Will Kohavi's political ambitions impact military considerations? - opinion

As he enters his final year, there is a feeling that IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi is more hesitant than in the past - why?

 MINISTERS ARE certain he is running for political office. IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi at the Rabin memorial this week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
MINISTERS ARE certain he is running for political office. IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi at the Rabin memorial this week.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Remember the video of George W. Bush sitting in a Sarasota classroom on the morning of September 11, 2001? There was Bush, watching a group of second-graders read from their textbooks, when Chief of Staff Andrew Card walked to the front of the room, leaned over the president, and whispered into his ear.

“A second plane hit the second tower,” Card told Bush. “America is under attack.”

Bush, clearly shaken, looked around the room, bit his lower lip, but stayed seated in front of the group of schoolchildren so as not to alarm them. He remained sitting for another few minutes before starting what would be a new chapter in world history.

Now contrast that image with what happened on Monday at Mount Herzl. At 3 p.m., the nation’s top leaders gathered at the gravesite of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to mark the 26th anniversary of his tragic assassination.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was there, as were President Isaac Herzog, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, heads of the Labor Party, and of course, members of the Rabin family. Also in attendance were the nation’s top security chiefs – IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi, and newly installed Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Ronen Bar.

At about 3:30, as Herzog was speaking, a female soldier handed Kohavi a note. An alarm had sounded along the Gaza border, indicating a possible rocket attack. Kohavi waited a few moments and then got up and left the ceremony. A few minutes later he returned. The siren was a false alarm. There was no rocket attack.

Here is my question: why did Kohavi think he needed to get up?

The ceremony was being broadcast live on Israeli television and multiple news websites. Leaving in the middle, he must have assumed, would create alarm and speculation. Of course, Kohavi could not know right then that the rocket alarm was false, but even if it was real and a rocket had been fired, is that a reason to get up in the middle of a national ceremony? Does it not make sense to wait for more information to see if he is really needed?

I mention this because the Rabin memorial took place a day before news broke that Kohavi has written a book and is looking for a publisher.

Now there is nothing wrong with the chief of staff writing a book. Yes, he has a busy schedule, little free time, and a high-pressured job. But if he decides to spend that free time writing a book about military strategy and leadership, then that is his prerogative.

The timing is what’s interesting.

Kohavi has another year left to his term in office. Publishing a book now is a nice way to boost his stature while still in uniform. Leaving a televised national ceremony in the middle for everyone to see is another.

The combination of these two – the ceremony walkout and news of the book – are just further evidence of what a lot of ministers concluded some time ago: Kohavi is running for political office.

The chief of staff’s ambitions have long been a given. Since his days as commander of the Paratroopers Brigade in the early 2000s, Kohavi had his eyes set on becoming chief of staff, a role that he has maneuvered quite successfully for the last three years. There have been no big slip ups but there have also been no major successes.

As he begins his last year in office, there is a feeling within the security cabinet that Kohavi is even more hesitant than in the past. Ministers say they have noticed that he is being overly cautious, and that he needs to be pushed harder than before to get certain operations done.

“He doesn’t want to do anything that could ruin his image,” one minister said recently.

As part of his effort to stay out of trouble, Kohavi never holds news conferences, and has never given a real interview where he would be submitted to criticism and questions. 

It is all done with the aim of protecting Kohavi’s image; and the chief contractor in this operation is the IDF Spokesperson’s Office, with hundreds of soldiers that make it look more like the chief of staff’s personal PR team than the body responsible for military public diplomacy.

In this, Kohavi is not that different than former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, who stepped down in June. Cohen also worked hard to create his public image, and was in direct contact with journalists during his tenure in a way never seen before in the Mossad. Again, that is legitimate, but it came with a clear motivation: Cohen too has political ambitions.

And therein lies the problem. When an acting security chief is already thinking about politics, how are we – the public – supposed to view the decisions they make? Will Kohavi approve a future operation regardless of whether it is good or bad for his political career? Will he be thinking about the good of the country, or whether it helps his future chance at taking over a political party?

We should hope that it is the former, but we cannot ignore that it might also be the latter. Even the doubt - as little as it might be - is not good. It is not good for Israel, not for the IDF, and not for Kohavi.

 The Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion. (credit: Lockheed Martin/NAVAIR) The Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion. (credit: Lockheed Martin/NAVAIR)

Speaking about political intervention in the IDF: pay attention to the following story. In July, the US State Department approved the sale of 18 Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopters to Israel to replace the IAF’s aging fleet of CH-53 Yasurs.

The Yasurs first entered service in 1969, and have served for 52 years as the air force’s primary helicopter to transport soldiers and equipment. They have also taken part in a wide variety of covert missions far behind enemy lines.

Anyone who has flown on a Yasur in recent years can testify to the oil that leaks from the pipes inside, and the rough vibrations upon takeoff. Considering that they sometimes carry dozens of soldiers, using them has become a serious risk.

How risky? Look at what happened two years ago when a Yasur was transporting a squad of commandos from the Air Force’s elite Shaldag Unit, and a fire broke out in the engine during flight. The pilots quickly landed in a field and evacuated the helicopter, and within seconds the whole aircraft became engulfed in flames.

The planes are so old that spare parts are hard to come by, so the IAF has had to come up with innovative ways to try to obtain them: it buys the spare parts when it can find them on the open market, even on eBay, and in other cases it has used 3D printers to create parts no longer available.

Nowhere else in the world have these helicopters flown combat missions for so long. So why in Israel? A number of reasons.

Like anything in the IDF, there are priorities, and transport helicopters were never at the top. Over the years, the military had to prioritize where it was going to invest the foreign military aid it receives annually from the US, and for the last few years it has gone mostly to paying for the 75 F-35 fighter jets Israel has ordered.

Then there was the wait for the development of Sikorsky’s CH-53K to be completed. Israel knew for a number of years that it was under development, and while it also had the option of buying Boeing’s Chinook, it wanted to wait to see how the first batch would fly after coming off the assembly line.

And then there was the political upheaval in Israel, which has not had a state budget for three years, and which has gone through four defense ministers over the span of a year-and-a-half: Avigdor Liberman quit the government in November 2018, he was replaced by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who a year later appointed Bennett, and Bennett was then replaced by Benny Gantz in May 2020.

Four defense ministers in the span of 18 months. That not only creates instability, more crucially it undermines the ability to make decisions that carry with them a price tag of about $2 billion.

As a result, the decision on the helicopters got stuck. No one could make up their mind, and anyhow, the budget was not available.

That logjam finally started to clear in February, when Gantz accepted the IAF’s recommendation to purchase the CH-53K. The State Department approved the sale in July, and now, with a budget on the way, the countries are in the final stages of wrapping up the contract.

In the last few months, teams from Sikorksy – owned by Lockheed Martin – have been arriving every few weeks to meet with their IAF counterparts. They are doing everything they can to finalize the technical specifications for the helicopters that Israel will end up ordering, which will then need to be integrated with Israeli-made radars, electronic warfare and command and control systems.

Some of the foreign engineers require special permission to enter the country since they have not all received a third vaccine. The Defense Ministry has worked out a procedure with the Health Ministry. Everyone understands that speed is important.

As it is, under the current timeline – the first helicopters are scheduled to begin arriving in 2026 – it is not clear that they will make it to Israel in time to replace the Yasurs, which, with every day that passes, become more obsolete and dangerous to fly.

As crazy as this sounds, Israel might find itself in a situation that it simply won’t have transport helicopters for a year or two.

Why is this story important? Because it is an illustration of just one small problem that stemmed from the crazy political situation reigning over the country for the last few years. It is just one example of why a country like Israel needs a stable government.

For now, we have to hope that the current fleet of Yasurs can continue operating until the “K” models arrive in four years. And we also have to hope – whether you like this government or not – that it succeeds in passing a budget by November. Failure would mean a new election, and even more delays in the development and procurement of critically needed weapons.

Israel’s pilots need the budget to pass as do the country’s troops who are transported on Yasurs. Too much time has already been wasted.