IDF does damage control after military chief says ties with US ‘not essential’

Herzi Halevi says it’s good to have the US ‘by our side’ but that Israel knows how to act alone; army spokesman quickly clarifies, ‘there’s no substitute’ for friendship with US

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

This handout photo from March 3, 2023, shows IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, left, meeting with visiting Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Israel Defense Forces)
This handout photo from March 3, 2023, shows IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, left, meeting with visiting Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said Wednesday that while security cooperation with the US is beneficial, it is not “essential” and Israel knows how to act on its own.

“Israel knows how to work alone in the face of any security challenge, but it is good to see the US by our side,” Halevi told Army Radio in a relatively rare interview.

“We know how to act alone, we are a sovereign country that reserves the right to make our own decisions and to act. It is good for the US to be by our side, but it is not essential,” he said.

Halevi also highlighted that security cooperation with the US has further increased in recent years, with the countries participating in joint planning and exercises.

But the chief of staff’s remarks ostensibly had the IDF worried that they might be seen as a slight at the US, leading IDF Spokesman Daniel Hagari to clarify the comments later Wednesday.

“The importance of the strategic alliance between the US and Israel is demonstrated in the close cooperation and coordination between CENTCOM and the IDF,” Hagari tweeted, referring to the US military’s Central Command, of which Israel is a part. “There is no substitute for true friendships and special relationships, especially in our region and at this time. Happy Holidays to our friends at CENTCOM.”

The remarks came a day after Halevi spoke on the phone with CENTCOM chief Michael Kurilla, with the two wishing each other a happy Passover and Easter and expressing their mutual desire to continue bilateral military cooperation in order to maintain regional stability and security, the IDF said in a statement.

FASF Rafale fighter jets fly alongside an IAF F-16i aircraft over Israel during a drill, December 6, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Also during Halevi’s Wednesday interview, the IDF chief discussed the Iran nuclear threat, saying Israel is “ready for action in Iran today. The IDF knows how to act [in places] far away and we also know how to act [against threats] at home.”

“In the coming years, the IDF will greatly strengthen its capabilities against Iran, despite the distance. Our response will be overwhelming,” he said.

On tensions with the Palestinians, Halevi noted that the first two weeks of Ramadan went by relatively calmly. “That changed last night,” he acknowledged, pointing to clashes between police and Muslim worshipers at the Temple Mount, subsequent rocket fire from Gaza and additional clashes in the West Bank.

“The IDF has hit back at the terror organizations. We make sure to respond with a meaningful, appropriate response,” Halevi said.

However, the IDF chief said that what has been more disturbing to him as of late has been societal divisions and their penetration into the army, an apparent reference to protests against the government’s judicial overhaul effort, which included hundreds of reservists threatening to refuse to report for duty if the proposals went through.

IDF reservists and activists protest against the government’s judicial overhaul, outside the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem, March 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The fear led Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to call for the government to halt its overhaul effort due to the security consequences. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had decided to fire Gallant, then agreed to pause the legislation amid massive public protest. Netanyahu later said Gallant’s dismissal had been put on hold due to the security situation.

Halevi cautioned reservists against taking such extreme measures as not showing up in protest of the judicial legislation.

“We want [reservists] to report for duty without reservation and without conditions to any task they are called upon,” he said. “Most of the soldiers who train for war are reservists, and we need them fit and ready.”

“We want the reservists [with us]. They are wonderful and come to fulfill a duty that is also a right,” Halevi said, carefully striking a more balanced message that avoided criticism of those who have been protesting.

The IDF chief reportedly believes that coming down too hard on the anti-overhaul protesters could lead to the phenomenon expanding further. The vast majority have agreed to temporarily withdraw their threats not to serve after Netanyahu announced last week that he was pausing the overhaul effort to give a chance for negotiations with the opposition aimed at a compromise on judicial reform.

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