When “D” in D-Day means Defense

Herzi Halevi at the gates of Ramatkaldom and beyond

By Amir Oren

The IDF’s Chief of General Staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, is testing this week the ability of the Army Division charged with the defense of the Gaza border to respond to various threats, which could develop with little or no early warning. As Kochavi is in Corona quarantine, he is supervising the exercise via secure communications, and is substituted in the field by his Deputy, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir.

There are several coincidences in this one particular event. Kochavi himself commanded this Division in 2006, when it was surprised by a Palestinian squad which killed two tank crew members and abducted a third, Gilad Shalit. When Shalit was returned to Israel five years later, HAMAS won for it the release of hundreds of its prisoners, led by Yahia Senwar – its current chief, who may decide when, where and how to spring the next surprise on Kochavi’s forces.

If hostilities resume, the Gaza Division will be only one of several employed, as distinct from being deployed, which it constantly is. They will report to the Commanding General of Southern Command, whose jurisdiction also includes the Egyptian border at Sinai and the

lower half of Jordan’s border, but with his main focus obviously Gaza. It turns out that the officer in this position now, Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, is in direct competition with Zamir – whom he succeeded in the Southis slated to succeed soon – for Kochavi’s job, when it becomes vacant in early 2023.

Foreign observers may find it a bit odd when Israelis are interested in military promotions to the point of handicapping the contenders for IDF Chief. In peacetime Western democracies, this is of no great significance. Out of 100 Americans, perhaps one would know who the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is and that US Army Mark Milley is and US Navy Admiral Mike Mullen was, to mention two similarly sounding names.

Israel is different for three related reasons. National security is everybody’s permanent concern, with war always a realistic option. Most citizens served in the military, may still do in the reserves and have family members in uniform or about to be drafted. They naturally wish the highest command authority to be the best available professional.

Following their term as Ramatkal, the Hebrew acronym for Chief of General Staff, many of Kochavi’s predecessors went into politics. Only two, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, managed to win the ultimate Premiership prize, but others have also achieved senior cabinet positions. Of Kochavi’s six immediate predecessors, for instance, four have served as Defense Minister and one as Foreign Minister.

The political paradox is that Israeli General Officers are supposed to be a-political for the first 30-35 years or so of their military service, from Private soldier to Major General, then suddenly develop a propensity and potential for politics post-retirement as Ramatkal. Ironically, these officers, the Baraks and the Kochavi, are usually feared most as future competitors by ambitious members of their own adoptive parties.

It is thus logical for Israelis to assume that by being elevated out of several eligible officers to Ramatkaldom, even a person with no political ambitions will find himself courted by parties and patrons to join – or even lead – them after they retire and wait out the three-year cooling-off period. No matter how sincere his protests and denials, he will eventually be drawn into public service in Knesset or Cabinet. The disappointment manifested by voters who believed former Chiefs of Staff Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi were to be trusted, once they broke their campaign pledges, mainly never to serve in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, spilled over to devalue the Ramatkal brand. Yet Israel cannot afford to turn away dedicated and talented public servants willing to take the searing heat of politics.

Kochavi has long been considered Ramatkal timber and is now viewed as a potential high draft pick for politics, five years from now – the remainder of his term plus the cooling period. If Halevi is the front-runner to succeed him, with Zamir behind and Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin a dark horse in a race dominated by Army officers experienced in leading ground formations, then attention is by right turning to him, too.

At 53 (next month), a seasoned infantry and intelligence officer, Halevi is poker-faced and deliberate, hiding his wit behind a mask. He commanded the elite Sayeret Matkal – Israel’s Delta Force – and the 35th Partroop Brigade, the Galilee Division facing Hezbollah and a sector in the West Bank. With Southern Command under his belt, he has led operations in all three territorial commands. Like Kochavi, Barak and two other IDF chiefs, he was also Director of Military Intelligence, a position with a lot of interface with political decision-making.

Under Kochavi’s efforts to sharpen the IDF’s agility and lethality, Halevy was tasked with focusing on the defense side of an offensive-minded military. He recently reported on his insights in a professional journal published – and vetted for security – by the IDF, which means that some classified parts were withheld in this public version.

What remains is enough to get a feel for Halevi’s thinking. He uses American Football metaphors to illustrate the need to specialize within a team. Halevi also makes the case for drawing doctrinal and force-building conclusions from Israel’s vast technological edge over enemies such as Hezbollah and Hamas, which drove them to find clever and simpler solutions to tactical problems with strategic ramifications. In Arabic, too, he drily notes, they say that necessity is the mother of invention.

In the next Lebanon or Gaza campaigns – “wars” is not an appropriate term for these limited events – the Islamic organizations will attack, raid or invade, in addition to their traditional role in defending and repulsing. Israel should be constantly prepared for that, in order to contain a local action, prevent it from escalating and deter further provocations. If the upshot is that gives up some of its versatile forces available for offensive operations everywhere in return for units with unique expertise in certain sectors of the defense line, so be it.

Between the lines, one may read a plea for a renewal of Israel’s classic pre-emption doctrine, whose best expression was the Six-Day War and the blow which the Air Force landed on Egypt’s air bases outof the blue, before it becomes victim to a similar, Pearl Harbor style, strike. One of the some 800 Israeli soldiers killed in the June 1967 war was a paratrooper named Herzi Halevi. His nephew, born six months later, bears his name.

The younger Herzi Halevi notes that military planning should be framed in five-year intervals. If one projects from the present, that could  align the IDF with a point around the middle of his tenure as Ramtkal, should he be appointed.

As for the Gaza Division test, its results have not been disclosed by either Kochavi, Zamir or Halevi, but there is always tension between two possible results. The officers tested hope for a perfect score, but only if there are also failures to be found and fixed ahead of D-Day, with “D” this time for defense, will they be more prepared for the test of reality.