Israel’s Military Chief Had Big Plans, but the New Abnormal Got in the Way

The three general elections in 11 months and the coronavirus crisis have battered Israel’s economy. So Aviv Kochavi, who tries to avoid clashes with Benjamin Netanyahu, is trimming his wish list

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv KochaviCredit: Moti Milrod
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

The chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Aviv Kochavi, recently reconciled with his predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot. The two lieutenant generals had been at odds personally, not professionally – their relationship soured when, upon taking over, Kochavi made a few statements perceived as critical of how the IDF was managed during Eisenkot’s stint. One was Kochavi’s comment on the need for a “lethal” military, implying that this wasn’t sufficiently the case under Eisenkot.

Kochavi has abundant talents and qualities that would be a boon to anyone, certainly anyone in the military. He has been an outstanding soldier and officer, and clearly has courage, not to mention the classic look of a top general and an assertiveness and resolve that radiate charisma. He is highly articulate, but maybe because of his Hebrew University philosophy degree, his language sometimes gets a bit flowery. For example, he coined the term “armies of terror” regarding Hezbollah and Hamas, in lieu of “terrorist organizations.”

Unlike his predecessor, Kochavi is also very careful to sidestep minefields in areas where the army and civil society rub up against each other. (For example, the case of Elor Azaria, the soldier who in 2016 shot dead a Palestinian assailant already lying motionless on the ground.)

Kochavi’s approach to blatant violations of procedures and orders is somewhat forgiving. It’s not that he doesn’t insist on adherence to ethics codes and proper behavior – ultimately he’ll punish soldiers or officers who deserve it. But with him this will be done as a last resort.

Meanwhile, he froze the integration of female soldiers into tank crews and didn’t express an opinion on the High Court petition by young women who sought a place in the Sayeret Matkal commando unit. He isn’t forceful enough in rebuffing efforts of religious indoctrination in the IDF, and he has made a number of questionable appointments.

Kochavi’s efforts to avoid trouble aren’t due to some basic personality trait. They’re because he’s a very political IDF chief of staff – not in the sense of left or right, but in his desire to maintain smooth relations with the decision-makers, to avoid angering the prime minister and to avert arguments.

Not long ago when Israel went through three general elections in 11 months, Benjamin Netanyahu was also defense minister and often toured the various fronts to be photographed there. Another chief of staff might have opted not to accompany the prime minister, certainly on the visits that reeked of politics.

Kochavi chose to participate. In a recent military graduation ceremony, he also alluded to, without mentioning it specifically, the legal dispute between Mohammed Bakri, creator of the film “Jenin, Jenin,” and soldiers and officers who are again suing him for slander.

IDF chief Aviv Kochavi, front right, visiting troops in the Galilee. Credit: IDF

The limits of pretension

It’s not surprising that there is already talk about Kochavi setting his sights on a career in politics. But after 19 months on the job – nearly 40 percent of his tenure if it’s not extended – it appears he’s beginning to comprehend the vast chasm between rhetoric, hopes and plans on the one hand and reality on the other – and the need to find the balance. As far as strategy, statesmanship and the military are concerned, one could say that Kochavi has begun to grasp the limits of power. On the personal level, “the limits of pretension” would be more apt.

Kochavi was irked by a number of recent events, and on top of that had to go into isolation twice during the coronavirus crisis. Contrary to his wishes, compulsory military service for men was shortened to two and a half years.

And contrary to Kochavi’s position, Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered that preparations begin for all Military Intelligence units (including the famed 8200, the research department, the technology unit and special operations) to be transferred to the new IDF intelligence headquarters, without waiting for the government to ensure that a new Israel Railways line is up and running. The construction of that headquarters in the south will be completed in about four years.

The Sayeret Matkal is also supposed to move from its base in the center of the country to the Negev, and if all goes as planned, five years from now about 40 percent of IDF staffing will be in the south, in the spirit of David Ben-Gurion’s vision.

But the hardest blow for Kochavi was the realization that he wouldn’t be able to realize his strategic vision, as he hoped to see reflected in his five-year plan for the military. With his fondness for words, he described his ambition in a long sentence fragment:

“Significantly increasing the military advantage to ensure that the enemy is quickly and soundly defeated, along with improving preparedness in accordance with the characteristics of the armies of terror and their well-entrenched steep-trajectory capabilities [rockets] via change and modernization that will effectively strengthen the professional edge.”

In other words, Kochavi had an elaborate plan: a seven-fold increase in the quality and quantity of the destruction of enemy targets at the start of a war, cyberattacks and electronic warfare as part of the combat, the acquisition of thousands of exploding “suicide” drones, and a greater precision capability in missiles, rockets and jets, as well as in naval and ground forces.

The five-year plan, however, “suffices with” the establishment of a new division, the purchase of more F-35s, an additional F-15 squadron, new helicopters and aerial refueling aircraft, and the closing down of Armored Corps battalions. Kochavi also supported an idea that was proposed by Netanyahu and was later shelved: an annual increase in the defense budget by 4 billion shekels ($1.2 billion) until 2030.

It’s not Kochavi’s fault that his plans were shattered. Until a few weeks ago, he still hoped that somehow, with the aid of some deus ex machina, he’d be able to get at least some of his plans approved. Now it’s clear that this is not going to happen, certainly not while Netanyahu and his partner in the unity government, Gantz, continue feuding over the budget.

The reality encountered by Kochavi since he took over – the prolonged political uncertainty followed by the coronavirus crisis – has seriously stung Israel’s economy and budget deficit. All projections now point to an economy shrinking by around 6 percent in 2020, putting the country on the brink of a recession.

Naftali Bennett, who had just stepped down as defense minister, at a briefing with IDF chief Aviv Kochavi and his deputy, Eyal Zamir, in Tel Aviv, May 27, 2020.Credit: Ariel Hermony / Defense Ministry

No one wants a war

The IDF budget for 2019 was 72.9 billion shekels and was composed of three parts. The first part was a dollar budget of $3.8 billion (13 billion shekels) set until 2028 (the defense aid from the United States), a half-billion dollars of which is slated for developing and equipping the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow air defense systems.

The second and major part is domestic spending of 55.3 billion shekels, while the third consists of “revenue-dependent expenditures” – spending generated by the sale of land and the exporting of old equipment by the Defense Ministry.

Kochavi is doing his best to navigate things amid all the economic uncertainty; he began by holding discussions on the six-month intelligence assessment. (A serious weight has been lifted from his shoulders with the West Bank annexation idea apparently fading for good.)

And he has made a series of decisions including: closing down a squadron at the Ramat David air base, closing down the Merkava 2 and Merkava 3 tank battalions, proposing that Army Radio be separated from the military and Defense Ministry (which evidently won’t happen), continuing to add six F-35s per year, establishing another squadron (probably F-15s) by the end of the decade, acquiring more Namer armored personnel carriers, and keeping the Merkava tank production line in operation as needed.

The pandemic, however, also presents Kochavi and the IDF with certain advantages. Soldiers, young officers and NCOs nearing the end of their service won’t be in a hurry to be discharged. With a long trip abroad no longer possible and the number of tempting jobs in high-tech on the decline, it has become more appealing to remain in uniform a bit longer.

Kochavi, who is largely a pessimist and considers Iran a bitter enemy, is also taking advantage of the fact that Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas are now consumed with problems at home – under his command, the number of airstrikes attributed to the air force and the number of secret intelligence operations near and far from Israel’s borders have grown.

All assessments, including those by Kochavi and Military Intelligence, say that Israel’s enemies don’t want a war right now and that a balance of mutual deterrence exists.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: