Analysis |

Israeli Army Chief Makes a Hastened Withdrawal

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Chief of Staff Aviv Kochaviat a memorial ceremony for Yitzhak Rabin, Monday.
Chief of Staff Aviv Kochaviat a memorial ceremony for Yitzhak Rabin, Monday.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The mini-storm generated this week by an item broadcast by public broadcaster Kan reporter Gili Cohen caught Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi unprepared. Cohen reported that Kochavi is currently writing a book that analyzes military leadership. The manuscript was submitted for the perusal of the ministerial committee that authorizes the publication of texts by senior civil servants.

Kochavi was immediately assailed by journalists and Twitter users who wondered where the chief of staff finds the time to write a book dealing with theoretical matters amid a frenetic security situation and when he is finally getting an enlarged budget to implement his multiyear plan. The response of the IDF spokesperson, which sounded like it had been dictated by the chief of staff, wasn’t especially convincing. The army claimed that the manuscript hadn’t yet been edited and that no decision had yet been made about whether to publish it and, if so, when. That sounds like a bit of a panicky retreat caused by the broadcast of the report. Kochavi would not have sent the book to the committee for its approval if he hadn’t planned to publish it. (In the meantime, he withdrew the request form that was submitted to the committee; the book will likely be published in an internal army format, which does not require special authorization.)

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The fact that Kochavi is writing should not come as a surprise. He was always a book person and an intellectual, and he has engaged intensively both in dismantling and reassembling organizational structures and in a philosophical discussion about the subject in every senior post he’s held in the IDF. In whatever position he holds, Kochavi is constantly occupied with the legacy he will leave behind and with the image of his activity, as it is reflected back to the public, not least because he also apparently harbors political ambitions in the long term. As he approaches the end of his third year (of four) as chief of staff, it is almost self-evident that the book will be constructed in a way that will define the narrative of his term in the most important military position of all.

The reason for surprise, and even for a certain worry, lies elsewhere. As in the case of a number of storms that have rocked the IDF lately – the dispute over the pension supplements, the killing of the sniper Barel Hadaria Shmueli on the Gaza Strip border, the death of the intelligence officer T. in a military prison – the chief of staff and his aides did not detect the intensity of the explosion that would be triggered when they stepped on the public land mine. It’s a recurring phenomenon: civilians from Mars, officers from Venus. Kochavi simply does not understand why the media, and sometimes sections of public opinion, are getting on his case.

It also has to do with the working environment that the chief of staff cultivates. Kochavi is in fact far more polite and less aggressive than some of his predecessors, who displayed tyrannical inclinations. But he, too, is not a big fan of internal critique. And when the people around you create an echo chamber that specializes in emphasizing the positive side of every decision and every move by the chief of staff, it’s hard to expect a useful process of critique, examination and improvement.

That was very discernible in connection with the operation in the Gaza Strip in May. Anyone who heard the chief of staff and some of the major generals formed the impression that it was one of the most magnificent operations in the history of the IDF (the idea of awarding a ribbon to those who participated in the operation is apparently still being considered). The disparity of appraisals here, between them and the mid-level officers in the field, is as deep as it is disturbing. There were in fact some achievements in the operation: an upgrade of the work of intelligence and firing systems, the thwarting of all Hamas’ offensive initiatives, and particularly high missile intercept rates by the Iron Dome. But it’s enough to know that Hamas has regained almost all the easements that it had before the operation, which indicate that no significant change occurred in the strategic balance between the sides.

On top of this is the episode of the bombing of the “metro” – the network of subterranean tunnels in the Strip. As was already reported in Haaretz during the operation, the IDF refrained from implementing in full the deceptive maneuver it had planned before the tunnels were bombed, which was supposed to include a limited entry of armored and infantry forces into the enclave. Hamas was not frightened by the pre-bombing move, and its forces did not take shelter in the tunnels as the IDF had hoped. The result is that only a few Hamas operatives were killed in the air raid, rather than the hundreds that the original plan envisaged.

These events are closely bound up with the two large clouds that hang over the IDF, which have been surveyed with (admittedly) a degree of obsessiveness in the past decade: the condition and status of the ground forces, and the level of motivation for combat service, which affects the quality of command. Kochavi rejects this criticism almost absolutely. Last week he said that the army’s ground maneuver capability has “been enhanced and improved,” and that a “continuing rise” in motivation has been recorded in the past two years.

In contrast to some of his predecessors who made similar grand claims, the present chief of staff is indeed a visionary and a revolutionary. Kochavi is leading a series of far-reaching changes in the IDF. Now, following the upgraded budget he received from the government, he also has more resources to continue to implement them. But there are also looming questions about his plans. Will the technological breakthroughs (drones, an array of collection sensors, networked systems for control and command) in fact be manifested successfully in the true test, the battlefield? And can they be converted, effectively and rapidly, from being the preserve of a few elite units into assets that are at the disposal of the entire combat system, from generals to the generality?

The danger with every comprehensive reform is that the senior levels will float in the upper spheres, immersed in cogitations about the future, while the junior and mid-level commanders are preoccupied with the daily problems, from the transport vehicle that didn’t show up, to the soldier who doesn’t want to go on serving in the spearhead company. It appears that the narrowing of these gaps is what will decide, in the coming year and a quarter, how the chief of staff’s term will be remembered. The book can wait.

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