Herzi Halevi takes reins of IDF as it marches into political minefield

On Monday, Herzi Halevi will enter office as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force, as it marches into a political battleground, with members of Israel’s new right-religious government taking aim at the army’s chain of command.

Under coalition agreements signed between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leaders of the far-right Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism parties, control over the appointment of several generals and authority over some military units will be taken away from the IDF.

Halevi, who is replacing Aviv Kohavi, will have to tackle these new challenges in addition to the myriad of security threats Israel faces, most notably a rise in violence in the West Bank.

The incoming chief of staff began his military service in 1985, joining the paratrooper brigade. After completing an officers training course and commanding a squadron, he moved over to the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit, becoming its commander in 2001.

Halevi, 54, headed the Southern Command during several rounds of fighting between Israel and terrorists in the Gaza Strip in 2018 and 2019, as well as the Military Intelligence Directorate. He most recently served as deputy chief of staff, a pivotal post on the path to the top spot.

A husband and father of four, as well as an amateur sprinter, Halevi holds a bachelors degree in philosophy and business administration from the Hebrew University, and a masters degree in national resource management from the National Defense University in the United States.

He lives in the settlement of Kfar HaOranim, which straddles the West Bank border close to the city of Modiin. Despite the town being under the purview of the Binyamin Regional Council, it is relatively left-leaning, with close to 80 percent of the votes in Israel’s November election going to parties now in Israel’s opposition.

Then-outgoing chief of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, during a ceremony appointing the new commander of the unit, at the Glilot military base, near Tel Aviv, March 28, 2018. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90/File)

Halevi, born in Jerusalem, was named after his uncle, also a paratrooper, who was killed on June 7, 1967, as Israeli forces recaptured the Western Wall during the Six Day War.

Halevi’s father is a descendant of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. He was brought up in a religious household, and studied at religious schools during his childhood. He stopped wearing a kippah at some point during his military service, but once said he is still observant.

Halevi is best known to the media as the “philosopher general.”

In a 2013 interview with The New York Times, Halevi said he found his philosophy studies far more useful than business administration in the military.

“People used to tell me that business administration is for the practical life and philosophy is for the spirit,” he said. “Through the years, I found it is exactly the opposite — I used philosophy much more practically.”

The nearly decade-old interview stated that Halevi was “considered a top candidate to someday lead the military as chief of staff.”

During the recent appointment process, Halevi contended against Eyal Zamir for the IDF’s top position.

Zamir, who was once Netanyahu’s military secretary, was nominated once before for the position. But both times, the front-running nominee was picked instead, most recently Halevi, by former defense minister Benny Gantz.

Zamir is now in the process of entering the position of director-general of the Defense Ministry. That means he will continue to be in contact with Halevi as part of his new role in a ministry that is in charge of the army.

IDF chief Aviv Kohavi speaks at a ceremony marking the change of the Home Front Command’s chief, July 17, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Outgoing chief of staff Kohavi warned Friday about the government’s plan to restructure military authority in the West Bank, as part of a new office within the Defense Ministry given to Religious Zionism chair Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

Coalition agreements allow Smotrich to appoint the generals leading the hybrid civil-military Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) unit and its office overseeing many settlement issues, the Civil Administration, subject to Netanyahu’s approval, but it is unclear if the army will agree to such a change.

Currently, the major general in charge of COGAT is appointed by the defense minister at the recommendation of the IDF chief of staff, and the brigadier general overseeing the Civil Administration is appointed by the chief of staff.

Smotrich was also given “civil responsibility” over COGAT, which reportedly means he is responsible for issuing building permits in the West Bank, while everything else is handled by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Smotrich has yet to make any decisions in his secondary ministerial position, and the Knesset’s legal advisor said last month that Gallant would be able to overrule him.

Halevi met with Smotrich last week, ahead of Monday’s official handover ceremony. Kohavi, meanwhile, would not meet Smotrich and said the IDF would not answer to him or the far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich gives a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on January 11, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Kohavi has also warned of reported plans to wrest control of the Border Police from the Israel Police and to place it under the direct control of Ben Gvir. The Border Police also operates in the West Bank, under IDF’s operational purview.

“We cannot allow there to be two armies, with different procedures or different conceptions,” he told Channel 12 news.

If such a situation were to occur, Kohavi added, to prevent two separate chains of command, the military might need to swap out Border Police forces with “soldiers from the standing army — who will consequently have less time for training — or with reservists, who already carry a heavy enough burden.”

Ben Gvir has also called to relax the IDF’s open-fire rules and to pass legislation granting police and soldiers immunity from criminal prosecution for any action they might take while on operational duty.

“People who think aggressive open-fire rules are the recipe for security are mistaken. It would produce the absolute opposite,” Kohavi said in his recent interview.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on December 29, 2022. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool/Flash90)

Also under the coalition agreements between Netanyahu’s Likud and Religious Zionism, the incoming government plans to advance a bill aimed at moving control of the office of the military’s chief rabbi from the IDF to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

The bill would give the Chief Rabbinate control over the appointment process for the IDF chief rabbi. Currently, the IDF chief rabbi, a brigadier general, is appointed by the IDF chief of staff.

Another member of Netanyahu’s coalition, Avi Maoz, the head of the far-right homophobic Noam party, has also called to shut down an army unit in charge of promoting equal opportunities for women in the military.

The Yohalam Unit — a Hebrew acronym for the Gender Adviser to the Chief of the General Staff’s Unit — is also tasked with implementing policies to prevent sexual harassment in the army.

With Halevi, the IDF is also getting a new chief spokesperson. The outgoing one, Brig. Gen. Ran Kochav, came under fire from right-wing officials who branded him and his unit as left-wing during his tenure.

IDF Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi in ​​an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The new IDF spokesperson, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, a senior Navy officer, was nominated by Halevi for the position, and, shortly after, approved by Gallant. Both Hagari and Gallant served as commanders of the Navy’s elite Shayetet 13 unit, which could herald good relations between them.

The political challenges for the IDF come as violence has been rising in the West Bank during an Israeli anti-terror offensive to deal with a series of Palestinian attacks that killed 31 people in 2022.

The IDF’s operation has netted more than 2,500 arrests in near-nightly raids. It also left more than 170 Palestinians dead in 2022, and another 13 since the beginning of this year, many of them while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces, although some were uninvolved civilians.

Many of the new political challenges are directly related to the way the IDF operates in the West Bank, from Smotrich assuming authority over COGAT to Ben Gvir’s plans to take control of the Border Police.

In his 2013 interview with The New York Times, Halevi cited Plato, Socrates, and Maimonides as philosophers “that spoke about how to balance, how to prioritize principles in a right way,” adding that “this is something that I find very helpful. “

Halevi will need all the help he can get, as he and the IDF navigate through the coming political minefield.

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