Israel Air Force, F-15, fighter jet
An IAF jet refueling an F-15, above Tel Aviv. Photo by IDF Spokesperson
Text size

The decision by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz to create a new army formation, to be known as the Depth Corps, followed recent recommendations issued by a team headed by Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot. Eizenkot was tapped for the task last summer, after he completed his assignment as GOC Northern Command and began an educational leave of absence.

Maj. Gen. Shai Avital was named head of the new corps, which has already earned the somewhat overstated sobriquet "the Iran Command." Israel already has a command for Iran affairs - the Mossad, which since the last decade has been doing the heavy lifting in the campaign against the Iranian nuclear threat. If there is any unit within the IDF that deals with Iran specifically it is the Israel Air Force, the main branch that will be called upon in the event of an Israeli attack on the country's nuclear facilities.

The new corps could, in the future, assist in mobilizing special forces in the Iranian context. More important, it will have the job of planning and leading operations in areas far beyond the borders, operations that are connected to the covert war against terror organizations (and, indirectly, against Iran ). One could imagine, for example, operations that have been ascribed to Israel, such as alleged IAF air strikes and special forces operations in Sudan, or the assassination of a Syrian general at his home in northern Syria.

Gantz instructed Eizenkot to assess recent developments and strategic shifts in the region to determine whether the IDF needed to make changes to its planning in response. In reviewing past assessments Eizenkot's team, which comprised high-ranking officers and one senior Mossad official, it was discovered that the problem had been identified back in 1982, when a decision was made to create a depth corps at the General Staff level.

Implementation was delayed until 1986 as a result of the first Lebanon war. Maj. Gen. (res. ) Doron Rubin was appointed head of the unit, but fallout from the raid it orchestrated against Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command in December, 1988, codenamed Operation Blue and Brown, shut down the command. Rubin stepped down and the remaining special operations unit was absorbed into the Northern Command.

Special operations

Eizenkot determined a need for a combined corps that could carry out operations far from the country's borders. It had to be capable not only of linear battle, for example sending tanks from the Golan Heights in the direction of Damascus, but also simultaneous attacks, such as strikes against scattered rocket launch sites, each of which must be neutralized.

Eizenkot envisioned a relatively small unit of about 100 troops, some of whom were already serving in special operations, answering directly to the chief of staff but freeing both the chief and deputy chief of staff of the need to deal directly with the areas under the corps' jurisdiction, which are technically their area of responsibility but in practice receive inadequate attention.

The jurisdiction of the district commands - north, central and south - generally extends only a few dozen kilometers beyond the border. In the Second Lebanon War commanders were reluctant to carry out depth operations in the Bekaa Valley. Col. Nitzan Alon, who last week was promoted to GOC Central Command, was eventually "borrowed" from his assignment in the West Bank to do the job.

The Depth Corps will have the authority to deploy special operations units when necessary, but under normal circumstances each unit's chain of command will remain unchanged.

In wartime the new corps might be assigned a sector, movement into which would be controlled by the relevant district command. An entity whose entire scope of interest lies well beyond the border is already close to being established.

"What is happening today is that actions in the strategic depth area are largely the result of some momentary flash," a senior officer who helped draft the recommendations told Haaretz. "An officer goes to Military Intelligence with an idea, and they start working on an operation. A corps headed by a major general will consider the threats methodically and continuously, and we hope it will lead to solutions and results," he said.

While the idea of the corps itself has broad support within the army, the same cannot be said about the choice of the man who is to lead it.

Avital, 59, who will return to active duty for the assignment, has a long and impressive record in special operations as an officer in Sayeret Matkal, the general staff's elite special-operations force, and later as its commander. But he left the army 10 years ago, of his own choosing, after just one rather undistinguished assignment as commander of a large unit. Since leaving the IDF he has tried his hand at farming, politics (he placed low on Kadima's candidate list in the 2006 election and did not make it into the Knesset ) and public service (as a controversial director general of the Environmental Protection Ministry ).

Avital has a wealth of experience, but it is difficult to see how his resume in the past decade connects him to the technological advances of that period, to the nature of the activity he will oversee or the current crop of commanders. Perhaps the answer lies in the defense minister and chief of staff, his patrons.