The other Army of God: Israel’s Orthodox infiltrate military

Friday 19/06/2015
Israeli soldiers of the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox battalion “Netzah Yehuda” hold morning prayers.

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.