Why does IDF chief Aviv Kochavi not speak to the public? – opinion

Since taking up the role of IDF chief of staff in January 2019 – almost two years ago – Kochavi has yet to give a single serious sit-down media interview. This is a problem

IS HIS silence democratic? Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi after a recent helicopter flight. (photo credit: IDF)
IS HIS silence democratic? Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi after a recent helicopter flight.
(photo credit: IDF)
A week ago, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley testified before Congress that the US military will play no role in November’s presidential election, and will not help settle disputes if the results are contested.
In May, when COVID-19 was raging throughout the US and across the globe, Milley found the time to sit down with NPR’s Steve Inskeep for a wide-ranging interview about the disease, as well as sensitive geopolitical issues like the threat the US faces from the Chinese Communist Party.
A few months before that, in November, he gave a lengthy interview to ABC News to discuss US plans for Syria, a possible resurgence of ISIS, and what he predicted would come next on the Iranian front.
Milley wasn’t alone. Across the pond in Great Britain, Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Nick Carter spoke with BBC Radio two weeks ago about future conflicts, and the need for the British military to merge its space and cyber capabilities within its ground forces. And a few months before that, in an interview with a popular podcast, he predicted that by 2030 a quarter of the British Army would be replaced by automated robots.
Two countries, two democracies, and two chiefs of staff, neither of whom has a problem appearing before their parliaments or the media to take questions – some of them tough – and to provide answers.
Why? Because that is their role. Militaries serve the country, and in democratic systems that means the citizens. This is even more so the case in a country like Israel, where military service is mandatory, as opposed to the US and the UK where service is all-volunteer.
Nevertheless, when it comes to Israel, there is only silence coming from the 14th floor of the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv. Since taking up the role of IDF chief of staff in January 2019 – almost two years ago – Kochavi has yet to give a single serious sit-down media interview. He has yet to answer questions openly and publicly, has yet to be challenged.
This is a problem.
As chief of staff, Kochavi owes clarifications and explanations to the Israeli public – the same public that sends its sons and daughters to serve underneath him and to risk their lives in operations along and beyond Israel’s borders.
Kochavi needs to explain what is happening in the Gaza Strip, where weeks of violence ended this week in another tenuous ceasefire. He needs to explain what is happening in the North, where Hezbollah has attempted three attacks in recent weeks, and where the military continues to maintain a heightened state of alert ahead of a possible fourth attempt.
Kochavi needs to militarily explain the impending UAE deal, and what exactly happened in the communications among the National Security Council, the commander of the Air Force and himself. Did Kochavi know about the secret negotiations, or was he too left in the dark like his immediate superior, Defense Minister Benny Gantz?
And finally, with COVID-19 raging across the country – Israel set another record high on Thursday for daily infections – parents of soldiers deserve to hear what exactly Kochavi is doing to keep their enlisted children safe and healthy.
But have we heard anything from him? No. Nothing. Not a sound.
Needless to say, this is hardly democratic. It is unlikely that Mark Milley or Nick Carter ever speak to the press because they enjoy it. They do so because they understand that it is part of their job, and that as employees of the state, they have an obligation to provide answers and explanations to the real sovereign power in their lands: the people.
While it is true that Kochavi briefs military journalists on a fairly regular basis, and speaks at an occasional ceremony after which some video is released to the press, that amounts to very little in the eyes of a public that deserves to hear directly from the man making existential decisions.
I know what some will say: we don’t need him to talk; we need him to work. Which of course is true, as we expect him to keep this country safe and to prepare its military for the next conflict. But part of doing that is by being transparent and keeping the public in the know, informed and educated about the challenges and threats that loom on our national horizon.
I do understand why Kochavi stays quiet. First, why should he talk when no one demands it of him? The IDF Spokesperson’s Office, the largest state-run PR firm in the country (it is bigger than all of the media staff in all of the government ministries – including the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry – put together), keeps reporters at bay with background briefings and other lucrative, secretive and distracting stories.
But after receiving briefings on top-secret operations, technologies and strategic assessments, reporters have a harder time challenging the establishment. I don’t mean this as criticism of the military reporters across Israeli media. I too spent nearly 10 years as a military correspondent. When you are brought in to hear intelligence assessments and see videos that no one else gets to see, it is hard to then come out swinging and ask the tough questions. Some do. Most don’t.
Kochavi also learned from some of his predecessors that being quiet helps create a public image of a general who only works for the people, and that persona can pay off after service.
One role model is former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi – currently the foreign minister – who as the top IDF officer in the country after the Second Lebanon War gave no interviews. He rode an image of a general too busy being focused on rehabilitating the IDF to have time for an interview, an impression that turned him into one of the more popular officials in the country.
On the other hand, it is difficult not to wonder what would have happened had Ashkenazi spoken up earlier and been publicly challenged about what many knew was his tense relationship with then-defense minister Ehud Barak. That tension culminated in what became known as the Harpaz Affair, which led to a police investigation and an unprecedented crisis of faith and disconnect between a chief of staff and a minister of defense.
Could that have been avoided if Ashkenazi had interviewed with journalists? I don’t know. But it needed to be tried.
It is also understandable why Kochavi would prefer to remain quiet when Israel is running from one election to the next, and even now, when the government in power continues to teeter on the edge of another.
Since his appointment in October 2018, Kochavi has worked with four defense ministers: Avigdor Liberman named him to the role but then quit before Kochavi took office; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu served as defense minister for about a year, until he gave the portfolio to Naftali Bennett for six months; and now there is Benny Gantz.
Kochavi is probably figuring that speaking to the press and being asked tough questions will do very little good during such a hyper political time.
He also looks around and sees that some of Israel’s politicians have no problem attacking government institutions – the courts, the police, the attorney general and the media. So why bother doing something that can potentially land you in trouble?
If the prime minister’s son says one day that the media is the enemy of the people, what will stop him from saying the same thing the next day about Kochavi and the IDF?
This is understandable, but it is not an excuse. Israel is a democracy, and in a democracy there is a requirement for transparency. While appointments to the Joint Chiefs require the approval of the Senate, generals in Israel are appointed behind closed doors in deals reached between a chief of staff and a defense minister, and sometimes including the prime minister. The public, the parliament and even the cabinet know almost nothing about the reasons one officer is promoted over another.
It is time for all of this to change. It is time for Kochavi to speak up.