The Generals’ Letter

Published in “Haaretz” | 1.1.2023


The various legislative initiatives and other coalition arrangements that underpin Israel’s new government — above all the so-called “Smotrich Law” — afford blatantly political actors a chance to interfere in operational security affairs. In practice, these players will now have legal sanction to take action on the West Bank and vis-a-vis the Gaza Strip aimed at reshaping realities in ways that could undermine security and trigger political upheaval and social crises.

These initiatives, oblivious to the complexities of managing security in the territories, reflect a combination of ignorance and lack of professionalism, alongside a religious fervor to annex the West Bank – initially by practical steps, formally at a later stage.  Such developments will inevitably lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, necessitating direct Israeli control over and management of Palestinian life, including health, welfare, sanitation, and infrastructures, in both urban and rural areas. All this will costs us tens of billions of shekels annually.  Hamas and other extremists are no doubt rubbing their hands together in anticipation.

Neither the media nor the general Israeli public have displayed any serious interest in civilian affairs on the West Bank in recent years.  Such matters are erroneously considered marginal, at best, to security issues.  The seemingly technical, administrative decision to appoint a second minister in the defense ministry — in charge of coordinating government activities in the territories and managing the Civil Administration — conceals a major change of strategic proportions, one with grave legal, military and international implications. Not only will it impair Israel’s operational military capability, but it will detract from our ability to manage civilian life for Israelis and Palestinian’s alike, including our capacity to ensure security. This, in turn, will produce dysfunction and chaos, because civilian life cannot be sustained absent comprehensive security protections.

This is the true significance of transferring the Civil Administration in the territories – areas under the authority of the minister of defense — to a second minister within the defense ministry.  In practice, day to day affairs will now be managed via an alternative channel, behind the backs of security officials.

The West Bank is not sovereign Israeli territory.  It is therefore either misleading or irrelevant to compare administrative arrangements there with structures of governance within the State of Israel.  By international law, responsibility for law enforcement on the West Bank lies with OC Central Command.  Due to the complex legal situation on the West Bank, Israeli law applies mainly to Israeli citizens and settlements.  Under existing law, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and the Civil Administration are authorized by OC Central Command — who answers to the minister of defense, who in turn represents the government — to coordinate civilian affairs with each other, with military authorities and — when necessary — with Palestinian officials and international representatives.  These Israeli agencies operate out in the field, not from government offices in Jerusalem.  Their areas of responsibility include, among other things, land use planning, employment, water, electricity, infrastructure and communications.

A closer look at how the new law will be implemented by the second minister suggests that enforcement and supervision agencies are now likely to pursue explicitly political agendas rather than working in concert with military authorities.  This will also be the case in matters such as construction in Israeli settlements, the takeover of Palestinian private, public or abandoned lands, building permits for Palestinians, trade between the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the world, communications, and agriculture.  Basically, it will mean de facto annexation.

Hidden from public view, these changes will literally generate strategic chaos.  This, in fact, may be the true motivation of their authors, even if it contradicts stated government policy, or the intentions of the Prime Minster himself.

Israel’s defense minister, who bears overall legal responsibility for what transpires, will either not know, not want to know or will deliberately turn a blind eye.  And this is only part of the story.  An even more dangerous outcome will be the complete splintering of the military chain of command.  The minister of defense, the IDF chief of staff and OC Central Command have always managed, in a coordinated fashion, four key security agencies on the West Bank: the IDF, the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), the Civil Administration and the Israel Police.  This arrangement has been formulated over the course of many years, in drawing lessons from previous arrangements which saw considerable blood, sweat and tears.  It offers an effective response both to challenges on the macro level and to immediate, tactical requirements.  In the territories, even a seemingly minor tactical operation, such as a home demolition, handling of a traffic accident, or the response to a terror attack, can easily escalate, also becoming international incidents with strategic implications requiring immediate decisions that are conveyed simultaneously to all operational units.

Incompatibility between authority and the division of responsibility will also become manifest if Border Police units operating on the West Bank are placed under the authority of the new minister for national security, further undermining the existing, operational chain of command.  It will create a situation whereby three different government ministers – the minister of defense, the minister in charge of the Civil Administration, and the minister in charge of the Border Police – will all be involved in managing a single event requiring immediate attention, and must somehow find a way to prevent it from escalating out of control.

In practice, this will mean that a process normally managed quickly and efficiently by professionals, far below the level of the defense minister, will now require the intervention of the Prime Minister himself, and possibly a decision of the security cabinet.  This time-consuming process, possibly involving conflicting ministerial interests, could result not only in irreversible changes on the ground, but in the very real potential for a breakdown in security and an outbreak of uncontrolled violence.

The State of Israel is likely to pay a severe price for these developments in terms of blood, social unrest, economic damage, and international isolation.  The general Israeli public, who have no desire to mortgage their own future and that of their children to irresponsible adventurism, will bear the brunt of these policies.

Finally, the chaos that follows in the wake of these changes will rebound against advocates of the new policy themselves, making it harder for the government to implement its own policies. On the strategic level, these changes will pull the rug out from under Israel’s claim that its actions on the West Bank do not represent permanent rule but rather constitute a temporary arrangement, until a final status arrangement comes into force.  This will have a dramatic impact on Israel’s international standing, its economy, diplomatic relations, and on our ability to provide legal defense for settlers, Israeli service personnel, and government decision makers.


  • Maj. Gen. (ret.) Matan Vilnai, former deputy IDF chief of staff, former minister for civil defense, is Chair of CIS.
  • Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Or, former Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Commander of IDF forces in the West Bank, and Representative of the State Comptroller in Israel’s security services, is a member of CIS.
  • Maj. Gen. (ret.) Danny Yatom, former head of the Mossad and IDF OC Central Command, is a member of CIS.
  • Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amram Mitzna, former OC Central Command, is a member of CIS.
  • Maj. Gen. (ret.) Nitzan Alon, former Head of the IDF Operations Director, former IDF OC Central Command, is a member of CIS.
  • Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dov Sedaka, former Head of the Civil Administration on the West Bank and Gaza, is a member of CIS.
  • Brig. Gen. (ret.) Ilan Paz, former Head of the Civil Administration on the West Bank, is a member of CIS.