Israel's Most Influential IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival, his Defense Minister Naftali Bennett is new and inexperienced, and that leaves Kochavi as the adult in the room.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi
Moti Milrod

Israel Defense Forces chief Aviv Kochavi doesn’t have to do much to be the county’s most influential person. Less than a year on the job, the lieutenant general’s actions over the next year will have a massive impact on life in Israel, which is already in crisis mode.

There are clouds on the security front, an uncertain economy that includes large budgetary demands from the military, and political uncertainty stemming from Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial that starts on March 17. The prime minister is fighting for his political survival; in the meantime, the inexperienced new defense minister he appointed, Naftali Bennett, is likely to have an exceptionally short term.

So a lot rests on Kochavi’s shoulders. At a time when most cabinet members don’t have the nerve to challenge Netanyahu on issues, and when another war is always a risk – amid the public’s belligerent tendencies magnified on social media – Kochavi is the adult in the room.

Kochavi, 55, grew up in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Bialik and was drafted in 1982 in the middle of the first Lebanon war. He served in the Paratroops and was quickly marked as someone ripe for advancement. When he became the military’s 22nd chief of staff in 2018, he was considered the natural choice.

Still, Netanyahu wasn’t thrilled. He’s suspicious – justifiably so – about generals’ political aspirations. He wasn’t overly impressed by Kochavi’s performance as head of Military Intelligence during the 2014 Gaza war. Maybe Kochavi reminded Netanyahu too much of the chief of staff at the time, Benny Gantz, who’s now his main political rival.

When Netanyahu was flying back from a trip abroad, then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman took advantage of his boss’ absence to announce Kochavi’s appointment as a done deal. Kochavi started his job in mid-January 2019 and was perceived as the natural successor to Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.

But Kochavi quickly found himself in an unexpected place. Under the shadow of the corruption indictments, Netanyahu has dragged the country through three general elections, freezing Israeli politics and postponing any meaningful government decisions. This is particularly significant for the state budget: The government is chained to the parameters of the previous budget, and a budget for 2020 isn’t likely to be passed before September.

This is bad news for Kochavi, who has drawn up an ambitious five-year plan for the military. Also, given the budget deficit, Finance Ministry budgets chief Shaul Meridor has crafted a plan for broad cuts that would include defense. Given the disparity between defense officials’ demands and the current state of the economy, a fight can be expected on the usual topics including the military’s generous pensions and the Finance Ministry’s demand that compulsory service be cut from 32 months to as little as 24. Kochavi is vehemently opposed to this.

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