Analysis |

As Israel Faces Rampant Coronavirus Outbreak, Will Army Chief Rise to the Challenge?

Kochavi is hell-bent on implementing his long-term reform plan, but generals don't have the privilege of choosing the test by which their entire term will be judged

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Aviv Kochavi in Bnei Brak, April.
Aviv Kochavi in Bnei Brak, April.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

The Israel Defense Forces chief of staff may prefer to keep his distance from the crisis, maybe because of the challenges and maybe because of his fear that Netanyahu will try to blame him – but the army and its commander cannot expect to stay out of it any longer. 

On the 14th floor of IDF headquarters in the Kirya, in the middle of Tel Aviv, sits a brilliant man who devotes a large part of his time to making grandiose plans, ones that almost certainly will never be carried out during his tenure. For years, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi prepared himself for the job of IDF chief of staff. Even back when he was the commander of a battalion in the Paratroop Brigade, some 25 years ago, Kochavi was marked as someone intended for greatness. In every position, every military forum he participated in, the same descriptions were repeated by his colleagues: the smartest officer in the room, charismatic, speaks beautifully, determined.

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When he was appointed chief of staff in January 2019, Kochavi had detailed ideas, carefully planned out, for the future of the IDF. Based on these ideas, within a few months he formulated a new multi-year plan for the IDF: Tnufah (Momentum) it was called. He gradually brought most of his subordinates on board, in spite of the doubts some of them expressed. Enthusiastic noises were heard from the political leadership too, even though it was clear the great resources required to implement the plan would require a serious battle with the treasury.

But then his luck went bad and life arranged something else for him: the lethal combination of a prime minister nearing the end of his road, and who was turning all his efforts toward making plans to avoid going to jail, three elections without a decisive result, a pandemic and in the end a government of national paralysis – with the participation of two retired chiefs of staff who are still acting like a pair of deer blinded by the headlights of a truck. The multi-year plan went into the deep freeze, in spite of Kochavi’s strong conviction that he could somehow advance his ideas by diverting internal resources – until the government returns to showing an interest in the IDF.

Sooner or later, one of Kochavi’s subordinates will have to gather the courage and shake him a little by the shoulder and tell him what many in the army are thinking – generals, division commanders and brigade commanders: This is your hour. The multi-year plan will never be achieved the way you hoped. The attention of the national leadership has shifted elsewhere. The country is in a terrible economic crisis, after the severe failure in handling the coronavirus crisis – now you have other missions.

Leaders and generals do not enjoy choosing the test by which their entire term will be judged. Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip fell by surprise on chief of staff Benny Gantz, for Dan Halutz it was the Second Lebanon War. Shaul Mofaz was judged (with much greater success) based on Operation Defensive Shield. In Kochavi’s case, his test is handling the coronavirus crisis. If no serious security incident occurs in the next two years-plus, this is where his tenure will rise or fall.

The virus is certainly a tiresome civilian challenge, lacking any displays of heroism. In this campaign there are no smart bombs and stealth planes, certainly not any medal ceremonies. It will be busy with much less glamorous missions and sites: nursing homes, swabs and hospital beds.

The IDF harnessed itself, partially, to the coronavirus campaign back at the beginning of the first wave. The national control center for the fight against the coronavirus was established by senior IDF and Mossad officers. During the Passover holiday, the elite 98th Division was called in to come to the aid of the residents of Bnei Brak. The Home Front Command has been operating on almost a war footing for months. At the beginning of August – unnecessarily and much too late – the command was given the mission of setting up the system for breaking the chains of infection. Over the past few weeks, a few thousand more soldiers in compulsory service and the reserves were moved to take part in the campaign against the virus.

But this still remains a mission for the Home Front Command, more than one for the entire General Staff. In May, after the dying down of the first wave, the clear impression became that Kochavi wanted to quickly return to his own affairs. Now too, even though he is careful to visit the relevant units every week, it seems Kochavi still prefers to keep a safe distance from the crisis.

Maybe this is because he is determined to make progress with his multi-year plan and is deep immersed in his challenges – and maybe he also is a bit afraid of being identified with what is a national failure on a historic scale. After all, Netanyahu won’t have any problem passing the blame onto the IDF. Look how successfully he has done it to the Health Ministry, the coronavirus “czar,” the attorney general, the participants in the Balfour Street protests and a long list of others deemed blameworthy at a given moment.

Without minimizing the efforts made so far, the IDF will need to enlist in the national campaign against the coronavirus – and the sooner the better. The figures at the moment are very distressing. The question of whether the hospitals are near their breaking point is disputed – some experienced hospital directors and doctors think the situation is still far from that, and a great deal depends on the proper diversion and distribution of resources and staff.

But alongside the increase in the number of tests, the rate of positive tests – the carriers identified by these tests – is also rising steadily. The system to break the chains of infection, in spite of the reinforcements it has received, has been unable to keep up. The army’s own estimates reveal that effective epidemiological investigations are conducted in less half the cases of infection. At any rate, there is no chance for this system to function effectively when the number of new infections is over 5,000 a day.

It is clear that the high level of readiness along the northern border in preparation for a possible revenge attack by Hezbollah over the death of one of its militants in an attack near Damascus, attributed to Israel, will have to remain in place. The situation in Lebanon is much more complicated and dangerous than what it looks like to the public. In the Gaza Strip, too, there is a risk of deterioration related to the spread of the coronavirus infection there. But there is an assortment of other missions that the army can take on, and where it can put its enormous resources to work. First, it seems that the management of the campaign needs to be transferred to the chief of staff himself, with the General Staff under him. Second, it is possible to enlist division commanders who recently finished their assignments and give them more tasks, and third, consideration can be given to assigning geographical areas and specific missions to brigade and division commanders.

The IDF doesn’t need to be made responsible for the medical policy for fighting the virus. This is a matter for the Health Ministry and Prof. Ronni Gamzu. But in light of the enormous weaknesses revealed in the health system, which has been starved of funds for years, it seems there is room for a much more dominant role for the military in shouldering the burden.

With all due respect to the Home Front Command, the main strength of the IDF – which has not yet been thrown into the battle – does not lie there. The sooner Kochavi absorbs this and acts accordingly, the greater his chances will be of winning the battle against the coronavirus. At the moment, in the face of the economic tidal wave (and to a certain extent the one in health too) that the people of Israel need to overcome, the IDF and its commander cannot continue to wait in their hiding place and hope to stay dry.