According to the local media, Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right allies’ plan to restructure the military has triggered some in the Israeli army to question how it might impact its chain of command.
Israel’s right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as the prime minister of the most extremist-dominated government in the country’s history, which raised eyebrows not only in Western capitals but also the headquarters of the Israeli army.
In a recent “harsh” call to Netanyahu, which was leaked to the Israeli media, the Israeli army's Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi conveyed his concerns to the then-prime minister-designate with regard to his far-right allies’ plans to restructure the military.
“The agreed-upon changes break the chain of command and undermine the sovereignty of the general of the Central Command General and the responsibility of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] in [the West Bank],” Israel's top general told Netanyahu in reference to his government’s changes affecting the administration of the defence ministry and police forces.
Among others, two critical changes which Netanyahu accepted to appease his extremist allies have appeared to concern the military most. The first is related to how the occupied West Bank will be overseen by the Israeli army, and the second adjustment will affect the functions of Israeli police forces in the Palestinian enclave.
With the first change, the Netanyahu government has created a new post within the defence ministry to run Israel’s so-called Civil Administration in the West Bank, which involves appointing generals to lead the office of Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories, a hybrid civil-military structure.
But strangely, this new department will be under the control of Israel’s new Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism party, one of Israel’s most extremist parties. Smotrich, who unsuccessfully lobbied to be the defence minister under Netanyahu’s new government, has long been an illegal settler living with his family in the occupied West Bank.
The second change will award the West Bank Border Police — which had been under the army and the defence ministry — to another extremist Netanyahu ally, Itamar Ben Gvir, who leads the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power). Ben Gvir, another illegal settler, is now Israel’s national security minister running the country’s police force with unprecedented authority.
Breaking chain of command
Kochavi and his allies strongly believe both changes will potentially damage the military’s chain of command, dividing its authorities among different ministries under the country’s far-right leadership.
These structural upheavals are coming in the form of “concessions” to far-right groups due to Netanyahu’s political constraints and “caused the army to react” says Yoram Schweitzer, a former member of the Israeli intelligence community who now heads the Program on Terrorism and Low-Intensity Conflict at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).
Netanyahu’s changes have already triggered anger in the military establishment. Earlier in December, Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of former Israeli senior officers, shared a public letter which warned that the restructuring might provoke “internal divisions and conflict between officers and troops, insubordination, anarchy,” which will ultimately lead to “the disintegration of the IDF as an effective fighting force.”
But the military’s reaction against Netanyahu’s far-right allies’ new authorities over the army does not mean that political and military establishments will clash with each other, according to Schweitzer, whose institute hosted Kochavi last week. The top general did not talk about his call to Netanyahu during his program at the INSS, an Israeli think-tank, Schweitzer tells TRT World.
In many countries, if any army issues a warning to political leadership, it usually means that the military might intervene in the governance system. But Israel is a democratic state, says Schweitzer, assuring that there will be “no military coup and no violent processes” because the army will refrain from interfering in internal matters.
Despite its extreme concerns and obvious protests in regard to the new government’s changes in the chain of command, the army “will obey” the restructuring of the military and “try to navigate” its own way through these dire straits, says Schweitzer.
But he argues that the new government’s structural changes should concern not only the military but also the Israeli public, including Likud, Netanyahu’s own party. “Netanyahu’s wishes are not aligned with Israeli wellbeing,” Schweitzer says, adding that the changes affecting the army are both “illogical and impossible to implement”.
The belief is that Netanyahu accepted these changes based on his own personal interests. “Hopefully, people in the coalition and Likud party will try to put pressure on Netanyahu to mitigate or minimise changes [on the army restructuring],” says Schweitzer.
While some analysts suggested that Kochavi’s call to Netanyahu might also be related to his political aspirations because he will resign next month, Schweitzer does not think that could be the case. In Israel, prominent political leaders like Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir also came from military backgrounds.
How changes will affect Palestinians
While there is much debate inside Israeli political and military circles on Netanyahu’s army restructuring, these changes will bring more deadly results for Palestinians than Israelis, says Antony Loewenstein, an independent journalist and author of the forthcoming book, The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World.
The hardliner Netanyahu government will facilitate “even greater ideological and practical cover for the pro-settler arm of the Israeli military,” Loewenstein tells TRT World, referring to an ongoing struggle inside the Israeli army between far-right groups and centrists to dominate the military’s top brass.
According to some observers, the army’s top leadership dominated by centrists embraces a more moderate stance toward the Palestinian conflict than many lower-ranked officers and soldiers, who tend to subscribe to many views of extremist parties like Smotrich’s Religious Zionism and Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power. Both parties strongly oppose Palestinian statehood.
As a result, both leaders have long aimed to control political posts in relation to occupied areas to increase their influence inside the Israeli state, empowering the pro-settler army faction. “The time has come for a government that supports its soldiers and allows them to act,” said Ben Gvir after a recent incident in Hebron, showing his support for freer open-fire regulations for the Israeli army.
“A sizable proportion of the Israeli military voted for the far-right at the recent election and these are the soldiers patrolling and enforcing the occupation across the West Bank,” says Loewenstein.
But Loewenstein does not think that the outgoing Israeli government, which many analysts found more moderate than the current one, was “more generous” to Palestinians. The data also proves Loewenstein’s point, showing 2022 as the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank in over 15 years under the Naftali Bennett-led and Yair Lapid’s caretaker government.
“However, the far-right will soon be in complete control of the Israeli military and this will inevitably result in more Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians across the [occupied] West Bank and [occupied] East Jerusalem,” says Loewenstein, adding that the existing awful situation will “only worsen” as Israel will move “to embrace a theocratic future”.
“Whatever tensions may develop between the army and the Netanyahu government are surely less important than what Palestinians must face every day under an Israeli state that views them as an inconvenience, at best."