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Incoming Israeli Army Chief Gets Crash Course in Politics

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The next Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces Major General Aviv Kochavi at a meeting of the IDF General Staff held in Tel Aviv.
The next Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces Major General Aviv Kochavi at a meeting of the IDF General Staff held in Tel Aviv.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

The race to fill the post of IDF chief of staff, which effectively ended a week ago with Lieberman’s nomination of Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, was a clean one. The four candidates refrained from media and political campaigns and did not engage in mudslinging. That hasn’t always been the case.

Interviewed by veteran Israel public broadcaster military correspondent Carmela Menashe after the announcement, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan congratulated his rival for the position and said he didn’t regret his remarks at the 2016 Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony that in practice ended his chances of becoming Israel’s top military commander. “I wasn’t raised to regret the truth,” Golan said.

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This time, the mud was generously provided by the politicians. Lieberman’s announcement took Netanyahu by surprise as he prepared to return from Oman. That score was soon settled with an unofficial quote provided to journalists by Netanyahu’s aides as soon as his plane landed. In a single long and unwieldy sentence, the prime minister’s office managed to get a jab in at three of the four candidates (Golan they already dealt with two years ago). Kochavi, the reporters were told, wasn’t even Lieberman’s first choice, Nitzan Alon was. Kochavi’s appointment only went ahead after Lieberman was convinced to give up on Alon; and Eyal Zamir still isn’t experienced enough, but he will probably be appointed deputy chief of staff now.

So, one general was portrayed as a compromise candidate, another as unsuitable from the start, while a third was again maneuvered, with no justification, into being the prime minister’s emissary. It takes quite some talent to achieve such results, and is also a good reflection of the paranoia that is epidemic among the country’s political leaders. As expected, the defense minister reacted aggressively. The appointment of the next deputy chief of staff is a matter for the defense minister and the next chief of staff to decide, said associates of Lieberman, and anyone who tries to interfere in this via leaks to the media “is going mad.”

For Kochavi, this was yet another lesson in politics. Like the outgoing Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, he comes to the post as a mature, experienced candidate who has passed through all the necessary stations. No chief of staff since the late Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who served in the 1990s, was younger than 50. Kochavi is 54. Even so, he did not go through the formative experience, shared by his predecessors, of the first Lebanon war.

During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, after the regular Paratroops Brigade moved from Nablus to Bethlehem, someone asked then-brigade commander Kochavi to compare the fighting and destruction in West Bank Palestinian cities to Beirut in 1982. His answer was surprising. Kochavi couldn’t say, he only began serving in the paratroops after the war in Lebanon was under way.

This week, as the IDF waited to see what would happen with Gaza, the general staff forum met for its yearly seminar at the Yitzhak Rabin Center to mark the anniversary of the Rabin assassination. This year discussion focused on what Eisenkot considers a critical question, the army’s role in Israeli society. The second panel of the day was devoted to proper conduct in the various security organizations. Speakers included Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo and former Shin Bet security service chief Yoram Cohen. If I didn’t know Eisenkot better, I might suspect him of wanting to troll the prime minister on his way out the door.

Kochavi was absent from the gathering. After his widely covered meeting with Netanyahu, who had to interview him after Lieberman’s announcement, the designated incoming chief of staff took a vacation. The army can be very organized when it wants to be. Let’s hope someone saved the minutes of the discussion for Kochavi.

The army as police force

Another conference was held this week, this one at the Open University of Israel and called “Who Controls the Policing Army?” The organizer, Prof. Yagil Levy, said the topic arose from the Elor Azaria episode, in which an Israeli soldier was convicted of manslaughter and served nine months in prison for killing an incapacitated Palestinian assailant. Levy said the incident “clearly revealed how a policing army has come into being in the West Bank whose rationale of operation is different than that of the official army.”

At the same time, Levy said, he grew interested in this after witnessing the discomfort shown by “researchers with conservative outlooks and upholders of the army’s good reputation” when addressing the issue. The army’s behavioral science department opted not to present research at the conference.

Levy says there is little research on this subject, both in Israel and elsewhere, despite the growing involvement of armies in policing. A study presented at the conference by Dr. Ofra Ben-Yishai said that policing activity is perceived as a “lowering’ of the army and the soldier’s status, so as not to hurt the motivation of soldiers in units that are largely assigned to such activity, the principles of war were applied to policing operations. However, at the same time, having to do policing also puts the IDF in a trap. While it functions as an army, it is required to show the restraint characteristic of police operating within a civilian population (Besides the Azaria case, the Ahed Tamimi case is another example of this). The IDF is also subject to monitoring by human rights organizations. According to Levy’s article, the policing army is not overseen in the same hierarchical manner as the official IDF, but rather overseen culturally, politically and even operationally by a whole range of parties — from security coordinators in settlements to various rabbis to organizations like B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence.

At the conference it became apparent that there is a debate among researchers as to the moderating effect of women serving in policing units in the West Bank on the units’ behavior. Dr. Eyal Levin felt that units with a gender balance tend to inhibit violence in contacts with the local population. But research by Levin as well as by professors Edna Lomski-Feder and Orna Sasson-Levy also found that when women are in the minority in a unit, they feel in competition with the men, with a need to prove themselves. As a result, they exhibit a greater tendency toward violence and do not have an inhibiting effect.

>> Read more: Netanyahu excluded from defense minister's announcement of next army chief | Analysis 

The commander of one IDF brigade in the West Bank was asked this week about the mood among his soldiers. The residual tensions from the Azaria case have dissipated, he maintained. There has been turnover by now among the vast majority of the soldiers and once the senior chain of command used the incident to hone the rules concerning what is permitted and what isn’t, this has become clearer to the soldiers too.

Is service in the West Bank particularly charged for the soldiers? On the contrary, the brigade commander asserted. “When you ask them, most of the soldiers say this is the sector where they’d prefer to serve. When they’re on the northern border or the Gaza border, usually not much happens and there isn’t always an obvious connection between all the things they’re doing and the main mission. Here they are busy all the time — patrols, guarding, arrests — and it’s very clear to them that a nighttime arrest is preventing an attack on the nearby road the next day, or even a terror attack in Jerusalem.”

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