At a conference on Wednesday at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi delivered a comprehensive address on Israel’s current military preparedness and future challenges. It was Kochavi’s first major speech since assuming his role in January as head of the Israeli military.
The novelty of his appearance was not the only reason for its prominence at the much-publicized event, held in honor of the late Amnon Lipkin-Shahak – former IDF chief of staff, Knesset member and government minister – who died in December 2012 after a long battle with cancer.
No, Kochavi’s multi-year plan – based on the motto of “readiness and change” – already was unveiled eight months ago when he hit the 100-day mark on the job. Nor was he an unknown entity beforehand, serving in various capacities and leading many operations, including those that have been carried out against Iranian targets in Syria over the past several months.
But his words in Herzliya were particularly significant, given their context and timing: with Israel surrounded by enemies on the one hand, and commemorating Hanukkah – the Jewish people’s historical victory over forced assimilation and physical annihilation – on the other.
They also came less than a week after International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced her intention to initiate a probe into possible Israeli and Palestinian “war crimes,” ostensibly committed in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza since June 2014.
It is doubtful that Bensouda’s outrageous investigation, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed as a “travesty of justice,” was what spurred Kochavi to infuse talk of the IDF’s morality in his oratory. Unfortunately, every Israeli commander, from the top brass down, feels the need – when speaking to troops or making public statements – to stress and reiterate the Jewish state’s strict adherence to the “Purity of Arms” doctrine. You know, as though it makes a dent in the double standard applied to and lies spread about the behavior of Israeli soldiers.
Let’s face it: the fact that no other army in the world is as careful as the IDF to avoid civilian casualties, or that most militaries are too busy killing enemies to educate their ranks in Jewish ethics, is of little interest to Israel’s detractors.
By raising the issue of morality, then, Kochavi was following a long-standing tradition carried down by his predecessors. His version was to emphasize that war is always a “last resort” – after all other avenues in the diplomatic and military arenas have been exhausted – and therefore, “When we act in accordance with this principle, we will always be in a moral position... to use the full force of the IDF.”
Though this is a problematic stance for a general who should consider it a moral imperative to “use the full force of the IDF” whenever the country it is charged with safeguarding is under enemy assault, Kochavi did declare outright that “war is a solution” and the “ultimate end for which an army must prepare.”
WHILE HE was at it, Kochavi conveyed a series of crucial tough messages. One of these was directed at the traumatized residents of the Gaza-border communities, who bear the brunt of ongoing rocket attacks from Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists.
“The IDF’s job isn’t only to provide security; it’s to provide a sense of security,” he said. “Where Gaza is concerned, we’ve provided most of the former, which is to say that most of the rockets have been intercepted, and we’ve drastically decreased [terrorist] infiltrations and arson over the past year. Nevertheless, every time a red-alert siren interrupts people’s lives and events... they feel that there is a lack of security.... I’m very aware of those feelings... but we still have to remember that security takes precedence over a sense of security.”
This was Kochavi’s way of telling Israelis across the country, particularly those in the South, that though he sympathizes with and wishes to work at assuaging their fears, his main job is to tackle the actual threats. These extend way beyond Gaza and are far more perilous than the anxiety suffered by so many innocent civilians running to and spending endless hours in bomb shelters, with their trembling children in tow.
But his key message was aimed at Tehran, whose proxies operating in Gaza, Syria and elsewhere in Israel’s vicinity are stepping up efforts to develop sophisticated long-range missiles.
“We won’t allow our enemies to acquire precision weapons,” he said, indicating that preventing such a scenario would constitute a casus belli – a legitimate reason to “use the full force of the IDF.”
He further pointed out that Iran, which used to lurk “behind the mountains, working on its nuclear program,” has become much more brazen in its aggression, as its recent attacks on oil facilities in the Persian Gulf illustrate. He also said that Iran is “continuing to develop missiles that can reach Israeli territory,” bemoaning the fact that this situation has been “flying under the radar somewhat.”
It’s not clear whose radar he was referring to, but it certainly wasn’t Netanyahu’s. As Kochavi surely knows, nobody is more keenly aware than Netanyahu of the clear and present danger posed by the ayatollah-led Islamic Republic. Nor has anyone warned the world about it as loudly as he has done, even when repeatedly ridiculed by his rivals at home and abroad for being a “fear-monger.”
LUCKILY, THE doubters did not keep him from working diplomatically and militarily to keep Iran from fulfilling its vow to wipe Israel off the map. Equally fortunate in this regard was US President Donald Trump’s May 2018 withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal that basically allowed the regime in Tehran to proceed in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, rather than curbing its ability to do so.
A contributing factor to Trump’s bold move – which infuriated Iran and JCPOA co-signatories China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany – is said to have been the concrete proof of Iranian nuclear activity provided by Netanyahu. This evidence was revealed in thousands of documents retrieved by Mossad agents from a warehouse in Tehran a month before Trump “ripped up” the deal, as he had promised to do during his presidential campaign.
Still, Kochavi issued what sounded like a veiled criticism of the US president by saying, “It would be better if we [Israelis] weren’t the only ones responding [militarily] to [the Iranians].”
He was right in principle. In practice, he would have done well to take into account that the American electorate tends to oppose sending US troops to other countries, and Trump knows it. That’s the bad news where combating Iran is concerned.
The good news is that if Israel has to go it alone, at least it has friends in the White House and State Department who will not question its employing whatever means it deems necessary to get the job done.
Indeed, not once in the three years since Trump took office has Israel been called to task by Washington for any military actions taken against terrorists in Gaza or Iranian targets in Syria. On the contrary, American officials consistently have reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself, while pronouncing the Jewish state to be both a paragon of virtue and worthy of emulation.
According to Kochavi, though, a full-fledged war probably is not on the horizon just yet. This, he said, is because “none of our enemies wants [one] right now,” and due to Israel’s effective deterrence.
Israelis living under the daily threat of rocket attacks dispute this last claim. But few could argue with his honest description of the next war, during which, he stated with no sugar-coating, “heavy fire will be directed against our home front.... We have to recognize and prepare for this... militarily, [bureaucratically]... and mentally.... There is no such thing as a war without casualties.”
As disturbing as this assessment is, it’s a lot better to enter the New Year and decade knowing what to expect if and when Iran leaves Israel no choice.