The Israeli military has sent what amounts to a barely disguised message to the political leadership and the troops in the latest round of senior command promotions, announced April 25.
With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process frozen, settler militancy on the rise and right-wing religious nationalists increasingly making their presence felt at the junior command level, the appointments make clear that the General Staff, led by chief of staff Benny Gantz, is doubling down on its basic strategic outlook: cooperation with the Palestinian leadership, enforcement of the soldiers’ code of ethics, deterrence on the northern front — and zero tolerance for Palestinian terrorism. Call them the hardline doves.
The three most charged appointments are the promotion of Brigadier General Herzl “Herzi” Halevi, the IDF’s so-called “philosopher-general,” until recently commander of the Galilee Division, to major general and chief of military intelligence; the appointment of the outgoing intelligence chief, Major General Aviv Kochavi, as chief of Northern Command; and the striking decision to retain the left-leaning chief of Central Command, Major General Nitzan Alon, in his current post overseeing the West Bank.
Alon’s retention at the head of Central Command, which covers the West Bank, sends a clear signal of the army’s impatience with growing settler radicalism and the spread of so-called price tag attacks. Alon is regarded by settler leaders as an undisguised liberal; it’s frequently noted that his wife Mor has been a supporter of the women’s human-rights group Machsom Watch, which is viewed on the right as subversive.
Alon spent much of his career in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit before taking a series of positions in intelligence and field command, mostly in the West Bank. Shortly before assuming his current position as chief of Central Command in December 2011, Alon infuriated settler leaders by calling price-tag actions “Jewish terrorism” in a New York Times interview. He also warned against cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, then under congressional consideration because of the Palestinian application for United Nations recognition. He said cutting aid would destabilize Palestinian security forces, which he described as crucial to stability in the area. Under his command the army has clashed repeatedly with West Bank settlers, and he himself has been physically attacked by settlers and had protest demonstrations mounted outside his home.
Aviv Kochavi’s move from military intelligence to Northern Command, in charge of the Lebanon and Syria fronts, sends a more complicated message.
On one hand, as a brigade commander in 2002 he was considered one of the moving forces behind Operation Defensive Shield, the controversial incursion into the cities of the West Bank that broke the back of the Second Intifada. He also played an important role as military intelligence chief in the planning and execution of Operation Pillar of Defense, the 2012 anti-terrorist operation in Gaza (which was considered far more successful than its more destructive 2008-09 predecessor, Operation Cast Lead, in which Kochavi played no role). As such, his assignment to the Northern Command has to be seen as a message to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the chaotic forces struggling in Syria that Israel won’t tolerate any cross-border violence.
At the same time, Kochavi is considered an ally and protégé of Major General Gadi Eizenkot, the current deputy chief of staff who’s considered likely to be named chief of staff this summer. Eizenkot, then chief of Northern Command, was a leading candidate for chief of staff during the last round in 2010, but was apparently vetoed by then-defense minister Ehud Barak because of his closeness to Barak’s nemesis, then-chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi.
Ashkenazi and Eizenkot were known to oppose Barak’s (and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s) goal of mounting a military attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. In addition, Eizenkot took pride in maintaining quiet along the northern borders, in contrast to Barak’s favorite, Yoav Galant, chief of Southern Command, who took pride in the fiery anti-terrorist operations he led along the Gaza border.
In the end Galant was appointed chief and then disqualified because of a real-estate scandal. Instead the job went to a compromise candidate, Benny Gantz, who then appointed Eizenkot as his deputy and heir-apparent and, in a blunt signal to settler leaders, put Alon in charge of the West Bank.
Of all the latest appointments, though, the most talked-about is the promotion of Brigadier General “Herzi” Halevi to chief of Military Intelligence. A former commander of the paratroops brigade and of the Sayeret Matkal commando, he was described last November in a flattering New York Times profile — itself a rarity for an Israel Defense Forces general — as a likely future IDF chief of staff. Even so, the promotion of a brigadier to head military intelligence, leapfrogging over various qualified major generals, is unusual.
Yediot Ahronot columnist Nahum Barnea reported this past Friday that after the New York Times interview appeared, Halevi called him and begged him not to publish an interview he’d conducted several days earlier, fearing it would look like he was campaigning for the top spot, sparking jealousy and resentment among his peers.
Halevi was raised in what he’s described as a “liberal religious” home in Jerusalem. After high school he enlisted as a member of a kibbutz-linked youth movement in Battalion 50 of the Nachal Brigade, the unit that carries on the Nachal tradition of combining military service and kibbutz agricultural work. He worked his way up through various command postings in the paratroops and Sayeret Matkal. As a junior paratroops officer in the West Bank in 2002, he shocked his peers by speaking out against plans to capture Yasser Arafat, who was then holed up in his headquarters in Ramallah. Then-chief of Central Command Moshe Kaplinsky is commonly credited with blocking the plan, warning the General Staff that it would cause the Middle East to “explode.”
In 2007 he was made commander of the paratroops brigade, which went on to participate in ground action in Gaza in Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09. Later that year he spoke out publicly to urge that field commanders be held responsible for educating their troops on the ethics of warfare.
More than almost any other IDF officer, Halevi is the subject of numerous stories and near-legends, most having to do with his philosophizing. Much of it revolves around his penchant for drawing on religious text to appeal to the religious right for moderation.
In September 2008, while debate was still raging over the Gaza disengagement and rabbinic calls for soldiers to disobey orders, Halevi gathered his paratroop officers for a New Year’s lecture and taught a pointed Talmud lesson on deferring to authority. It concerned a tale from Tractate Rosh Hashanah in which Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hanania, who chaired the Sanhedrin after the fall of the Temple, sparred with Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, the Nassi or prince, over the correct date of Yom Kippur. When neither could convince the other, Rabbi Yehoshua deferred to Rabban Shimon because of his senior rank, and on the day that he believed was Yom Kippur he left his home carrying money and a walking stick to show it was not a holy day. The lesson, Halevi told his officers, was that even when religious principles seem overriding, a leader’s first duty is to maintain unity.
Another legendary talk came a year later, at a memorial in Tel Aviv for the late Haaretz military analyst Zeev Schiff in early September 2009. At the time Israelis were sharply divided over the costs inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza by Operation Cast Lead the previous January. Considerable attention was focused the actions of military and Chabad rabbis who were circulating among units at the front with literature urging soldiers to “show no mercy” and treat civilians as enemies. In addition, the contents of the U.N.’s Goldstone Report, accusing Israel of war crimes, were beginning to leak out, with formal publication three weeks away. In his talk that day, Halevi argued that field commanders have a duty to teach their troops the ethics of combat and laws of war, and not leave the soldiers to their own personal struggles or the influence of outside factors.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).