What IDF chiefs won’t say out loud

Some of Israel’s previous military chiefs took a courageous stand and publicly stated that there was no military solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but current Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi is on the same wavelength as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

al-monitor New Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi (R) chats with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a handover ceremony at the Defense Ministry, Tel Aviv, Israel, Jan. 15, 2019. Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images.

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unity government, security, israeli-palestinian conflict, aviv kochavi, palestinians, idf, benjamin netanyahu

Oct 29, 2019

At the weekly government meeting on Oct. 27, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared the lesson he had learned from “The Proud Tower” by historian Barbara Tuchman, which was a birthday present from his former army buddies, whom he dubbed “my soldiers from Team Bibi.” One of the essays in the compilation about the world prior to World War I focuses on the impressive 1897 London parade marking Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Horse riders from dozens of countries across the British Empire, which extended over one-fourth of the globe, displayed their prowess on the streets of London. Several decades later, the empire crashed and lost its colonies, including Palestine, now the Land of Israel. The main reason for the decline, Netanyahu explained to the ministers, was failure to arm itself properly vis-a-vis its enemies. 

Fast forward to the present and to Netanyahu himself, of course. In light of the turmoil around us in the Middle East, Netanyahu said, “We know that the force that has served us up until now must continue to strengthen. … We must make tough decisions that require a government with broad shoulders.” From there he skipped lightly to the plan he has devised for extricating himself from the political-legal quagmire in which he is sunk up to his neck. “The importance of forming a broad national unity government … is not a political question, but a national and security question of the highest order. I hope that we can advance this goal in the coming days.”

The ministers, as usual, hung on to his every word, without a hint of dissent. That is also what they are selling the public: Iran wants to destroy us, and therefore the defense budget needs billions of additional shekels. In Israel, the approval of the annual budget requires a proper government, not the transitional government now in power. And so, the only option, according to Netanyahu’s acolytes, is a unity government under the leadership of who else but suspected criminal Benjamin Netanyahu. And who stands in his way to save the people of Israel from disaster? Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, the co-chairs of the opposition Blue and White party who only care about one thing — the premiership.

To buttress this message, Netanyahu mobilized none other than Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). “What the chief of staff and I have said is not spin; it reflects the reality of present challenges and those of the near future,” Netanyahu told his ministers.

Kochavi has been broadcasting on the same wavelength as Netanyahu regarding the Iranian threat, and hardly ever, if at all, refers to the implications of the occupation and the negotiation freeze with the Palestinians. That seems to explain Netanyahu’s serious and rare citation of a professional military opinion. Unfortunately, he did not adopt the same attitude toward comments by the late Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who led the IDF during Netanyahu’s first term in the 1990s, and warned repeatedly that the stalemate with the Palestinians weakens the Palestinian peace camp and bolsters rejectionist organizations.

The director of Tel Aviv University’s Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, Col. (Res.) Dr. Ephraim Lavie, the former head of the Military Intelligence Research Division’s Palestinian desk, told Al-Monitor this week that Israel’s intelligence community seems to be distancing itself from the Israeli-Palestinian issue, “including the identification of opportunities and their loss.” Israel, he added, missed opportunities to drive a wedge between Alawite Syria and Iran and to isolate the Shiite state by advancing the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. “It is very convenient for the [intelligence] community not to engage in friction with the political echelon over the Palestinian issue, which bears a distinct political hue,” Lavie explained. “In the past, there were IDF chiefs and Military Intelligence [MI] heads who said courageously and publicly that there was no military solution to the conflict,” the veteran Middle East scholar added, hinting to two — Lipkin-Shahak and former MI head Maj. Gen. (Res.) Uri Saguy. “The Palestinian issue is apparently not relevant in terms of additional budgets, and today they would rather talk about cyber and cruise missiles.”

Professor Yagil Levy of the Open University, who specializes in the interrelationships within the military-society-politics triangle, notes that unlike some of his predecessors, Kochavi avoids discussing other options, diplomatic ones, available to the political echelon. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Levy said that while Lipkin-Shahak enjoyed the support of the political center-left, Kochavi enjoys considerable backing from center-right circles, “by using slogans that appeal to them.” While Lipkin-Shahak did not hesitate to confront Netanyahu, Kochavi plays in Netanyahu’s court and even serves him. For example, at the height of this year’s election campaigns for the 21st and 22nd Knesset, the IDF chief did not shy away from having his photo taken alongside Netanyahu, the Likud party candidate for prime minister who made a point of visiting army bases in his capacity as defense minister, despite reservations voiced by the head of the Central Election Committee, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer.

Levy believes Kochavi has set his sights on politics and would like to see a broad-based government with Netanyahu at its head and Gantz as minister of defense (rather than Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman in the role of defense minister again). “Kochavi surely understands that the harder he rings the bells and warns against war, the more leeway he gives centrist politicians to walk back their insistence on various issues, such as their demand that Netanyahu take time out if he is indicted, which appear marginal given the severe threats to people’s security,” he told Al-Monitor. Levy nonetheless supports the demand by Kochavi and his predecessors to expand the IDF’s acquisitions budget. “When the Israeli government does not have a diplomatic option, such as striving for regional peace based on the Arab Peace Initiative, there is no choice but to boost the defense budget,” he explained. Perhaps, if the public feels the economic burden of such additional spending, he added, it will choose a leadership that does not rely solely on power.

“Team Bibi” should have added to its birthday present Tuchman’s seminal work, “The March of Folly,” which might have reminded Netanyahu of the fates of empires closer to home. Tuchman described the March of Folly of Rehoboam )969 to 911 B.C.), the son of Solomon who was anointed king at the age of 41 (the same age at which Netanyahu was first sworn into the Knesset). The essence of Rehoboam’s policy of power is encapsulated in his words to his people, “My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.” (1 Kings 12:14) The violent conflict between the Kingdom of Judah that he led and tribes from the north who rebelled against his tyranny resulted in the decline of the proud empire established by Kings David and Solomon, and the ensuing exile to Babylon. Once Netanyahu finishes reading, he would do well to pass the book on to Lt. Gen. Kochavi.

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