JERUSALEM/JEDDAH: The head of the Israeli army left office on Friday with a parting blast at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for ceding control of the country to a group of far-right extremists.
Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi joined a chorus of criticism that has erupted since Netanyahu was forced into a governing coalition with some of Israel’s most militant settler activists, one of whom — Itamar Ben-Gvir, the new security minister — has a criminal record for anti-Palestinian hate speech and supporting a Zionist terror group.
Centrist and moderate politicians in Israel refuse to work with Netanyahu while he is on trial for corruption, leaving him to govern with the most far-right administration in the country’s history.
Kochavi took aim on Friday at plans by settler activists to entrench Israeli rule in the occupied West Bank, restructure the Defense Ministry and control a special paramilitary police unit, which he said were a distraction from Israel’s main military challenge of confronting Iran. “This is likely to cause damage and adversely affect our preparedness for war,” Kochavi said.
The general expressed particular concern about the coalition’s plans to create three separate sources of authority in the occupied West Bank.
Netanyahu has given 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.
Smotrich is an ultranationalist who wants to annex almost all of the West Bank, believes mothers should be segregated by religion in Israeli maternity wards, and has said Israel’s founders “made a mistake” by not expelling more Arabs.
Kochavi said effectively making Smotrich “prime minister of the West Bank” was unwise.
“There cannot be two commanding authorities in the West Bank,” he said. “The separation between us is not good and may cause damage and lead to a worse situation for all populations.”
Another move that Kochavi fears could undermine security in the West Bank stems from Netanyahu’s agreement with Ben-Gvir, whose his views are 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 are doing … is excellent and I hope that the situation remains just as it is today. The chain of authority must be maintained,” Kochavi said.
After nearly four years as chief of staff, Kochavi will hand over next week to Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi. His criticism of Netanyahu came a day after hundreds of lawyers protested in Tel Aviv over government plans to take more political control over the judiciary.
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.
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 constructed dozens of Jewish settlements home to around 500,000 Israelis who live alongside around 2.5 million Palestinians. Most of the international community considers Israel’s West Bank settlements illegal and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.