Aviv Kochavi: The military chief Israel needs?

IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi wraps up a tumultuous first year in command.

cover - The military chief  Israel needs? (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
cover - The military chief Israel needs?
It has been a year since Aviv Kochavi took the elevator to the 14th floor of the IDF’s Kirya Military Headquarters in Tel Aviv and sat down at his new desk as Israel’s Chief of General Staff.
It’s been a busy year for him – a year that has been almost unprecedented in Israeli history, both militarily and politically.
A year that saw Kochavi contend with multiple enemies on multiple fronts – from the North to the South and beyond – threatening the security of the State of Israel.
A year in which the chief of staff has had to work with two defense ministers while implementing military plans and strategies against an enemy – Iran – extending its tentacles across the Middle East in an attempt to strangle Israel.
A year in which Israel, according to one former senior air force officer, saw direct confrontation between the Jewish state and Iran.
He is the chief of staff who might have to send troops to war, something the military has been able to prevent for the past five years, including during the term of predecessor Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Gadi Eisenkot.
Kochavi is known as a perfectionist, a reformer and an officer who thinks outside the box. And like his last name, he was looked at by many as the military’s brightest star even if he wasn’t Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first choice for the top job.
The news of his recommendation in late 2017 was announced along with a report that Netanyahu shouted at then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman when he was told that he would be recommending Kochavi as the 22nd IDF chief of staff.
According to a report aired at the time on Army Radio, Liberman called Netanyahu – who was on a trip to Oman – to inform him that he was nominating Kochavi for the military’s top position, knowing that the prime minister preferred then-Southern Command head Maj.-Gen. Eyal Zamir for the role.
After Netanyahu reportedly asked Liberman to wait until he returned to Israel, he then yelled at him and threatened not to take the nomination to a cabinet vote.
Liberman ignored the prime minister’s threat and announced he had chosen Kochavi. It took several hours before the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement congratulating the incoming chief.
That was just the beginning.
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 processes.
He served as eastern division commander of the Lebanon Liaison Unit (1998-1999) and commander of the Paratrooper Brigade (2001-2003), where he led troops on operations against Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank. It was then, at the height of the Second Intifada, that Kochavi developed urban warfare methods that are still studied by foreign militaries.
He also commanded the IDF’s elite airborne division before serving as commander of the Gaza Division from 2004-2006, where he pushed the military to implement his Fire Canopy concept, which brought the IDF’s different branches together with the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) in a synchronized way, improving its ability to hunt down and engage terrorist targets.
While relatively unsuccessful at first, 14 years later it became the star of the show in the violent confrontation against Islamic Jihad in November.
He also held several key positions in the General Staff, commanding the Operations Division and serving as head of Military Intelligence (2010-2014), head of the Northern Command and then as deputy chief of staff under Eisenkot.
Kochavi has a BA in philosophy from the Hebrew University, a master’s in public administration from Harvard University and a master’s in international relations from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Hidai Zilberman first met the chief of staff when he was an operations officer in the Northern Command while Kochavi was its head. Over the years, the two officers have worked closely together and are on a first-name basis.
“He’s a perfectionist,” Zilberman said with a smile. “He demands, demands, demands and he never gets enough because he always wants it more clear, more coherent... more… everything more.”
Referring to Kochavi’s visits to 180 military bases around the country, Zilberman explained that the commander chose to personally visit the bases to ensure that they were up to his standards.
“It took us a week, and I said to him, ‘Aviv, you don’t have to waste your time and go yourself to check the bases.’ But he said, “No” and went to check the bases across the country from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., to see with his own eyes what was going on there,” Zilberman recounted.
“On the one hand, he sits at the top, thinking of national security issues, but on the other hand, he finds himself at the bottom and says, ‘Hey, I’m demanding that the bases in the farthest spot in the South be up to the standards that I want.”
Kochavi, Zilberman said, has a “really unique character where he is able to jump from one level to the other.”
COMING INTO office at a time when the IDF saw the window of opportunity to act against Iranian entrenchment getting smaller and smaller, Kochavi had no choice but to start his tenure with a bang.
Five days after he took the IDF helm, Netanyahu hinted that Israel was responsible for airstrikes at Damascus International Airport. Hours later, a ground-to-ground missile was fired from Syria toward Israel’s only ski resort, Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights, which was packed with thousands of visitors.
Following the rocket fire toward the Hermon, Israeli jets carried out dozens of strikes against sites at Damascus International Airport and a Hezbollah/Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) base in the Al-Kiswah area.
The missile was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system, but the message was clear: Iran was here.
The Islamic Republic, under the command of Qasem Soleimani, has for years been trying to establish a land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean, a major concern for Israel, which has been carrying out a war-between-wars campaign aimed at preventing Iran from reaching its goal.
Under Soleimani, who until his death in early January was in charge of all of Iran’s military operations beyond its borders as commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, Israel’s North has transformed from two fronts to one volatile front, with the country’s toughest enemy, Hezbollah, aiming tens of thousands of missiles at Israel’s home front.
Under Soleimani, Hezbollah has been attempting to transform its missile arsenal into precision-guided munitions, capable of inflicting severe damage on strategic sites across the country.
Due to that threat, Israel’s war-between-wars campaign has seen action on a weekly basis.
“If you need a title for the past year, it’s been a very high pace of events,” Zilberman told the Magazine.
There are three types of operations carried out by Israel during the war-between-wars campaign: overt, covert and clandestine. Kochavi is said to prefer the last two, leaving the enemy to wonder who may have struck them and how.
That is why while Israel’s campaign has been mainly focused on Syria, in late December the chief of staff hinted at what foreign reports have already been attributing to Israel – that the IDF is striking targets in neighboring Iraq.
“Iraq is undergoing a civil war, the Quds Force is operating there on a daily basis, and the country itself has turned into an ungoverned area. Advanced weapons are being smuggled by the Quds Force in Iraq on a monthly basis and we can’t allow that,” he said at a memorial for the late former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.
However, according to foreign reports, Israeli operations in Iraq have been minimal compared to what’s been happening in Syria, where over the last year 54 targets have been struck. In addition to the targets destroyed in Syria, the IDF destroyed six cross-border attack tunnels dug by Hezbollah from southern Lebanon into northern Israel under his command.
One senior Israel Air Force officer who served under Eisenkot told the Magazine that the strategy behind the campaign against Iran has not changed under Kochavi.
“The way Eisenkot dealt the campaign vs. Kochavi was a natural flow. I don’t see any dramatic changes. Seven years ago we kept a low profile, but the strategy is the same and continuous,” he said. “In order to analyze the differences, you need to base it on practice and what has been done. Up to now there’s been no dramatic change and it should continue like that.”
Echoing his thoughts, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Zvika Haimovich told the Magazine that there hasn’t been a big shift in policy on Iran under Kochavi.
“Of course, every commander brings his personal beliefs and ideas,” noted the former commander of the IDF’s Aerial Defense Division in a recent interview. “There isn’t really a big difference between the IDF policy and philosophy in dealing with Syria and Iran after Eisenkot.”
According to Haimovich, “Eisenkot did a great job in keeping silent regarding the fighting against Iranian proxies in the region. It was amazing. The number of strikes, the number of successful missions, the red line, all the parameters, everything. Today we are talking a lot more. I prefer the previous silence.”
That previous silence that allowed for plausible deniability, Haimovich asserted, prevented Iran from retaliating against Israel. But when the prime minister and other ministers began to brag about the strikes, Iran started to hit back.
A SENIOR defense official said this summer that while preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb remains Israel’s top priority, thwarting Hezbollah’s precision missile project has become the second top objective. Next is preventing Iranian entrenchment in various Middle Eastern countries.
In addition to strikes in Syria and Iraq, Netanyahu has also started talking about Yemen.
And that’s not to mention Hezbollah in Lebanon, where for the first time since the Second Lebanon War, the IDF was blamed for a drone attack in Beirut’s Dahiyeh that, according to a report by The Times, targeted Hezbollah’s precision missile project, including crates with machinery to mix high-grade propellant for precision-guided missiles.
A few days later and another deadly IAF strike in Syria that killed two Hezbollah terrorists preparing to launch a killer drone strike on northern Israel, Hezbollah fired a Kornet anti-tank missile toward an IDF ambulance between the communities of Yir’on and Avivim.
While there were no injuries or fatalities, the IDF under Kochavi’s command opted to attempt a ruse to confuse Hezbollah into thinking they had succeeded in their plan, and “evacuated” injured soldiers to hospital and carried out heavy retaliatory fire.
Though the North has continued to grab the headlines over the past year, when he took command, Kochavi announced that with the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in dire humanitarian straits, Israel’s southern front was the most tense.
Over the past year, there have been two notable conflicts with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza: in May, when in the span of less than 48 hours Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched 690 rockets towards Israel; and in November, when Israel assassinated PIJ commander Bahaa Abu al-Ata, leading to the launching of over 400 rockets by the Iranian-backed Gazan terror group toward southern and central Israel in 50 hours, shutting down the country and sending millions to bomb shelters.
The past year saw the most serious peak of violence between Israel and terror groups in the strip since the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, with 1,295 rockets fired in 2019 – the majority (93%) having been fired during the 12 violent rounds of confrontation between Israel and terror groups in the Strip.
During those rounds of violence, seven Israeli civilians were killed by rocket fire and a Kornet anti-tank missile, the highest number of civilian casualties since the 2014 war.
According to reports, Iran and Hamas have agreed to open a second front in the South with the Gaza Strip should a war break out in Israel’s North.
Israel has experience in fighting in two arenas at the same time, like during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, which started as the IDF was already operating inside Gaza following the abduction of Gilad Schalit.
But 14 years later, Israel’s enemies have changed and their military capabilities have increased tremendously, with massive rocket and missile arsenals aimed at the Jewish state’s home front.
With fronts ripe for conflict to break out at any moment, the IDF’s ability to operate effectively on multiple fronts simultaneously is crucial for Israel to deal with the region’s unpredictable and explosive nature.
In August, the IDF faced two attacks on two borders in less than 24 hours: one targeted IDF troops stationed along the Gaza border fence, while another targeted Hezbollah positions on Syria’s Golan Heights.
Hours after the IDF completed a large drill, a Hamas operative armed with grenades and a Kalashnikov infiltrated into southern Israel near the community of Kissufim and injured an officer and two soldiers before being killed by IDF reinforcements. Several hours later, Israel was accused of striking a Syrian Arab Army position in al-Bariqa west of Queintra on the Golan Heights.
Those two incidents, miles apart, are just a small indication of the major challenge Kochavi will have to face in the next war.
WHEN HE took over from Eisenkot last year, Kochavi vowed to make the IDF “deadly and efficient” and 100 days after he took the reigns as the military’s top officer, he began to formulate a new operational victory concept and new multi-year plan.
Known for changing the rules of the game to the IDF’s advantage, Kochavi knew he would have to bring a different attitude to the table – and he has.
Zilberman told the Magazine that it took over a week and dozens of meetings with close to 70 generals to formulate the operational concept of victory for the IDF that “will act as a compass for the military.”
The new multi-year plan, which is built on the new victory concept, has been dubbed “Momentum” and uses the motto “Readiness and Change,” with a focus on improving the military’s defensive and offensive capabilities.
According to Zilberman, Kochavi believes it is of utmost importance to prepare the military for threats it will face some 30 years in the future and build the new multi-year plan accordingly, with new concepts and methods of warfare that have been adapted to the challenges of the urban battlefield saturated with enemy fire.
The IDF will also spread capabilities to all the operational-end units (battalions and companies), get different branches to work together in maneuvering and defense, and empower troops and commanders in the field. There will also be a digital transformation in the IDF, where all troops will be connected – from the pilot in the sky to the platoon commander on the ground.
The military has also begun recruiting troops into a new multi-dimensional combat unit that will organically integrate 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.
The new unit, which has yet to be named, was one of Kochavi’s first decisions as chief of staff as part of a change in the IDF’s perspective to meet new challenges posed by Israel’s enemies.
But there is an issue. There is no money for all the decisions (including decisions where money is actually available, such as for new fighter jet and helicopter squadrons) to be carried through, due to Israel’s unrivaled political turmoil.
Nevertheless, Zilberman said, Kochavi will push through.
“He always says that no matter what happens, we will go forward. We put the tracks down for the train and we know the direction of the multi-year plan,” he said, explaining that while new aircraft might have to wait until after the election, dozens of other decisions have been made and carried out.
“Everything we can do as a military we will do,” Zilberman stressed.
KOCHAVI HAS vowed that the IDF will continue to carry out operations to prevent its enemies from obtaining precision missiles, both overtly and below the radar, even if those operations risk bringing about a confrontation.
According to the former senior IAF officer, while Kochavi and other senior military brass have to provide the political echelon with recommendations and solutions, the last word on whether the military goes to war rests on the politicians.
“If the political leadership wants to do something, the military can provide tools to do it. The big question is if it’s smart to do it, and that’s something political and military leadership discuss but the final decision is always political,” he said. “It’s very difficult to initiate a war when the military leadership doesn’t support it. But the military will always obey the directive of the politicians.”
According to the chief of staff, while war is a solution to be used after all diplomatic solutions have been exhausted, in the next war, be it with the North or with Gaza, the intensity of enemy firepower will be great.
And the country, not only the troops under his command, has to be ready.
“I’m looking at everyone in the eye; it will be intense. We have to prepare for that. We have to prepare for that militarily, on the home front, and mentally,” Kochavi warned. “There can be no war without casualties and I cannot not guarantee a short war. We will need national resilience.”