Profile: Aviv Kochavi the IDF’s new chief of staff

In January 2019, Aviv Kochavi will become the new IDF’s chief of staff. 

By Gideon

Aviv Kochavi was endowed with an extraordinary ability to express himself, but his last interview was granted more than a decade ago. In contrast to other members of the general staff, who see themselves as candidates for the position of chief of staff, he chooses his words carefully to maintains his public image. Over the years, he made do with background conversations with journalists, and arranged professional seminars to market his work. His great advantage: the ability to communicate complex programs in a light and clear way. His tone of voice, the careful choice of words, and the high intelligence create a veil of detachment and arrogance, but Kochavi is a man of people, without this feature, he would not have crossed that fierce Gaza challenge. 

Aviv Kochavi is well versed in contact with power centers inside and outside the IDF, and cultivates quite a bit of contact with his paratroopers. His home has become a permanent venue for Friday meals with the generals of the General Staff, and with his friends. He is known for his ability to influence others (sometimes it is described as forceful). In contrast to his predecessor Gadi Eizenkot, who is known as a humble chief of staff that does not promote himself, Kochavi has been marketing ideas and promoting projects under his leadership.

Given that the political echelon is afraid of excessive judgment and intellectual independence, these attributes could have been an obstacle on his way to become a chief of staff, but it seems that at this moment, when the threats are changing in the blink of an eye, there is a demand for a bold and creative commander. (Walla)

Earlier in his career, Kochavi served in all the top posts in the paratroopers brigade, in battles against Hezbollah in Lebanon and during the second intifada in the West Bank. He went on to command the elite airborne division and then the Gaza Division, during the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

He served as the Eastern Division Commander of the Lebanon Liaison Unit (1998-1999) and Commander of the Paratrooper Brigade (2001-2003) where he commanded troops against Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank during the Second Intifada. He also commanded the IDF’s elite airborne division before serving as commander of the Gaza Division from 2004-2006.

He has held several key positions in the General Staff, commanding the Operations Division, Head of Military Intelligence (2010-2014), Head of the Northern Command, and then as Deputy Chief of Staff under Eisenkot.

Kochavi was born in 1964 and grew up in Kiryat Bialik. He is a husband and father of three daughters, Kochavi holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the Hebrew University, a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University, and a second master’s degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University.

 In 1982 Kochavi volunteered for the paratroopers brigade and was later appointed commander of a rifle company, commander of the anti-tank company and commander of the Patan Battalion, and in 1998 he was appointed commander of the Eastern Division of the Liaison Unit for Lebanon.

A year later, Kochavi was supposed to lead a convoy in Southern Lebanon. His commander, Brigadier General Erez Gerstein decided to lead the convoy instead of Kochavi. On the way back to Israel, Hezbollah triggered roadside explosives and killed the commander, his driver, his radio operator, and the Voice of Israel correspondent in the north , Ilan Roeh.

IN 2001 Kochavi was appointed commander of the paratroopers and a year later led the brigade during Operation Defensive Shield to the streets of Nablus and Tul Karm, where he developed the use of a 5 kg hammer to break walls and cross houses in refugee camps to prevent shooting against his fighters. The creative idea, as well as other urban warfare methods he developed, were later copied by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. His crew said that after weeks of fighting, being away from home, Kochavi climbed with his crew on a hill opposite Nablus, just to pick up a song his daughter dedicated to him on Army Radio. 

The operation created a major turning point in the campaign against the Palestinian terror infrastructures, which at that time attacked Israel almost daily and drew much criticism both in the world and in Israel itself.

Professor Niv Gordon, who served with Kochavi in ​​the paratroopers and sat next to him at the university during his undergraduate studies in philosophy, wrote a very difficult public letter criticizing his conduct as a brigade commander in the operation. Kochavi, who could have ignored the criticism, or leave the response to the IDF’s spokesman, chose to reply himself in a long letter that explained the gaps and the controversy.

In 2003, Kochavi received command of the fire brigade, a prestigious position reserved for officers who were “marked” in their youth as potential officers of the General Staff. It was a huge challenge to lead the campaign against terrorism in Gaza, prepare the division for the disengagement, and draw from scratch the “day after,” including planning the line of defense and the concept of operation.

These were days when the Israeli society was torn apart by the evacuation plan, and the political-social tension threatened to spill over and influence his military unit. The mental burden on his commanders was great. Kochavi worked to identify the difficulty, to stand with the residents, but also to command and support the fighters and officers who might evacuate their homes.

At the same time, the terrorist organizations did not stop for a moment. They viewed the disengagement as a weakness and tried to increase the rate of attacks in order to create an image of flight. Rockets were launched, and the desire to calm the area did not materialize. Kochavi worked under complicated conditions and under tremendous pressure, but the disengagement was completed. The evacuating forces came out safely with the residents, and the deployment on the other side of the fence began. The challenge exposed Kochavi, who showed extraordinary leadership in the face of social crises and political pressure – tasks that no IDF training prepares for you.

On June 25, 2006, Gilad Shalit was kidnapped and two soldiers were killed in the southern sector of the division, in an incident that drew much public criticism of the IDF and Kochavi for failing to prevent the attack, despite early warnings by the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security agency). In the shadow of the criticism, then-Chief of Staff Dan Halutz appointed a commission of inquiry headed by Giora Eiland. The commission found no fault in Kochavi’s conduct. It noted the “reasonable” preparations, and defined the incident as an “operational failure.” The commission determined that there is no ground for imposing sanctions against the chain of command. 

During the Second Lebanon War, the Gaza Division was preparing for its own confrontation. For the first time since the disengagement, Kohavi operated deep inside the Palestinian territory along the Gaza Strip, while attempting to strike at terrorist infrastructures and simultaneously press Hamas to advance negotiations to return Shalit in a series of complex operations, which claimed the lives of 400 Palestinians.

Halutz greatly appreciated Kochavi’s contribution and the burden he suffered during his tenure as a division commander. He approved his studies in England, but because of the fear of arrest due to allegations of war crimes, he traveled to the United States. Upon his return, close officers estimated that he would be appointed to a general, but Gabi Ashkenazi, who replaced Halutz, chose him to head the operations division. Senior officers claim that it gave him a significant advantage over other officers his age.

For the next three years, Kochavi was exposed to the sensitive nerves of the General Staff and to the tremendous responsibility of the position. He was one of the planners of Operation Cast Lead and led a deep change in the concept of border defense, air defense, and the home front command.

In January 2010 he finished his term with the feeling that within a few months he would be a member of the General Staff, but the tension between Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak delayed the process. After a long waiting period, in November 2010, he was appointed the head of AMAN, the Directorate of Military Intelligence, the central, overarching military intelligence body of the Israel Defense Forces.

A year later, the “Arab Spring” shook the Middle East. The violent protests spread throughout the countries of the region, and Military Intelligence was required to think differently and to develop research methodologies and organizational methods in order to anticipate the enemy. Khovavi aggressively pushed for changes, almost completely transformed the world of cyber-attack and defense, developed and promoted information warfare (which enables the injection of intelligence information from military intelligence to the field level), and inflated the target bank dramatically.

The most prominent operational events during his tenure as the head of Aman included the Amud Anan (Pillar of Defense) operation, which began with the assassination of Ahmed Ja’abari the head of the military wing of Hamas, the capture of the “Clus Si” weapons ship, and Operation Tzuk Eitan (Protective Edge), which raised criticism about  the IDF’s readiness to deal with Tunnel warfare and the length of the operation.

In one of the cabinet meetings that leaked to the media, former Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen reported on a warning of a major attack that could push the Gaza Strip into a war in the summer. Kochavi contradicted this, and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz intervened and asked the prime minister to clarify the issue. The incident left a bitter taste within the Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet organizations, and the relations between the organizations cooled down, a testimony about those who were involved, including Kochavi, who could not quickly resolve the conflict. Mossad chief Tamir Pardo also had clear disagreements with Kochavi, but they did not spill out of the conference rooms. Time passed, and the security interest increased. Kochavi and Cohen initiated a historic cooperation agreement that was signed by their heirs, Hertzi Halevy and Nadav Argaman.

In November 2014, Kochavi was appointed commander of the Northern Command, and dealt extensively with the development of the defense components, including the obstacle on the border with Lebanon and Syria, the development of roads and the smart information gathering systems. He persuaded the cabinet to invest additional funds, built a powerful fire center, like that of the Southern Command which enables the expansion of the enemy’s targets. He promoted the project of “good neighborliness” on the Syrian border, the humanitarian response to the horrors of the civil war.

In May 2017, he was appointed deputy chief of staff, and since then has been mainly involved in the implementation of the multi-year plan and the control of projects from the General Staff.

This article is based on publication in Walla, the Israeli news magazine in the Hebrew language (https://news.walla.co.il/item/3174632).

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