Analysis

To Get Israel Ready for War, New Army Chief Needs to Fight a Different Battle

For big plans, you need a big budget

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi .
Gil Eliahu

Back in February 2015, in the speech he gave upon becoming chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot mentioned the need to keep war at a distance. Last week, his successor, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, emphasized the deadliness with which he wants to endow the IDF. That was not, as some journalists concluded mistakenly, a call to revise the IDF’s rules of engagement or a belated expression of support for Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot the prostrate Palestinian in Hebron and whose trial stirred a furor during Eisenkot’s term.

Kochavi was marking out a direction for the future, and to some extent responding to the criticism of Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik, the outgoing IDF ombudsman, regarding the level of readiness for combat among the IDF’s ground forces. Many journalists have apparently tired of Brik’s warnings, but within the army, they continue to resonate. Israel’s Kan public television this week broadcast an hour-long program in which Brik’s complaints were pitted against comments by retired IDF generals who sided with the outgoing chief of staff against the ombudsman. Let’s put it this way: The army can only hope that the remarks offered by Eisenkot’s supporters on that program will not be available for rebroadcast in the future, in the event of another war.

A closer reading of Kochavi’s inaugural speech shows that his intention is to augment the IDF’s ability to strike at the enemy and to improve its combat effectiveness. Brig. Gen. (res.) Itay Brun, from the Institute of National Security Studies – who headed the research division under Kochavi when the latter was director of Military Intelligence – told Army Radio that Kochavi aims to take the army Eisenkot molded forward to the next stage. The goal, in war, is “to achieve an unequivocally decisive result by destroying a larger number of targets,” Brun said. Underlying these generalities is a substantive dilemma, entailing a need for the outlay of many billions of dollars, and whatever is decided, it will affect the IDF’s ability to win in a war.

In the months ahead, the new chief of staff will have to decide on the direction to be taken in the IDF’s force-building efforts in the next multiyear plan. Even though Eisenkot’s multiyear plan, code-named Gideon, technically still has almost two years to run, it’s clear to the General Staff that changes and adaptations are required ahead of the new plan and in light of strategic developments in the region (Assad’s victory in the Syrian civil war; the heightened Russian presence in Syria and U.S. withdrawal; and Washington’s retreat from the nuclear agreement with Iran).

Kochavi will also face budgetary difficulties. The danger of a worldwide economic crisis is looming this year, and Israel, with its export-oriented economy, could be seriously affected. At the end of 2015, Eisenkot, in a clever political maneuver, initiated an agreement between Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. The treasury undertook to put a fixed and stable budget at the IDF’s disposal (31 billion shekels, or about $7.75 billion a year for the army’s operational needs alone), while the defense establishment promised not to ask for additional sums. The former chief of staff was as good as his word, even when the circumstances changed and Netanyahu and Lieberman offered him more money. His insistence on keeping his part of the bargain word was parlayed into maximum influence on the treasury and allowed him to advance other projects.

Kochavi apparently believes that the IDF needs more money to implement its plans. The public wrangling between the IDF and the treasury can be expected to renew after the election. Taking into account the articulateness and persuasiveness of the new chief of staff, we can look forward to an interesting clash. But the directions the investments will take have to be made clear in the coming months. The IDF needs a plan, even if the country’s leaders are now occupied with other troubles: investigations, an election and possible security crises in the north and in Gaza.

New spirit

Kochavi’s short, impressive speech at his inaugural event mentioned deadliness, innovation and efficiency. He recalled the oath he took when he was first drafted and explained that it was now being renewed more intensively, as he takes the reins as army chief. He emphasized the importance of victory, which he termed “the entire essence” of the IDF.

He noted that the IDF is “the people’s army for the defense of the people” and added that it operates “according to the law, the decisions of the government of Israel and in the spirit of the values of the Jewish people.” (In the past dozen years, a new religious element – a visit to the Western Wall – which did not exist in the past, has become part of the installation of a new chief of staff. The same was true this week.) But equally interesting is what the speech did not contain. Unmentioned in Kochavi’s remarks was the “Spirit of the IDF,” the army’s ethical code – which the IDF itself describes on its website as “the identity card of... IDF values, which should stand as the foundation of all of the activities of every IDF soldier, on regular or reserve duty.”