When Aviv Kochavi took over from Gadi Eisenkot to become the IDF’s 22nd chief of staff on January 15, from the major news headlines of the day you might have thought his first and fast-approaching enemy was “General Winter.” For a few rare hours, pomp and ceremony in Israel fought weather reports for public attention. There was something almost British about it. Except the weather wasn’t really so bad and Britain itself was far too busy with Theresa May’s loss in the Brexit vote to notice what was going on here.
Israelis, and particularly Jerusalemites, have unfortunately learned to “keep calm and carry on” under rocket attack and waves of terrorism. Those are known as “routine emergencies.” It’s snow that we can’t handle. Or even the threat of it. As forecasters predicted possible light snowfall in the capital, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion took no chances and ordered that schools would be closing early. Shoppers rushed to supermarkets to pick up extra bread, milk and canned goods – regardless of the calming announcement that the snow was not expected to settle. Jerusalem siege-time mentality set in, backed by the weight of several thousand years.
It was one of those days of Israeli extremes – sunny weather before a storm; tradition in face of the unknown.
The ceremony (or ceremonies, to be precise) at the Military Headquarters at the Kirya in Tel Aviv were a pleasure to watch. “It’s like a British royal wedding,” one radio commentator enthused. But unlike royal nuptials, the handover between one IDF chief of staff to the next takes place every four to five years. It is a changing of the guard ceremony. The marching tunes were inspiring, as marching tunes are meant to be. The parade ground was strikingly orderly. It reminded me of the only-in-Israel transition ceremony that takes place every year on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, marking the move from Remembrance Day to Independence Day – another set of extremes.
Listening to the speeches, I realized with a jolt that this chief of staff is likely to be the one in the top spot when my 12th grader does his military service. So far, so good, I thought. But it was only Day 1 and it’s clear the former paratrooper has to hit the ground running. Rain and snow can bring the country to a halt, but they are not the real challenges.
“My chief of staff,” head of the IDF when I joined almost 40 years ago, was “Raful,” Raphael Eitan. (I love the Israeli habit of calling the chief of staff by his nickname. Raful was followed by Moshe ve’hetzi, Moshe-and-a-half, the extremely tall Moshe Levy.)
To the outside world, Raful is probably best known as the officer who led Israeli forces into southern Lebanon in 1982 in what was to become known as the First Lebanon War, in which some of the friends I recall on Remembrance Day fell. While I was still serving, however, he was known more for his project helping soldiers from disadvantaged homes, a popular program; basically abolishing army entertainment troupes (less popular); and the seriously disliked order that soldiers must wear their berets at all times in public. Both the command and the headgear were better suited to different climates and temperaments.
It’s impossible to predict what Kochavi’s legacy will be, but as a vegetarian in charge of what has been monikered the most-vegan army in the world, he’s already being seen as something different.
The challenges Kochavi faces are legion. Although Operation Northern Shield officially ended this week, still on Eisenkot’s watch, with the discovery of the sixth Hezbollah terror tunnel stretching under the border with Lebanon, it’s clear that the threat is far from over. Hezbollah’s terror infrastructure was a declaration of intent. Moreover, the patron of both Hamas and Hezbollah – Iran – has neither given up its intention to eventually nuclearize nor its current funding of terrorism around the world.
Through Lebanon and Syria, Iran now has a border with Israel.
To the South, Gaza (and Sinai, where Egypt is tackling Islamist terrorism) also remains a hot spot. The bad weather might have put an end to the wave of arson balloons and incendiary-loaded attack kites, but it hasn’t calmed the situation. As Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas grows older and frailer, we can expect the inter-Palestinian rivalry between Fatah and Hamas to intensify at Israel’s possible expense, with more attempts at terror attacks.
When President Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin received the 2019 Strategic Assessment of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) from the head of the institute, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin on January 16, Yadlin said: “The gravest threat we face is not the Third Lebanon War, but the First Northern War – simultaneous conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria and Iran, which Hamas in the South is likely to join.”
The list of leading threats, according to the INSS assessment, includes a deterioration of the situation in Judea and Samaria.
Psychological warfare via social media, is also likely to play a bigger role for tomorrow’s soldiers. The rumor mill – known in Hebrew as Rav Seren Shmuati, Major Rumor – has fertile playing fields and fertile minds.
As the storm approached this week, a colleague reminded me of the viral video clip Washington, DC council member Trayon White Sr. posted last March in which he claimed, after a brief snowfall, that it was the result of “the Rothschilds controlling the climate to create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities.” Iran has accused Israel of stealing its rain clouds to create a drought.
We’re less powerful than the conspiracy theorists would love to believe, but I did note something almost miraculous this week: The Jerusalem Post’s Eytan Halon reported that Watergen, an Israeli start-up which has developed technology to extract fresh water directly from the air, has partnered with the Red Cross to develop a new Emergency Response Vehicle to provide fresh water to disaster zones. Creating water from thin air? To save people? My kind of conspiracy and people. Technological developments in the military will continue to help keep the country safe in the future, but the humble foot soldiers still have a serious role to play.
Kochavi has been warned that, especially ahead of the elections, he will need to be alert to political maneuvering and will have to remain faithful to his own moral principles and professionalism.
At the ceremony in Tel Aviv, after his wife helped the prime minister pin on his new rank of Lt. General, as his proud father looked on, Kochavi said he owed a lot to his parents “who gave me my first compass, a moral compass.”
Promising a military based on preparedness and adaptability, in his first “Order of the Day,” on January 15, Kochavi, wrote: “The IDF is the people’s army, to protect the people, from all parts of the people, which respects its soldiers, is strengthened by the support of the people and represents the best of the people.”
Kochavi, who worked his way up through the ranks, generates an image of determination mixed with modesty. I salute him, and I salute the soldiers serving under him – particularly those out in the rain and cold – staying awake and on guard so that everyone (but their parents) can sleep well at night, no matter the weather.
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