Opinion |

Israeli Chief of Staff's Performance Thus Far Is Mediocre at Best

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi
Chief of Staff Aviv KochaviCredit: Emil Salman
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi is turning to be one of the weakest and most political chiefs of staff in the history of the state, certainly in relation to his pretensions and self-image. As he enters his fourth year, which is usually the last for a chief of staff, we can already safely conclude that his performance has not been particularly impressive.

The following are just a few of his resounding failures: He promotes appointments of officers who have failed and broken the rules, demonstrates a lack of sensitivity to the Israelis’ social and economic needs, gives a stamp of approval to superficial investigations and whitewashes, avoids handling the sensitive issues related to integrating women and ultra-Orthodox men into the Israel Defense Forces, and drags his heels when it comes to dealing with Jewish violence and terror.

In relation to building power and deploying it in Syria for the clandestine war against Iran, special operations in Gaza, Sinai and against Hezbollah, and in the so-called war between the wars as well as in distant theaters such as the Red Sea and Yemen, Kochavi has more or less continued the approach of his predecessor, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. But here, too, there is a gap between Kochavi’s declarations and lofty words, and his performance in the field.

There are two blatant examples. Kochavi spoke about the fact that the IDF has to be more “lethal” and try harder to achieve “victory.” But in fact during Operation Guardian of the Walls in Gaza last May he failed in Operation Lighting Strike, an attempt to trap and kill Hamas members in the underground tunnels “Metro” in Gaza.

Two months later, a Hezbollah squad crossed the border with Israel in the northern Har Dov area. The soldiers in the outpost chased them away by firing from a distance and above their heads in order not to harm them and avoid an escalation of the situation. That’s not exactly an example of a “lethal” response and an attempt to make contact with the enemy.

Kochavi could have been the ultimate chief of staff. He grew up in the paratroop brigade. He expresses himself well, is intelligent, demonstrates self-confidence and looks like a general. It’s no wonder that sky-high hopes were pinned on Kochavi when he assumed the position. But it is just these qualities that are proving to be obstacles.

As someone who studied philosophy at university, Kochavi tends to philosophize and to become intoxicated by his own words. He often talks about the fact that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah should be called “terror armies” rather terror organizations, as though semantics will change the reality.

That is why the disappointment is as great as were the expectations. His judgment has turned out to be problematic. He chose his confidant Gil Messing, a junior officer with the rank of captain in the reserves, for the job of IDF spokesperson, and wanted to promote him to the rank of colonel, without checking his past. He changed his mind when it turned out that Messing had relations with the police. The spokesperson who was chosen, Brig. Gen. Hedy Zilberman, was promoted about two years later to the rank of major general and was sent to be the IDF attache in Washington.

For over two years during the tenure of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kochavi was careful to take no stand about the relationship between the IDF and civil society. He tried to avoid any values-based statements that might arouse the anger of right-wing circles and get him into trouble. “It’s not necessary to react to every incident,” he said a few months after assuming his position, when asked about an incident that deviated from IDF combat norms. It’s fortunate that he was not chief of staff during the Elor Azaria affair, in which a soldier was convicted of manslaughter after shooting a disarmed Palestinian terrorist.

In another incident, it took Kochavi two days to condemn the sickening verbal attack by Bibi-ist demonstrators on the family of Tom Farkash, a pilot who had lost his life during the Second Lebanon War. That was also the policy that guided Kochavi to honor Netanyahu’s “spirit of the commander,” namely the government coalition, and avoid confronting rabbis on issues of gender and religion.

Several accidents took place during his tenure, including friendly-fire incidents that ended in the deaths of soldiers in elite units like the paratroopers reconnaissance battalion and the commando brigade due to a disdain for regulations and the safety directives. Instead of acting forcefully to uproot the IDF’s weakening discipline, he supported and promoted some of the officers who had disobeyed orders and refused to take responsibility.

On Tuesday, we had another example of that, when Kochavi rejected the recommendations of chief investigator Maj. Gen. (res.) Noam Tibon to oust the commander of the elite Egoz commando unit and downplayed the severity of the incident in which two officers were killed by friendly fire.

Shortly after his appointment, basking in his slogans, Kochavi adopted the line from a song by the Nahal army entertainment troupe – “cannons instead of socks” – and stressed that in order for the army to be more “lethal” and efficient, combat soldiers should receive priority over Home Front soldiers. But in fact he fought to increase the pensions of those serving in the regular army and left behind the soldiers doing compulsory service, who bear the military burden on a daily basis.

He neglected issues of logistical support, an improvement in the quality of the food, medical treatment, housing and training bases. Only after public pressure, when Kochavi discovered that the IDF also marches on its stomach and sleeps on its mattresses, did he give in.

He also gave in to the political leadership and remained silent when Netanyahu and his political adviser, Meir Ben Shabbat, allowed former U.S. President Donald Trump to sell F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates.

No less serious is Kochavi’s foot-dragging in the face of Jewish terror in the occupied territories. In October 2019, after another incident in which Jewish rioters harmed Palestinians near the settlement of Yitzhar, Kochavi said he would be personally involved in eliminating “the criminal behavior” and “do everything possible in order to bring them to justice.” So he said.

The hilltop youth continue to celebrate while the police, the Shin Bet security service and the IDF stand by idly and turn a blind eye. A few days ago in a cabinet meeting he confronted Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev, saying that handling incidents like these was not the responsibility of the army.

When we examine Kochavi’s tenure we also have to take into account extenuating circumstances not dependent on him. During the first two years of his term the COVID-19 pandemic ran riot and stole attention from the IDF. The political crisis of three election campaigns and the change of defense ministers did not make things easy for him. Although he has not been challenged thus far by a serious military conflict, Kochavi did not take advantage of that in order to improve and advance the IDF. He is allowing it to stagnate.

In most of the important events and tests of his term, he has demonstrated a lack of leadership, faulty judgment and insensitivity. When I call Israel’s 22nd chief of staff a political chief of staff, I do not mean that he is politically or ideologically biased but that he is calculating and has ambitions to enter politics after his retirement and at the end of the cooling-off period. When he does, he is likely to meet former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen. The two have quite a lot in common.

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