Analysis

Israel's New Army Chief Gets to Work. This Is What Awaits Him

Any revolutionary plans Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi may have could be stalled by a prime minister busy with elections and embroiled in investigations

New IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi with an honor guard in Tel Aviv, January 15, 2019.
\ Moti Milrod

The ceremony finally took place: Aviv Kochavi replaced Gadi Eisenkot as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. One might also hope that within the next day or two, the newspaper headlines will stop looking like something out of the defunct army weekly Bamahane.

When the hype over the transfer of power subsides, the task at hand will remain. From Kochavi’s standpoint, that begins with a complex situation, with the Middle East still in turmoil and Israel suffering election fever in the run-up to the April 9 vote.

Army chiefs' terms always shift between building up power and using it, between what’s planned in advance and unforeseen developments. When Eisenkot took over in February 2015, the time seemed propitious. The following summer, the world powers signed the nuclear agreement with Iran while the civil war in Syria had worn down the remnants of Bashar Assad’s army.

That timeout gave Eisenkot the chance to push his multiyear Gideon plan, following about five years during which previous plans had been crafted only to be shelved. But even though there were no wars or major military operations on Eisenkot’s watch, military force was plentiful. The campaign between the wars, that broad series of attacks beyond Israel’s borders, expanded from a collection of nighttime bombing runs to an entire military doctrine.

Officially, two years are still left of the Gideon plan, but actually the program is nearing an end. Eisenkot, who used it to dictate a raft of changes in the IDF’s structure and priorities, didn’t manage to carry out everything he had wanted.

The stitching on the Gideon plan is currently unraveling against the backdrop of regional developments: the U.S. withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, the Russian presence in Syria (along with the apparent U.S. withdrawal from that country), the Assad regime’s victory in the civil war and the initial steps at rebuilding its army.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is now also defense minister, is sketching out his vision for IDF 2030. Netanyahu’s vision is different from Eisenkot’s. For example, the prime minister is making the ground forces a lower priority. Netanyahu is also prepared to invest a lot more money in the IDF in the coming years, a prospect that Eisenkot rejected over the past year – politely but stubbornly.

Kochavi, meanwhile, will have to adjust quickly. In all his posts so far he has been considered revolutionary, a commander who specializes in dismantling and rebuilding. This time around, the job is considerable. The following are some of his likely main challenges.

1) The regional situation. Recent years have been marked by frequent, surprising changes in the Middle East. Now too instability reigns across Israel’s borders. Contrary to the impression that Eisenkot’s farewell interviews may have created, no battle that Israel undertook was won decisively.

For the moment, Israel has halted Iran’s efforts to entrench itself in Syria, but that doesn’t mean the Revolutionary Guards have given up. Hezbollah might still try to set up weapons plants in Lebanon.

Efforts at an agreement for the Gaza Strip have only yielded temporary results, and it’s doubtful that the shipments of Qatari cash and fuel into Gaza will ensure quiet vis-à-vis Hamas over the long term. It also appears that the era of Mahmoud Abbas’ presidency of the Palestinian Authority will end on Kochavi’s watch.

2) Political sensitivity. The fact that the prime minister is also the defense minister (at least for now) means that the IDF chief reports to one person alone, in this case to someone totally preoccupied with a political and legal battle for survival. Frequent photo ops with the troops are already being used for Netanyahu’s election campaign. It’s possible that the prime minister’s recent public statements that have ended Israel’s ambiguity policy on taking responsibility for attacks in Syria are also linked to that.

Kochavi must ensure that the IDF doesn’t drown in the political morass. With the Knesset election approaching, with negotiations on a new governing coalition that could stretch into June, and with Netanyahu’s ongoing confrontation with Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit over the corruption investigations against him, it’s not clear how attentive Netanyahu will be to the revolutionary plans of a new IDF chief who can’t afford to wait too long.

3) Confusion over the ground forces. Like his predecessors, Kochavi is a sworn advocate of the importance of ground maneuvers in deciding the outcome of any war. Although Eisenkot took important steps, major gaps remain in the ground forces – between regular troops and reservists and among reserve divisions. It will be quickly understood whether Kochavi intends to seriously upgrade the ground forces and the reserves, or whether it’s just lip service.

4) The manpower crisis. The army continues to deny the seriousness of the problem regarding recruitment, where the motivation to serve in combat units has waned considerably. Then there’s the matter of career soldiers (who aren’t signing on for extensive periods in droves) and the silent flight of combat reservists from less glamorous units. Plus the army is still suffering the consequences of the layoffs of about 5,000 career soldiers.

More than his predecessors, the new chief of staff will have to maneuver in a setting that includes infantile press coverage, a vengeful political arena and hysterical social media. It wouldn’t take much for the warm embrace of the new chief of staff to turn into scathing criticism.

Kochavi has no reason to assume that his situation will be any different from his predecessor’s. Remember, he wasn’t Netanyahu’s first choice for chief of staff. In large part, the job was forced on him by the defense minister at the time, Avigdor Lieberman.

It will also be interesting to see, for example, if Kochavi’s articulateness at Tuesday’s ceremony, which almost competed with that of the prime minister, will continue to be welcomed by the ruling party’s backbenchers.