Herzi Halevi formally takes over as chief of staff, vows to keep politics out of IDF
Israel’s 23rd army chief sworn in at Prime Minister’s Office before series of appearances in Jerusalem, as he succeeds Aviv Kohavi at a time of turmoil for the military
Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.
Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi took over Monday as the 23rd commander of the Israel Defense Forces, and vowed to keep politics out of the IDF.
Halevi replaces outgoing chief Aviv Kohavi, who ended his four-year term as the army’s top officer at a time of mounting uncertainty for the military and spoke out against the dangers of its politicization in a series of farewell interviews at the weekend. Taking over, Halevi promised that the IDF under his charge would be professional, moral and “free from all considerations other than security.”
The handover began at a 10 a.m. ceremony at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, where the first order of the day promoted Halevi, 54, to the rank of lieutenant general.
Halevi, who most recently served as IDF deputy chief of staff, a pivotal post on the path to the top spot, takes over as Israel faces rising violence in the West Bank, an array of challenges on its borders with Gaza and Lebanon, and an evolving campaign against Iran in Syria.
The security challenges come as members of Israel’s new right-religious government are taking aim at the army’s chain of command, with plans to restructure military authority in the West Bank.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at the ceremony said he would work to rein in “external pressure” on the IDF so Halevi could fulfill his role, in an apparent reference to the far-right ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir.
“Between authority and responsibility in the military, there is one fundamental concept: the unity of command. For each soldier and officer, there is one commander, and above them all is the chief of staff, the highest command in the army, subordinate to the defense minister and subject to the government,” Gallant said.
“By virtue of my position and as required by the law, I will act so that the chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, can fulfill his responsibilities. Meanwhile, I will make sure that external pressures — political, legal, and others — will stop at me and not reach the gates of the IDF,” he added.
Speaking at the ceremony, Kohavi bade farewell to the IDF after over 40 years of service, including four as chief. “I say goodbye to the IDF, which I love so much. I salute you all, and thank you for the privilege of commanding the people’s army,” he said.
“Precisely in these days of polarization and discord, the shared military service of all segments of society reminds us we are one people, with one goal and one common future,” Kohavi added.
Halevi, in his speech, noted the security threats facing Israel. “Our enemies should know: We can do what we say we will do, and we are ready to do much more than what we say,” he warned.
“We will prepare the IDF for war against arenas far and near; we will expand quality recruitment to the IDF from all strata of the population, the source of our strength; we will strengthen the reserve army and maintain a united, focused, moral and professional IDF, free from all considerations other than security,” Halevi declared.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, used his speech to slam the Iranian regime.
“Iran is responsible for 90% of the problems in the Middle East. This regime threatens to destroy us. We will not wait for a sharp sword to be placed on our necks. The IDF and the Shin Bet and the Mossad will do whatever it takes [to prevent this],” Netanyahu said.
“We will not be dragged into unnecessary wars, but on the decisive day, we will fight. We will have to show a willingness to sacrifice in order to maintain our freedom, our security, and our very existence,” Netanyahu added.
After receiving his rank, Halevi headed to visit the National Memorial Hall for Israel’s Fallen next to the Mount Herzl military cemetery.
In keeping with tradition, he then visited the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, the iconic remnant of the Second Temple complex which has been a focal point for the Jewish people for 2,000 years.
Halevi also met with President Isaac Herzog at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem before heading to Tel Aviv for the official passing of the baton.
At the IDF’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, a military honor guard greeted Halevi and bid farewell to Kohavi.
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 Smotrich.
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, Ben Gvir.
A husband and father of four, as well as an amateur sprinter, Halevi holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and business administration from the Hebrew University and a master’s 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 the opposition.
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 raised 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.”