New Israeli Army Commander Chooses Top Brass

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IDF chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.
IDF chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Two days after Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot became the 21st commander of the Israeli army, he and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon are making major changes in the Israel Defense Forces’ General Staff. Eisenkot has appointed about a third of the army’s generals in recent moves. With a few more changes expected to be completed over the next couple of months, those filling about half of the highest-ranking jobs in the IDF will all have been chosen by Eisenkot.

Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, now the military aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will be appointed the head of the Southern Command. Brig. Gen. Amikam Norkin, the chief of staff (deputy commander) of the Israel Air Force, will be appointed the commander of the IDF’s Planning Directorate and will be promoted to major general. Maj. Gen. Tamir Heyman, who just two weeks ago was named the head of the corps along the northern borders, will also serve as the head of the military colleges.

Zamir, who did most of his service in the Armored Corps, will replace Maj. Gen, Sami Turgeman, who will be taking time to study, sometime around September. Turgeman, who led the Southern Command during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, will be moving on after what is considered to be a relatively short tenure of only two and a half years as the head of a regional command, with the reasons for the change still unclear.

Norkin, a combat pilot and a future candidate for commander of the air force, will replace another pilot and contender for the top spot in the IAF, Maj. Gen. Nimrod Shefer. Heyman, also an Armored Corps officer, will replace Maj. Gen. Yossi Baidatz.

Within a few months Eisenkot, along with Ya’alon, will make two or three more appointments of major generals, including the IDF’s military attaché in Washington — Shefer and Baidatz are considered the leading candidates — as well as the prime minister’s military aide, which could very well go to Maj. Gen. Yoav Har-Even, who will soon finish his term as head of the Operations Directorate, or to a veteran brigadier general. It is possible another position or two will open up, including the head of the Ground Forces Command.

In a rather exceptional decision, Ya’alon and Eisenkot also announced an extension of the terms of the commanders of the air force and navy, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel and Maj. Gen. Ram Rothberg respectively, through 2017. This will give them both a fifth year commanding their branches — an additional full year. It is likely that we will soon hear explanations from the political leadership that this extended service is required in light of the Iranian nuclear threat.

Today’s round of appointments points to a three-way battle after Eshel completes his term for the post of air force commander, with Norkin, Shefer and the head of the Manpower Directorate, Maj. Gen. Hagai Topolanski, contending. But Ya’alon will have to make a decision much sooner on the positions of military aide to the prime minister, military attaché in Washington and head of the Ground Forces Command.

It seems that the decision to extend Eshel’s term has implications beyond those related to Iran. Ya’alon and Eisenkot are extremely impressed with Eshel’s talents and it seems the two view him as a possible candidate for the post of the next deputy chief of staff in about two years time. But there is one thing standing between Eshel and the appointment: Dan Halutz, the air force commander who was appointed IDF chief of staff by then defense minister Shaul Mofaz in 2005. That appointment proved to be a fiasco when the fighter pilot served as chief of staff during the Second Lebanon War when Ehud Olmert was prime minister. The experience with Halutz has been expected to be enough to block the appointment of any air force pilot as chief of staff of the IDF, or even as the deputy chief of staff for many years — but it is possible that Eshel is the exception.

One major general has already announced his retirement from the IDF because of Eisenkot’s decisions, Maj. Gen. Noam Tivon.

The next round of appointments over the coming few months will most likely leave only two of the following six major generals in the IDF, with the rest probably deciding to retire if they are not promoted: Har-Even; head of the Home Front Command; Maj. Gen. Eyal Eizenberg; Baidatz; Maj. Gen. Guy Zur, the present head of the Ground Forces Command; Maj. Gen. Uzi Moscovitch, the head of the C4I Directorate; and Maj. Gen. Yaakov Ayash, the present military attaché in Washington.

The first decisions and appointments Eisenkot has made as IDF Chief of Staff demonstrate, at least symbolically, concern for cost cutting. The Depth Corps will now be headed by a major general in the reserves, Maj. Gen. (res.) Tal Russo; while the position of the commander of the military colleges will be filled by a general who is also serving as a corps commander. Eisenkot has thus gotten rid of two positions for major generals in the regular army — a symbolic step, but one that saves some money for the IDF and is certainly quite an exception in recent years.

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