Strict IDF chief: Herzi Halevi harsher disciplinarian than Aviv Kohavi - analysis

Is Halevi just stricter in general, or does he want to be harsher under a political microscope? Or maybe he'll become more lenient over time?

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

Two IDF officers, one at the relatively senior rank of lieutenant colonel, were fired by IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi on Friday for disciplinary misconduct.

Announcing the removal on Friday was likely designed to lessen the media attention, but the decision to remove the officers as opposed to a rebuke, delay in promotion or some other lesser punishment, raised eyebrows.

It especially raised eyebrows because it appeared to be a stark departure from the more lenient hand which Halevi’s predecessor, Aviv Kohavi, who only stepped down in mid-January, had shown toward commanders who messed up in various ways.

What was Aviv Kohavi's more lenient approach for IDF commanders?

During his tenure, Kohavi made it clear directly to The Jerusalem Post and others and through his decisions, that if he had a talented battle commander who screwed up on some kind of non-combat issue, he wanted to do all he could to keep such commanders in their posts.

His logic was simple: no one is perfect, sometimes internal IDF conflicts or accidents even during peacetime, can be as complicated to properly sort through as wartime and the most important function of the IDF is to be ready for wartime.

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)

If he fired all of the commanders who made a misjudgment on a bureaucratic issue or who took a risk which did not pan out well and was left with commanders who were good paper-pushers, but always played it safe and had no idea how to fight a bold and daring opponent, Kohavi would say he had failed.

So why was Halevi so tough on these two officers?

First, the bizarre story.

The Lt.-Col., the deputy commander of the Judea brigade, called the deputy commander of the 51st Golani battalion, a “Golanchik punk,” in front of a number of soldiers.

In response, the Golani officer told his soldiers that they were prohibited from allowing the Judea brigade officer to reenter their Golani base at Harsina near Hebron.

At a later date, when the Judea brigade officer came to the Golani base in the course of his duties, the Golani soldiers at the base entrance checkpoint blocked him from entering.

This eventually led to a physical confrontation with blows or heavy shoving occurring between both sides, including, according to at least one narrative, the Judea officer being beaten in a repeated manner.

Following the incident, the immediate commanders of the two sides could not come to an agreement regarding what factually had transpired. The decision was kicked even further upstairs to the two relevant high command major generals, whose decision Halevi endorsed.

Besides the firing of the two commanders, several lower-down soldiers involved in the fighting were sentenced to between 5-10 days of military prison.

From one perspective, it is easy to understand why Halevi was so tough. The incident was inexcusable and could have been avoided at multiple transition points, with the two officers choosing escalation at each point.

IT ALSO led to the physical use of force between soldiers who are on the same “team” at a time when Israel is facing real terror from the West Bank, rockets from Gaza and a variety of other potential threats which could blow up at any moment.

Defending the country is awfully difficult if soldiers are not only not following proper orders, but even fighting in potentially dangerous ways among themselves.

On the other hand, there is no indication that anyone needed to be hospitalized or that there was any permanent damage done.

At the end of the day, the whole thing could be viewed as an interpersonal mismatch that just went too far and might not recur if the two officers had been reassigned to avoid each other.

The soldiers who fought with each other could also say that once the Judea officer tried to physically force himself into the base, by physically stopping him, they were merely following orders.

Halevi himself in 2020 had a confrontation with certain soldiers and a lower-level officer over entering a base when some of his accompanying soldiers failed to bring proper identification with them (thinking that they would get in automatically with the then-deputy IDF chief).

Kohavi did not even probe the incident.

Of course, in the Halevi incident, there was no physical contact, but the soldiers who prevented him from entering the base initially said that he had aggressively verbally threatened them for simply following security regulations.

Might Halevi have been harsher because the IDF is currently under a political microscope with politicians like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir trying to seize pieces of traditional IDF power? Might Halevi have wanted to show a tougher than usual iron hand as some of these politicians and their allies try to create a gulf between the IDF high command and lower levels of command and rank-and-file soldiers?

Also, because of the way the incident leaked, it seemed apparent that the soldiers would need to be penalized. Next, the parents of the soldiers threatened to make a major public protest if the soldiers were penalized for their commanders’ fight, with no action taken against the commanders themselves.

And it is also just possible that Halevi is and will be tougher on commanders acting out as a matter of his own personal management style versus Kohavi.

There is one other possibility.

Kohavi actually started tough on his commanders when in 2019 he removed Lt.-Col. Yishai Rozilio from his position in the paratroopers and froze any potential advancement he could make in the IDF for at least a year.

This came after one of Rozilio’s soldiers drowned in a river during a training exercise, and even though Rozilio was in a different area at the time commanding other portions of his troops.

However, after that incident, Kohavi became much more lenient, and even Rozilio was promoted to a key position in the West Bank in late 2021.

Maybe 6-12 months from now, Halevi will follow the same path and we will look back on his decision for this incident as a fluke on a general road of continued leniency between him and Kohavi.