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Israel’s new chief of staff faces some stern challenges

January 26, 2023 at 10:58 am

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant (2nd R) promote the new army chief of staff Herzi Halevi to the rank of Lieutenant-General in Jerusalem, on January 16, 2023. [Photo by MAYA ALLERUZZO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images]

It’s only been a few days since General Herzl “Herzi” Halevy was appointed Chief of Staff of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), succeeding Aviv Kochavi, whose four difficult years of service saw four governments and three security ministers. Halevy is not expected to experience fewer challenges than his predecessor, especially internally. He is chief of staff under the “most extreme” far-right government in a political era full of turmoil and tension.

Halevy is the 23rd chief of staff and has served in the IDF for more than 37 years. He was born in the same year that Israel occupied the land of several Arab countries in the 1967 war, and grew up in a religious home. He is a descendant of Rabbi Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, and his father was an activist in Irgun, the pre-Israel terrorist gang. Halevy studied in religious institutions and wore the kippa except when on military service. Although he does not wear it all the time, he lives a religious lifestyle in his own way.

The new chief of staff takes over at the same time as Israel’s new security minister, Yoav Gallant from the Likud, with far-right Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of Religious Zionism as a minister in the same ministry, and extremist Itamar Ben-Gvir as Minister of National Security. There is the potential for conflict between the three, placing Halevy in the middle of a lot of tension as they vie with each other for power and influence.

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It is no longer a secret that Halevy may be forced to challenge attempts to “politicise” the army. Given that he’d like to make the state more religious, he will try to distance the army from politics. Of course, there are obstacles that will hinder his ambition, not least the decline in respect for the army among Israelis; it is no longer a “sacred cow”.

The appointment of a new chief of staff has led to discussions about the consequences of the political crisis afflicting Israel, which will necessarily have an impact on the army. This is complicated by the fact that Halevy was appointed by the previous government and was not very well received by members of the current coalition. It is this which many Israelis agree is his main challenge as he tries to stick to his principles in the face of an unwelcoming government.

Other challenges include the perceived threats from Iran, Syria, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories. His working theory is that the best war is the one that can be avoided or postponed, with lengthy intervals between any military action. He supports the alliance with the Abraham Accords countries, and sees Iran as the number one problem. He is unlikely to have much time to relax with Iran’s nuclear programme still unresolved; the development of Hezbollah’s capabilities; and the situation in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank, which are always explosive.

Halevy must know that relations between Israeli society and the army are a thorny issue. The IDF may be an arm of the executive subject to political decisions and policies, but a problem arises from the high position occupied by the military, which is a product of the theory that “the country is always facing an existential threat.”

Israel’s first couple of decades saw a separation between politics and the army, but in recent years this has changed and the two now overlap. The army is enlisted to serve the politicians who have lost their charisma and need military uniforms behind them to attract support from the electorate.

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However, generals have had a role in defining the boundaries of Israeli politics. The army has become the unchanging, permanent face of Israel with a central role in politics. The only exceptions are when the prime minister has had personal power or a strong military background.

Israeli military circles are pessimistic about Halevy’s term in office because he is assuming his position at a sensitive time of serious security challenges. He needs to be firm and decisive in his exercise of power as chief of staff across all parts of the IDF.

Domestically, he has to deal with the splits in society over women’s service in the army, and the fact that ultra-orthodox religious people do not enlist. With lower recruitment levels and a reluctance to serve in combat roles, the army is unprepared for what some say is the potential for civil war in Israel.

Halevy will have to work with everyone around him, and it’s not going to be easy. The question will be how much power he will have in the event of internal conflict, and how much he will allow himself to challenge political diktats that he finds problematic. I expect there to be some chaos in view of the differences between Gallant, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, because Halevy will feel that he is working for several ministers at the same time. In this case, the chief of staff is the only one who must make IDF decisions, even if politicians try to put on a show of force. None of them seem keen on giving up the powers given to them as part of the coalition agreements.

General Halevy is IDF Chief of Staff amid a deteriorating political situation, with the potential for Israel to pay a high price for political egos. It is not clear how he will cope, but he has some serious issues to deal with.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.