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First Test for Israel’s New Defense Chiefs: Restraining Far-right Leaders Before Ramadan

The West Bank is on the verge of an explosion – and the dramatic increase in terror attacks and shootings attests to that. With Ramadan and Passover approaching, even the smallest incident could set it all ablaze

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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The new IDF Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi, this week.
The new IDF Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi, this week.Credit: Oren Ben Hakoon
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

March 22 is set to be a challenging date for Israel. Not only is it the start of the month of Ramadan, which always places the defense establishment on the alert, but this year will be particularly tense due to two factors.

First, the Muslim holiday falls during Passover; at the same time, the Israeli leadership now includes inexperienced provocateurs who are determined to change the status quo on the Temple Mount (ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir) and those who are new to their positions (Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, IDF Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi, Shin Bet security services chief Ronen Bar).

All of this, combined with the security and political situation vis-à-vis the Palestinians, means an increased potential for conflict. One former chief of staff, MK Gadi Eisenkot, also predicts that there is a great likelihood of a conflagration in the Palestinian arena in the coming months, and any incident, no matter how marginal, is likely to ignite it.

From left: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Miniter Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi, this week.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky

Tuesday presented a good example of such an incident, when policemen delayed the entry of the Jordanian ambassador to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and demanded that he coordinate the visit with Israel. The ambassador left in protest and returned to the site two-and-a-half hours later. Jordan summoned the Israeli ambassador in Amman and criticized the incident.

Even without the perpetual sensitivities of the Temple Mount, the West Bank is on the verge of an explosion. The blame lies in both the disintegration of the Palestinian Authority and in Israeli policy. On Tuesday, for the second time within a week, a gunman opened fire on an Israeli bus in the Hebron area. In both cases, the terrorist was a member of the Palestinian security services.

Overall, 2022 saw 285 incidents of shooting at Israeli vehicles, checkpoints and guard posts – a massive, 400 percent increase from 2021’s numbers. There was an increase of about 25 percent within a year in terror attacks, and a significant increase in the number of Israelis killed, jumping from 18 to 29.

Achieving coordination among the defense establishment sextet – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the five abovementioned men – won’t be easy. Smotrich, who is serving as a minister in the Defense Ministry, and Ben-Gvir, as the national security minister, are bringing stark political agendas and inflated egos to their roles.

Those who will have to stand in the breach and demonstrate strong statesmanship and professionalism are Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar and the new IDF Chief Herzl Halevi. The latter, according to generals who served alongside him, understands the gravity and complexity of the situation in which he finds himself, the unraveling ties between the army and society and the danger posed to Israeli democracy.

Itamar Ben-Gvir's visit to Temple Mount, earlier this month.Credit: Courtesy Minhelet Har Habayit

Halevi is known for adhering to his principles and for his stubbornness. We can assume that he will make every effort to preserve the ethos of “the people’s army,” and will attempt to repel attempts at political intervention in the Israel Defense Forces.

But he is up against the massive appetite of the hardalim – ultra-Orthodox Zionists – and the settlers. Just a week ago, the Association of Hesder Yeshivot (institutions which combine Torah studies with IDF service) informed the Israel Navy that it would stop its students from being drafted to patrol ships at its Ashdod base.

That role, the association explained, is assigned to women as well, which would “make it difficult for religious soldiers to serve in the system.” Halevi cannot capitulate. He must tell them: “Don’t do us any favors. We’ll respect the decision of students who refuse to be drafted to the position.”

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Two additional, rapidly approaching tests await Halevy, concerning the appointments of the next chief IDF chaplain and the next head of the Civil Administration. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant held a preliminary discussion on this issue with the participation of Smotrich and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) Brig. Gen. Ghassan Elian.

They decided to form teams to formulate a mutually agreeable plan to bridge the political aspirations of Smotrich and the security situation. Galant has already laid out the boundaries of his power to the Religious Zionism chairman, as if to say: Sending in the tractors for West Bank home demolitions is in my purview, as well.

The Civil Administration, headed today by Brig. Gen. Fares Atila, is a military organization subordinate to COGAT, and is responsible for civilian (non-military) activity in all the areas of the West Bank in which Israel has not imposed its own administration and judicial system.

The assumption is that Smotrich is likely to exploit the few past precedents and to appoint a civilian to the role who will be loyal to him. Gallant, for his part, has already explained on several occasions that the chain of military command is clear, and that IDF officers, including the chief military rabbi, will be appointed only by the chief of staff, subject to the decision of the defense minister.

Israel's Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, arriving to Arye Dery's home.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Gallant intends not to let Smotrich gain a foothold in this issue, either. But at the same time, the defense minister is also a politician, and he knows that he will have to compromise. To what extent? That’s already another question. He is banking on the fact that Smotrich, who has settled into the Tel Aviv Defense Ministry headquarters office once used by deputy defense ministers, will usually have his hands full in his role as finance minister.

Whether he is properly assessing Smotrich’s ambition is dubious. At the moment, he can at least take solace in the fact that Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, has yet to speak to him about his demand to subordinate the Border Police in the West Bank to his authority. That probably won’t happen. Ben-Gvir will likely have to be satisfied with moving military units to areas within the Green Line, apparently to the Negev. In such a case, the IDF will have to send additional brigades of active duty soldiers and reservists to police the territories.

The person who is supposed to be managing this mess is Netanyahu, who is, of course, well aware of the chain reaction that Ramadan may bring. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan arrived in Israel on Wednesday, to be followed by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Netanyahu and his aides will certainly claim that the purpose of these visits is to discuss the Iranian nuclear program. But the truth is that the two are coming mainly with a message for Israel: “Watch out, there’s a limit, and if you cross it, we won’t be able to support you.” Netanyahu understands that, too.

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