The other Army of God: Israel’s Orthodox infiltrate military
Beirut - Major-General Gadi Eizenkot, the creator of the so-called Dahiya doctrine, which espouses indiscriminate attacks on Lebanese civilians aimed at deterring Hezbollah, was sworn in as chief of the general staff of Israel’s armed forces on February 16th.
That was the good news. In the run-up to the selection of the Jewish state’s top soldier, political insiders said that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a right-wing hardliner, favoured a former deputy chief of staff, retired Major-General Yair Naveh.
Naveh, an Orthodox Jew, may not have become chief of staff, the commander who determines the fighting efficiency of Israel’s military — the most powerful in the Middle East. But his fellow Orthodox are systematically taking command positions throughout the military and intelligence services, which since 1948 have largely been dominated by the secular Labour-leaning kibbutz generation.
Indeed, the developments reflect the extent to which the right wing has eclipsed the Labour-led left, changing the face of Israel and its worldview, something that could have dangerous consequences in a region undergoing potentially cataclysmic changes.
“This is no longer Israel,” historian Benny Morris lamented recently. “A profound internal, existential crisis has arrived.”
Left unchecked, the steady Orthodox infiltration of the military, rank-and-file as well as the officer corps and especially elite combat units, may well ensure that no Israeli political leader will ever be able to return to the Palestinians the land conquered in 1967, and that more wars over Palestine lie ahead.
Naveh became deputy chief of staff in October 2010, the first Orthodox Jew to reach the military’s top echelon. He’s identified with the political right. Like Netanyahu, it advocates strong military action against Iran’s nuclear programme, a strategy that has put Netanyahu at odds with his military and intelligence chiefs, as well as the United States.
In 2006, when Naveh was head of the Central Command, which covers the occupied West Bank, he was challenged by junior officers over an assassination order he issued that they said violated Supreme Court guidelines.
In early 2011, the court ruled that Naveh was unfit to lead the army, even temporarily, when it was proposed he take over as interim chief of staff after a scandal-plagued contest eliminated the main contenders.
When the next change of command came in November, Netanyahu, who’s not supposed to be involved in such military matters, had to accept Eizenkot because the generals warned the prime minister he faced “an earthquake” within the army if the popular commander of the elite Givati Brigade was not appointed.
Had Naveh become the first Orthodox chief of staff, that would have meant two of the three top security posts in Israel were held by Orthodox Jews, the other being Yoram Cohen, director of the General Security Service, known as Shin Bet.
Political insiders say Cohen got the job because of intense pressure from the ultra-right religious settler movement, which refuses to surrender the West Bank.
Cohen’s chief of staff, Roni Alsheikh, is also fervently Orthodox and seen by some as his successor.
Security expert Richard Silverstein says the leadership of Israel’s security agencies “are, almost without exception, Orthodox nationalists. In some cases they’ve been settlers themselves.”
Amir Oren, an influential columnist and security specialist with the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz, observed: “The situation in Shin Bet …is worst of all, with three out its four senior officials coming from a religious background and radiating sympathy for a worldview that opposes diplomatic compromise that would involve the evacuation of settlements.
“Shin Bet’s leaders are recruiting and promoting in their own image and mid-level managers therefore see this as a model to emulate.”
The head of the foreign intelligence service, the Mossad, is a secular Jew, Tamir Pardo. He’s in the fifth year of an extended term and is expected to step down in the next few months, largely because he doesn’t get along with Netanyahu.
The leading candidate to replace him is another Orthodox, Yossi Cohen, a 30-year Mossad veteran who once ran spies across the Middle East. He served as national security adviser to Netanyahu, who appointed him head of Israel’s National Security Council in 2013.
Much of the army’s officer corps — up to 50% by some estimates — consists of men from hard-line religious groups.
Some army units, including key combat units in West Bank settlements, are almost entirely made up of religious soldiers.
With young secular Israelis less inclined to do military service, religious-nationalist schools are sending growing numbers of young people into the military. Many answer to extremist rabbis.
In 2009, the liberal Haaretz daily reported that the army rabbinate under its radical chief, General Avichai Rontzki, a hard-line settler with links to far-right extremists, had effectively taken over the role of the military’s Education Corps.
The Orthodox right’s influence in the military has reached such proportions that Israelis fear this deepening national split imperils the Jewish state itself, particularly if soldiers refuse orders to remove settlements to make way for a Palestinian state.