IDF chief’s cryptic remark was a reference to unease over 
Iran missions

Was he hinting that there may be missions that are not right? Was it a warning or reassurance?

April 15, 2021 11:45

The most solemn speech the Chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defence Forces makes each year is at the Western Wall on the evening when the fourth day of Iyar, Israel’s Memorial Day for its fallen soldiers, begins. The CGS is generally regarded as a father-figure of the nation, a man whose uniform is supposed to guarantee that, unlike the politicians with their petty interests, he is worthy of safeguarding the lives of Israel’s young men and women entrusted to his care. The Western Wall speech is meant mainly for the members of the bereaved families and is not political. Or even newsworthy, for that matter.

Which is why one sentence in the speech by Lieutenant-General Aviv Kochavi on Tuesday evening sounded out of place. It began in the normal tone, talking to the families who had lost their loved ones: “We try to understand the force of the pain and insist on remembering and learning from the events, and see you as part of the defence of the nation”. But then he veered slightly off-course, directing his words at another part of the military family: “And for our part, out of a commitment to the present generation of soldiers and their families, we will do everything to send them only on the right missions.”

What could Lieutenant-General Kochavi have meant? Was he hinting that there may be missions that are not right? Was it a warning or reassurance?

Since his days as the young commander of the fabled 101st paratrooper battalion, Kochavi was marked out as an officer who would make it to the very top. The kind of warrior-philosopher who would rouse his troops with quotes from the Bible, John Lennon and Sun Tzu. He seamlessly rose through the ranks but, just when he was on the brink of appointment to the top-job two and a half years ago, something beyond his control went wrong. The then Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman had decided to recommend Kohavi to the cabinet but the prime minister traditionally has to sign off on the appointment first.

Benjamin Netanyahu has little patience for thinking generals, and the fact that Lieberman — whom he does not trust — was so in favour of Kochavi did not improve matters. The prime minister set his heart on another candidate, a gruff general form the Armoured Corps who had previously served as his military adjutant and proved his loyalty. But Lieberman outmanoeuvred him by announcing the appointment in advance, forcing Netanyahu either to endorse it or risk an open cabinet rift. He kept silent, but Lieberman already had plans to break away and a month later announced that Yisrael Beiteinu was leaving the coalition.

Kochavi was left without political support and, to make matters worse, for the next year Netanyahu appointed himself defence minister as well.

The IDF is Israel’s largest and most complex organisation and the chief of staff doesn’t get much time to turn the ship around to his favoured direction. Kochavi had detailed plans for reorganisation of just about every branch but that needed both the backing of a full-time defence minister, and funding. Netanyahu wasn’t so minded and anyway was soon to give the defence minister’s job to Naftali Bennett, in the hope of keeping his coalition support — and then, six months later with a new coalition in place, Benny Gantz replaced Bennett.

With Israel in continuous political deadlock, a new budget (and thus Kohavi’s funding for new weapons) systems has not been passed for over three years. And for the past year every spare bit of cash has gone on Covid-19. Two and a half years in to his term, his prospects of ever realising his grand plans are diminishing.

Israeli politicians are traditionally jealous of the chiefs of staff — of their public standing and tendency towards independent thinking. To keep them in their place, they are appointed for only three years and, if they behave, they get a fourth year. Kochavi is still waiting for the cabinet to approve his extension and meanwhile he’s keeping his head down. He may be a brave and brilliant officer but he is also hyper-sensitive to criticism and does not have the stomach for politics. He knows that any public official who dares to deviate from the prime minister’s line walks in to the firing line of his online proxies. As a result, the man who is probably the most intelligent thinker among the six chiefs of staff to have served under Netanyahu has also been the most silently obedient.

Which is what makes his “right missions” remark even more surprising. Kochavi writes his own speeches and thinks about every word.

The most likely explanation is that Kochavi is very aware of the criticism, both open and private, from a growing number of retired generals of the recent series of operations carried out by Israel against Iranian targets. Not so much of the operations themselves, but of what is increasingly being seen as a lack of overall strategy and coherent policy making at the highest levels — and not enough attention paid to possible Iranian retaliation.

One of these critics is Amos Yadlin, the former commander of military intelligence who has become in recent years a twitter oracle. “Sensitive operations with diplomatic and security implications which have a potential for escalation must be authorised by the government”, he tweeted on Tuesday morning, two days after a mysterious explosion at Iran’s uranium enrichment plant in Natanz. “The government can delegate the decision-making to the cabinet and the cabinet can delegate to the prime minister and defence minister. These processes have not taken place and the decisions are being made with the relevant bodies being kept out. Parliamentary oversight long ago ceased to exist.”

Ten years ago Kochavi replaced Yadlin as intelligence chief. He was then on his way up, while Yadlin was an old combat pilot who had dropped bombs on Iraq’s nuclear reactor when Kohavi was still in high school. Yadlin’s tweet and Kochavi’s speech seemed to be in dialogue with each other.

It is bad news for Israel’s defence establishment if two former intelligence chiefs both feel they can’t have that conversation behind closed doors. 

Into the inner sanctum

Two other men who have been talking a lot recently are Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett. They hadn’t spoken for an entire year until the night after the election, when the prime minister called up the party leaders he hopes will join his fledgling coalition.

Since then he and Bennett have spent over ten hours together. And it’s not just their relationship suddenly blossoming after such a long estrangement, it’s the location of the meetings. Last weekend, Bennett entered a room he was never admitted to in the past. Even when he served as a senior minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet, he had never been asked inside the prime minister’s residence for a chat in the studio. The furthest he ever got was the patio outside. That’s the rule for those who have dared cross Sara Netanyahu in the past, and he has been blacklisted ever since Bennett told her back in 2007, when he was the then opposition leader Netanyahu’s chief of staff, “I work for your husband, not you.”

But now that Bennett has an offer from the opposition parties to become prime minister, despite controlling only seven Knesset seats — just so they can replace Netanyahu — he has finally been invited to inner sanctum.

Over a week of Netanyahu’s four-week mandate to form a government has been wasted and he is still no closer to gaining a Knesset majority. On Monday, Bennett said publicly that, “Likud can count the fingers of Yamina for the forming of a right-wing government.” It may have sounded that he was pledging support for Netanyahu, but he pointedly did not mention his name. A right wing government could be led by any right wing politician. In fact, if Netanyahu was to step aside, it would be much easier to form a right wing government since he is the only candidate currently vetoed by two right wing parties, New Hope and Yisrael Beiteinu.

Bennett can make these public promises easily since Yamina’s fingers won’t be enough. Netanyahu still hasn’t got any closer to convincing far-right Religious Zionism to sit in a government supported by Islamist Ra’am.

Bennett will continue visiting Netanyahu, toying with him as the coalition clock winds down.

The prime minister may be capable of ordering an operation against Iran without consulting cabinet but right now it is Bennett who is closer to having a majority to form a government.

April 15, 2021 11:45

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