Israel has a new IDF chief: Here are the challenges waiting for him

MILITARY AFFAIRS: West Bank terror, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, sociopolitical crisis and tech revolutions are all on deck for Herzi Halevi.

 INCOMING IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and his outgoing counterpart, Aviv Kohavi, attend an honor guard ceremony at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on Monday. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
INCOMING IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and his outgoing counterpart, Aviv Kohavi, attend an honor guard ceremony at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on Monday.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Having served in and commanded the IDF special forces, headed Military Intelligence, led the Southern Command and served as IDF deputy chief, one might think that Herzi Halevi has seen it all.

And yet, sitting in the lonely chair of the IDF chief of staff, he is now in a new situation.

Multiple top military leaders have said that being No. 1 is unique because until that point, no matter how high up you are, when a tough decision comes across your desk, you can always turn around, punt and look up to the next commander and say it was his call.

In contrast, Halevi will now be the decider, with all of the credit and criticism, of fateful decisions regarding handling the 10-month-long West Bank terrorism wave, Iran’s nuclear program, Hezbollah’s 150,000 rockets threat, Hamas’s multiple threats from Gaza, and the “war between the wars” campaign in Syria.

That is just on the military-foreign affairs front.

Major General Herzi Halevi, Commanding Officer of the IDF Southern Command speaks during the conference of the Israeli Television News Company in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)Major General Herzi Halevi, Commanding Officer of the IDF Southern Command speaks during the conference of the Israeli Television News Company in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Internally, Halevi will need to preside over the IDF at a time when there are multiple unprecedented challenges by the new government to the military’s independence at the same time as there are social crises relating to who does and does not serve in the IDF, the state of the IDF reserves, and balancing jumping forward with necessary tech revolutions with maintaining a human fighting force that can be ready for any threat.

But before predicting how Halevi may handle these multifaceted challenges, let’s look back in a little bit more detail at where he came from.

“Herzi” was named for his uncle who died in the 1967 Six Day War. He grew up Orthodox in Jerusalem and is now the first Orthodox IDF chief, though he is considered Modern Orthodox and does not regularly wear a kippa.

Halevi, who is married and a father of four, lives in the Menora 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.

The 55-year-old officer was drafted in 1985 into the Paratroopers Brigade. Although this is an excellent unit, his later movement into the even more elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit was not inevitable and is not always an easy move to make.

Despite the “disadvantage” of not “growing up” in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, Halevi impressed his commanders there, Lt.-Col. (ret.) Yuval Rochmilovitz told The Jerusalem Post, sufficiently that he rose through the ranks and eventually even became its commander in 2001.

Halevi filled a number of other key roles until rising to the head of Military Intelligence from 2014 to 2018. This means he was in a key position to handle the challenge of the “knife intifada” of 2015-2016.

From 2018 to 2021 he led the Southern Command, including during the May 2021 Gaza war.

He replaced Eyal Zamir as deputy chief of staff later in 2021, setting up a grand race or conflict between the two over who would replace recently retired IDF chief Aviv Kohavi.

Incidentally, he and Zamir may be butting heads regularly given that Zamir was recently named director-general of the Defense Ministry, and IDF chiefs and top Defense Ministry officials often fight over budgets and priorities even without prior bad blood.

But one of his former top aides who revealed certain things to the Post under conditions of anonymity saw him at times have it out with top officials from the Mossad and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), but disclosed that Halevi is the consummate professional at keeping disagreements focused on the substance, and not personal.

What is IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi's biggest challenge?

His biggest challenge regarding the West Bank terrorism wave will be trying to press some advantages the IDF has gained from its Operation Breaking the Wave dating back to spring 2022, while possibly running into headwinds in relations between the Palestinian Authority and the new Netanyahu government.

Some statistics show the IDF has made great progress in killing or arresting large numbers of terrorists, seizing their weapons and completing portions of the West Bank security barrier that had been left vulnerable and incomplete for nearly two decades.

Other statistics show that a certain level of increased terrorist attacks are still emanating from the West Bank despite all of the IDF efforts. Also, many attackers have been “lone wolves” – meaning they are not part of an organization which could have been tracked more easily.

If the PA starts to cooperate less with the IDF because of its dislike of the policies of the Netanyahu government, it will be even harder to bring the 10-month long struggle to an end.

But the longer the wave lasts, besides the wounded and killed Israelis and sometimes collateral harm to Palestinian civilians caught in the middle, strategically, the situation forces elite troops and reserves to “waste” their time on a threat less grave than the threats posed to the northern and southern fronts.

Halevi is expected to try to extract as many IDF units from the West Bank as possible over the next several months, provided he can calm the area. His first meeting as IDF chief was with the commander dealing with the issue, showing how seriously he views the situation.

Hezbollah’s 150,000 rockets threat remains Israel’s greatest near-term threat, and Halevi is expected to continue the policy of all IDF chiefs since the Second Lebanon War of collecting intelligence on potential targets and training aggressively so as to deter Hezbollah.

No one has a brilliant idea that can erase the Hezbollah threat without taking on tremendous risk, such that Halevi is not expected to initiate a preemptive strike on Hezbollah unless some other regional circumstances change.

Kohavi also recently told the Post that he did not expect Hezbollah to even intervene if there were a general war with Iran, with Halevi expected to hold similar views.

Regarding Iran’s nuclear program, Halevi has been part of the IDF Military Intelligence consensus that even if the Islamic Republic weaponizes its uranium, it would remain two years from being able to deliver a nuclear weapon.

This means he will not be excited about preemptively striking Iran in the near future, even as he will want to be prepared to do so if ordered by the cabinet.

Halevi and the IDF have become increasingly concerned about Hamas seeking to kidnap Israeli soldiers to break the current logjam in negotiations over a prisoner exchange between the sides.

Hamas has been frustrated that its different efforts – from rockets to tunnels to fire balloons to border protests – have not yielded much in concrete achievements.

It knows exactly what it can expect from Halevi if it starts another conflict, since he was in charge of IDF southern operations during the May 2021 Gaza war.

In the Syrian theater, Halevi has been part of the consensus pushing for the “war between the wars” campaign against Iranians who are trying to establish a second front against Israel in the north.

In past positions, close associates of his said, he was ready to take calculated risks to improve future security. In that sense, he is expected to continue the policy.

However, he may encourage Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to keep a lower profile regarding such strikes since, at least to date, he has been less interested in media attention than Kohavi.

In the domestic sphere, Halevi sent a veiled warning signal in his opening speech to elements of the new Netanyahu government interested in seizing power over portions of the IDF.

“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.

The new government gave Bezalel Smotrich not only the Finance Ministry, but also a portfolio within the Defense Ministry with undefined influence over the work of the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria, which has traditionally been run by the IDF.

Netanyahu gave the Shas Party some kind of undefined role in consulting over the appointment of the IDF’s chief rabbi.

Other undefined powers over the Border Police were given to National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a function significantly filled with IDF soldiers, and where traditionally the IDF chief sets their rules of engagement.

In addition, the government will likely pass a draft law that would reduce the legal obligation of haredim to serve in the IDF.

All indications from sources close to Halevi are that he will stand up fiercely for the IDF’s independence on all of these issues, and regarding rules of engagement would be more likely to withdraw IDF involvement in the Border Police than to allow Ben-Gvir to give his troops orders.

This potential threat, which Kohavi himself has voiced, could be enough to reduce the impact that Ben-Gvir has in that specific area, though the issue could lead to a blowup.

After all of these estimates regarding Halevi’s policies, there is another story that the Post has been told previously about Halevi by former IDF intelligence chief (2001-2006) Aharon Ze’evi Farkash, which maybe gives the greatest indication of how creative and independent he is ready to be.

Back when Farkash was chief of Military Intelligence, Halevi was still a mid-level lieutenant-colonel, at the time commander of the IDF’s elite reconnaissance unit.

Using metaphors to avoid revealing classified information, Farkash said, “I won’t forget the event. Halevi needed to go into a ‘zoo’ to find a ‘specific old elephant,’ to lift its left leg up and to see what was written on it.”

Halevi approached Farkash for his approval to use additional military resources for the operation beyond what Halevi could sign off on by himself.

Farkash recounted that he witnessed a debate between Halevi and an IDF technology expert about how many soldiers and how many ropes would need to be involved to lift what he referred to metaphorically as: the “elephant’s leg.” The technological expert suggested two soldiers, but Halevi was adamant about using a rope.

Despite Halevi’s view that the mission could not be accomplished with two soldiers, Farkash decided in favor of the technological expert.

Yet, when Farkash arrived to attend a rehearsal of the operation, including a physical mock-up, he noted that Halevi had ignored his decision and moved ahead with his single rope idea.

Traveling back to that moment, he described when “his eyes met Halevi’s determined eyes, and I understood I couldn’t harm his authority in front of his unit, but I also needed to stand up for the authority of the IDF intelligence chief.”

Farkash, who is a big fan of Halevi, told the story with the bottom line that the new IDF chief is daring, confident and committed to the mission no matter what, and “had a laser-like ability to accomplish unusual and incredible tasks,” predicting even before his appointment that “he would be one of the best IDF chiefs.” •