Friday's announcement on the appointment of Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot as the 21st chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces was given – typically – a few weeks late. After a needless delay, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave in to Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon's pressure and agreed to release a joint statement confirming the appointment of the only realistic candidate.
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Eisenkot, 54, has filled all the relevant positions that qualify him to lead the Israeli army. A former commander of the Golani Brigade, he was Ehud Barak's military secretary in 1999-2000, when Barak served as prime minister and defense minister, and remained in this position under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He later commanded an armored division as head of the IDF's West Bank Division at the height of the second intifada, in 2003-2005 and served as head of operations during the Second Lebanon War.
Gadi Eisenkot's experience and skills, and the enthusiastic support he receives from Ya'alon and the current IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, all contribute to his suitability and preparedness for the role.
And yet, all this was not enough to convince Netanyahu fast enough; since last summer and up until the past several weeks the premier checked out other possibilities – Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yoav Galant and, more recently, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan.
The chief of staff-designate will have less than two-and-a-half months (on the assumption that he’s also approved by the cabinet and the Turkel committee, which vets senior appointments, and survives a possible petition to the High Court of Justice) to prepare himself for the most sensitive security post of all.
Things were supposed to play out differently this time. Nearly four years ago, Ya’alon, as strategic affairs minister, watched from the side as chaos ensued ahead of Benny Gantz’s eventual appointment as chief of staff.
First there was the “Harpaz document” affair, which soured relations at the time between Ehud Barak and Gabi Ashkenazi – the then-defense minister and chief of staff, respectively (the forged document tried to present the Barak camp as launching a mudslinging campaign against Ashkenazi). At Barak’s request the government approved Galant’s appointment, and then, at the 11th hour, Netanyahu and Barak cancelled it because of reports of improper behavior by Galant involving land in Moshav Amikam, where he lives. Gantz, who had by then almost officially left the IDF, thinking he had lost out to Galant, became chief of staff.
Ya’alon was certain that he’d learned the lessons of that farce. Eisenkot, the current deputy chief of staff, was the only realistic candidate. The other candidate, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, who is older (he’s 57; Eisenkot is 54), had already left the IDF once and hasn’t had an official army assignment for nearly two years. The possible younger candidates, Golan (52) and Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi (50), would fight it out in another four years.
The round of consultations with former defense ministers and chiefs of staff has ended. People who have spoken with Ya’alon lately say he is “100 percent locked in” to appointing Eisenkot. Ya’alon is certain that even if a High Court petition is submitted, relating to Eisenkot’s behavior at the start of the Harpaz document affair, the court will not intervene. Compared to previous chief of staff appointments, there is no atmosphere of mudslinging and bad blood between the candidates this time.
What Ya’alon apparently did not take into account is the prime minister’s part in the process. The appointment’s announcement has been held up for some three weeks. Netanyahu personally interviewed Eisenkot, Naveh and Golan, then called in Eisenkot and Naveh again (separately) for a second interview.
As reported in Haaretz this week, the delay is explained by Netanyahu’s desire to project leadership and to show that a proper, thorough administrative process is underway – in the wake of criticism levelled by the state comptroller – and by Netanyahu’s chronic propensity to postpone decisions until the last possible moment.
The protracted delay stretched Eisenkot’s nerves thin. Along the way, Netanyahu was also downgrading Ya’alon’s status in the eyes of the IDF General Staff and the other cabinet ministers. Every day of delay heightened the tension in the General Staff, sparks new speculation and shifts the power of decision-making to Netanyahu. We can assume the prime minister is not averse to this last element.
If there’s a more basic consideration at work, it’s probably not related to Harpaz or the Turkel committee. Eisenkot’s opponents (aka, Galant’s friends) identify him with the previous regime in the IDF – specifically, with Ashkenazi, who wanted to make Eisenkot his successor. Unlike previously, though, Ashkenazi is no longer perceived as a substantial political threat by Netanyahu.
However, Netanyahu undoubtedly remembers something else: More than four years ago, at the height of the debate over whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, Eisenkot, then the GOC Northern Command, sent Netanyahu a personal letter. Eisenkot wrote that he was firmly against an Israeli attack at that time, for fear that Israel would be dragged into a lengthy war with Iran and Hezbollah, and would also ruin its relations with the United States.
In the General Staffs under Ashkenazi and Gantz, Eisenkot was the bluntest opponent of an attack uncoordinated with the United States. Ashkenazi warned Eisenkot that sending the letter could affect his future promotion. (Still, the letter did not prevent Netanyahu and Barak from offering Eisenkot the post of chief of staff in 2011, after Galant’s appointment was cancelled. It was Eisenkot who turned them down and suggested that they choose Gantz).
An Israeli attack on Iran is not on the agenda now. This week, the six world powers and Iran decided to extend their negotiations on the future of the Iranian nuclear project until June 30, 2015. But Netanyahu does not necessarily view this issue like others do. From his vantage point, removing the Iranian threat is at the core of his activity. It is the primary reason he gives for his determination to stay in power, if he can. For Netanyahu, July 2015 could be the date at which an Israeli attack on Iran will become relevant again.
He will arrive at that critical juncture with Defense Minister Ya’alon, who was one of the moderates in the last government and made a significant contribution to blocking the attack proposals of Netanyahu and Barak. Ya’alon will probably do the same again – this time with a chief of staff who has already expressed his opinion, in writing (though the circumstances in the future are likely to be different and bring about changes in the views of those involved).
Ya’alon titled his autobiography “The Longer Shorter Way.” When it comes to senior appointments – chief of staff, police commissioner, Bank of Israel governor (and also voting for the country’s president) – Netanyahu’s governments have followed a simple rule: ensure that the appointment process will hit every obstacle, that the leading candidate will have the bumpiest ride possible, and that the winner will reach the finish line battered and bruised.
The prime minister’s zigs and zags, with the possible risk of an early election looming, aren’t confined to the appointment of the chief of staff. The serious wave of terrorism in Jerusalem has led – as is customary in such cases – to the convening of a series of consultations at the highest political and security levels.
This phenomenon is familiar from the second intifada. The brutal images from the sites of attacks, broadcast over and over in a seemingly endless loop on television, heighten the public’s expectation for vigorous steps to be taken against the terrorists and those who sent them. Politicians from the coalition and the opposition make pilgrimages to the TV studios to demand that the prime minister take action. But when the cabinet or the security cabinet meet, they discover that the options at their disposal are quite limited.
Most of the possible measures have already been taken, and new ones encounter practical obstacles or legal objections. And when it comes to Jerusalem, it’s even trickier: East Jerusalem Palestinians have Israeli ID cards; international sensitivity to any move in the city is high; and constantly lurking in the background is the danger of a religious war flaring up.
Still, Netanyahu came into the consultations this time very determined. As Yossi Verter has noted, there has been a surprising rapprochement between Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett of late, particularly in regard to political and security moves. Netanyahu, like Bennett, would like to reprise in East Jerusalem what was done last summer in the West Bank after the kidnapping of the three Jewish teens: namely, to send IDF units into the city’s Palestinian neighborhoods to make house-to-house searches, arrest security suspects and seize weapons.