A look at IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi's first 100 days

Is the new Israeli chief of staff able to deal with Iran, Netanyahu, IDF reservist striking, settlements and violence in the West Bank?

 INCOMING IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi (L) and outgoing counterpart Aviv Kochavi (R) salute during an honor guard ceremony for Halevi, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Jan. 16. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN)
INCOMING IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi (L) and outgoing counterpart Aviv Kochavi (R) salute during an honor guard ceremony for Halevi, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Jan. 16.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN)

IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi did not get 100 days of grace to begin his term.

Merely two months in office, he was already dealing with a crisis, with Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank starting to spin out of control and affect the broader strategic picture. That crisis led to multiple short rounds of rocket fire from Gaza and airstrikes, with Halevi avoiding an escalation to date, but with the IDF’s deterrence bruised.

He has also faced multiple internal crises over IDF authority regarding Jewish and Palestinian building in the West Bank, as well as a growing wave of IDF reservists saying they will go on strike to protest the government’s judicial overhaul. The reservists include members of elite groups such as Military Intelligence Unit 8200, IAF Squadron 69, and Maglan special forces, and they were given some backing by all 10 living former IAF chiefs.

Some have questioned whether Halevi has acted decisively and rapidly enough to address the various crisis issues. The pro-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu side wants him to penalize striking reservists more to maintain army unity. The anti-Netanyahu side wants him to let IDF personnel express their feelings about an overhaul that could leave them more vulnerable to war crimes allegations by the international community (based on claims that Israel’s judiciary is no longer independent). In one case, IAF Commander Maj.-Gen. Tomer Bar even suspended Col. (res.) Gilad for allegedly helping to organize combat pilot reservist strikers, and then reversed himself within days, saying the whole thing had been a misunderstanding. This week there are predictions that unprecedented numbers of Air Force reservists will not show up for training, to protest the judicial overhaul, while still being ready to show up for any actual security threat.

But former commanders and close advisers of Halevi say he is up to the task of helping the IDF cut through and, if necessary, dig itself out of thorny issues.

 IDF RESERVISTS and activists protest judicial reform, outside the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem, March 2.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) IDF RESERVISTS and activists protest judicial reform, outside the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem, March 2. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“I saw him balance the various risks during the 2014 Gaza war. I was with him until the end of summer 2016. We worked through a lot of the War between the Wars campaign [airstrikes in Syria] before it was being talked about publicly.”

Senior IDF official

“I saw him balance the various risks during the 2014 Gaza war. I was with him until the end of summer 2016. We worked through a lot of the War between the Wars campaign [airstrikes in Syria] before it was being talked about publicly,” said one former senior IDF official.

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 was OC 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 between the two over who would replace recently retired IDF chief Aviv Kohavi, which Halevi won, though Zamir is now the top nonpolitical official in the Defense Ministry.

Continuing, the former senior official said regarding Halevi, “There was a challenging balancing act regarding when and how to take a specific action – how much danger would taking that action create of losing intelligence sources [potentially exposed by taking the action]? Will the action be worth the risks involved? Also, he delved into the specific location issues, about how we acquired the relevant intelligence data, what was invested to acquire it, since some intelligence took many years to obtain, and the underlying purpose of each action,” said the official.

“I saw him do all of this with a lot of thoughtful and careful judgment,” he said, expressing optimism that Halevi would be able to wade through the morass on the IDF chief’s desk because of his mix of big-picture thinking and readiness to attack concrete granular details in the field.

“People with deep intellect, who read and understand the historical perspective – this is a desired quality that is very rare. He is one of those who have it. His roots and dedication to the IDF and the Jewish people are deep. He also understands large global trends, versus other people who focus on daily Twitter trends,” explained the official.

“I accompanied him for many long hours, including many deep and strange hours of the middle of the night and the early morning, talking about complex intelligence issues,” he said.

“Many operational decisions where we needed to balance between the different risks and our activities had to be very exact to succeed. He had been the commander of the special forces and a combat fighter, so this was not new to him, but normal.”

Ready to disagree with Netanyahu – even on Iran?

A major question that arose was whether Halevi would be ready to disagree with Netanyahu over Iran policy as some IDF chiefs have in the past when they thought the PM might be risking using force prematurely. Some also contradicted Netanyahu about whether the Iran nuclear deal was good or bad for Israel from a military perspective.

Halevi’s former senior aide said, “I saw him do a lot and delve deep into different areas of intelligence and warfare during the time that he was head of intelligence. Regarding the Iran nuclear deal, I saw how deeply he learned about all of the relevant issues and arrived at his professional position, which he unhesitatingly presented before all levels of the military and to the prime minister and the defense minister. He has tremendous courage and values.

“This was manifested in how he conceptualized the issue. There were extensive debates, meetings and consultations. He put the hard facts before all levels of decision-makers. His estimations were clear and unambiguous, even if this meant leaning into disagreements on various issues,” said the official.

Diverse background

One thing that might help Halevi handle the IDF reservist striking issue is his diverse background and record of service.

Despite the “disadvantage” of not “growing up” in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, Halevi impressed his commanders there sufficiently that he rose through the ranks and eventually became its commander in 2001, Lt.-Col. (ret.) Yuval Rachmilevitz told The Jerusalem Post. Rachmilevitz was the deputy commander and commander of the unit from 1996 to 1998.

“He made a jump from commander of an only mildly elite paratroopers company to commander of a battalion of the most elite special forces,” he said.

Further, Rachmilevitz said, “He did it himself with his talents – I can’t take credit for him, but it was my honor to be the commander who introduced him to the special aspects of the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit.”

He said Halevi joined as a training officer for the special forces in 1993-1994.

Also, he noted that Halevi’s path from the paratroopers to special forces to Military Intelligence chief to IDF chief was almost identical to Moshe Ya’alon’s path to the top military post.

The deputy commander works very closely with the training officers.

“At one point, he wanted to do more academic studies. The IDF wouldn’t let him go and stopped him from his studies so he could become deputy commander of the special forces in 1997-1998. He was only able to return to his studies later. From there he went on a mainstream path to top command as commander of the broader Paratroopers Brigade and commander of a northern division,” said Rachmilevitz.

In addition, he noted that Halevi was involved in the operation to capture then top Lebanese Amal Movement security official Mustafa Dirani, who provided information to Israel about lost pilot Ron Arad (though Yuval himself was not involved). He added, “I was in operations with Herzi in the 1990s, which still have not been declassified and may never be.”

 TOURING the Lebanon border with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (to his R), March 16.  (David Cohen/Flash90) (credit: David Cohen/Flash90) TOURING the Lebanon border with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (to his R), March 16. (David Cohen/Flash90) (credit: David Cohen/Flash90)

Mossad-Shin Bet relations

One senior former official, who would not discuss actual joint operations between Halevi and other Israeli intelligence agencies, did give a rare look into their general dealings, saying, “Relations with the Mossad and the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency] were very constructive. There was extensive and continuous cooperation. Everyone has typical incidents and misunderstandings; but during that time, relations were strong.

“It is important because when you take actions, it is rare that you would be able to do anything alone. Everything is mixed with other intelligence arms, and it is especially complex overseas,” he continued.

“I cannot say that all people in all organizations always have great chemistry,” the former official said, “but he [Halevi] always created space for open and professional debate and cooperation. Even if there were occasional small problems, there was no negative atmosphere that would harm the day-to-day work because the work was just too critical to national security.

“And some officials from other intelligence remained close friends” with Halevi even after they were done working together, according to the official.

 Navigating complex situations – with limits

“When he led operations as the No. 1 commander, they were very complex, very challenging, and he showed an ability to go beyond standard thinking and ways of operating,” Rachmilevitz stated.

One unusual aspect of Halevi, he explained, was “Sometimes, officers will debate what is and is not possible or too risky. Halevi has a great ability to mix courage with thinking creatively to properly balance risks and opportunities and to know how to operate and succeed even when sensitive intelligence circumstances limit your options.”

Part of navigating the fight with the government over West Bank civil issues that overlap with the IDF and over the reservist strike crisis is that Halevi cannot just use rank and power to bulldoze through to achieve his goals.

Rather, there are political limits in which he must respect cabinet ministers regarding the West Bank, and there are complex societal-cultural processes limiting his maneuvering capacity regarding the reservists.

Rachmilevitz said, “When there are limits on what options a commander can employ, some make big mistakes when trying to take calculated risks. The difference between taking a positive calculated risk and a negative excessive risk is very thin, and that’s the trick of a top special operations commander. You need to live on the edge and take risks more than others – these are life-and-death decisions.”

In a speech on February 28, Halevi doubled down on an earlier speech against IDF reservists striking over the coalition government’s planned judicial overhaul.

However, after the Unit 8200 letter and statements from other top reservists, Halevi felt that he needed to signal his determination on the issue. He issued an order to the commanders of every arm of the military to hold open dialogue within their commands to make reservists feel heard, while also encouraging them to continue to serve.

He himself has participated in an unusual number of meetings with the IDF’s middle management officers to dialogue about the issue.

Halevi said he is “aware of the public debate and disagreements, but that he will not permit harming the ability of the IDF to actualize its fateful mission – guarding the nation’s security.

“The IDF is the nation of the people, in which people with different views serve,” and it is critical for the IDF to continue its mission, he said.

 Addressing Huwara

The next day, Halevi leaned into another hot controversy, coming out louder than Netanyahu and other government officials in condemning acts of revenge by Israelis against Palestinians and against IDF forces.

Speaking to the IDF Naval Officers Course graduates in Haifa, he congratulated them on their tremendous accomplishment of moving toward being naval commanders, but noted that the ceremony was taking place in a complex time period.

Next, he said that when the IDF tracks down such terrorists, it does so “with professionalism and authority from the state,” noting recent Palestinian terrorist attacks against Jews and the apprehending of some of the terrorists.

Essentially, he apologized for failing to stop some of the recent terrorist incidents, but said, “We will not give up and will not rest” in the fight against Palestinian terrorism.

He then moved on to recent attacks on Palestinians in Huwara and against IDF soldiers, saying, “Wild lawlessness and violence against soldiers and harming [Palestinian] residents and their property as acts of vengeance are things that we must condemn. These phenomena are invalid at their very foundations and distract IDF forces from fighting terrorism.”

Halevi continued that such actions “almost led this week to more wounded persons in violent actions against soldiers from hilltop youth that were acting against them [the soldiers]. This is the hour to say things clearly and to set clear redlines for those who think that an unrestrained internal fight will improve our security.”

If some have criticized Halevi for moving too slowly to quell the reservist strike and to prevent the revenge attack by Jews on Huwara, Halevi has shown a powerful second wind to confront tough issues once he identifies a clear major threat.

Regarding Iran and other big challenges, Rachmilevitz said, “He was only a major [middle IDF management] when I left, but even then he could see the big picture, understand what was the broader goal and how to get to it. This is something special and requires unusual skill.

“He reads high-level literature, loves poetic songs, has a wide-ranging worldview and studies philosophy that enriches those views,” he elaborated.

Critical to the reservist crisis, “He has the ability to listen to and to see others’ points of view.

“He also can be in the trenches with the soldiers. During the 2008-2009 Gaza war, he was very hands-on with the soldiers in the field for three straight weeks,” Rachmilevitz emphasized.

Moreover, he stated, “I trust him that he will know how to judge what is feasible, whether there is the capability to do it, how to do it, what are the key questions to think through. You want to know that the chief of the IDF judges between different situations correctly. Judgment is everything.

“You can see this at very early stages. You don’t need to wait until someone becomes the chief commander to know this person is blessed with good judgment and a good understanding of the world. You can see this very early in the career of an individual,” said Rachmilevitz.

Continuing, he said, “I saw this in him, and I was not the only one who saw it. The potential was there at early stages. What did we see? What the hell did we know? We saw the ability to think big, to understand the situation, to learn something fast even if he didn’t ‘grow up’ in that particular special forces unit, to adjust to the changing circumstances, to adapt to different methods of operations.

“We were different people. I came from the secular settling of the land areas, and he came from a religious home. He had to adjust socially to be a part of it, but he adapted,” he stressed.

Rachmilevitz also called the reservist crisis “the greatest challenge now” and “unprecedented, which no prior IDF chief had to contend with,” adding that Halevi “has the leadership and the needed spectrum of values” to strike the right balance through the crisis.

Halevi probably never dreamed that two of his biggest problems would be fighting over civil issues with cabinet ministers and trying to convince elite reservists who never participated in strikes before to perform their service.

But there is something unusual about Halevi that came out at his inaugural speech, when he surprised many by citing former IDF chief David Elazar as his model to follow.

Elazar was forced to resign after the Agranat Commission assigned him significant blame for the IDF being unprepared for Egypt’s surprise attack in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

But Rachmilevitz said that Halevi picked Elazar as his example to follow “because you don’t get to choose your circumstances, and you don’t get to choose your era. You can be the IDF chief during a quiet time and do well when circumstances are favorable and there is no war. Or you have Elazar, who had the job during one of the most threatening and hardest wars for Israel. From the perspective of history, it is clear he went through a lot after the war,” he said.

After Elazar was forced to resign, some experts said that the entire political and defense establishment was as responsible as he was, but that only he made critical, daring moves in the middle of the war that helped turn the tide.

“I don’t know if his [Halevi’s] luck will be the same as with Kohavi, for whom there was no giant battle. We haven’t had a Yom Kippur War-level event in years, but there is Iran and Lebanon, so there could be something major,” he added – meaning something major on the battlefront on top of the already enormous reserves crisis.

In the past, he said, there were some harder tests for the IDF. Like with Elazar, with Halevi “I see the capability. Elazar understood the significance of the moment, and he succeeded in very hard and traumatic conditions for Israel, but Elazar brought victory.”

He said no one should judge Elazar until they have to go through something as severe and challenging as he did, and he added that Halevi might have to deal with such a major battle and that “I hope I would be as good as Elazar was in such extremely difficult circumstances.”

It remains to be seen if Halevi can get a handle on Palestinian terrorism; the reservist strike over the judicial overhaul; disputes over West Bank civil authority with the Religious Zionist Party; Jewish “price-tag” retaliation against Palestinians – and all the “normal” challenges from Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria.

But if his second wind does get him back on top of things, then maybe he will fulfill the more elevated vision of how he saw Elazar, by capably handling the issues of his time that no one expected. ■