Under the Government’s Political Insubordination, Aviv Kochavi Turns Lethality into Policy by Yagil Levy on Telem

The outgoing Chief of Staff promised at the beginning of his term to deploy a deadly army. Kochavi’s approach fit like a glove to governments that are not interested in a political solution, and to the radicalizing Israeli society.

Aviv Kochavi sparked controversy immediately when he entered the position of Chief of Staff in January 2019: At his appointment ceremony, he pledged to “deploy a lethal, efficient, and innovative army.” “Lethal”, according to the The Hebrew Academy of the Hebrew Language, means “causes death”. This was the first time in the history of the position in which a Chief of Staff commits to deploy an army that generates killing.

Despite the criticism, Kochavi clarified, in his own way, that his words were not spoken by mistake. After designing “Momentum”, the new multi-year plan for the army, he announced upon its presentation in February 2020 that “at the heart of the concept of the multi-year plan is the enhancement of lethality in scope and precision”. In his speech to the commanders of the paratrooper brigade at the end of training in August 2020, he emphasized: “At the end of each phase of the fighting, the scope of the enemy and the targets that have been destroyed must be examined, and not just the very occupation of the territory.”

And so it was. In Operation “Guardian of the Walls” in Gaza, in May 2021, Kochvi promoted a fraudulent exercise that would cause Hamas fighters to enter underground tunnels in Gaza so that they could be attacked from the air and thus lead to the death of dozens of fighters – although even within the top of the army doubts were raised about the operational benefit of this (along with doubts that the operation At all he would succeed, and the extent of his success was indeed very partial). In a public appearance in June 2022, Kochavi sent a message to the people of Lebanon: “I suggest you leave even before the first shot is fired – the intensity of the attack will be something you have not seen.” In other words, he threatened to kill civilians.

Kochavi advocates an approach that the architect and researcher Eyal Weizman called “necro-tactics”, meaning killing tactics. Analyzing the takeover battle of the paratrooper brigade commanded by Kochavi over the refugee camp in Lata in Nablus, in Operation “Protective Wall” in 2002, Weitzman emphasized Kochavi’s focus on killing the Palestinian fighters and preventing their escape. This is how necro-tactics, according to Weizmann, change the traditional goals of war: “The army does not kill enemy soldiers with the aim of taking control of strategic territory they hold, but temporarily takes control of strategic territory in order to kill its enemies. Killing is not a by-product of the military maneuver but its purpose.” . With this perception, Kochavi arrived at the Chief of Staff’s office.

But it would be a mistake to confuse the eloquent formulation of the yardstick by which the army’s performance will be judged, and the political culture that allows, if not actually encourages, such rhetoric. Without underestimating Kochavi’s responsibility, he did not act in a vacuum. That is why it is right to insist on the meeting between the unique values ​​brought by Kochavi and prominent trends in Israeli political culture, first of all – the functioning of the army in conditions of political stagnation, and the mark left by the Alor Azaria affair.

Political stagnation as reshaping the role of the army

The year 2008 was the last time the Israeli government (led by Ehud Olmert) tried to promote a political process aimed at establishing a Palestinian state. Since then, all Israeli governments have worked to establish the political deadlock, with the aim of preventing as much as possible the establishment of a Palestinian state and alternatively ensuring that if it is established – it will be a weak entity. This stagnation, the actual result of which was the strengthening of the status quo, reshaped the role of the army.

As a rule, the army is supposed to guarantee the statesmen’s freedom of action to reach a settlement – that is, to maintain a status quo limited in time. His role is to ensure that Israel’s opponents do not gain an advantage that will limit the statesmen’s bargaining power in the future. This, for example, was the logic that guided Chief of Staff Dan Shomron when the first intifada broke out in 1987: to suppress the uprising in order to bring calm and a reasonable level of security, while leaving the problem – which Shomron defined as political and not military – to be solved by the statesmen.

However, from the moment the political purpose disappears or is obscured, the political becomes military and the army in turn acquires excessive power. In such circumstances, the role of the military is no longer limited to achieving short-term advantages; His role is to make the political solution superfluous by cultivating the belief that threats can be removed through military force. In other words, the role of the army is also to provide legitimacy to the political stagnation.  

“We will kill them to the last of them”

One of the illustrations of this in the Kochavi era was provided by the discourse promoted by the journal Between the Poles – the main intellectual stage of the army, published by the Dado Center, a center whose mission is to “develop the field of campaign art and systemic thinking in the IDF”. that she represents, the officers who signed the articles in the journal almost completely avoided mentioning the word “political”.

The most prominent writer is Brigadier General Eran Ortal, head of the Dado Center. Like Kochavi, Ortal also criticized in an article from 2021 Israel’s failure to use up its advantages in past systems against Lebanon and Gaza – failures that, according to him, even worsened the security threat posed to the country. Alternatively, Ortel proposed a transition from an approach of deterrence to an approach of decision whose purpose is to “deny the enemy’s ability to fire” by exploiting Israel’s military advantages embodied in the combination of firepower and intelligence. Thus, according to Ortel’s method, the threat is removed, especially the threat of missiles.

This can be seen as a move that obviates the need for a political solution, essentially turning the Israeli-Arab conflict from a political conflict into a conflict between weapon systems. Therefore, even if the unresolved political problems will encourage the enemy to re-arm, then “the destruction of the launchers is the way to leave the enemy exposed at the end of the war to a subsequent Israeli campaign that will prevent his rehabilitation”. In other words – we are guaranteed a fight that has no end. The term “lethality” appears more than once in this article as well, and in general in the articles of the journal.

In this way, the army helps to reduce the likelihood of the appearance of political challenges – which will try to undermine the status quo – on the grounds that a situation is being created that has no military solution. This is what allowed the center-left government that served in 2021-2022 to give up any political dialogue with the Palestinian Authority, or even the semblance of one, and also to give up trying to settle the disputes between Israel and Lebanon, such as the fate of the Sheba farms and the Air Force flights over Lebanon (and it will be necessary to them, as in the case of the maritime border agreement, only with no choice).

The promise of a military solution encourages the discourse of lethality because it encourages a discourse that emphasizes the developed technological capability of the military, as an alternative to restraint, to focus on defense, and to achieve modest and temporary goals. In this context, the army commanders learned a lesson from the times when they presented the limitations of power in solving complex political problems (see the Dan Shumron case), until the army was condemned as “leftist”. And so, the army can no longer be satisfied with damaging the enemy’s assets in order to deter and gain time (as it did, for example, in the Second Lebanon War), but must “deny the ability to fire”, and this requires extensive killing. In October 2022, the commander of the Golan Heights division, Brigadier General Roman Gofman, declared: “In the war with Hezbollah, we will go forward and kill them, until the last one of them.” Goffman spoke “deadly”.

Thus the army gains a strengthened status among the politicians

In circumstances where the political echelon has no desire or ability to offer a political solution, it is ready to accept, let alone encourage, such a military discourse. On the other hand, from the army’s point of view, it offers “legitimization services  to the political level – but not for free. The army derives two advantages from these services: first, the political discourse about the Israeli-Arab conflict becomes a military discourse for everything, which strengthens the status of the army and the politicians’ dependence on it. A clear expression of the legitimacy services provided by the army to politicians was at the end of the Lapid government’s tenure, when the defense establishment’s support for the maritime arrangement with Lebanon was the key to its justification. The second advantage: the pursuit of lethality translates into resources, and as evidence, the defense budget has been on an increasing trend for years. Only in the last year did the Emir increase significantly, after receiving an increase of about 15 percent to the budget base.

To remove any doubt that this is just personal terminology promoted by Kochavi, it should be said that the term “lethality” also appeared in the IDF strategy document that Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot published as a precedent in August 2015. “The building of the force will focus on the lethality, mobility and survivability of the force,” it says. So what is the difference between this wording and Kochavi’s commitment about three years later to a “lethal, efficient and innovative army”? At least two differences.

First, lethality is not emphasized in the Eisenkot document. The document anchors the traditional principles of the use of force, including deterrence and enforcement – the principles that Ortel (probably on behalf of Kochavi) suggests abandoning. Second, in Eisencott’s document, lethality was not translated into necrotactics. For this to happen, there had to be a defining event in the form of the Azaria affair.

The end of vegetarianism

The Azaria affair in March 2016 shocked the army. None of his superiors predicted that the arrest of a soldier who shot dead a wounded Palestinian lying on the ground would stir up public opinion like this. The affair sparked the ” blue collar fighters’ rebellion “: through their social groups and even directly through social media, the soldiers of the West Bank police force protested against the alleged neglect of a soldier who was defending himself in the face of danger from a suspected captured terrorist. The affair was also accompanied by a sectarian undertone, against the background of the oriental appearance of the public support for Azaria, which expressed a feeling of discrimination on a sectarian basis.

Indeed, a public opinion poll conducted in the midst of the Azaria trial, in July 2016, showed that about half of the respondents from among the “hard right” do not see compatibility between the values ​​of the senior military command and the values ​​of the general public. This was to reflect the emerging rift between the army and the right, which feeds its militant-police arms in the West Bank and Gaza with manpower. With the revelation of the signs of this crack, General Eisenkot changed his discourse.

In a precedent manner, his spokesmen began to boast of the army’s killing figures in the Palestinian arena. The comparison with the reality that preceded it will make the turn very clear. The “Intifada of the Ones” in the West Bank (2015-2016), during which Azaria’s shooting of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif also took place, was characterized by military restraint. The aim of the army was to prevent the intifada of individuals from developing into a widespread Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The army thought “politically”. Under these circumstances, the commander of the Central Command, Roni Numa, could be proud that the ability to “neutralize the activity of the threat without killing him […] in order to reduce the number of funerals that become a public display of identification” was strengthened. In other words, the general prided himself on avoiding lethality, teaching us that striving for lethality is not a necessary trait inherent in a regime-warrior army.

However, Bryson’s pride disappeared after the Azaria affair. To understand the shock of the army at the public criticism that was hurled at it during the affair, we will quote Eisenkot’s words in an interview with Yediot Ahronoth in March 2018: “In the last two years, 171 terrorists were killed in Yosh alone. This is an immeasurably high number compared to previous years. There are elements that want to present the IDF as a vegetarian army and lead a destructive agenda. They try to present the IDF as an army with a soft heart, an army that does not back up its people. On the contrary”.

The death count was thus presented in Israeli political culture as an achievement. Eisenkot seems to have forgotten the pride of Central Command GOC who acted with his support to reduce killings. Living up to his principles, in the month since Eizenkot’s interview and until December 2018, 183 Palestinians, most of them civilians, including 35 children, were killed by IDF fire during the demonstrations held by Hamas along the fence in Gaza. A few months later, Kochavi assumed the position of Chief of Staff and “lethalism” began to be assimilated into the military discourse and dialogue with the public.

It is not for nothing that the 2019 Israeli Democracy Index survey found that the percentage of respondents who believed that the value system of the IDF High Command is close to the values ​​of the general public increased from 49 percent in 2016 to 71 percent in 2019 – with no significant difference between the political camps In other words, the right’s support for the army was restored. This was even echoed in the rhetoric of various right-wing people, who saw Kochavi as someone who is restoring its values ​​to the army. This is how, for example , the editor of Rishon Makor Hagai Segal expressed himself : “Not even Rafol spoke like that at his [taking office] ceremony. However, at the end of the two Lebanon wars, two intifadas and a number of rock-solid operations that did not end in a clear submission of the enemy, it is important for Kochavi to instill in his troops the value of victory.”

No wonder, then, that when an individual intifada developed again in the West Bank, in 2022, Chief of Staff Kochavi no longer restrained the political echelon as before. On the contrary. Already at the end of 2021, the army eased the instructions to open fire, and allowed the immediate shooting of stones and Molotov cocktails, even after the fact , that is, without posing any more danger. The easing of the instructions received a significant expression in the “Breakwater” operation that developed in March 2022 in the West Bank, with the aim of suppressing the buds of a possible intifada – and where the killing rates increased greatly. Nothing remains of the pride of the army commanders for avoiding lethality in 2015-2016 .

The industrialization of precision annihilation

The Chief of Staff is nothing but the template of the political cultural landscape within which he functions. Kochvi was the right person at the right time. While armies in the West try to mask their violent nature, and while in Israel attaching a label of violence to the army was seen as illegitimate in the past, Kochvi wanted to remove the masks. Lethality is no longer A negative trait that must be hidden, or at most presented as a by-product of the operation of an army that strives to be “the most moral in the world”; lethality is not even a trait at all, inherent as it is in the army. Lethality is the value that must be striven for without hesitation in shaping the character of the army.

However, the Chief of Staff can only promote a new military discourse when it integrates well with the main currents in the political culture: the army under his leadership acquired the support of the center-left by giving legitimacy to a policy that freezes the solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict (alongside the one that was portrayed in the eyes of this camp as the defender of democracy in view of his position in the Azaria case), and regained the trust of the right, which is becoming more extreme and racist, by emphasizing that we are not a “vegetarian army”.  

We should not be surprised, therefore, that in September 2022 Kochavi could publicly summarize the implementation of his vision by saying: “The vision and implementation express a central principle and that is the industrialization of precise annihilation, combining dexterity and fire…”. In some European languages ​​the phrase “industrialization of annihilation” is not easy on the ears, but in Israel 2022 it didn’t even arouse attention. Lethality, and perhaps even its industrialization, is the cultural legacy that Kochavi leaves behind.”

Read original Hebrew https://telem.berl.org.il/6552/