Aviv Kochavi: The IDF chief of staff in a political minefield

Aviv Kochavi marks two years as Israel’s top military officer – two years of non-stop action against Iran but also of domestic politics that keep getting in the way.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi overlooks a military exercise (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi overlooks a military exercise
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
In 2005, when Aviv Kochavi was commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division, he used to convene his top staff every morning in headquarters to review the terrorist attacks that Hamas had launched the night before. Every evening there was something. Once it was a mortar shelling; another night it was a rocket attack and the next night it was either a settlement infiltration or a drive-by shooting. Gaza, back in those days, was on fire.
Now, more than 15 years later, those kinds of meetings are no longer needed. Hamas, of course, still exists, but the intensity of its attacks against Israel is nothing today like it was in 2005. Like Hezbollah, it is stronger today than it was in 2005 but it is also more deterred and understands that a spate of attacks today like back then would not be tolerated.
This change is best illustrated in the number of Israelis killed in terrorist attacks. In 2019 it was nine and in 2020 three. In 2005, when Kochavi was commander of the Gaza Division, the number was 56. Rocket attacks have also decreased: 912 in 2018, 1070 in 2019, and just over 200 in 2020.
In meetings with his officers, Kochavi explains that this does not mean that Israel is safer today. While the rapid pace of events might have changed, the scope of the threats against Israel is no less severe. In some ways, it is even worse.
Kochavi at a graduation ceremony of naval officers at the Haifa Naval base, March 2020 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)Kochavi at a graduation ceremony of naval officers at the Haifa Naval base, March 2020 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
IT’S BEEN a busy two years for IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, fighting a war he never imagined he’d fight, commanding the IDF through a time of political and economic uncertainty while at the same time, battling Israel’s most dangerous foe, Iran.
He is the chief of staff who, instead of sending troops to war against enemies like Hezbollah and Hamas, has been forced to command over one of the world’s most lethal armies in a war against something no one saw coming a year ago – a global pandemic called COVID-19.
Kochavi began his term in January 2019 when Israel’s usual foes – Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad – were the military’s top priority. And throughout his tenure, no matter the surrounding difficulties, Israel’s war-between-wars campaign against Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah has seen action on a weekly basis.
Kochavi refers to six different “fronts” that Israel faces – Iran, Gaza, Lebanon, terrorist groups in the Sinai, Iranian entrenchment in Syria and Palestinian terror in the West Bank. All six are constantly looked after by Military Intelligence and are constantly considered for different operations. Some are more urgent than others, but there is never a lull. All require daily vigilance and care.
The terror armies facing Israel fight asymmetrically and have large arsenals including long-range rockets as well as cruise and even precision missiles. They have considerable manpower and cross-border attack tunnels that they have dug into Israeli territory to mount surprise attacks. If in 2005, Kochavi was searching for a lone terrorist holed up in an apartment building, today his army still has to hunt for them but also needs to prepare for battle against well-trained battalion-sized terror units.
This rocket threat, advanced weaponry and spreading of enemy forces across a large amount of territory in both urban and open areas, are part and parcel as to why Kochavi felt the need to change the IDF’s concept of victory.
Kocahvi climbs into a cockpit during a recent flight on an F-16 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)Kocahvi climbs into a cockpit during a recent flight on an F-16 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
BORN in 1964, Kochavi enlisted in the Paratroopers Brigade in 1982 and has served in multiple command roles throughout his career, many of them having a significant impact on his decision-making process.
Those who know him describe three main characteristics that make him the chief of staff that Israelis know. He really understands the Middle East – his term as head of Military Intelligence particularly helped with that – and he knows that what works in this region is the language of force and lethality.
You can’t be polite and neighborly in the Middle East, Kochavi tells his men, noting how the region is the most divided in the world. And he always puts himself in the shoes of the enemy, asking how exactly they think and what their goals are, what they would want to do if given the chance.
To be prepared for these threats when he took up the role of chief of staff, he vowed to make the IDF more “lethal and efficient” and 100 days after he took the reins, he began to formulate a new operational victory concept and the now-famous Momentum multi-year plan.
The idea was simple to articulate but tough to implement – improve the IDF’s offensive and defensive capabilities, its combat effectiveness and increase its capabilities at identifying and destroying the enemy with multi-dimensional blows.
He established new units – like Ghost, a new combat force that organically integrates the capabilities of soldiers and officers from various units across the IDF for a deadlier maneuvering force that will rapidly destroy more enemy assets as troops advance deep into enemy territory.
Under his direction, the IDF also began spreading capabilities to all the operational-end units (battalions and companies); working to get different branches to work together in maneuvering and defense; and empowering troops and commanders in the field. The military is also in the midst of a digital transformation, where all troops will be connected – from the pilot in the sky to the platoon commander on the ground.
The multi-arm maneuvering force, with a high capacity for identifying, uncovering and destroying the enemy and its assets, will be deployed in all combat zones and in all conditions. It will adapt to the characteristics and challenges of the time and front.
In addition, he finally moved procurement plans ahead for the Air Force, deciding together with his top pilots the aircraft that would serve the nation for the decades to come.
Everything was on track for a successful term and already carrying the brand name of a reformer, there was little doubt in the country that Kochavi would be remembered as one of Israel’s most innovative and revolutionary chiefs of staff.
BUT THEN came the first election in April 2019, the second election in September 2019, the third election in March 2020 and now the fourth and upcoming election in March 2021. During this period, Kochavi has worked with four different defense ministers. He was appointed to his role by Avigdor Liberman who was then replaced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was then replaced by Naftali Bennett who was then replaced by Benny Gantz.
And if the political instability was not enough to undermine his plans, then came the novel coronavirus which completely altered the nation’s focus, resources and direction.
Attending an IAF pilot graduation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Ariel Schalit/Pool)Attending an IAF pilot graduation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Ariel Schalit/Pool)
From aspirations of being remembered as a reformer and for improving the IDF’s lethality, Kochavi became known in some circles as Ramatkal Corona – the coronavirus chief of staff. He started holding daily meetings about infection rates in IDF units as opposed to about missile arsenal levels in Hezbollah caches. It was a far cry from the way Kochavi had envisioned his tenure.
When taking office and rolling out his multi-year plan, Kochavi’s hope was to secure a budget and outline the way forward. The IDF, he believes, has a window of opportunity right now to significantly increase the gap between Israel and its enemies without going to war, but for that to happen it needs money – billions of shekels committed to growth and new weaponry.
For the government, he stresses to his subordinates, there is a question of what type of military it wants to have – one with a great advantage over its enemies or one with a small, minor advantage.
He isn’t wrong. The IDF today has some major gaps, illustrated between what the military wanted to do and what it has been able to do due to the lack of funds.
One example is the inability to complete the border wall with Lebanon and to fix the holes along the border fence in the West Bank. In the North this is particularly jarring. Hezbollah is known to have an elite force called “Radwan” which is trained to infiltrate the border and try to take over nearby Israeli communities. Completing that wall will cost NIS 1.6 billion shekel.
Another example is the military’s inability to improve shelters for the home front, especially in the North where the IDF is engaged in an ongoing war against Iran’s military entrenchment. Despite repeated reports by the State Comptroller, the government is not providing the necessary budget.
And then there are the Air Force’s procurement plans, which have been stuck in a fight between the Defense and the Finance ministries. The IAF is desperately in need of new heavy lift helicopters, midair refueling tankers as well as new fighter jets, including F-35 stealth fighters and an upgraded version of the F-15 to replace old combat aircraft on their way to being decommissioned.
The deal – needed to set the tone for the makeup of Israel’s strategic arm for the decades to come – was said to have been ready, waiting just for Netanyahu and Gantz to give the final okay. But then the country failed to pass a budget and the Knesset dispersed and headed to a new election.
Despite knowing what it wants and getting American consent to move forward, the IAF is stuck, another victim of the impossible political situation that has taken hold of the country since late 2018.
Kochavi has tried to maneuver through this complicated reality, saving money where he could within the existing budget and stopping large-scale projects that were not deemed necessary. He, for example, stopped construction of new training bases for two infantry brigades that would have cost the IDF about $600 million. He diverted money from branches and units and found ways to continue funding procurement of munitions and smart bombs.
Was it easy? No, but Kochavi understood that he did not have a choice. To his credit, he did so quietly and without kicking up a public storm. Instead of going to the press to whine about not having money, he preferred to work behind the scenes, doing what he could on his own to keep Israel safe.
WHAT HAS made this difficult is that operationally speaking, the situation is far from quiet. Kochavi doesn’t have to navigate just a political minefield in Israel – the defense minister and prime minister don’t exactly like one another – but he also has his primary mission: maneuvering a dangerous Middle East and keeping Israel safe.
Yes, it is not like it was 15 years ago, but the threats are perceived as greater than ever and missions continue, on a daily basis.
In the North, Israel is in a war against Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria, acting for several years in various manners to prevent Tehran from entrenching itself along its northern border and establishing a land, air, or sea bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
Kochavi briefs officers during a visit to the Bahd 1 officer’s training school near Mizpe Ramon. (IDF Spokesman)Kochavi briefs officers during a visit to the Bahd 1 officer’s training school near Mizpe Ramon. (IDF Spokesman)
Israel’s war-between-wars campaign aimed at preventing Iran from reaching its goal has been active for years, but under Kochavi it has increased in intensity. Strikes have destroyed an immeasurable amount of advanced weaponry and dozens of Iranian troops have been killed. In 2020, there was about a mission a week targeting hundreds of different targets, including some directly linked to Hezbollah.
“We have struck over 500 targets this year, on all fronts, in addition to multiple clandestine missions,” Kochavi said toward the end of 2020, adding that due to Israel’s ongoing activity “the Iranian entrenchment in Syria is in a clear slowdown… but we still have a long way to go to complete our goals in this arena.”
The IDF campaign under Kochavi is said to have brought results. The last year saw almost no convoys crossing into Syria by land because of the continued strikes and there has been a significant reduction in the number of cargo flights into Syria that are used to smuggle weapons.
Due to the IDF campaign, Iranian bases are said to have moved to the North and to the East, near the border with Iraq. In addition, the pro-Iranian militias have reduced their numbers, according to some estimates by as much as 50%.
That doesn’t mean the threat is not grave. It is. Israel’s North has transformed from two fronts to a single united volatile one with the country’s toughest enemy – Hezbollah – aiming tens of thousands of missiles at Israel’s home front. The Iranian proxy, called a “terror army” by Kochavi has been attempting to transform its missile arsenal into precision missiles able to inflict severe damage on strategic sites in the country.
According to updated IDF assessments, Iran today has several hundred missiles that can reach Tel Aviv and if a new war broke out with Hezbollah one day, it would see 1,500-2,000 rockets fired at Israel daily. In comparison, during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the daily number was 150.
But Kochavi hasn’t stood down. Days after the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist outside the capital of Tehran in a hit blamed on Israel, he visited the border with Syria and sent a clear warning to the Islamic Republic.
“Our message is clear,” Kochavi said. “We will continue to act as vigorously as necessary against Iranian entrenchment in Syria, and we are fully prepared for any sort of aggression against us.”
He chose to send the message to Tehran that the Israeli military is well aware of possible developments in the area. It was a calculated response, but one that he knew he needed to send.
Iran is already checking its options and Israel’s military and the defense establishment have quietly increased their intelligence collection relating to Israel’s already tense northern borders out of concerns that Iran might launch an attack against strategic sites or IDF soldiers. Other possibilities include a strike against an Israeli or Jewish target overseas.
 
WITH BATTLEFIELDS changing, the chief of staff is trying to transform the IDF into a “smart army,” holistic and tech-friendly, using simulators for more and more battalions and using artificial intelligence (AI) to significantly increase its target bank. As head of Military Intelligence during the Gaza War in 2014, Kochavi learned how important it is for intelligence agencies to provide real and live targets for strike forces.
If, for example, the military had fewer than 300 targets in Lebanon in 2006, now there are thousands. Part of this change is thanks to Kochavi’s decision to establish the “Target Administration,” a new military unit that has brought together intelligence and other disciplines to create targets faster and more efficiently.
Kochavi is a big believer in the value of AI, even quoting Russia’s President Vladamir Putin, who in 2017 said,  “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind... Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”
ON THE political front, Kochavi has needed to tread carefully, at times paying a price. Former generals who know Kochavi say that he is keenly aware of how comments he makes can be misconstrued. As a result, he is cautious; some might say overly cautious.
As chief of staff, he does give the occasional public speech, but he hasn’t granted a single interview since taking up his role two years ago. This is part of a strategy to keep a low profile and avoid political pitfalls. In such a volatile political environment – especially the relationship between the defense minister and the prime minister – this might make sense.
On the other hand, this over-sensitivity has led to criticism of the way he responded to the insults hurled at the parents of Capt. Tom Farkash, who was killed in action in the Second Lebanon War.
President Reuven Rivlin condemned the protesters, as did almost every politician from across the spectrum. Kochavi initially hesitated, waited a couple of days and when he finally issued a public statement, it didn’t mention Tom Farkash by name, his parents or the specific protests that were taking place outside their home. It called to respect bereaved families but failed to mention what was happening at the same time in the country.
Some in the IDF had expected a clearer stance from their top commander. Others understood that this chief of staff faces challenges that none of his predecessors have – not only a multitude of threats along Israel’s borders but also a volatile political climate inside them.
This was clear when Netanyahu forged the peace deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and Kochavi was left in the dark. He also was not told about the sale of F-35s to the UAE, a deal that still today he does not know for certain if media reports that Netanyahu pre-approved it are true. The prime minister’s flight to Saudi Arabia was also kept from him even though the prime minister’s military aide was on the plane, an officer who is directly subordinate to the chief of staff.
The peace deal with the UAE and the secret visit to Saudi Arabia did not ire Kochavi as much as the sale of the stealth fighter jets, a deal that he might have had some reservations about even if he would not have objected to it had he known about the sale beforehand. Since the incident, Kochavi met with Netanyahu to clear the air and received assurances that an Israeli green light for arms sales to Arab countries would not happen in the future without the IDF’s input.
Kochavi gets the coronavirus vaccine (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)Kochavi gets the coronavirus vaccine (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
The prime minister, he believes, has the right to make peace deals and travel to countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations. He does not need the permission of the chief of staff.
Nevertheless, the two incidents did raise eyebrows among some officers and defense officials who wondered whether the chief of staff still carried the same clout within the government. Yossi Cohen, the head of the Mossad, was involved in the UAE-Bahrain deal as was National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat. Kochavi was not.
Does that mean that Kochavi is not influential? No. What it does mean is that he was once again caught in the political crosshairs between Netanyahu and Gantz. Netanyahu knew that if he had told Kochavi about the deals, the chief of staff would have needed to update the defense minister and that is exactly what the prime minister did not want happening.
Despite these pitfalls, Kochavi has held his own. Like a good soldier, he has navigated the mess of Israeli politics without falling or becoming too much of a pawn in the battle between Gantz and Netanyahu. His plan is to keep his head down for as long as the political bickering continues. If it eventually ends, that will be the signal for him to go back to battle again – this time for the budget his military desperately needs.
THERE IS no question that under Kochavi’s tenure the IDF is doing more with less. And it needs to, because, Israel’s enemies – even those suffering from the coronavirus – have not stopped their hostile activity. They are planning, training and waiting for the right time and opportunity to launch an attack they hope will spell disaster for Israel. This is an attack the IDF under Kochavi continues to prepare for.