Israel’s departing army chief rebukes far-right government

Aviv Kochavi says coalition's plans could 'lead to a worse situation for all populations'

Lt Gen Aviv Kochavi believes his government's plans will 'adversely affect our preparedness for war'. AFP
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Israel’s departing army chief on Friday warned against plans by Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition to grant more control to pro-settler politicians and make other changes to the Israeli security establishment, joining a chorus of criticism against the most right-wing government in the country’s history.

In several interviews with Israeli news outlets just days before he steps down, Lt Gen Aviv Kochavi took unusually sharp aim at Mr Netanyahu’s coalition agreements with hard-line Jewish settler activists who seek to entrench Israeli rule in the occupied West Bank, restructure the defence ministry and control a special paramilitary police unit.

“This is likely to cause damage and adversely affect our preparedness for war,” Gen Kochavi told the Israeli news site Ynet.

While the coalition deals have sparked furore from many segments of Israeli society, Gen Kochavi’s worries have deep significance. Among Jewish Israelis, the military is considered an emblem of stability and one of the country’s most trusted institutions.

Gen Kochavi expressed particular concern about the coalition’s plans to create three separate sources of authority in the West Bank. Mr Netanyahu gave his right-wing finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, control over an Israeli military body that regulates planning for Israeli settlements and Palestinian construction in parts of the West Bank where Israel maintains civilian control.

Mr Smotrich is an advocate of the outright annexation of parts of the West Bank that the Palestinians want for an independent state.

“There cannot be two commanding authorities [in the West Bank],” Gen Kochavi said. “The separation between us is not good and may cause damage and lead to a worse situation for all populations.”

Israel captured the West Bank in 1967 along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem — territory the Palestinians seek for a future state. Israel has established dozens of Jewish settlements home to about 500,000 Israelis who live alongside about 2.5 million Palestinians. Most of the international community considers Israel’s West Bank settlements illegal and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.

Another move that Gen Kochavi fears could undermine the army’s chain of command in the West Bank stems from Mr Netanyahu’s agreement with Itamar Ben-Gvir, a right-wing politician whose views were so extreme that the army banned him from compulsory military service.

As national security minister, Ben-Gvir now oversees the paramilitary border police, which, until now, has worked under the Israeli military in the occupied West Bank.

“The work that the border police is doing in Judea and Samaria is excellent and I hope that the situation remains just as it is today. The chain of authority must be maintained,” Gen Kochavi said, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name.

In other interviews, Gen Kochavi said he called Mr Netanyahu twice to warn him about the far-reaching consequences of the coalition’s moves for the cohesion of the defence establishment.

Mr Netanyahu has sought to assure the public — as well as the US and Israel’s European and Arab allies — that he has veto power over any changes that the far-right ministers make. But critics say he has so far failed to restrain his coalition partners.

After serving nearly four years as chief of staff, Gen Kochavi is preparing to hand over the reins to Maj Gen Herzi Halevi next week.

Updated: January 13, 2023, 6:10 PM