Analysis

During First 100 Days in Office, Army Chief of Staff Kochavi Demonstrates Restraint Under Fire

Yet he didn’t hesitate to take on a group of paratroop brigade commanders and to publicly disagree with Prime Minister Netanyahu

Aviv Kochavi, center, at his swearing in as Israeli army chief of staff.
Moti Milrod

There doesn’t appear to be a good period to be named Israeli army chief of staff. With the Gaza Strip constantly shifting from the brink of a deal with Israel to the brink of war; when the West Bank and the north continue to present their challenges and when the drafting of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students continues to occupy the Knesset agenda, the situation from the outset isn’t ideal, to put it mildly. But even taking all of that into consideration, it doesn’t look like Aviv Kochavi could have found a worse 100 days to begin his term as successor to Gadi Eisenkot.

There were two main events presenting obstacles in his way even before he was sworn into office. One was the saga of his appointment, which became a power struggle between the defense minister at the time, Avigdor Lieberman, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It wasn’t clear whether Kochavi was the preferred candidate or the leading compromise candidate. The second event, also political, was the fact that the Knesset was dissolved and new elections were called some three weeks after Kochavi became the 22nd chief of staff.

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If the first event was unpleasant, the second turned a complicated situation even more complicated. That was particularly true because Netanyahu’s main rival in the election was the head of the Kahol Lavan party, Benny Gantz, who had been army chief of staff in 2014, when Israel fought a war with Hamas in Gaza. Gantz took heat during the election campaign over the conduct of the war.

Kochavi, who was head of the army Intelligence Corps during the war and was mentioned frequently in state comptroller reports about that military operation, apparently felt this wasn’t the right time to demand attention, both as a result of events at the time and because he is very aware of the media chatter around it, including social media.

It’s possible that he feared that any statement on his part could be interpreted as support for Kahol Lavan – three of whose leaders were former army chiefs of staff whom he served with for many years and with whom he remains in touch to this day. As a result, he mostly remained silence. He gave no media interviews and at ceremonies where he had to speak, he was terse and cautious in his remarks.

Contradicting the prime minister

One possible exception occurred when the prime minister visited the Sirkin army base in central Israel (before the attorney general barred him from taking pictures with soldiers as part of his election campaign). Netanyahu was filmed in Kochavi’s presence as the two monitored the readiness of the reservist division. The prime minister suggested that their Hummers be equipped with machine guns and be used in the field.

Kochavi, right, and Netanyahu, center at the Sirkin army base in January, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Kochavi was quick to contradict him in front of the cameras. “You can’t go into alleyways with this vehicle, or any built up area,“ he said. “You fight from a balcony window, not with a Hummer with a machine gun on a main street.”

The film footage of their disagreement was used to heap taunt Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, and led many in the army to wonder what made a new chief of staff engage in such a discussion. “I’m not certain to this day what made him say that,” an official familiar with the details said. “He would have been better off had it not been said.”

But this incident in the end was only background noise in the course of Kochavi’s 100 days of grace that ended on Monday. Five days after taking office, Kochavi was already facing a real test: At a time when thousands of Israelis were visiting the Mount Hermon ski area in the Golan Heights, a ground-to-ground missile was fired from Syria that was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system.

That incident was preceded by a declaration by Netanyahu hinting that Israel was responsible for an attack in the Damascus area. A source who was present at security deliberations regarding these events said that Kochavi conveyed a clear message there would be no change in Israel’s security concept in the north and that Israel would respond forcefully to any attacks.

But there was another incident in the north around the same time, details of which have yet to be released, but the same source said Israel’s actions with regard to it “were not deemed a success.”

Very confident

On the whole, various officials who are involved in security deliberations described Kochavi as very sure of himself and of his decisions. Some of the officials have known Kochavi for years and are not surprised by the atmosphere prevailing in settings where he speaks – for the most part with a great deal of self-confidence. Someone who attended those meetings and is still aware of Kochavi’s assessments about what is going on in Syria said he remembers well things that this same Kochavi said as head of the Intelligence Corps at the beginning of the Syrian civil war. At the time, Kochavi was a party to the widely held opinion that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s fate had been sealed and that he had just a few months left in power. “It’s hard not to recall those discussions and the things that then too were stated so decisively,” the source said.

It appears, however, that what will shape the nature of Kochavi’s term in office as chief of staff is what he does in the present and future and not his past comments. One of the events that occupied his initial days on the job actually occurred about a week before he took office. It was the navigation exercise at the Hilazon stream, where a member of an elite paratroop unit, Sgt. Evyatar Yosefi, was killed.

More specifically, following the release last month of the findings from the investigation of the incident, Kochavi decided to take a heavy hand and punish the entire chain of command involved in the exercise and its supervision. The paratroop brigade commander was reprimanded and five officers were dismissed. For Kochavi, the paratroopers aren’t just another Israeli army brigade. He grew up there and he identifies with them, he was also once their commander. In the wake of his decision on the incident, sources in the unit use words such as “bad blood” to describe their feelings.

In Eisenkot’s footsteps

Kochavi’s predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot, along with Netanyahu, managed in fact to avert a war in Gaza despite tough public and political pressure, but to some extent, Eisenkot turned the army into a punching bag for its policy toward Hamas. Eisenkot was ready to pay the price for relative quiet in the south based on an understanding that there is no military solution in Gaza.

Based on his first months in office, which included rocket fire at Tel Aviv and the Sharon region, it appears that Kochavi is following in Eisenkot’s footsteps. In the latest round, he expressed the position in security meetings that it would be better to hold fire, to advance efforts at an agreement on long-term calm with Hamas. He believes the political leadership ought to prefer a civilian option (involving economic projects in Gaza to ease conditions for the civilian population there) over the military option.