Race to Lead Israel's Military Heats Up: The Four Men Who Could Be the Next IDF Chief

From a charismatic wunderkind to a gruff tank commander, one of these four men will soon be chosen to lead the strongest army in the Middle East

Clockwise from top left: Eyal Zamir, Yair Golan, Aviv Kochavi, and Nitzan Alon.
Amit Shabi, Tomer Appelbaum, Moti Milrod

The process of selecting the Israel Defense Forces’ next chief of staff, one of the highest-profile posts in Israel, is rarely if ever detached from political and media intrigue. But this time around new depths have been plumbed as Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the IDF spokesman have been forced to put out statements against a campaign being waged against one candidate, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan.

Four serving major generals are currently in the running. They have already been interviewed by Lieberman, who will choose his preferred candidate in consultation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and present him for the cabinet’s approval. The nominee will be portrayed as the most suitable commander to prepare the IDF for its future battles, but the decision will be heavily influenced by political considerations. These are the four candidates.

Aviv Kochavi. The current deputy chief of staff is usually viewed as the front-runner, and Kochavi is no exception. He’s the sort of charismatic paratroop officer who was singled out already a quarter-century ago when he commanded the famed Battalion 101 as someone who would reach the top.

Kochavi has made all the necessary stops along the way. He has filled all the top posts in the Paratroopers Brigade, leading its men in battles against Hezbollah in Lebanon and during the second intifada in the West Bank.

He went on to command the IDF’s elite airborne division and then the Gaza Division during the 2005 disengagement. In the General Staff he commanded the Operations Division and then as a major general filled, in quick succession, three key positions – Military Intelligence head, Northern Command chief and deputy chief of staff. He also found time to complete two master's degrees – at Harvard and Johns Hopkins.

Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.
Tomer Appelbaum

Kochavi isn’t known to ever have put a foot wrong. The closest he has ever come to controversy in the IDF happened in 2006, when the Gaza Division under his command was accused of dismissing intelligence of Hamas’ attack plans, ultimately leading to the capture of tank-crew member Gilad Shalit. But none of the officers involved were formally blamed.

If there’s anything that could possibly count against Kochavi, it’s his over-suitability. While he’s seen as having the highest chances, some of the general’s admirers fear that the two men making the decision, the painfully civilian Lieberman and Netanyahu, who has managed to be at loggerheads with every chief of staff to serve under him, will fear that Kochavi will overshadow them. They thus might prefer a less charismatic leader for Israel’s army.

Yair Golan. Having been the previous deputy chief of staff, Golan would usually be considered the second-likeliest candidate if not a front-runner for the top job. But Golan is considered as having damned himself with an unfortunate public remark. Like Kochavi, he was a promising young paratroop officer, commanding Battalion 890, the prestigious Gefen infantry officers cadet battalion and the Nahal infantry brigade.

Golan held other key operational positions both in the south Lebanon “security zone,” where he was wounded fighting Hezbollah, and during the second intifada in the West Bank. As a brigadier general he commanded both the Galilee and Judea and Samaria divisions, where he had friendly relations with the local settler leaders. He was reprimanded by the chief of staff twice, once for negotiating with the settlers to evacuate an illegally occupied building in Hebron, and for letting his troops use Palestinian civilians as “human shields.”

Deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan.
Rami Shlush

The reprimands didn’t harm his career, and as a high-flyer he was the first of the candidates to be promoted to major general, whereupon he headed both the home front and northern commands. Many insiders considered him a chief of staff-in-waiting until 2016, when on Holocaust Remembrance Day he gave a speech saying: “If there’s something that frightens me about Holocaust remembrance it’s the recognition of the revolting processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany, back then – 70, 80 and 90 years ago – and finding signs of them here among us today in 2016.”

The resulting furor earned him a rebuke from Netanyahu and the stain of a “leftist,” even though people close to him insisted that his political views are anything but left-wing. Now the subject of a smear campaign by far-right groups, the public assurances of Defense Minister Lieberman that “this will not influence the appointment of the chief of staff” have provided scant consolation.

Nitzan Alon. Diminutive and cerebral, Alon is the “thinking officer’s thinking officer,” and thinking officers rarely make it to the very top. Despite his eminent suitability as a former commander and planner of behind-enemy-lines intelligence gathering, Alon was twice passed over for the coveted position of Military Intelligence chief. Many in the IDF are surprised that he’s now being considered for chief of staff.

Most of his career was spent in the more secretive parts of the IDF – first as a fighter and officer in the Sayeret Matkal, the IDF’s most elite special-forces unit, which he eventually commanded. For the first two decades of his service, nearly everything he did remains classified. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, he commanded a major special-forces raid in the Beqaa Valley. In 2007, he was appointed to found and command the intelligence branch’s new operational division.

Olivier Fitoussi

But Alon’s next postings – as commander of the Judea and Samaria Division and then Central Command chief – brought him into the limelight and political controversy as the West Bank settlers accused him of hostility for speaking out against “an extreme minority” among them involved in anti-Arab terror attacks. In an attempt to taint him politically, stories about his wife’s membership in left-wing groups have been leaked to the media.

Since leaving the Central Command in 2015, Alon’s career has stalled somewhat. He headed the Operations Directorate, a key position that all the same was seen as a downgrade for a general of his seniority. In recent months, he has held the unofficial post of “spearheading the efforts against the Iranian threat.” Both Netanyahu and Lieberman are wary of angering their right-wing base, and Alon is seen as the least likely of the candidates to get the job.

Eyal Zamir. Currently in between positions, the gruff former tank commander is the youngest and least experienced of the candidates. Most of his career has been in the Armored Corps, once the backbone of the  Ground Forces, but in the last two decades it has been downsized, while the infantry units have been augmented.

Zamir as a colonel commanded the 7th Armored Brigade, the IDF’s oldest and most celebrated armored unit, followed by two armored divisions (reserve and regular), including the Ga’ash Division, the IDF’s largest, which is based in the Golan Heights. He also held a number of key training and planning positions in the Ground Forces Command.

Southern Command head General Eyal Zamir at the conference in Sderot on April 20, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

For decades every chief of staff (with the exception of one pilot) have been the graduates of infantry and special-forces units, but they also undertook armored combat training to enhance their chances of promotion. This is no longer the case, as the armored units and their commanders have largely been sidelined at the highest echelons.

Zamir’s only major General Staff posting has been as head of the Southern Command, but he has held one other key position, as the prime minister’s military secretary. This role, essentially the prime minister’s chief military and intelligence affairs adviser, was once filled by officers facing retirement, but in recent years it has become a job for the more ambitious.

Current Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot was also a prime minister’s military secretary. Zamir, unlike the other candidates, already has Netanyahu’s trust, which could make him the first chief of staff in 27 years wearing the Armored Corps’ unfashionable black beret.