The hawkish departing IDF officer that right-wing parties are competing to recruit

Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter has become a polarizing figure over the past decade with his controversial remarks and under-the-radar meetings with his friend, former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Now, some on the right want him as defense minister

One day in July 2014, as the IDF was fighting Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Israel’s then-education minister, Naftali Bennett, traveled in a white van to Israel’s south to visit and support the troops. On the way, air raid sirens blared, the van had to pull over, and Bennett and his aides had to crouch down on the side of the road for safety. 

Eventually, the van reached its first stop, a residential building in Beersheva. Bennett entered the building alone. Soon after, a military jeep pulled up and out jumped an IDF officer with a purple beret on his shoulder; he also entered the building.

The officer who secretly met with Bennett in 2014 was Ofer Winter. Bennett famously argued with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and then-IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz in the security cabinet during Israel’s longest Gaza operation before 2023, pushing for Israel to attack Hamas tunnels. Bennett came to security cabinet meetings armed with information that the ministers were not given in official channels, information that, as Israeli media reported weeks later, came from IDF officers unauthorized to speak with him.

The IDF released Winter at the rank of brigadier general last month, making headlines across Israel. To the right, Winter has come to represent a martyr of partisan politics, drummed out of the military due to his ties to the religious Zionist community and hawkish security views. To the left, he is seen as embodying a dangerous combination of religion and militarism, as well as demonstrating a willingness to break the rules and politicize IDF operations and decision-making.

Bennett publicly thanked Winter for his decades of service in the IDF and called him “one of the best field commanders in the IDF. In every role he fought the enemy and won.” Yisrael Beitenu leader and former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman protested Winter’s release in a post on X, calling the decision “a scandal” and saying that “he is a brave, moral and praiseworthy officer. One thing is certain – if he was the commander of the Southern Command on Oct. 7, the terrible failure would not have happened on his watch.” National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir wrote that “giving up an outstanding and valued officer like Ofer Winter is a direct continuation of [Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s] poor conduct and failures in recent months.”

Winter continued making headlines when the military barred him from speaking at a right-wing conference last week or any other public events while he is on discharge leave – not working, but still on the IDF’s payroll. Liberman called the decision to silence Winter “puzzling,” and accused the IDF’s high command of  being “afraid of an open, important and in-depth discussion about the failure of Oct. 7, the way the war is being fought and its goals.” Winter was met with applause as he entered the conference hall, putting a finger in front of his lips to show that he was staying quiet.

Meanwhile, Winter has been bombarded with offers — including from Liberman and Ben-Gvir — to throw in his lot with a right-wing party ever since he was passed up for a promotion and released from the IDF. An offer from Netanyahu is also said to be on the way. 

A poll taken last month by the pro-Netanyahu Channel 14 asked who would be a better defense minister, Winter or Yoav Gallant, who currently has the job; Winter got 57% support in general and 79% from those who vote for parties currently in the government coalition. 

“I’m not going into politics yet. I am still a warrior for the people of Israel. I’m still in uniform,” Winter said in a speech earlier this month – which he gave in civilian clothes. 


Who is Ofer Winter, and what makes him the hottest name on the Israeli right these days?

Winter, 53, is a father of eight and a grandfather who lives in a religious Zionist village close to the Sea of Galilee. He grew up in the suburbs of Haifa, and when he was 2 years old, his father, David, fought in the Yom Kippur War in a tank on both sides of the Suez Canal; Winter has cited his father’s experience as an inspiration to him. Winter put himself on the path to a military career as a young teen, attending a religious military boarding school, and then Bnei David, the elite religious Zionist mechina, or pre-military academy, in the West Bank settlement of Eli. 

In recent years, Bnei David has become infamous outside the religious Zionist world for its rabbis’ illiberal remarks about LGBT people and women. Within the religious Zionist community, however, the academy in Eli has a reputation for churning out the toughest soldiers and officers. That reputation is borne out by Eli leading all mechinot in alumni who became combat officers, some 40% of all graduates, according to its website

Winter’s public persona is like the proto-Eli alum: equally unapologetic about religion and about doing the tough work the IDF needs.

In 1990, he enlisted in the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit, where he served with Bennett, and both moved together to the Maglan reconnaissance unit. After that, their paths diverged, but they remain friends 34 years later. Winter continued to rise up the ranks over the ensuing years, winning a Medal of Valor for his battalion for fighting Palestinian terrorists in Gaza in 2004 and serving as the IDF attache to the U.S. Marines. He commanded the Duvdevan Unit, which is known for dressing up as Arabs for undercover operations and on which the acclaimed TV show “Fauda” is based.

When Hamas kidnapped three Israeli teens in 2014 and launched rockets into Israel, sparking Operation Protective Edge, Winter was commander of the Givati Brigade.

He wrote a letter to the Givati Brigade’s soldiers and officers that leaked to the media in Israel: “History has chosen us to be the head of the spear in fighting the Gazan terrorist enemy that abuses, blasphemes and curses the God of Israel’s army. We prepared for this moment and we accept our mission with total humility, prepared to endanger and give our lives to defend our families, our nation and our homeland … I raise my eyes to the heavens and say with you ‘Hear O Israel, our God is one.’ The God of Israel please make us successful in the path in which we walk and stand to fight for your nation of Israel against an enemy that blasphemes your name.”

The letter proved controversial, with some lamenting that it presented the operation in Gaza as a holy war, and religious freedom activists calling it a form of religious coercion. Within the religious Zionist community, and to some extent the broader Israeli right, the text cemented his status as the hero of a counterculture pushing back against the dominant secular forces within the IDF.

Ofer Winter (IDF)

Winter spoke about the controversy this month at an event in honor of Jerusalem Day: “Ten years ago, I had the privilege of leading the Givati Brigade in Protective Edge, and before we entered Gaza, I wrote a document that I read to the soldiers … There was noise about it, which is less interesting. But today, the great relief is that there is not one unit in the IDF that goes out to fight without shouting to the heavens. The relief is that in the end, the truth wins.”

The Givati Brigade took part in the 2014 Battle of Rafah, in which soldier Hadar Goldin – another Eli alum – was killed and his body was taken by Hamas. Palestinians claimed that over 200 were killed in the battle, while the IDF said that 42 terrorists were killed and as many as 70 civilians. A U.N. report stated that war crimes accusations relating to the battle were credible, but an IDF investigation found that the forces acted legally, following legitimate operational considerations.

During that summer of fighting in Gaza, Winter met privately with Bennett, breaking the rules and circumventing the IDF’s high brass.

Winter was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in 2016, serving as chief of staff of the Central Command. Netanyahu and Liberman, as defense minister, pushed for Winter to be promoted to division commander, but then-Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot refused, so they appointed him military secretary to the defense minister, a position he held until 2020 under Liberman, Netanyahu and Bennett. Netanyahu tried to appoint Winter as military secretary to the prime minister last year, but dropped the effort after facing opposition from IDF higher brass. 

A source who worked closely with Winter when he was military secretary said that the combat officer chafed under the strictures of an office job.

“He was a good officer in the field, but did much worse in the office,” the source said. “An office job requires different talents than being a commander in the field, and that stood out …  You need a lot of political sensitivity and the ability to coordinate and synchronize with others, be organized, do paperwork, and that wasn’t his strong suit. He is someone who gives commands and is abrasive … He is the way he is caricatured.”

Winter’s next role was commander of the 98th Paratroopers Division, in which he remained in the same rank. While in that job, then-Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi reprimanded him for speaking with Bennett, then a Knesset member, without reporting it to his superiors. Winter reportedly said the conversation was friendly and not about the IDF, but Kochavi was unhappy that he did not report it, as IDF officers are prohibited from holding meetings with politicians without permission from their commanders, and that Winter was a repeat offender. 

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper holds a meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, Military Secretary to the Defense Minister Ofer Winter and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Feb. 4, 2020.

When Hamas invaded Israel on Oct. 7, Winter was a student at Reichman University without an official role in the IDF. He drove from his home in the Galilee to the Gaza border communities, on his own initiative, joining the battle in Kibbutz Be’eri as part of a group of soldiers that killed 11 terrorists. 

After he was informed that he was no longer needed in the military and before the IDF got wind of his public speaking, Winter warned that “the enemy interprets our hope for peace as weakness. You know, in the Middle East there is no choice — to make peace, you have to be a lion. The job of the IDF is to win and defeat the enemy. It’s not that complicated … The first job of the IDF is to win, to bring the enemy to its knees. But the enemy doesn’t take our threats seriously, or it wouldn’t be burning the north.”

“Who does Hezbollah think they are? Who are the bunch of decrepit Palestinians who call themselves Hamas? We can destroy them,” Winter said.


That Winter’s career has been mostly stagnant since 2016, with three different jobs at the level of brigadier-general, rather than rising in the ranks, followed by two years of military limbo without being promoted to general, is viewed by many on the right as political or religious discrimination. Yossi Yehoshua, the military analyst for Ynet, a publication that is not generally identified with the right, wrote a column last year arguing that “Winter is not in the right cliques — and is paying for it,” by being passed up for promotions despite what he described as Winter’s talents as an officer.

The source who worked closely with Winter when he was military secretary said that the controversies surrounding the officer hindered his work in the Defense Ministry. 

“I didn’t get the impression that the higher commanders valued him … I don’t know if it was the lack of appreciation was because of his talents, or because he was seen as a political figure … but in the end, your power as a military secretary is in your ability to work with the chief of staff’s office, and they didn’t value him,” he said.

Since Winter was once again passed up for a promotion in May and then released from the IDF, his supporters argued that his hawkishness is what the IDF was missing, with Liberman arguing that the army’s response to Oct. 7 would have been much different under Winter’s watch.

With Winter’s popularity on the Israeli right soaring, Ashley Perry, a former adviser to Liberman and a campaign strategist, said that he “represents something that would meet a number of public demands at this time. He is considered statesmanlike, right-wing and coming from outside of the current political strata. These are elements that would see him gain a lot of attention and support should he decide to enter the political fray.”

Yaakov Katz, a military analyst and Jewish People Policy Institute senior fellow, said it is clear Winter has his sights on politics.

“Which party he joins will be interesting. What happened with his speech being canceled and Liberman defending him shows that Liberman is angling to get him, whether they’re in talks or not,” Katz said.

The former colleague of Winter’s said he doubts that the officer would join a party led by Bennett, should the former prime minister return to politics, because Winter was disappointed by Bennett forming a coalition with left-wing parties

Winter “is a real right-wing ideologue,” the source said.

The source speculated that Winter would also struggle as a Knesset member: “He won’t be interested in running from committee to committee. He will look to be at the center of influence. He might even establish a [party] framework for himself.”

Winter, he said, is “an independent type; that’s part of what put him in a problematic place in the army.”

Katz disagrees with “all this stuff about Winter being a victim of the politics because he’s on the right.”

“You don’t do things like that. You’re in the army. You don’t meet politicians and circumvent the chief of staff. You don’t go meet a member of the security cabinet without permission,” Katz said. “He should have been kicked out of the army for a complete violation of what is part of the code of conduct in any military.”

Yet Winter’s disputes with the upper echelon of the IDF may be a political advantage, Perry said.

“To many Israelis who see the IDF as an institution favorably but have little trust in many current senior officers, the fact that [Winter] seemed to be passed over on many occasions for promotion to the highest army levels will also play very much in his favor,” he said.

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