The short honeymoon between Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot and the Israeli right has come to its anticipated end. The Israel Defense Forces’ series of operational successes in recent months in the north and in the Gaza Strip (and it must be said, the high number of fatalities on the other side) had shut down the right’s criticism of the chief of staff. The intense attacks on him in connection with the Elor Azaria case had been replaced by exceptional praise for the IDF. But it all ended Monday, after the exchange between Eisenkot and Education Minister Naftali Bennett from Sunday’s security cabinet meeting was leaked to the press.
It’s doubtful that Eisenkot was even really Bennett’s target. The Habayit Hayehudi chairman has been pretty supportive lately, both publicly and behind the scenes, of the chief of staff’s positions and decisions, particularly with regard to confronting Iran in Syria. But Bennett is once again trying to erode the standing of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and it looks as if Eisenkot was unwittingly caught in the coalition crossfire.
During the security cabinet meeting Bennett reiterated his demand that the army directly attack the cells that are launching the incendiary kites and balloons causing fires in the south. Eisenkot pointed to the problems: A large number of the kite launchers are children, the cells often operate amid crowds, it’s impossible to precisely target only those people involved in the launches, and the IDF’s terms of engagement are based on a combination of both the means and the intentions of the enemy, which makes it difficult to target anyone who decides to fly a kite in Gaza.
An argument broke out between the two, and Eisenkot said it might be possible to target adults who are involved in the kite attacks, but massive air strikes on kite fliers is not in keeping with the IDF’s values and its fighting doctrine.
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That was enough to ignite a firestorm of criticism of Eisenkot and the army on social media and by journalists affiliated with the right. Channel 20 even claimed that in a “properly run country” the chief of staff should be forced to resign after making such a shocking statement. The many attacks against Iranian targets and the Hezbollah arms convoys in Syria were forgotten; so was the fact that the IDF, using the most severe measures, prevented Hamas from turning the demonstrations near the Gaza fence into a mass incursion into Israeli territory. Eisenkot was portrayed as defeatist and a moral failure. If only someone who thought like us was at the helm of the army, these pundits said, the General Staff would not be tying the politicians’ hands and blocking them from responding.
The critics conveniently ignored the fact that it is the government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that is backing the chief of staff’s position and that has not ordered him to change the open-fire orders against the kite launchers. The security cabinet on Sunday instructed the IDF to act decisively to “remove the threat” of the burning balloons and kites, but did not go into details. Nor did anyone ask why cabinet ministers were giving advice on tactics against the kite cells, a purely military issue, instead of focusing on strategic solutions for the Gaza Strip.
Under the dramatic influence of the social networks, the political debate about Gaza is becoming frantic and stormy, bordering on hysteria. For all the declarations of solidarity with the residents of the Gaza border region, people seem to have forgotten that rockets and mortar shells, such as those fired periodically in recent weeks, are immeasurably more dangerous to them than kites and balloons. The burning fields and forests may have eroded the sense of security in those border communities, but the actual security risk posed by them so far is limited.
In the current debate on Gaza, however, there seems to be no place for nuances and complex considerations, only for emotions and patriotic preaching. This is fueled – as in the summer of 2014 – by the political rivalry between Bennett and Netanyahu and between Bennett and the defense minister (although Moshe Ya’alon has since been replaced by Lieberman, who accused Bennett on Monday of doing “the most disgusting thing” by turning on the chief of staff).
Contributing to the outbreak of Operation Protective Edge four years ago were two components that are missing from the picture now: the discovery of the bodies of the three teens kidnapped and murdered by Hamas in Gush Etzion, and the tension surrounding what were thought to be Hamas preparations to attack in the area of the Kerem Shalom crossing. But it may be that this absence can be filled by the emotional debate in the media and the influence of politicians who are also preparing for possible new elections.
If Israel slides into another military confrontation in the Strip, even though its leadership doesn’t want one, part of the blame will rest with the pressure being brought to bear on Netanyahu in the security cabinet and in the media.
Monday evening, in an interview with Israel Television News, Bennett insisted that he admires Eisenkot and even praised him for the way he has handled the demonstrations along the Gaza border. He also raged at the fact that his remarks were leaked from the security cabinet.
The IDF, for its part, used Monday’s large-scale exercise in the Negev by Division 162, which was planned far in advance, to send a few propagandistic messages. The commanders of several units participating in the exercise were interviewed on television and explained that the troops were simulating a conquest of Gaza. They also praised the troops’ readiness to carry out this mission.
Perhaps the combination of Israeli threats and Egyptian pressure had some impact on Hamas’ decisions. The organization had planned to host a large conference on Monday, and one of the people slated to address the conference by video link was Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. Soleimani is Iran’s point man in the region – the one who led its military campaign on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria while also giving financial aid to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
Nevertheless, the speech was canceled at the last minute. It’s reasonable to assume that this was due less to technical difficulties than to Egypt’s discomfort with giving Iran a platform in Gaza at such a delicate moment.
Soleimani has no such problems in Syria, where the alliance of forces backing the Assad regime, under Russian leadership, is continuing to push the Syrian rebels out of the Syrian portion of the Golan Heights.
Netanyahu’s aides voiced satisfaction Monday night over the fact that Israel’s security interests were mentioned at the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki. For Israel, it’s important that the Separation of Forces Agreement it signed with Syria in 1974, following the previous year’s Yom Kippur War, be honored. But this is only a secondary goal; Jerusalem’s main concern is removing Iranian forces and Shi’ite militias from parts of Syria near the Israeli border (or, according to the prime minister, from all of Syria).
And here, there’s still plenty of room for skepticism. Despite their promises, it’s not at all clear whether the Russians, or even the Americans, will actually make sure Israel’s demands are met.