Israel's Incoming Army Chief: A Creative Commander Who Avoids Drawing Fire

Despite a series of ordeals that could easily besmirch a career, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi managed to emerge out of all of them unscathed. A look at the man who will likely lead Israel's armed forces in the coming years

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, left, with Israel Defense Forces deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, during a tour of the Israel-Gaza border, Feb. 20, 2018.
Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry

Israeli army chief of staff nominee Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi has long been regarded as the candidate with the greatest chances of succeeding Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. The jobs he held until now have placed him at all the important stepping stones, giving him an edge in winning this post. He was commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, commander of the Gaza Division, head of Northern Command, head of military intelligence and finally, Eisenkot’s deputy.

At the same time he’s been criticized several times in the past, particularly over the capture of Gilad Shalit and the intelligence gaps in Operation Protective Edge.

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

Kochavi was recruited to the paratroopers in 1982 and moved through the chain of command from unit to company to battalion commander, before being named head of the entire Paratroopers Division in 2001. He was close to former military chief Benny Gantz, who held positions similar to his. Toward the end of his term Gantz promoted many paratrooper alumni, and Kochavi was seen as being involved in these appointments.

In 2002, when the IDF returned to West Bank cities during the second intifada, the paratroopers were under Kochavi’s command from Nablus. He proved himself to be a creative commander in Balata refugee camp: To avoid having soldiers ambushed by gunfire and explosives on the streets, he surrounded the camp and ordered searches done by breaking down the walls of homes, so as to allow movement from house to house – a method used by the IDF to this day.

Alongside the operational success, the method was criticized as bringing about unnecessary death and destruction.

Kochavi entered his next role as head of the Gaza Division at a sensitive time, November 2004, on the eve of the disengagement. But his most difficult day on the job was June 25, 2006 when he awoke at 5:21 A.M. as Hamas men were already making their way back to Gaza with soldier Gilad Shalit in tow. The next day reservist general Giora Eiland was appointed to head an investigation of what he called an “operational failure.”

It transpired that the IDF had precise intelligence information about plans by Hamas to attack the Kerem Shalom crossing that would also be a diversionary tactic as they infiltrated via a tunnel, which is in fact exactly what happened. The investigation also revealed that IDF forces had entered Gaza some two hours after Shalit’s capture had been discovered, so that the chase after the kidnappers was useless.

Despite these problematic findings, Eiland said there was no room for disciplinary action against senior officers. Kochavi’s military career was saved. His next job was operations chief, and in 2010 he was named for the prestigious job of Military Intelligence director.

As intelligence chief, Kochavi sought to revolutionize the system following intelligence failures in the Second Lebanon War. He believed the branch had to deal less with questions such as Palestinian attitudes about negotiations with Israel and more about finding terrorist groups in the field. For this purpose he recruited officers from other branches – ground forces, the air force and planning.

He is credited with upgrading intelligence technology, with an emphasis on cyber operations. In this context, there were claims that most of the soldiers involved in the technological revolution were from more privileged segments of society, who the army strengthened at the expense of recruits from the Israeli periphery.

Also during his term, alumni of the 8200 intelligence unit protested in a letter that they would not participate in intelligence gathering in the Palestinian arena due to the damage caused to the population.

In July 2014, four months before ending his intelligence duties, the IDF launched Operation Protective Edge. A comptroller’s report about the preparations for that campaign said the head of intelligence had not given sufficient weight to the threat posed by attack tunnels from Gaza.

Kochavi did not even mention the tunnels when listing the main threats against Israel in his annual intelligence review and also on the eve of the campaign. When he appeared before the security cabinet at that time, he only related to the defense tunnels inside Gaza.

The report was seen as a threat to Kochavi’s future, who was already being considered as a potential chief of staff. But the political echelons, also strongly criticized by the report, made light of it and Kochavi moved on to his next senior role as head of northern command.

A year and a half ago Kochavi replaced Yair Golan as deputy chief of staff. Perhaps under the influence of the storm surrounding his predecessor, he seemed to prefer not to stand out too much. He gave few speeches or interviews, and avoided cameras and speaking about controversial issues like the plague.

Despite all the caution he showed, Kochavi did wind up being the butt of public criticism when he testified on behalf of Brig. Gen. Ofek Buchris who had confessed to and was convicted of prohibited sexual relations with a woman soldier and inappropriate behavior toward a female officer.

Kochavi emphasized that he disapproved of Buchris’ actions but praised the values which Buchris had stood up for in the past and asked that he not be demoted, as he saw this as a “harsh punishment” (Buchris was ultimately demoted by one rank to that of lieutenant colonel).

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who recently called for a large operation in Gaza and to deal a “heavy blow” to Hamas, is expected to discover that Kochavi may not be a party to such thinking. Participants in internal military discussions in recent months believe that on the question of using force in Gaza, the chief of staff nominee is closer to Eisenkot, who has consistently expressed a preference for keeping the quiet in the south. At this time senior military officials are not expected to deviate from this cautious stance, which gives top priority to completion of a security barrier around Gaza by mid-2019.