My Person of the Year: The IDF

Yair Golan, an IDF Commander Taking Israel's Volatile North by the Horns

He's charismatic and a bit old-fashioned, but appreciated by the army ranks and top brass; as commander of the sector bordering Syria, Golan seems destined for greatness.

Maj. Gen. Yair Golan.

Yair Golan, the GOC Northern Command Maj. Gen., may be the busiest man in the Israel Defense Forces in the coming year. A flare-up on one of the two fronts that fall within his responsibility − on the border with Syria, the border with Lebanon, or both at once − may well become the focus of security concern in the year 5774.

Not that the past two years have been particularly easy for Golan. When he inherited the command from Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot in the summer of 2011, the civil war in Syria was already raging, but the accepted assessment then in Israel and the West was that the Assad regime was facing a relatively speedy collapse. Reality took a different course, however: During his two years at Northern Command ‏(he is expected to remain in the post for about another year‏), Golan has seen Syria move from the status of a secondary precinct to that of a main arena, equivalent at least in its standing and potential risks to the threat constituted by Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Northern Command, then, is currently operating on two sensitive fronts, where there is no daily combat but where it is no longer possible to speak of calm or stability. The camp that defends Israel’s achievements in the Second Lebanon War talks a lot about the seven years of quiet in the north that followed it, but in the past month alone, four Golani Brigade soldiers were wounded by an explosive device Hezbollah had planted, Katyusha rockets were fired from that country into the Western Galilee, and the Israel Air Force retaliated by bombing a Palestinian terrorist headquarters south of Beirut. As for Syria, shooting incidents − most of them apparently the result of accidental firing by the Syrian Army − occur on the border every month. And what is more serious: The IDF is constantly preparing for a scenario in which the civil war in Syria ‏(lately, against the background of the American threat to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons‏) boils over into Syrian military action on Israeli soil.

Traditionally, the post of GOC Northern Command has been considered an especially prestigious post, which ambitious brigadier-generals and major-generals dream of getting. The last two IDF chiefs of staff, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, headed that command. Its importance and prestige derived not only from the sense that the most substantial security threat might materialize from that arena, but also from the fact that GOC Northern Command is considered a more purely military job, one that has not entailed dealing with the occupation or policing activity in the territories, friction with a civilian Palestinian populace, or political pressure from settler leaders. The role of GOC, and GOC Northern Command in particular, is considered a necessary station on the path to competing for such posts as deputy chief of staff and chief of staff − for which Golan, too, will be a potential candidate in the future.

However, as happens with such roles, GOC Northern Command can also sometimes be the final station in a military career, in the event of a failed performance in war. For his part, Golan needs no reminders of this. He saw this happen to Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, who had the misfortune of being in charge of Northern Command during the war in 2006. Adam was excluded from the General Staff’s decision-making process during the war, and about a week before it ended was actually dismissed from overseeing the fighting itself by
then-Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. He resigned from the IDF, sad and angry, a month later. The array of contradictory versions of events, emanating from the General Staff, on the one hand, and the Northern Command and its divisions, on the second and third hands, on the question of who initiated preparations for a ground maneuver and who delayed it, was one of the main areas of dispute when the war ended, and in the testimony provided before the Winograd Committee.

Golan, perhaps fortunately for him, missed that war. He was serving at the time as commander of IDF forces in the West Bank, to which he came from serving as commander of the Galilee Formation ‏(91st Division‏). His replacement there, Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, retired from the army in the wake of the war.

An activist

The past two years, as well, have seen friction between the Northern Command and the General Staff, albeit far less intense than in 2006. Golan runs an activist, combative northern line, which is generally fine with Chief of Staff Gantz. However, the latter has already been forced to restrain Golan for being too independent and taking the IDF faster and farther than the political echelon intended. In one case, when Israel had just begun treating Syrian casualties at a military field hospital set up on the border, Gantz was surprised to learn that intake of casualties had been carried out by order of the GOC − without the chief’s own permission.

Subsequently, Gantz curbed somewhat the nature of the military response to incidents in which fire by Assad’s troops, aimed at rebel strongholds near the border, reached Israel. Northern Command wanted to launch a Tammuz missile, accurate and fairly expensive, in retaliation for each and every violation. Gantz reduced the extent of the response. A more significant dispute related to the extent of the ties that should be developed with the civilian population on the Syrian side of the northern border. Golan wished to emulate some of the aspects of the “Good Fence” relationship with Christians in South Lebanon in the 1970s, and even handed out a book documenting that era to a few of his fellow major generals. Gantz ruled that out, for fear of excessive Israeli involvement in the events, and the idea never got very far on the ground.

By contrast, Golan has been praised for the thorough manner in which he has altered the command’s operational plans, to adapt them to the new reality in the region. He also led the IDF’s defense preparations on the Golan Heights: rebuilding the fence along the border, upgrading the forces that serve there, and improving intelligence-gathering. Golan was quick to spot the changes evolving in Syria: In a conversation I had with him more than a year ago, he recognized Assad’s success in blocking the rebels, long before this assessment became widespread on the General Staff or among the global media.

He is 51, tall and thin, and in the field is usually seen sporting a wide-brimmed fatigue hat; in the IDF, such a hat is worn only by raw recruits and Yair Golan. His own military service began in the Paratroopers Brigade, where he worked his way up to battalion commander. In the first Lebanon War he fought as a cadet in officers training school. In 1997, as commander of a sector brigade in South Lebanon, he was wounded in a clash with Hezbollah. In the second intifada he commanded the Nahal Brigade, among other things during Operation Defensive Shield, in which the brigade excelled. Before taking over the Northern Command, he spent three years as GOC Home Front Command, a job he particularly liked. Golan is married and has five children, of whom the two eldest sons serve in special military units.

The same descriptions recur in most of the articles about him, including
in Haaretz: He is considered a wise officer, thorough, with very evident charisma. The command he heads will always look like “his” command − but a little standoffish and closed when it comes to his management style. These observations held true in the past and hold true today as well. In many respects, his command style smacks a bit of the paratrooper commanders of a few decades ago. Golan is a very effective manager, who organizes his time meticulously, sticks to set habits he acquired as an enlisted man ‏(aside from training runs, he makes a point of attending target practice periodically, something that most colleagues of his rank don’t do‏), and devours reference books, which he marks up with a highlighter and relevant notes in the margins.

Despite his studiousness, likewise atypical of his generation in the military, Golan has a tendency to simplify problems, rather than complicate them. This generally works well, but some have accused him of seeing things in black-and-white terms, even when he is dealing with complex political issues. Although he was singled out as one destined for greatness at a relatively early stage in his military career, his political skills are limited. He does not excel at the
organizational intrigue that helped many of his fellow generals secure their ranks. As head of the Home Front Command, he tended to emphasize the duty of civilians to participate in the defense against threats.

Two years ago, in an interview with Ofer Shelah in Maariv, he stated: “Our power of endurance as a public is great. I saw this as a commander in the field during the second intifada. It’s true there is no historical precedent for the threat that exists now on the home front, but we have tools to cope. The threat is unprecedented, but there is a tendency to overstate its power. Is it grave? Yes. Is it existential? No.”

Within a year, more or less, the horizon of Golan’s service will become clear. In the near future, the defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, is expected to announce an extension of Gantz’s tenure as chief of staff for a fourth year. Unless something very unexpected occurs ‏(and the very unexpected is precisely what happened in the previous chief of staff round‏), the present deputy chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkot, will become the next chief of staff in February 2015. Golan, like his contemporary and steady rival for years, Military Intelligence head Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, is considered to be a potential candidate for chief of staff in around 2019, barring mishaps along the way. By that time, he will likely have been appointed deputy chief. Another possibility is that he will switch roles with Kochavi as head of MI − but the road to these top-brass appointments is still far off. Beforehand, Golan will have to go on managing the highly sensitive front he now commands.

Still moving up

Major generals Eizenkot and Kochavi were described here last Rosh Hashanah as the “security men of the year.” Eizenkot, as had been anticipated, was ultimately appointed deputy chief of staff, despite the delays and hesitation on the part of then-defense minister Ehud Barak. His relatively minor part in the Boaz Harpaz scandal ‏(which revolves around a forged document that sought to discredit Yoav Galant as a candidate for chief of staff‏) did not block his appointment, and the final state comptroller’s report on the matter did not ascribe to him significant blame in that affair. Eizenkot, who was very close to Chief of Staff Gantz to begin with, has in recent months been his close partner in drafting the plan for organizational changes in the IDF, in view of the shake-ups in the Arab world and the army budget cuts.

As noted, Eizenkot remains the leading candidate to become the next chief of staff. The chances of the second contender, Maj. Gen Yair Naveh, who is currently on academic leave, appear lower. As for Kochavi, he has had another dramatic year as MI chief and remains among the dominant generals on the General Staff and one of those closest to Gantz. Operation Pillar of Defense last November tested for the first time the new initiative he spearheaded, Intelligence-Based Warfare, which involves transferring relevant intelligence in real time to the forces in the field, with MI people being closely involved in the combat itself. In Kochavi’s case as well, unless something extraordinarily untoward occurs, say, along the lines of Yom Kippur 1973 − the post of MI chief ‏(very important in and of itself‏) will certainly not be the last senior post he fills in the defense establishment, or in public life generally.