Two Bothersome Questions on the Next Israeli Military Chief

No one doubts the military bona fides of Gadi Eisenkot, the chief of staff-elect, but he needs to prove that he’s not a yes man and is ready to introduce the reforms the Israeli army needs.

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot in 2010.
Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot in 2010.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot is not the type to rush into battle. He prefers to avoid military adventures and advocates formulating an exit strategy before going to war. He has experience in a wide range of command and General Staff positions, has fought in all Israel’s wars since 1982 and as evidenced by the favorable reception he’s received from military commentators, he knows how to charm the media. This is an experienced, intelligent and friendly officer, seemingly capable of commanding the Israel Defense Forces in wartime and in between.

Nevertheless, we must raise some troubling questions about Eisenkot’s appointment. No, not about his tangential involvement in the Harpaz affair, and his telling only part of the truth to police in his initial testimony about the forged document. After a few days he took himself in hand and offered his full version of the events to investigators. His conduct was tolerable, if not brilliant.

Two other questions over his appointment loom. One relates to the past, and the other to the future.

Eisenkot has been deputy chief of staff since January 2013. During this period the IDF failed in its preparations for war with Hamas and did not develop the necessary means and methods to cope with the tunnel threat on the border with the Gaza Strip. The deficiencies were detailed in an investigative report by my colleagues Amos Harel and Gili Cohen after Operation Protective Edge. These failures resulted in a needlessly long operation that caused enormous economic damage, harmed Israel’s foreign relations and cost the lives of its soldiers and civilians, as well as massive killing and destruction in the Gaza Strip.

The deputy chief of staff is responsible for military buildup. What did Eisenkot do to help cope with the tunnels threat? His remarks, summaries and recommendations regarding the situation on the southern border are far more relevant to his promotion than the transcripts (fascinating as they may be) of his years-old testimony to the police. Did Eisenkot demand that the Southern Command and the Ground Forces Command put forth proposals to shorten the time needed to destroy a tunnel once it’s been discovered, or did he settle for his subordinates’ “trust us, it’ll be fine” promises?

Did Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who pushed tirelessly for Eisenkot’s appointment, or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who interviewed him twice, ask any of these questions? Perhaps, because final responsibility for the operation’s failures lies with them, they chose not to bother him with unpleasant comments that he could throw right back to them. The flattering articles on Eisenkot since his appointment was announced Saturday have shed no new light on the issue.

The question about the future is no less worrisome. Is the chief of staff’s main duty to keep the ranks quiet? And at what cost? Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz has provided his superiors with stability, leading the military without rancorous power struggles, highly publicized disputes with politicians or any major accidents or disasters. But he has also avoided introducing reforms, changes or internal upheavals. In return for this “industrial calm,” he demanded and received ever-increasing allocations from Netanyahu. Ya’alon supported this approach unquestioningly.

To date Eisenkot has given no indication that his appetite for more and more billions for defense is any less than that of Gantz or Ya’alon, even though those billions are at the expense of the social services received by civilians. Eisenkot isn’t known to have suggested any organizational, operational or budgetary reforms to solve the army’s most pressing problems: a budget that’s totally out of control and the widening quality gap between the air force, intelligence and cyber warfare branches on one hand and the ground forces on the other. Eisenkot conveys nothing more than continuity.

Perhaps he is a closet revolutionary, choosing to remain quiet until taking office as chief of staff in order to avoid antagonizing anyone in advance. There have been such leaders, figures who were yes men while climbing to the top and who moved mountains once they got there. The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was such a man, in war and in peace.

Eisenkot is also entitled to the benefit of the doubt; he might surprise us yet. But still, did Netanyahu, who is well aware of Israel’s economic and political situation, ask Eisenkot for a plan, a PowerPoint presentation or even a piece of paper with some preliminary ideas for resolving the IDF’s most pressing problems? And if not, why not?

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