Israeli Army Running Out of Talented, Experienced Senior Officers

Israel's most serious security challenge will likely be in the north, where it will not only face veteran Iranian officers, but also a new generation of Hezbollah commanders

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israel's military chief Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, September 7, 2017.
Israel's military chief Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, September 7, 2017.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The list of senior appointments in the Israeli army drew an extraordinary amount of attention from the Israeli public last week.

First came the joint announcement by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot on new appointments to the 2018 General Staff – with particular public focus on the new Military Intelligence chief and heads of the central and southern commands.

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Then came a political storm over Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter, whose candidature for the position of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s military secretary was refused by Eisenkot.

Lieberman and Eisenkot decided to appoint Maj. Gen. Tamir Heyman – currently commander of the IDF’s military colleges and the Northern Corps, to head Military Intelligence. Heyman won out over the Central Command chief, Maj. Gen. Roni Numa.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, left, with Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Roni Numa in 2015.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, left, with Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Roni Numa in 2015.Credit: IDF Spokesman

The possible promotion of another experienced officer, Operations Directorate head Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, seems not to have been considered seriously in the present round of appointments.

The result is that both Numa and Alon will both probably retire from the IDF in the coming year. For the longer serving Alon, this is a development that has been brewing since the previous round of appointments three years ago, when political pressure from the right put the kibosh on his appointment to head Military Intelligence. And Numa’s addition to the list of those leaving before their time is not good news.

In general, it is better for the media not to involve itself in IDF appointments and not to make recommendations on who should or shouldn’t be appointed to top positions. It’s doubtful that journalists, as experienced and knowledgeable as they may be, have the skills to determine with certainty whether candidate A. is more talented than candidate B.

Often, these journalistic judgments are influenced by personal connections and attempts to promote hidden agendas. It is similar to the pressures applied by sports writers on soccer coaches to play their favorite forwards. But Heyman and Numa are not soccer players, and the matter at stake is probably a bit more important than a soccer game.

The claims heard against Heyman’s appointment to head Military Intelligence are not serious. Heyman is a smart officer who has proven his ability to learn quickly, and demonstrated a strong backbone in his various positions. The issue is not the choice of Heyman, but the decision-making process that forces out some of the army’s most talented and experienced officers.

The most serious security challenge Israel will likely face in the next two years concerns events in the north, where the Lebanese and Syrian borders are gradually forming into a single, broad front. On the other side of this long border, the IDF could face not only veteran officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, who will try to operate various Shi’ite militias against Israel, but also a new generation of Hezbollah commanders. These are officers with five years’ experience of fierce and complex fighting in the Syrian civil war. This is a militant, self-confident generation – and it seems the fact they have survived the horrible war in Syria has convinced them they could face the IDF on the battlefield as equals.

During the long civil war in Syria, Israel has enjoyed a period of relative quiet, a blessing in its own right. IDF commanders’ main combat experience over the past decade was in Gaza, in limited operations in which they fought Hamas – an inferior enemy compared to Hezbollah – yet most of these battles ended with unconvincing results.

Over this period, for various reasons – usually disciplinary or criminal in nature – the IDF was forced to part with a long line of senior commanders who had accumulated extensive and vital experience during the years of fighting in Lebanon and the occupied territories.

Numa’s career is not blemished by such stains. He has years of experience behind him as the commander of two elite special forces units (Duvdevan and Shaldag); a regular army infantry brigade (Nahal); an elite division (the 98th Paratroopers); and two regional commands – Central Command and, for a short time, the long-range operations Depth Corps. He has served on all the fronts in which the IDF faces the threat of guerrilla warfare and terrorism from non-state players, which will most likely remain relevant for years to come.

Military sources say Numa is on his way out because he was not promoted in the latest round of senior appointments. Letting him go without finding a creative solution to keep him in the IDF would be a continuation of previous mistakes, which have left the IDF with too few experienced commanders.

There is another point worth mentioning: In an ideal situation, defense ministers aspire to have spares at their disposal when candidates vie for senior appointments – at least two realistic candidates for every position – to guarantee a selection process that will allow a real contest without constraints.

As things currently stand, just over a year before a new chief of staff is due to be appointed, Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi is almost the sole candidate to inherit Eisenkot’s job. And the next deputy chief of staff may be Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, simply because he will be the only senior candidate left standing – if Numa and Alon retire.

Given Israel’s security situation, in which flare-ups or unexpected failures sometimes lead to a wave of forced retirements – as happened after the Second Lebanon War in 2006 – Lieberman could very well find himself with too few options.