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Want to Be Israel's Military Chief? Command the Paratroopers First

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi at the Knesset.
Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi at the Knesset.Credit: Lior Mizrahi
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

A combat officer in his mid-20s wondering whether to pursue a military career must ask himself, should I go for the big one, like Mota Gur and Ehud Barak's generations earlier who rose to chief of staff, or Ariel Sharon (who never made it)? As a goal, it is as distant as it is ambitious, but he needs to begin planning his pathway. So what should he do about it? What units and which track will lead him there?

As can be seen from the careers of the three major generals – Eyal Zamir, Yoel Strick and Herzi Halevi – Defense Minister Benny Gantz is interviewing for the position of the 23rd chief of staff, the answer is clear, if not decisive: The young officer should find his way to the job of Paratroopers Brigade commander in the standing army, which was given the number 202 when Sharon founded it and was later changed to 35.

Nothing is ever certain in the Israel Defense Forces, and the circumstances under which the chiefs of staff in the middle of this century will be chosen could end up being quite different than they are now (if, indeed, there will even be a need for the IDF when peace on earth comes). But the young commander would do best to look back at the career trajectories of chiefs of staff in recent decades. By carefully examining them, he can plan for his future with a good deal of confidence.

On the way to becoming a candidate for chief of staff, every senior officer has to have filled more than half a dozen posts – usually three as a colonel, at least two as a brigadier general and as a rule another three as a major general. At every level, there are key positions that those expected to advance in the ranks must assume – commander of a regional brigade (since the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, mostly in the West Bank); division commander, with an emphasis on the West Bank and Jordan Valley; and head of a regional command. Zamir and Halevi held that latter post in the south, and Strick in the north.

However, this career recipe can have at times contain different ingredients. Zamir, for example, was the prime minister’s military aide, as was the previous chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot; Halevi was head of Military Intelligence, as was the present chief of staff Aviv Kochavi; Strick was the head of the ground forces, as was Gantz and Dan Shomron, who founded the branch in its previous incarnation.

The job that is most likely of all to lead to the top is the most senior position available to a major general, that of deputy chief of staff. In the history of the IDF, only one-and-a-half times was a general appointed chief of staff without first serving as deputy – once in the case of Mota Gur, who was only the head of a regional command (the Northern Command, twice) and the military attaché to Washington, and a half time, in the case of Yoav Gallant, who was only a military aide and regional commander, but whose appointment was withdrawn.

Being deputy chief of staff automatically turns an officer into a candidate for chief of staff, one capable of the ultimate promotion. The assumption is that the job will expose him to the kind of problems he has had no experience in dealing with as an officer in the field and will teach how to operate in the highest echelons of power, both on the army and civilian side. Deputy chief of staff is a scarce resource that can’t be wasted on more than two generals every three or four years, unless a deputy insists on retiring, as happened with Moshe Kaplinsky and Dan Harel under Ashkenazi.

This is why only under exceptional situations are either of the two most recent deputy chiefs of staff ever rejected for the top job in favor of an ordinary major general. Strick is smart enough to know that. Contests, such as the one in 2010, when Barak signaled his preference for Gallant and Eisenkot over Gantz are quite rare. In light of the hesitation to appoint Gantz, two more generals who headed the Central Command and who were not deputies, (Avi Mizrahi and Gadi Shamni) were also considered as candidates.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at Mount Herzl, last Tuesday.Credit: Olivia Pitusi

It would seem there are many roads to the top in the IDF, but serving a stint as commander of a regular army brigade is considered essential. Here, too, a few exceptions can be found in the careers of Moshe Levy and Dan Halutz. But the young combat officer planning his upward ascent cannot count on it. He would do best to stick to the general rule of the past decades, which grants clear preference to the commander of the 35th Brigade over his counterpart in the five other infantry brigades, the armored brigades and the special forces units whose commanders have the rank of colonel (Sayeret Matkal and the Flotilla 13 naval commandos).

Even though many paratrooper commanders became major generals in their time, before the mid-1990s, Rafael (Raful) Eitan was the only to become chief of staff. Shomron, commander of the 890th paratrooper battalion and later the chief infantry and paratroop officer (in the first post serving under the commander of the Paratroopers Brigade and the second over him) was the commander of the 401st armored brigade in the standing army. The same went for Barak, who may have worn a red beret but was from Sayeret Matkal and not the paratroopers.

The situation changed radically with the appointment of Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who was the first of three consecutive 35th Brigade commanders over a period of 11 years to serve as chief of staff (the others were Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Ya’alon). After Ya’alon, the paratroopers’ stock fell briefly in favor of the Air Force and Golani Brigade, but it resumed with the appointments of Gantz and Kochavi. This trend is expected to continue with Halevi.

The 23rd IDF chief of staff is expected to serve through the end of 2026. In other words, over the three decades beginning with Shahak and likely ending with Halevi, six out of nine chiefs of staff will have been paratroop commanders. Ashkenazi and Eisenkot, who used to joke about the characteristics attributed to the riflemen of the first brigade (Golani) would say that this calculation was not too hard even for a Golani fighter.

Two-thirds paratroopers, one-third all the rest. As usual in the IDF, the fact that you served in the position earns more points than the quality of the job you did – brand is more important than substance. Still, there is room for truly outstanding commanders, such as Brig. Gen. Shlomi Binder, who has been commander of Sayeret Matkal and the Golani Brigade, to emerge as a candidate for chief of staff at the end of the decade. But the Binders, who in no way fall short of the commanders of the 35th Brigade, are still a minority.

Kochavi both reflects and maintains this supremacy. The presence of three major generals from Golani is a mirage, because two of them (the head of the manpower directorate, Yaniv Asor, and the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Ghassan Alian) advanced in rank but are no longer performing military command duties. Only Tamir Yadai, the head of the Ground Forces Command and a candidate for the next deputy chief of staff, has a chance of being in the running (at age 57, as is Amir Baram from the paratroopers) for 24th chief of staff.

The main thing that will affect the decision is the identity of the defense minister, because since the era of Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, prime ministers have tended not to fight with their defense ministers over naming chiefs of staff and have approved their recommendations, even if they were unhappy with them. The political situation is today is too fragile to predict what will be even next week, and we are not even talking about the night after the next election. But lacking any other guidance, it would be best for the young officer thinking about his next steps to make himself worthy of commanding a paratrooper battalion and/or special forces unit, and later command the 35th Brigade.

If he sticks with it, he will have a two-to-one chance of entering the final pool of candidates for chief of staff. The chances of a colonel whose regular army brigade command was Golani, Nahal, Givati or Kfir (perhaps, the naval commando, but it is too young a unit to have created enough data for comparison) may bask in their glory but will have less than a 35 percent chance of every attaining the top job.

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