In An Interview IDF Chief Of Staffi Accuses Iran Of Having A New Secret Nuclear Weapons Program

Israel’s outgoing chief of staff opens up about the Iranian nuclear program, warns against political meddling in the military.

<p>IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi attends a ceremony of the Aharai! Youth Program, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on June 17, 2022. During his tenure, the Israel Defense Forces has devised three operational plans to attack Iran. FLASH 90/JNS</p>

Israel’s incoming military chief Herzi Halevi (L) and his outgoing counterpart Aviv Kochavi (R), pose for a picture as the latter leaves following an honour guard ceremony at the Israeli Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv, on January 16, 2023. – Halevi was appointed Israel’s new military chief of staff in a ceremony hosted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. GIL COHEN-MAGEN/JNS

“Iran has an active weapons team,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi revealed in a farewell interview just days before Herzi Halevi replaced him at the helm of the IDF, referring to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. “This team has been working, at a very slow pace, and this is in violation of the [2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] nuclear deal,” he added. 

“The Iranians are lying constantly” about their military nuclear program, said Kochavi, adding that Iran currently has enough fissile material for four bombs. While the nuclear program’s current rate of progress is “very slow,” he continued, “the significant change is in the scope of their centrifuges—especially the advanced models.” 

This has led to a shift in Israel’s approach, said Kochavi. During his tenure, the Israel Defense Forces has devised three operational plans to attack Iran. “These extend from a retaliatory strike on Iran that would be unrelated to the nuclear issue, to the taking out of the Iranian nuclear installations and auxiliary sites in that project, and if the situation eventually escalates into a full-fledged campaign then these plans also include the targeting of military sites and other assets,” he said.

Q: You have used the term “taking out.” Does Israel have the capability to fully destroy Iran’s nuclear program just like it did in Iraq and Syria? 

A: Let me put it in more precise words: I meant neutralizing; inflicting major damage to Iran’s nuclear program. 

Q: Do you think there is any path to take other than a military one?  

A: Iran is currently under five different sets of pressure, which I believe [is] unprecedented: economically, socially, diplomatically, military failures and the fact that their proxies in the region have not delivered. We must use these five sets of pressure to reach a deal that could be called very good and would have no sunset [clause]. If the world ratchets up the economic sanctions on Iran, and if it simultaneously projects a credible military option that could be activated if they continue marching forward on the nuclear program, there is a chance that the pressure would be so great that they would decide to stop the nuclear project. 

Q: How worried are you when it comes to their cooperation with Russia in the war in Ukraine?  

A: Our relations with the Russians are stable, and we have the freedom to operate across the Middle East. We have not seen indications or even a hint that this would be compromised. I assess that at this point, the ties between the Russians and the Iranians are largely tactical, to serve their respective interests, rather than strategic, but this could eventually reach that level.

“I don’t want the IDF to be a sacred cow”

In recent weeks, the IDF and its chief of staff have been in the eye of a storm: The coalition agreements signed by the various factions of the new government put the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria and the IDF Rabbinate under civilian authority, outside the military chain of command. This has resulted in uncharacteristically forceful pushback from Kochavi.

“We have to stay true to our moral compass, which comprises two very basic components. The first is the professional fundamentals: the methods, the techniques and the rules—including the rules of engagement,” said Kochavi. “The second is the norms and values we hold, the spirit of the IDF. The government must set policy, but only the IDF determines how to carry out the fighting itself, whether it is in Gaza, or the narrow alleys in Judea and Samaria; only the IDF determines what is moral and what is not; what is appropriate and what is not; and what is wrong. We will not deviate from the professional and moral principles and values,” he said.

Q: How should the military function when the chief military rabbi is appointed by civilian rabbis and the head of the Civil Administration is appointed by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich?  

A: I don’t see how such a reality could exist. The supreme command orders, which have been given the status of a law and signed by the defense minister, stipulate that the IDF chief of staff appoints officers that hold the rank of colonel or higher, including major generals. This must not change, because the glue that holds the military together is this trust between the soldiers and their commanders and between the commanders and those higher up in the chain of command. A great deal of the trust stems from the fact that the decisions are made based only on professional and disinterested standards, without any foreign consideration, especially not political. An appointment not made through the chain of command would be tainted and would at once undo this premise of trust. It is like injecting poison into the tree called the IDF. Such an appointment should not be carried out, plain and simple. 

Q: But if the politicians insist?  

A: Our role, especially that of the chief of staff, is to stand our ground on this principle and to explain how crucial it is to the organization’s integrity, as well as to show just how toxic and dangerous things could be if it lost this quality. This is how things are run in all other militaries, and this is how it should stay. Kochavi made his views on this matter clear while speaking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just before the latter took office. The call was made at Kochavi’s request. I believe that disagreements, however deep, must be ironed out behind closed doors. I don’t know who leaked this conversation, and it is unfortunate. The fact of the matter is that as soon as Netanyahu was declared the winner of the election, I immediately proceeded to arrange a conversation so that I could lay out my views and explain what the implications are on all the issues on the table, whether it is the Border Guard [chain of command], the appointments, or the Civil Administration so that no decision I made before we have our say and have input on the eventual outcome. 

Q: Did you notice a receptive ear on the other side?  

A: I would say that there is a receptive ear and a good dialogue. 

Q: Do you think it would be reasonable to grant total immunity from prosecution to troops for actions they have committed while on active duty?  

A: Our job is to educate the soldiers on a professional and moral level. Education includes three main tools: leadership by example; giving support; and punishing. Punishment is part of the educational process, just like a parent who exercises tough love. This is also true when it comes to a commander’s way of disciplining his subordinates or the chief of staff doing the same for one of his brigade commanders.

Q: You don’t think the IDF is no longer the sacred cow that it used to be in Israeli society? 

A: I think that the status of the IDF in Israeli society is strong and prominent, and the public’s trust in the institution is very high, especially when compared to other state bodies. I don’t want us to be a sacred cow. It is healthy and right to have the IDF be subject to criticism. This sharpens us and makes us constantly alert; but on the other hand, such criticism must be constructive and professional, and definitely not personal. Despite Kochavi’s optimism, the IDF has had to endure increasing attacks over the past several years. For example, it has come under fire over the pension benefits for career officers. But Kochavi’s take is very different, owing to his perspective as someone who is in the system. He sees these benefits as part of the war the IDF is waging over workforce retention, so that the best and brightest stay in uniform, even though this effort has had mixed results. Those who have been targeted due to their pension are the same people who were on a sortie just last week to target some remote site; they are those who just two months ago got an award for the smart bomb they had developed, which allowed us to kill a Hamas leader and launch an offensive. The IDF is a military that deals with many theaters all at once, and the only way to make sure its performance remains high is by attracting superb people. Superb people will join us because of the meaning the job gives them, but they also need to be properly compensated. Good compensation begins with wages, and … especially with captains and majors, it needs to be augmented.

Q: What if the wages don’t get bolstered under the new compensation model?

A: That could result in a wave of departures, but this must not happen. I’m not just talking about this or that battalion commander in the Golani Brigade or in the Armored Corps, I’m talking also about the communications officers and intelligence officers, as well as those in the logistical apparatus. If we don’t find a way to compensate them, the quality of our officers will be compromised and as a result, [so will] our combat worthiness and operational qualities, and this would hurt Israel’s security. There is no doubt about this. We have to properly compensate the troops; there is simply no other option. 

Q: You have been attacked over the integration of women in combat units.  

A: These decisions are made only on professional considerations. Women’s contribution to the military has been proven to be enormous. We must not miss out on this great human potential, both because it is in line with our values and because it is good for our organization in a purely operational sense. If we didn’t have all the units that are open to women right now, such as the light infantry battalions or the Iron Dome batteries and the Home front Command, we would have had to find men to fill those positions, and this would have resulted in the disbanding of two whole brigades. We need women and they are great. Moreover, any position that a woman can do should be open for women. 

Israel’s current military environment 

Kochavi hands over an organization that has managed to maintain calm in all theaters except Judea and Samaria. The Lebanese theater was on an escalation trajectory, but that ended after Israel and Lebanon redrew their maritime border. Kochavi called that deal “good” and noted that “all of Israel’s security interests were addressed in this agreement. It serves both Israel and the IDF, and that’s why we were behind it.”

Kochavi confirmed that Hezbollah was gearing up for an escalation in the event the talks collapsed. He added that the IDF had been prepared to respond as needed. “I know the contingency plans we had for the event Hezbollah provoked an escalation. Any action on its part that would register three on the Richter scale would have triggered a response that would register seven or eight. Those were the plans,” he said.

Q: How concerned are you over the ongoing situation in Judea and Samaria and the terrorism wave that has continued for almost a year now?  

A: In the Palestinian theater, we first stabilized Gaza. The entire gamut of Palestinian forces would have acted differently had Gaza not been calm, and I believe that there is a good chance it will remain stable. In Judea and Samaria, the terrorism wave started with lone-wolf attackers but then some of the terrorist organizations tried to ride this wave. The good news is that most of the attacks are being thwarted. Over the past year, some 400 attacks were foiled. The flip side is that we have no way of knowing when this wave will subside. I would like to believe that our effective actions will persist and this will convince them that there is no point in continuing this wave.

Q: What would you tell those who say you are not using enough force in Jenin and Nablus? 

A: We have been engaged, with a very proactive offensive posture. We don’t stop the would-be attackers on the border or in Hadera, but in their own bedroom, six hours after he and his friend finalized their plans. The measure of success is not how much force you used but how much terrorism you managed to avert.

Q: The Temple Mount is not part of the IDF’s jurisdiction, but how worried are you over what has unfolded as of late? 

A: The Temple Mount has always been a flash point, and it has recently become even more so. Every event that the Palestinians interpret as an alteration of the status quo or their rights could result in riots and provocations that could eventually lead to a flare-up. Another issue that involves personnel has to do with conscripted soldiers. Kochavi would like to dispel the myth that only rich kids serve in lucrative and easy positions whereas those from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds are used as cannon fodder in front-line positions. Let’s talk about the facts. Putting aside the Haredi and Arab populations, 85% of those eligible get drafted. Of them, the first four deciles and those with the best personal score go more to combat units. 

Q: What about technological units?  

A: In those units, there is a high representation of central Israel over remote communities. This is a fact. We set our sights on having this ratio be equally divided, and we are on our way. We have been engaging 35,000 students in middle school and high school on this so that this equality in opportunity becomes possible. We have several programs, including one aimed at encouraging girls. We have honed the screening and placement process to a very high level. This is a major change. We first look at ourselves and then we also look at the education system that needs to work to right this wrong.

Q: When you hear a politician say that half of the public must be subject to the draft while the rest should engage in Torah study, what do you say? 

A: Generally speaking, everyone should share the burden. But let me correct myself—it’s not a burden. It should be described as equality in serving the country. There are two tracks. One is the IDF, and we would gladly accept anyone who wants to join, including the Haredim and the Arabs. The other track is a form of national service. I think that any other track [besides these two] runs against our values.

Q: Torah study lacks values? 

A: It’s not that. The fact that you are not partaking in the service of your country [when you study Torah] is against our values.

Aviv Kochavi (R), Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defence Forces, welcomes Lieutenant General Belkhir El-Farouk (C), Inspector General of the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces, at the Kiryah military base in Tel Aviv. ILIA YEFIMOVICH/JNS

What’s next

Kochavi gave this interview just days before ending his military career and starting his discharge process. “This is both happy and sad: It’s like having to carry out an order to part ways with someone whom you really like. This is one heck of a farewell,” said Kochavi, adding that the most moving sendoff was by the Paratroopers Brigade. “They found the original car that I had used as battalion commander and then brought it to the event with my then-driver. And then I entered the tent with all the company commanders and NCOs from that time, as well as all the administrative staff. The end was when the host of the event, who is the current battalion commander, said, “Chief of staff, we are bidding you farewell, we are all putting our berets on now.’ Some 400 paratroopers stood there with the berets on their heads and saluted me. That did it for me, and I was overcome with emotion.” 

Q: Your close associates know that you express your emotions. 

A: I love the IDF so much, and I identify with it so much, with what we do, we want the quality of people. I don’t know what I will do in the future, but I know that I will never lead another organization that is as special. 

Q: What was the role of your life?  

A: That would be serving as IDF chief of staff, of course. But the next one on the list would be serving as the 35th Brigade Commander during “Operation Defensive Shield” and as head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate when the Middle East underwent so much turbulence. These are the big three. 

Q: Does a chief of staff have free time?  

A: Not really. Normally speaking you work six days a week, but in the vast majority of cases you wake up on Saturdays, get your coffee and then work until 10 p.m. This is if I am at home. There are some Saturdays where that is not the case. 

Q: Can you get a full night’s sleep?  

A: Yes, there are quite a few nights like that, but there are many others that are truncated because you go to bed late or wake up early because people call or text you. 

Q: What call is still etched in your memory?  

A: The worst call I got was when my bureau chief called me with the news that two company commanders in the elite Egoz unit were killed by friendly fire. I think this was the most difficult call I got throughout my service in the military. 

Q: Really?  

A: Yes. It’s different when this happens in battle. This event was so pointless. It should not have happened. 

What other moment from the past 40 years are you going to remember?  

A: The battle in the Balata Refugee Camp during “Operation Defensive Shield.” For the first time, the IDF made an urban capture in Area A [of the West Bank, which according to the Oslo accords is] under the Palestinians’ control. Up until then, these areas have been considered off-limits, like a dark forest you could not emerge from. But for the first time in years, a brigade-level battle took place, and for the first time, we used the method of entering through walls. I think this battle gave the IDF top brass the confidence that ‘Yes, we can’ [fight against terrorists].” 

Q: What are you going to do next? At your age, you’re not going to just sit and count sheep. 

A:You might see me in the innovation and technology world, and in an educational setting. I would like to do many things that have a social value in them. 

Q: Many want to know if Aviv Kochavi is going to enter politics.  

A: My response is that it is not on the table at this point. When the time comes to decide, I will think hard.


Produced in association with Jewish News Syndicate.