New Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi - a different breed

Aviv Kochavi, a product and shaper of postmodern warfare, will be the first IDF Chief of General Staff to have never participated in a conventional war.

Outgoing Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot sits next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a memorial for assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Outgoing Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot sits next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a memorial for assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

CURIOUSLY, ALL 21 IDF chiefs of General Staff, including the six born after Israel’s establishment, had biblical names like Moshe, Yitzhak, or David, and none was given a modern Hebrew name like those millions of Israelis bear.
The 22nd, Maj.-Gen. Aviv (“spring”) Kochavi, will break this odd pattern in January, when he becomes a lieutenant general and succeeds Gadi Eisenkot, in what will represent a military passage not to modernity, but to postmodernity.
The 54-year-old Deputy Chief of General Staff’s appointment followed a threemonth process that was wrapped in military silence and political fog.
None of the four contestants said anything about the process, whether in its course or aftermath.
That also goes for Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan, who made headlines two years ago when he warned of “processes” in Israel reminiscent of “frightening” trends in interwar Germany. The 56-year-old Golan is believed to have been passed over because of that quip, made in a public address on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
By Israeli tradition, the chief of staff is nominated jointly by the defense minister and prime minister before being approved by the cabinet. In today’s configuration, the prime minister and defense minister have little patience for an IDF-chief who would talk too much, in general, and as a political moralizer, in particular.
This does not mean that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman displayed throughout the process the kind of harmony their joint task required.
Reportedly, Netanyahu preferred 52-year-old Eyal Zamir, who until last June headed the Southern Command.
Whatever Netanyahu’s initial inclination, the nomination process that was launched August 7 lagged beyond its normal length of several weeks. Liberman’s communiqué seemed to reflect frustration with this foot-dragging, twice.
First, the communiqué was about the defense minister’s choice, and his “informing” Netanyahu about it, a phrasing never seen in previous IDF-chiefs’ appointments.
Secondly, Liberman made his announcement while Netanyahu was secretly visiting the Sultanate of Oman and thus unable to respond. When his approving communiqué was finally released, some five hours later, unnamed sources from his circle reportedly claimed Liberman’s first choice had been the fourth candidate, 53-year-old Maj.-Gen. Nitzan Alon, before Netanyahu convinced him to prefer Kochavi.
That report’s accuracy is unclear, but the relationship between the prime minister and his defense minister is clearly uneasy.
Kochavi will have to maneuver opposite this odd couple while bearing in mind they represent competing parties, and also disagree on specific issues, most notably Gaza and Hamas.
Regardless of his strategic choices, Kochavi will be the first IDF chief who did not fight in a conventional war. It is a distinction that is much more than technical.
HAVING ENLISTED in 1982, Kochavi was too young to join that year’s Syrian- Israeli battles in Lebanon, the IDF’s last ground clashes with a conventional army. Eisenkot, by contrast, was in those battlefields as a 22-year-old company commander, and in one of them also lost two close friends.
Today it is clear Kochavi enlisted when Israel’s military history was parting with the previous 34 years of conventional wars, the mass confrontations that pitted vast armies’ infantry brigades, armored divisions, air forces, and navies against each other. By the 1990s military historians argued that the previous decade’s Iran-Iraq War may have been the last large-scale conventional war.
The IDF’s first strategic response to this unfolding shift was to shrink its armored corps and restore the infantry’s centrality in its strategic thinking and resource allocation, for the first time since the 1956 Suez Campaign.
The tank’s relegation to the battlefield’s margins was probably part of the reason Kochavi the paratrooper was preferred over Zamir, a product of the Armored Corps and a former commander of its fabled Division 7.
Kochavi is not only a product of the infantry, but also a veteran of countless skirmishes with the postmodern war’s twin engines: the guerrilla and the terrorist.
THE SECOND of store-owner Shaul and gym-teacher Riva’s three children, Kochavi was raised in middle-class Kiryat Bialik outside Haifa before joining the paratroopers at 18, rising to battalion commander at 29, and to commander of the Paratroopers Brigade at 38.
In those two decades Kochavi found himself frequently in south Lebanon, where he was shoulder-deep in the fighting with Hezbollah, whose daily ambushes and booby-traps of IDF patrols constituted classical guerrilla warfare. In one of those ambushes Kochavi lost his commander and friend Brig.-Gen. Erez Gerstein.
By the time the 39-year-old Kochavi was promoted in 2003 to brigadier-general, he and the battlefield had shifted from guerrilla to terror and from the Lebanese to the Palestinians.
It was in this setting that Kochavi, while still a colonel, emerged as both a leader and a pathbreaker in all conventional armies’ response to the postmodern battlefield’s challenges.
Faced in 2002 with the Palestinian mass deployment of suicide bombers, Kochavi argued that an effective counterattack demanded the IDF’s takeover of their strongholds, the West Bank’s densely populated and heavily armed refugee towns.
Facing doubts in the General Staff concerning the price in human lives this might exact, both among IDF troops and Palestinian civilians, Kochavi had his troops advance through these landscapes not by meandering through their twisted alleys but by breaking through their houses’ walls.
Kochavi’s consequent takeover of the notoriously hostile town Balata, outside Nablus, proved this method ingenious, and is seen to this day as a turning point in the IDF’s development of unique methods for fighting what is now known as low-intensity warfare.
Coupled with other Israeli inventions at the time – most notably the targeted killing, which brought together the combat pilot and the secret agent – the tactics Israeli commanders like Kochavi developed are now studied by armies and secret services worldwide.
Holding philosophy and management degrees from, respectively, the Hebrew University and Harvard, Kochavi is considered a broad-minded military thinker.
His marriage to a lawyer – Yael, with whom he has three daughters – further helps his understanding of the postmodern battlefield, where legal issues are a dominant factor that now makes the IDF deploy a uniformed lawyer in every field command.
The postmodern war, alongside its activation of warriors from within densely civilian settings, is also unique in its deployment of cyberspace. Kochavi has also been at the forefront of this arena, as head of Military Intelligence in 2010-14, when he multiplied the IDF’s offensive cyberwar units and resources.
All this does not mean that, as chief of staff, Kochavi’s agenda will be exclusively postmodern, nor that the IDF assumes that the conventional war is fully dead.
THE IDF is fighting simultaneously in five arenas, Kochavi said in a speech to the IDF Officers School’s graduates last summer, referring to Gaza, Judea, Samaria, Syria and Lebanon; “five arenas,” he then added, “and another central one – Iran.”
The Iranian challenge indeed dominated outgoing Chief of Staff Eisenkot’s fouryear term.
In what emerged as Israel’s doctrine in the face of the Arab civil wars, the IDF was neutral toward the wars, but at the same time assumed two active goals. Tactically, it fired back at anything that was fired into Israel. Strategically, the IDF set out to push Iran’s troops and proxies away from the Israeli border, in particular, and from Syria, in general.
Eisenkot’s tenure was consequently animated by more than 200 IAF attacks on Iranian- sponsored arms factories, warehouses and convoys, culminating in a nightly raid last May on Iranian radars, bunkers, and barracks in 50 locations throughout Syria.
Before all this, a group of Iranian and Hezbollah commanders were killed by an unidentified aircraft in January 2015 as they emerged east of the border fence on the Golan Heights, where they are believed to have intended to create a new Hezbollah front against Israel.
This is what Kochavi meant when he said the Iranian arena is “central” in the IDF’s thinking. That centrality transcends Syria.
To Syria’s west, Kochavi will face an emboldened, Iranian-backed Hezbollah that has earned considerable battle experience during seven years of fighting for Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. Out east, Kochavi will face Iran itself, which the IDF must treat as a potential arena as long as it is led by the clerics who say they want Israel gone.
Iran’s military is poorly equipped, but plans to be modernized by Russia, and thus become a potent conventional army.
Hezbollah, by contrast, is militarily postmodern, lacking jets, tanks, and largescale infantry units. It was in this setting that the IDF seemed strategically confused when it waged the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
LED AT the time by combat pilot Lt.-Gen.
(res.) Dan Halutz, the IDF’s fighting was dominated by massive aerial bombardments.
Ground operations, at the same time, were disjointed, indecisive and relatively static. The five-week war was followed by an enduring ceasefire, but Hezbollah, after having fired thousands of missiles on Israeli towns, remained intact.
Kochavi was not involved in that war, but as head of the IDF’s Operations Division in the four years immediately after it he was part of the effort to restore the IDF’s historic advantages in ground maneuvering and rapid deployment.
As a military thinker, Kochavi can be expected to prepare inventive ideas for a future confrontation with Hezbollah. At the same time, he will pay much thought to the IDF’s ongoing operational preparations for long-distance action in the wake of Iran’s threat to Israel.
On this front’s dilemmas, Kochavi will be thinking with Maj.-Gen. Alon, who since last July is leading the IDF’s top-secret staff work concerning long-range operations.
Alon may also become Kochavi’s deputy, possibly following someone else’s two-year stint, probably Eyal Zamir.
While the Iranian-Syrian-Lebanese continuum can be expected to dominate Kochavi’s deeper thinking and longer-term allocations, he will obviously be occupied also by the Palestinian front, whose challenges are generally less potent, but more urgent than Iran’s.
In this regard, the headache that Gaza is anyhow will be multiplied for Kochavi, who on that issue will be caught between Liberman, who apparently wants a big operation aimed at Hamas’s debilitation, and Netanyahu, who apparently doubts both the feasibility and desirability of Hamas’s annihilation.
During Eisenkot’s tenure, the aim in Gaza was apparently to contain Hamas rather than to eradicate it. The underground tunnel-detection system Israel is planting these days around Gaza will be Eisenkot’s main legacy on this front.
At the same time, he is bequeathing Kochavi a belligerent Hamas whose provocations his General Staff treated as tactical challenges rather than as a strategic menace on par with Iran’s.
Then again, that was the government’s choice, not the army’s. Though this will never be officially admitted, there is reason to believe Netanyahu prefers the universally reviled Hamas ruling Gaza than its replacement by the internationally legitimate, but politically abrasive, Mahmoud Abbas.
Kochavi’s views on Gaza are unknown, and will likely remain such in the next four years, while Iran – that sixth arena in his mapping – dominates his agenda. Gaza, however, an angry shanty town of 15,000 rockets, 50,000 riflemen and 2 million human shields, will likely test Aviv Kochavi earlier than any other arena, challenging him to invent even more than the postmodern warrior in him already has.