IDF chief: Motivation to serve in combat units up among Israelis, except the wealthy

Kohavi doubles down on superiority of infantrymen over intel officers; reflecting on deadly 1997 helicopter crash, defense minister calls for thorough probes of recent accidents

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi speaks during a ceremony honoring wounded soldiers, in Tel Aviv, on November 21, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi speaks during a ceremony honoring wounded soldiers, in Tel Aviv, on November 21, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Motivation to serve in combat units in the Israel Defense Forces has risen significantly over the past two years, but only among potential recruits from the country’s lower socioeconomic rungs and from its geographic periphery, Army chief Aviv Kohavi said Wednesday.

According to the IDF chief, this past year more than 70 percent of all new recruits expressed an interest in serving in combat units, up from 64% in the preceding seven years.

“That’s the good news. But I’ll put in an asterisk next to that good news because for people from high socioeconomic strata there is no increase,” Kohavi said. He made his remarks in an on-stage interview as part of a day-long memorial service for the 25th anniversary of the so-called “helicopters disaster,” in which two helicopters collided en route to IDF bases in Lebanon, killing the 73 people onboard.

Kohavi’s comments come as part of an ongoing struggle within Israeli society over the status of combat troops, amid a rise in prestige for soldiers who serve in elite technological units, like the Military Intelligence’s Unit 8200. As veterans of these units have also gone on to earn high salaries, Israeli teenagers — and their parents — have increasingly seen these positions as being preferable to service in combat units.

The debate came to the fore last month after a high-tech company put up a billboard in the central Israeli city of Herzliya saying “The best to cyber,” a riff on a long-time saying in Israel that the best recruits become pilots. At the time, Kohavi harshly criticized the poster, saying it was “a mistake” and a sign of “distorted values among segments of the population” and insisting that the “best are first of all the fighters.”

The comments sparked criticism of Kohavi, who was accused of downplaying the contributions of some of the military’s most important intelligence assets, particularly at a time when the IDF was fighting to keep cyber experts in its ranks, despite offering far lower salaries than they would receive for similar work in the civilian world.

On Wednesday, Kohavi nevertheless reiterated his view that combat soldiers were the “best” in the military.

“I appreciate every IDF soldier and officer, from the bottom-most position, which I won’t say what that is, to the top-most position, which I will say what it is. The top-most position is combat. Therefore I said the best are fighters. Everyone is good, everyone is helping. But the best are fighters, and we need to nurture that [message],” Kohavi said on Wednesday.

“A society that is facing as many challenges as ours does not have the luxury to do anything but to encourage combat service, to venerate it and to give compensation to those who risk their lives,” he added.

Kohavi, who served as the head of Military Intelligence from 2010 to 2014, said he has always maintained his view that combat troops were the “best” of the military.

“As the head of Military Intelligence, I advanced and nurtured [signals intelligence]. But even then, I told them, ‘Remember that you are working for the company commander who’s walking through the alleyway, and he needs better intelligence. And don’t forget, he’s walking through the alleyway,'” he said.

A monument built in 2008 for the 73 IDF soldiers who found their death in the 1997 Israeli helicopter disaster, when 2 transport helicopters collided over She’ar Yeshuv in northern Israel (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Later, in his speech about the helicopters disaster, Kohavi also discussed two recent deadly accidents in the military, one involving a helicopter that crashed for as yet unclear reasons, killing the two pilots onboard, and a fatal case of friendly fire in the elite Egoz unit, in which two officers were killed by a fellow soldier due to mistaken identity.

“In the past month, two tragic accidents have taken place, which ended with the deaths of IDF officers. They too were of the best of the boys of this country, who sacrificed their lives for its security,” Kohavi said.

“We are now conducting investigations of the incidents, deeply looking into the facts and circumstances that led to these tragic outcomes,” he said.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who also spoke at the ceremony, similarly stressed the importance of thorough investigations following the two accidents.

“In recent weeks we have also known mistakes and accidents that cost lives in the air force and the Egoz unit. We are now fulfilling our threefold responsibility — investigating and learning lessons, without blinking and without doing anyone any favors, as is our ethical and organizational duty; to return the teams and the units to their operations and their operational routines; and to stand alongside the families of the bereaved, who are dear to our hearts, and those who are injured in body and spirit,” Gantz said.

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