New IDF chief Halevi: Israeli military will be free of politics

Herzi Halevi replaced Aviv Kohavi as the IDF's 23rd chief-of-staff in a series of ceremonies on Monday.

 IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi stands by a plaque commemorating his uncle who was killed in the Six Day War and who Halevi is named after. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi stands by a plaque commemorating his uncle who was killed in the Six Day War and who Halevi is named after.
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

Herzi Halevi replaced Aviv Kohavi as the IDF’s 23rd chief of staff in a series of ceremonies on Monday, including his opening speech at the Prime Minister’s Office in which he warned Israel’s enemies that the Jewish state has them surrounded.

Lt.-Gen. Halevi presented this new state of the balance of power as having flipped the script on Israel’s enemies, who once made the Jewish state feel like it was encircled and besieged.

“In the 75 years since our independence, we have transformed from a state surrounded by her enemies to a state that besieges its enemies with its power and advanced capabilities,” Halevi said.

What did he say?

The new IDF chief was clearly referring to the military’s “war between the wars” campaign on Iranian proxies in Syria, Lebanon and reportedly on occasion in Iraq, in Iran itself and elsewhere.

 IDF Chief of Staff (Lt.-Gen.) Hertzi Halevi at the Western Wall, January 16 2023. (credit:  Marc Israel Sellem) IDF Chief of Staff (Lt.-Gen.) Hertzi Halevi at the Western Wall, January 16 2023. (credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

“In the 75 years since our independence, we have transformed from a state surrounded by her enemies to a state which besieges its enemies with its power and advanced capabilities,”

Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi

A variety of IDF officials have used the same principles to frame Israeli policy versus Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, in the sense that any violation of Israeli sovereignty can be met with a disproportionate response to keep them deterred from starting another broader war.

Despite this reassurance, Halevi warned: “Our neighborhood still has many evolving threats. From the threat from Iran, for which Israel holds decisive responsibility in being ready to address it, to the northern border [with Syria and Lebanon] and with the Gaza Strip, to challenges emanating from Judea and Samaria.”

He said that, “our answer to these threats is our military advantage, with deterrence, with advanced capabilities and with high levels of military preparedness.

“Our enemies should know: what we talk about, we also know how to carry out, and we can even do far more than what we talk about,” stated the new IDF chief.

Halevi also sent a veiled warning signal to elements of the new government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu interested in seizing power over portions of the military.

“We will protect the unified IDF as focused on expertise, professionalism and values, and free from any consideration that is not security-related,” he said.

Kohavi, both in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post and in his speech on Monday, came out with even stronger warnings against politicization of the IDF.

He explicitly warned on Monday that the country is “now in an hour of disputes,” but must work to stay united as one army and one nation. Areas of potential conflict include:

  • The new government has given Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionist Party) not only the Finance Ministry, but also influence over the work of the West Bank Civil Administration, particularly in Area C, which has traditionally been run by the IDF.
  • National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir (Otzma Yehudit) has been given powers over the Border Police, a function significantly filled with soldiers, and where traditionally the IDF chief sets their rules of engagement.
  • The Shas Party has been given an undefined role in consulting over the appointment of the IDF’s chief rabbi.
  • The new coalition has committed to passing a new draft law that may reduce the potential legal obligation of haredim (the ultra-Orthodox) to serve in the IDF.

Halevi will need to confront and address each of these challenges during his term.

In other parts of Halevi’s speech, he spoke about the importance of the IDF as “the army of the nation,” relating to his and his wife’s diverse backgrounds.

Parts of their families lived in Israel for hundreds of years, parts are originally from Russia and parts from Casablanca.

Both Halevi and Kohavi expressed condolences to the family of Cpl. Dennis Zinobayev, who died over the weekend in an accident while improperly storing an unauthorized grenade, as well as to the families of other fallen soldiers.

Lapid approved Halevi's appointment

The former government of Yair Lapid approved Halevi’s appointment on October 23 to replace Kohavi, who had served in the post for the last four years.

Then-defense minister Benny Gantz had tapped Halevi in September, which was controversial because though the selection process started before elections were called, the final appointment decision itself was made during election season.

All indications are that had Netanyahu been prime minister, he would have selected Maj.-Gen. Eyal Zamir, who came in second in Gantz’s process, but was recently appointed director-general of the Defense Ministry now that Yoav Gallant has replaced Gantz.

There have been tensions in the past between IDF chiefs and top Defense Ministry officials, and even though no one questions Halevi’s credentials, the prior competition and tensions with Zamir are expected to lead to further tensions.

Despite appointing Zamir, a potential challenge to Halevi, Gallant said in his speech Monday praising the new chief of staff that he would keep politics out of the military.

“I will make sure that external pressures – political, legal and other – stop with me and do not reach the gates of the IDF,” Gallant promised in his speech at the ceremony in the Prime Minister’s Office, adding that “between authority and responsibility in the military system passes the concept of the unity of command. For each soldier and officer, one commander – and above all, the chief of staff.”

Netanyahu thanked Kohavi, saying that, “in the face of the threats against us, mainly from Iran and its terrorist affiliates, we must demonstrate determination. This is what we have done in the last decade – including, Aviv [Kohavi], during the four years of your tenure as chief of staff in which you commanded the IDF – and this is what we will continue to do.

“The calm that prevails on our border with the Gaza Strip is a direct result of establishing deterrence through the IDF’s iron fist,” the prime minister said.

Netanyahu mentioned the May 2021 Gaza war, which he himself presided over, but left out the August 2022 conflict with Gaza, which was handled by then-prime minister Yair Lapid.

Additionally, some former top security officials, who have been critics of Netanyahu, did not attend the ceremony with him but only the later one at IDF headquarters.

Besides the ceremony at the Prime Minister’s Office, Halevi and Kohavi held ceremonies with President Isaac Herzog at Mount Herzl, at the Western Wall and at IDF headquarters at the Kirya in Tel Aviv.

Herzog said the country’s warring political parties must recall that Israel has true enemies who seek to wage real wars against it, and that they must preserve the IDF from any politicization.

One photo that was heavily discussed in the media was a shot of Halevi and his wife, Sharon, staring into each other’s eyes in a poignant moment of togetherness even as she stood on the women’s side of the Western wall prayer area.

Also at the Western Wall, Halevi wrote an entry in the Western Wall Heritage Foundation’s guest book.

“Here, in this place that carries the 3,000-year-old memory of the Jewish people, I swear to lead the IDF in defending the State of Israel and its citizens out of the same values and spirit that led generations of soldiers and commanders,” he wrote.

“Herzi” was named for his uncle who died in the 1967 Six Day War.

The 55-year-old officer was drafted in 1985 into the Paratrooper’s Brigade and later served in the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit before commanding it in 2001. He replaced Zamir as deputy chief of staff, after serving as the head of Military Intelligence and Southern Command.

Born in 1967 into an observant family in Jerusalem, he will be the first observant chief of staff, despite no longer wearing a kippah. Halevi, who is married and a father of four, lives in the Kfar Haoranim settlement.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and business administration from the Hebrew University and a master’s degree in national resource management from the National Defense College in the US.

Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.