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Kochavi, the IDF Abandoned Its Principles on Your Watch. Now You Speak Out?

A good chief of staff makes it clear from the start that he won’t tolerate violence against Palestinians and left-wing activists, not after turning a blind eye for four years

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid, earlier this year.Credit: Rami Shllush
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Honorable Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, good morning. So now you wake up? You’re completing a term of four years and only now you remember to take a sharp, clear position?

Over the weekend you published a letter to Israel Defense Forces soldiers and called on them to behave in the spirit of “IDF values.” You mentioned the document called the “Spirit of the IDF,” which maintains that “the IDF is a ‘people’s army,’ nonpartisan, subject to the law and the Israeli government. IDF soldiers will act only with the mission, IDF values and national security in mind, and they will do so with integrity, diligence and propriety.”

During your tenure, the IDF closed its eyes and ears to all these lofty principles. The letter was published in the wake of the violent incident documented in Hebron, when a soldier from the Givati Brigade demonstrated his skill at martial arts and boxing with an impressive blow to the face of a left-wing activist. Another soldier resorted to profanity and mentioned what awaits (he didn’t use this word, but was probably referring to “traitors”) with the appointment of Itamar Ben-Gvir as national security minister.

To lend moral validity to your letter, you reach high and quote the founding father of the IDF. And these were the words of the first prime minister and defense minister, David Ben-Gurion, to IDF officers in 1959: “We must make great efforts to maintain the qualitative, ethical, cultural and professional supremacy [of the army].” These are really strong words, honorable chief of staff. You often use the words “values,” “the spirit of the IDF,” “nonpartisan,” “morality.” But lofty words that are not accompanied by actions are meaningless.

If you really feared for “the spirit of the IDF” and its “values,” you should already, in your first day on the job, have assembled the brigade and division commanders and made it clear to them, in unequivocal language, that you would not remain silent in the face of any incident, large or small, of violence against Palestinians or Israelis in the West Bank. Every battalion, brigade and division commander in whose jurisdiction there were unacceptable actions would bear direct responsibility and be severely punished. Not the gatekeeper or the junior officer, but the senior link in the chain of command. That is the meaning of command responsibility.

But you, the commander of the IDF, ignored hundreds of incidents of violence by hilltop youth and settlers against Palestinians and left-wing activists. Whenever Palestinians and leftists arrived at areas of friction such as Hebron and the South Hebron Hills, soldiers and officers made sure to distance them imperiously, rudely and often violently, supposedly in the name of keeping the peace and maintaining law and order.

In most cases the soldiers under your command identified totally with the settler lawbreakers, or at best behaved as though they were from the United Nations – separating the attacker from his victim. In light of the shocking incidents that reverberated widely, the IDF spokesperson published anemic announcements about “sharpening the regulations.” They have been sharpened so much that they are already worn out. These “aberrant” incidents are no longer aberrant in many of the battalions and brigades, which are sent on policing missions in the West Bank that were not the army’s original purpose.

It’s true that the occupation has been destroying every fiber of Israeli society for the past 55 years, and the violence from the West Bank is also spilling over into the public domain within the boundaries of the Green Line, but it gets worse every year. Every year another red line is crossed. In the past, most of the chiefs of staff tried to fight the trend or at least reduce it. That’s what Gadi Eisenkot did in the Elor Azaria affair, and that’s what Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon did when he warned against the IDF turning into a collection of gangs.

You, Lt. Gen. Kochavi, accepted the process or preferred to close your eyes. There are many examples. You gently reprimanded brigade commander Roi Zweig, who made a clearly political statement to the effect that the soldiers “have the privilege of restoring the honor of the land and the people of Israel.” Brigade commander Yishai Rosilio, who is now commander of the Hebron sector, was promoted to his position even though while commander of the patrol battalion of the Paratroops Brigade, he refused to take responsibility for his negligence that ended in the death by drowning of one of your soldiers. During your tenure there were many cover-ups of investigations and promotions of officers who acted wrongly – actions that made it possible to entrench the culture of lies that is spreading in the IDF.

There is a line connecting your command of the IDF in the West Bank, your feeble response to the violence of the settlers, and your forgiving attitude towards commanders who did wrong, such as Lt. Col. Rosilio. This is the line that shows you behaved more like a politician than a commander who demonstrates leadership and is willing to confront his superiors and subordinates. Not that it helps you. The statements criticizing you in recent days – Yair Netanyahu retweeted a tweet that called on you to shove your letter up … – prove that there are times when a compromising attitude doesn’t pay. Compromisers will never be able to satisfy the demands of the extremists.

Disappointment with the four years of your tenure is even greater because of the gap between your public image and your actions. You are an educated man, one who studied philosophy, who is a history buff, an articulate speaker, even if you are in love with your own words, and impressive in appearance. But it turns out that actions, rather than words, speak for themselves. For the sake of politeness and by way of understatement, I’ll say it like this: Your tenure as IDF chief of staff will not go down in history as a dazzling success.

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