military exercise in the Golan Heights this month. Among Jewish Israelis, the military is among the country’s most trusted institutions.Credit…Jalaa Marey/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Of voters who cast ballots away from home in a general election last month, most of whom were likely to be serving soldiers, more than 15 percent voted for the far right, according to an analysis by Ofer Kenig of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group. That was about 50 percent higher than in the wider population.

In a public letter to Mr. Netanyahu last week, a group of more than 400 former senior officers, Commanders for Israel’s Security, warned that recent events could “end in internal divisions and conflict between officers and troops, insubordination, anarchy and ultimately, the disintegration of the I.D.F. as an effective fighting force.”

What to Know About Israel’s Latest Election

The country held its fifth election in less than four years on Nov. 1.

  • Netanyahu’s Return: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s opposition leader, is set to return to power with a new, far-right coalition that will once again make him prime minister.  But several issues, including his cabinet choices, have complicated the forming of a government.
  • The Far Right’s Rise: To win the election, Mr. Netanyahu and his far-right allies harnessed perceived threats to Israel’s Jewish identity.
  • What’s Next for the Left?: After a near wipeout, the leaders of Israel’s left-leaning parties say they need to change — but disagree on how.
  • Worries Among Palestinians: To some Palestinians, the rise of Israel’s far right can scarcely make things worse. But many fear a surge of violence.

Mr. Netanyahu did not respond to the former generals’ letter directly and his spokesman declined to comment for this article. But he has said in other interviews that Israel will remain safe under his leadership.

Military strategy is about “deciding on policies that could be quite inflammatory,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a podcast interview last month. “I’m trying to avoid that,” he added.

Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc won an election on Nov. 1 but it has yet to enter office because of internal disagreements over policy and legal obstacles to the appointment of two men earmarked for ministerial positions. On Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu’s alliance voted in a new speaker of Parliament, a move that will allow the bloc to pass new legislation to enable those appointments.

But while he is not yet back in power, Mr. Netanyahu’s preliminary coalition agreements, which risk diluting the military chain of command — and the fallout from the incident last month in the West Bank — have already drawn concerns about the military’s ability to rise above the political maelstrom.

Disparaging comments by far-right politicians about army leadership, and displays of support for the far-right from low-ranking soldiers, have led to rare public comments from the military chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi.Credit…Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Historically, Israel’s military leaders were sometimes portrayed as a moderating force, tempering the most dramatic ideas of civilian leaders — while also cultivating an image of remaining beyond the political fray.

That projection of detachment has always been tested, particularly as generations of generals entered civilian politics soon after leaving military service. Staffed mostly by conscripts, the Israel Defense Forces is often described as a “people’s army,” and the social headwinds that buffet the armed forces have long been a microcosm of those that affect society at large.

The fallout from the incident last month reflected a wider sociocultural schism between Israel’s centrist establishment, which broadly seeks to maintain the current status quo in Israel and the West Bank — and Mr. Netanyahu’s far right allies, who seek sweeping judicial reforms, an even harder stance against Palestinians in the West Bank, and an even stronger sense of Jewish identity within Israel.

Policing asmall protest in Hebron, a West Bank city where there is frequent violence between settlers and Palestinians, the soldier was filmed chastising anti-occupation activists, telling them, “Ben-Gvir will fix things here.”

While centrist and left-leaning Israelis were alarmed, others on the right felt the soldier had done little wrong. To them, the soldier’s punishment also proved the salience of Mr. Ben-Gvir’s campaign rhetoric, which suggested that rank-and-file soldiers needed greater support, including legal immunity.

Palestinians see the Israeli military as far too quick to shoot — Israeli raids in the West Bank have left more than 160 dead this year, according to records kept by The New York Times. But Mr. Ben-Gvir believes the army is too timid.

“The time has come for a government that supports its soldiers and allows them to act,” Mr. Ben-Gvir said after the Hebron incident.

A soldier voting in the Israeli general elections at a military base on Mount Hermon in October.Credit…Jalaa Marey/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The standoff exemplified how Mr. Ben-Gvir and other far right leaders “see themselves as the tribunes of the front line soldiers being hung out to dry by an old-school, defeatist, globalist and ideologically untrustworthy military high command,” said Prof. Yehudah Mirsky, an expert on Israel at Brandeis University.

Pushed to intervene, Mr. Netanyahu took a cautious tone. He avoided criticizing Mr. Ben-Gvir, and instead called on “everyone, right and left” to leave the military out of political debate.

Such standoffs have precedent: In 2016, Gadi Eisenkot, then the chief of staff, washeavily criticized by the Israeli right after condemning a soldier who shot dead an incapacitated Palestinian assailant.

But Mr. Netanyahu’s failure to restrain Mr. Ben-Gvir has left some in the security establishment fearful that soldiers may feel more empowered to take political positions in the future.

“The fact that there are soldiers who do not behave according to the ethos of the I.D.F. and the military chain of command is not new,” said Amos Yadlin, a former head of military intelligence. “The concern is whether the magnitude of the phenomenon will be higher,” he said.

Such fears have been compounded by the agreements that Mr. Netanyahu has made with Mr. Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of another far-right group in the alliance.

A member of Mr. Netanyahu’s party, likely to be Yoav Gallant, a former army general, will remain in overall charge of the defense ministry, scotching Mr. Smotrich’s early hope of taking that job.

But Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition agreement with Mr. Smotrich gave the latter total control of a department within the defense ministry that is staffed by serving soldiers who oversee bureaucratic aspects of the occupation.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, left, and Bezalel Smotrich, at a swearing-in ceremony for the new Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem last month.Credit…Pool photo by Abir Sultan

A separate agreement with Mr. Ben-Gvir would give him control over a special paramilitary police unit that, until now, has worked under the Israeli Army in the West Bank.

Some former generals have downplayed the consequences of these decisions and a few have even argued that Mr. Smotrich and Mr. Ben-Gvir could provide a welcome new approach to Israeli security strategy.

“Both Smotrich and Ben-Gvir can challenge existing thought patterns within the defense establishment and provoke fresh thinking, despite not having served in combat,” said Amir Avivi, a reserve brigadier general and the head of the Israel Defense and Security Forum, a group of former officers.

But many former generals strongly disagree. In interviews with The New York Times, several said that both moves could undermine the army’s chain of command in the West Bank, creating three separate sources of authority instead of only one.

Some also said it could amount to a de facto annexation of parts of the West Bank.

By giving civilians greater involvement in military activity in the territory, the new government might undermine Israel’s longstanding argument that its 55-year occupation is only a temporary military measure, in accordance with international law, instead of a permanent civilian annexation.

“We’re losing our protection in the international courts,” said Ilan Paz, a former general who helped lead the West Bank occupation during the 2000s.

“Israel won’t be able to continue closing her eyes, and the world’s eyes,” Mr. Paz added.

Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting.

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