Analysis

How Israel's Army Chief Went From 'Weak on Terror' to the Most Popular Kid in Town

Eisenkot’s recent accomplishments could lead Netanyahu to extend his term as army chief of staff — and allow the prime minister to groom a surprise heir

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Jerusalem, May 2, 2018
Emil salman

Most unexpectedly, the right-wing government is head over heels in love with Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. Only two years ago, key figures in the government were accusing Eisenkot of weakness in the face of Palestinian terror; of imposing undue restraint on the soldiers dealing with the wave of knife attacks; of abandoning Elor Azaria, a soldier who served prison time for shooting dead an already incapacitated Palestinian assailant; and of the intentional harassment of religiously observant soldiers and officers, from delaying their advancement to issuing strict regulations regarding facial hair.

These groundless accusations have been forgotten as though they were never made. Anyone talking to cabinet ministers these days and even people in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immediate orbit (who are not known for freely handing out compliments) hears only praise. Eisenkot’s new popularity has to do with Netanyahu’s recent series of diplomatic and military accomplishments. The pinnacle of these was Israel’s quashing, at least for now, Iran’s efforts to establish itself in Syria and foiling an Iranian attempt at an extensive retaliatory operation against Israeli military positions in the Golan Heights.

The chief of staff led these moves with a firm hand, sometimes surprising cabinet ministers with the force of his determination. Eisenkot’s gamble has so far paid off. His opponent — Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force — miscalculated. Soleimani dragged Teheran into an ill-considered adventure in Syria after misjudging Israel’s capabilities and its willingness to use them. In confronting the Israel Air Force and Military Intelligence, it became clear that Soleimani’s moves were exposed and his forces vulnerable. When they attempted another response, on May 10, after Israel thwarted numerous efforts, his plans backfired.

Eisenkot is a master of routine security measures, which in his term as chief of staff developed into “the campaign between the wars.” It is the fruit of his long years as brigade commander and division commander in the territories as he ascended the ranks to head the Northern Command. The measured conduct of the sparring with the Iranians enabled Israel to emerge with the upper hand, for now, and the army hasn’t rushed to quibble with the prime minister over the credit.

This, apparently, is the main reason for the praises being heaped on the chief of staff of late. But in the corridors of power a different theory, as yet unofficial, is making the rounds about his surprising honeymoon with the political leadership. Eisenkot has asked to end his assignment on January 1, six weeks short of the customary four-year term.

According to the theory, Netanyahu might try to extend Eisenkot’s term through the early summer of 2019. The pretext will be the sensitive security situation, but there may be an additional reason: the grooming of an unexpected successor to the current chief of staff.

The person in question is Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, who this week ended an assignment as head of the Southern Command. In his previous position, he served as Netanyahu’s military aide. From that very complex bureau, Zamir emerged unscathed — he did not dirty himself in politics yet still won prime minister’s esteem. The problem is that Zamir is younger and less experienced than several of the other candidates. Until recently he was not considered to be a possible candidate for the position. He also lacks experience in a headquarters position at the Central Command level. A stint as deputy chief of staff, during the prolongation of Eisenkot’s tour of duty, could put a check mark in the empty box next to that missing qualification.

Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi is currently seen as the leading candidate to succeed Eisenkot, but Netanyahu is hesitant. On a bad day, Kochavi reminds the prime minister of a different paratrooper, former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Moreover, Netanyahu is unlikely to entrust the military to a “crown prince” whose future as chief of staff has been predicted for years and who may also have political potential in the future.

When Eisenkot was asked in an interview a couple of months ago with Haaretz about the possibility that his term would be extended, he replied emphatically in the negative. “Come next January 1 to the General Staff parade ground and see me handing over the baton,” he said. “There are excellent candidates for replacing me. My role is to bring forward several of them. Two have served as deputy chiefs of staff,” he said, referring to Yair Golan and Golan’s successor, Kochavi. “Personally, I won’t recommend anyone. That is the politicians’ job.”

Insofar as is known, since that interview the chief of staff has not heard any feelers in that direction. However, there is a difference between a journalistic trial balloon and a hypothetical personal request from the prime minister. We shall wait and see.