New Chief Gadi Eisenkot Will Prove the Israeli Army’s Mr. Fix-it

The general will streamline the military and even close Army Radio if he has to. The next war always beckons, whether from the north, south — or east.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot at a ceremony on Mount Herzl, Jerusalem, April 19, 2015.
Emil Salman

The chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, is acting as if the Israel Defense Forces had no time to lose. He has finished with Iran (for now), but he’s in a hurry to prepare the military for brief and decisive operations on nearby fronts. He’s also preparing for a war of attrition on the most painful front: IDF pensions.

The decision to award a campaign ribbon to the soldiers who took part in last summer’s Gaza war, as if this operation equaled the wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982, was very surprising — unless you realize that the reasoning was political, not professional.

The political leaders are embarrassed by those 50 days of attrition and are trying to ingratiate themselves with the men and women in uniform. After all, that ribbon says nothing about risk or contribution — everyone on active duty at the time gets one. It’s more a sign of seniority or length of service, just as everyone who happened to serve during the summer of 2006 is proud of his Second Lebanon War ribbon.

It took decades before the 1967-1970 War of Attrition received a campaign ribbon. First they sufficed with the pin for combat operations, which went to anyone who spent months at the front or operated behind enemy lines. And there’s no campaign ribbon for Operation Litani in Lebanon in 1978 or Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, which quelled the second intifada.

Operational service in Lebanon until the 2000 pullout, as well as during the first and second intifadas, didn’t earn the troops and terror victims any awards. Neither did the disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank in 2005.

That’s a shame. At the National Defense College’s graduation ceremony on Wednesday, the foreign participants in the course, especially the U.S. Marine and Navy officers in their razor-sharp uniforms, sported an array of medals. The Israelis, meanwhile, in their wrinkled shirts and shlumpy pants, had only a ribbon or two to show off.

One of the limp justifications for the Lebanon-2006 and Gaza-2014 ribbons was the length of the operation — between one and two months. If that’s the standard, Eisenkot will strive to ensure there are no long campaigns during his term.

When Eisenkot repeats that “shortening the fighting is a vital principle because of the nature of the Israeli military and society,” he’s not saying anything new. His predecessors espoused similar formulas.

But the difference is that Eisenkot is doing his best to carry it out. He’s not wasting time during the quiet times so as not to waste time during the emergencies. What’s not planted today will not sprout tomorrow when the next operation starts in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria or Jordan, if God forbid the Islamic State defeats the regime in Amman.

Don’t waste any time against ISIS, hinted Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon at that graduation ceremony Wednesday, referring to the Jordan scenario. He deviated from his prepared text when he talked about the threats from terrorist organizations. He mentioned “from the north and south” and added the loaded term “from the east.”There are IDF officers who know how to think and IDF officers who know how to make decisions. You don’t normally get both in the same officer.

The saw and the screwdriver

But Eisenkot has them both. He has been the military secretary to two prime ministers, one of whom was also the defense minister, and has headed the IDF Operations Directorate during fighting that dragged on. So he knows how time can slip through your fingers. That’s why he’s in such a hurry.

In his first five months of the three or four years he has coming, he has been holding a saw in one hand and a screwdriver in the other — and both are ready to act.

That’s how he decided to disband the all-Druze battalion and ordered a cybercorps and special-forces brigade. He’s letting go tens of thousands of reservists not worth keeping around.

Unnecessary units and other formations are expected to be shut down to make the investment in the rest more effective, but he doesn’t chase headlines. Because of the need to set priorities, he’s even willing to do away with Army Radio — anything to make sure a single combat unit isn’t closed.

But what irks him is the word “pensions,” which is being heard in the Finance Ministry, the Knesset and the media. When he forbids a public battle over the intention to pare the professional army’s retirement benefits, three things are in play.

Above all is the breach of trust at the foundation of military service (and also possibly a violation of the legal basis for keeping pensions where they are). Next are the sloppy methods of the special committee headed by a former air force general and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former military secretary, Yohanan Locker, and a lack of coordination with the multiyear plan being prepared.

Third is the discrimination against the IDF compared to comparable organizations: the police, the prison service, the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad — which have enjoyed having their pension benefits linked to the IDF’s and are ready to revolt with the military if they have to.

To illustrate the issue, both the police and prison-service commissioners earn more than the IDF chief of staff. It seems that after the Harpaz affair, the police commissioner is supposed to investigate the chief of staff, then hand him over to the prison-service chief.

Eisenkot’s planning and budgetary ideas aim to turn the pyramid of resources upside down: First guarantee combat readiness, not routine maintenance. Don’t start an operation, whether at Israel’s initiative or the enemy’s, with precious days wasted. Make sure the war machine is always ready.

To Eisenkot, it’s not always a trade-off between time and space, but between time and strength. He prefers to hit hard and fast, because as the days turn to weeks the other side wins just by staying in the fight. And more and more civilians on both sides become victims, and there’s a danger to critical infrastructure — take for example Ben-Gurion International Airport in last summer’s fighting.

And after all, the definition of victory is elusive. That’s why the goal is to reach the best achievement, not the maximum one.

Syria and Iran

When he headed the Northern Command, before the disintegration of Syria and the appearance of the Islamic State, Eisenkot said: “The threat of the Syrian army stands at the foundation of the IDF’s reference scenario,” the scenario for which the military prepares, plans and trains, while assuming the capabilities being developed will also be suitable for other scenarios.

“The IDF’s difficulty that stands out is how to express its capabilities in a series of decisive actions over a short time period,” Eisenkot said. Correcting the faults diagnosed in this last statement is at the center of Eisenkot’s operational thinking, but the earlier statement has lost its relevance over the last four years.

The current head of Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, has been busy in recent weeks with his own staff and the General Staff. It’s a theoretical workshop in which they break down the northern front and reconstruct it.

It’s doubtful whether under these circumstances the IDF’s northern corps is still essential; it’s wasteful in terms of reserve officers. The other existing corps is in okay shape, and this would also save a major general’s post, since the commander of this second corps is Maj. Gen. Tamir Heyman, who is also set to head the military colleges.

The retiring commander of the IDF Command and Staff College, Maj. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, was the only senior defense official who dared to disagree in public with the chorus of critics of the nuclear agreement with Iran — and even that came only as a hint. Baidatz, the former head of Military Intelligence’s research division, spoke about the change embodied in the agreement and did not say anything against it. Then came Ya’alon with his weeping and wailing once again.

It’s frightening to see how much Netanyahu and his cabinet, and those like them who want to be ministers — make forecasts in a single voice. None of them dares to think differently, and if they do think, none of them dares to say it. It seems that even outside Likud it’s not good enough to be the grandson of a rabbi or the son of a general. You need to be an IDF chief of staff.

At the end of the previous decade, Eisenkot was the one who put his head on the line to stop Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Iranian adventure. For this he deserves a medal along with the other leaders at the time: President Shimon Peres, Mossad chief Meir Dagan and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

And don’t forget the closing of the case against Ashkenazi in the Harpaz affair, which began with a forged document, allegedly by Lt. Col. (res.) Boaz Harpaz, with the goal of smearing Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant, a candidate to succeed Ashkenazi as chief of staff in 2011.

The affair — which expanded into an inquiry into the tense relationship between Ashkenazi and Barak — was postponed once again by the State Prosecutor’s Office. But the consolation is that the affair is in its final stretch, one that has rambled on for five years.

In any case, the new graduates will certainly be called on to follow Iran’s nuclear progress, but at least there’s the agreement that will postpone the conflict for a decade or more, or at least until Iran is caught violating it.

Eisenkot’s predecessor, Benny Gantz, lost Syria at the beginning of his term as a direct enemy. Now Eisenkot has signed off on the Iran file, though only the nuclear-threat part, which was never an immediate threat anyway. The Iranians haven’t agreed to stop pulling the strings of all sorts of explosive operations surrounding Israel.

If we can judge by Eisenkot’s organizational changes, even if Iran raises its noxious head, the operations against it will not necessarily be those of war. The difference between nuclear and nonnuclear isn’t trivial; it’s the difference between destruction and harassment. The IDF and the other security forces can deal with Iran’s proxies in the neighborhood, alongside the diplomatic — or political — failures of Netanyahu.