Major General Hertzi Halevi will be the next chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), replacing Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi on January 1, 2023. His appointment was controversial because it was made by a transitional government, with parliamentary elections scheduled for November 1, 2022. Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition, did not hide his displeasure at the presumption of the present leadership to make a major appointment that will only take place during the term of a new government, which he hopes to lead. But the legal hurdles were cleared: Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara (the first woman to serve in that position) ruled that the position of a chief of staff is so critical that the appointment can be made even during an election period. The government then appointed (retired) Supreme Court Justice Menachem “Menny” Mazuz as chair of an advisory committee for the appointment of senior officials, thus ensuring further legitimacy for the government’s appointments.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz had narrowed the candidate field for chief of staff to two: Halevi and Major General Eyal Zamir. People close to Gantz insisted that this was not a predetermined outcome: Gantz had held at least three meetings with Zamir to hear his vision of the IDF. Rumors that Zamir was not favored because Netanyahu (and his family) liked him were summarily dismissed. In 2018, then Prime Minister Netanyahu had wanted to appoint Zamir, who had been his military advisor, instead of Kochavi. But Netanyahu had deferred to the objections of the security establishment. The criticism at the time was not directed against Zamir himself, but rather because he had not held enough two-star positions to qualify as chief of staff. Four years later, both candidates had the requisite command experience, but Halevi possessed unique qualifications—a special forces background with a degree in philosophy—which made him the preferred choice.
How important is Halevi’s appointment? Every incoming chief of staff inherits the work of the outgoing one. Halevi will inherit signed contracts for the procurement of weapons and existing operational plans. He certainly does not start from scratch, but it is his duty to pass the torch onto the chief of staff who will replace him with a better IDF than the one he received.
In a country like Israel, which has many security needs, the chief of staff must decide on the priorities during his term, because it is simply not possible to budget for everything. This will determine what is being done, but no less important what is not being done, with the choices being driven by intelligence assessments and by advanced risk management. In addition, decisions by a chief of staff are often subject to public debate. For example, in the case of Elor Azaria—a soldier court-marshaled for shooting a wounded terrorist lying prone on the ground—many on the right resented the decision of then Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot to put him on trial.
Still, one should be wary of the media’s tendency to speculate on the role of a chief of staff’s background and character—Halevi, the thoughtful, introverted special forces paratrooper, versus Zamir, who came from the armored corps. What is certain is that the incoming chief of staff will face challenges in preparing the military for five key problems that are expected to accompany him throughout his term of office (which is normally four years).
The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) led to the decision to dramatically reduce the readiness for an IDF military option against Iran. The American withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 led to significant Iranian violations which, in turn, resulted in a decision during the last two years to revert once again to preparing a military option for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israel currently does not have a credible attack option, and the military’s commander in the coming years will be required to raise the level of the IDF’s readiness for a military confrontation and an exchange of blows between the Jewish State and the Islamic Republic—against the background of the intense “campaign between the wars” already underway.
Also, after months of stagnation, one gets the impression of an eminent breakthrough in a deal with Iran, which even the American administration supports, so it is not an imaginary scenario that a new nuclear agreement may be reached in the coming weeks, and it may be worse than the previous one.
Many in the defense establishment believe that a bad agreement is better than the current situation. In addition to the experience gained by the Iranians in enriching uranium to high levels, their progress in the field of ballistic missiles could bring the red line even closer for Israel. Be that as it may, the cooperation between the IDF and the Mossad in covert operations and obtaining intelligence for the purpose of exposing the intentions of the Ayatollah’s regime may be of great importance, especially in the case of a new nuclear agreement between Iran and the West.
“Evil Will Come From The North” (Jeremiah 1:14)
Other than Iran and Gaza, the latter being a place where Israel always has short rounds of conflict, Lebanon’s Hezbollah is the most dangerous enemy that poses a significant likelihood of war. One just need look at the recent tensions surrounding the maritime border negotiations with Lebanon and the Hezbollah threats against Israel’s offshore gas explorations.
In recent years, the IDF has been improving its readiness for a conflict on the northern front, especially against Hezbollah. The ground forces, navy, and air force have all trained in exercises with northern scenarios. New advanced weapons have been purchased. The IDF has a plan that the top brass believe has the potential to destroy Nasrallah’s military capabilities. The weak point of the plan, however, hinges on estimates that thousands of civilians in Lebanon will die in the first days of the war.
Will Israel’s political echelon that in 2006 failed to approve attacks on Lebanese civilian infrastructure, owing to pressure from the Americans, succeed in approving such plans for the IDF during the next war? It is a compelling and complex question, but it’s clear that the IDF may be tested in the coming years in implementing plans for attacks on Hezbollah.
In addition, Israel’s air superiority over Lebanon has deteriorated due to the strengthening of Hezbollah’s new air defense systems. Now Israel’s air force has to think twice before sending unmanned aerial vehicles into the skies of Lebanon. Should Hezbollah shoot it down, the IDF will be required to respond—and therein lies the short path to escalation, which Israel does not want.
Over the last decade, an operational concept was established according to which the Israeli air force carries out missions several times a week outside the territory of the State of Israel. Undoubtedly, these actions have slowed down Hezbollah, for instance, its precision missile project. Yet they have not given up and are constantly moving weapons between Lebanon and Syria.
Between cost and benefit, the next chief of staff will be required to question whether the prestigious aerial operations do not also come at the expense of investing in readiness for the next war against Hezbollah—against precision missiles, cruise missiles, and swarms of unmanned aircraft.
There is, of course, no need to completely stop the aerial maneuvers, but the next chief of staff will definitely have to deal with the question of the centrality of this campaign and its share of the pie.
Gaza and the West Bank
In recent years, Israel has sought to avoid conflicts in the Palestinian arena but repeatedly finds itself drawn into rounds of violence in Gaza. Halevi has held a position in the Southern Command and knows very well that in his first year as chief of staff, he may be required to test the ground forces in Gaza.
The signs and signals from the West Bank do not bode well either. In the past year, a wave of deadly attacks in Israeli cities killed 20 people, mainly from terrorism originating in the West Bank or East Jerusalem, which shows how unstable this arena is.
For years there has been talk of succession struggles in the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the possible consequences for Israel. Mahmoud Abbas has already been buried countless times, but at the age of 86, it seems that he is truly closer to the end of his tenure than to the beginning.
Signs of instability can be seen mainly in the refugee camps of Jenin and Nablus in the northern West Bank, where the PA has a complete lack of power. As a result, the IDF is forced to operate in places where the PA has no control, and clashes with armed Palestinian gunmen occur more often. Accordingly, the army’s agenda is increasingly influenced by what is happening there.
Complaints about the conditions of IDF service are increasingly coming not only from young officers at the rank of lieutenant or captain but also from career officers of the rank of major and above, including those above the age of 30 and those slated to be generals. Changes in the military pension system have caused some of the complaints. In addition, retired officers point to societal changes in the prestige and pride associated with military service.
The IDF needs to adopt a more flexible approach in the current labor market, given the competition for top talent from Israel’s private sector. Some observers rank this challenge as equal to or greater than the operational and force building challenges that Halevi will face in 2023.