The announcement Nov. 3 that the Chief of the Northern Command Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi would be appointed deputy chief of staff caught Israel’s security establishment and media by surprise. It was thought that Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman would wait until the release of State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s report on Operation Protective Edge in just a few weeks before they pick the officer, whose chances of becoming the next chief of staff are considered especially high.
Indeed, Liberman and Eizenkot surprised everyone. Kochavi, who served as chief of the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) Intelligence Division during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, is expected to come under serious scrutiny in the State Comptroller’s report. The announcement of his promotion was therefore considered to be a “preventive measure,” in which the defense minister and chief of staff signaled that with all due respect to the State Comptroller he would not be the one to determine who is part of the IDF’s highest echelons. And it also signaled that even if Kochavi is subjected to criticism in the much-anticipated report, it would not conflict with the fact that he is now the officer best suited to be Eizenkot’s deputy and the person who will most likely succeed the chief of staff at the end of his term.
With this announcement, Liberman and Eizenkot nipped all gossip and speculation concerning the next round of IDF promotions in the bud and reduced the impact of the report on it. They simply chose to move the next round of appointments ahead with a series of major promotions, including the next head of the Israeli air force. Essentially, they chose to ignore whatever the State Comptroller’s report might have to say.
In a public statement Oct. 31, Liberman himself said that if anyone has any criticism of how Operation Protective Edge was managed, they should bring it to the Cabinet that actually ran the operation instead of to the military leadership. While it is true that Liberman himself was part of that Cabinet, his position regarding Operation Protective Edge is well-known. He was one of the operation’s harshest critics. In other words, his statement was a calculated jab at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while portraying himself as a defender of the General Staff. In this particular instance, he was able to hit two birds with one stone.
If he does become the next chief of staff, Kochavi will be the first vegetarian in the position. But his culinary proclivities are no indication of his experience and abilities on the battlefield. Kochavi is the best candidate for the job, given the fact that he has served on every front and that there is no one today more familiar than him with the threats surrounding Israel on all fronts: Hamas, Hezbollah, the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, cyberwarfare and Iran.
In the early stages of his military career, Kochavi served in Lebanon, where he held a senior position in the IDF unit that maintained contact with the Lebanese while Israel still occupied southern Lebanon (1997-99). He was commander of the Paratrooper Corps during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, and was considered one of the architects of the IDF’s operations to retake the Palestinian refugee camps with almost no casualties, using a unique technique. His strategy was to have IDF troops cut through the densely populated camps without ever leaving the safety of the buildings. Kochavi developed a way to create a route through the camps by breaking through inner walls and passing from one apartment to the next, and one building to the next, without ever being exposed to any hostile forces outside. This technique for fighting in built-up areas, developed by Kochavi, is still being studied in military academies around the world.
Kochavi was later commander of the Gaza Division, where he had an opportunity to learn about the Southern Command from up close. He then went on to head the Operations Directorate in the General Staff. His appointment to the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, one of the most prestigious posts in the IDF General Staff, signaled that Kochavi was marked for leadership almost from the very start of his career. He was considered an IDF “prince” and a potential candidate for the position of chief of staff. But then a complicated problem arose. During Operation Protective Edge it was discovered that there were gaps in intelligence regarding the Hamas terrorist tunnels, and that much of the intelligence that the IDF did have failed to reach the troops on the front lines. Much of this criticism targeted Kochavi, even though he was said to have moved the Intelligence Directorate ahead by an entire generation.
Meanwhile, Kochavi was appointed chief of the Northern Command, a position he continues to hold. With this, he completed the ideal career path, which includes all the various types of preparation, training and familiarity that an IDF chief of staff needs on all fronts surrounding Israel. Only some significant but unanticipated problem can now prevent Kochavi from being appointed Israel’s next chief of staff.
Eizenkot will end his three-year term in a little over a year, though he will apparently be given a fourth year. This means that he has another 2½ years to serve as chief of staff (before retiring from the army), and there is no way of knowing who will be by then the defense minister to appoint the next chief of staff. On the other hand, by promoting Kochavi to deputy chief of staff, Liberman has succeeded in leaving his impression and impacting the future decision.
Overall, Liberman seems absolutely delighted by what he has found in the General Staff. His eyes sparkle every time he speaks about the generals currently serving there. According to certain political sources, Liberman says to his associates that the IDF’s current General Staff is the IDF’s best and most impressive group of officers since the 1967 Six-Day War. He has a harmonious working relationship with Eizenkot, while his relationship with the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, is described by a senior army source on condition of anonymity as a “genuine romance.” Liberman is so supportive of these two men that in closed-door discussions he supports their position to allow laborers from the Gaza Strip to enter Israel for work in order to lower economic tension in Gaza and postpone the next conflict with Israel.
One of the first things Liberman did before his most recent appearance before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Oct. 31 was to call on politicians and the media to put an end to their attacks on IDF officers. In a noble gesture, he told his audience that if they have any complaints, they should “bring them to me.” But these remarks were followed by a briefing by a senior intelligence officer, who provided the political forum with the assessment that the Palestinians were ready to renew negotiations with Israel and that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was a potential partner for a renewal of talks. This professional assessment conflicts with Liberman’s personal opinion, which he constantly reiterates, that “Abbas can be a partner to his own family, but nothing more than that,” as quoted by a political source. He was, therefore, quick to take advantage of a public appearance to note that “even IDF officers have been affected by that whole 'diplomatic solution' syndrome.”
The bottom line is that Liberman’s call for a halt to attacks on the IDF’s top brass and for people to bring their complaints straight to the political leadership instead was directed at everyone except for himself.