Analysis

In Israel, the Army Chief Also Has to Defend Democracy

IDF chief of staff provides intelligent, balanced take on events both regional and global, unlike some of his peers in the cabinet.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot addressing the Institute for National Security Studies annual conference, January 18, 2015.
Moti Milrod

Despite taking office nearly a year ago, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot waited until Monday to speak for the first time to a public audience (other than the official ceremonies he was obliged to attend, and where he often looked as if he had been reluctantly dragged).

The audience, at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, heard more or less the same things that Eisenkot has been saying at periodic background briefings to journalists. Indeed, the insights he shared Monday were quite similar to those he formulated in the IDF strategy document published last August.

Eisenkot provided an intelligent and balanced picture of a region that is becoming increasingly complex. But on a day when the main TV channel interrupted its regular programming with a news flash about a shooting attack in Bat Yam that never actually happened, and when political debate about the occupied territories is increasingly spilling over into the emotional realm at the expense of logic, Eisenkot’s speech is encouraging evidence that the General Staff is trying to maintain a businesslike and statesmanlike approach.

Despite the two latest stabbing attacks, in which terrorists infiltrated settlements and murdered one woman (on Sunday evening) and wounded another (on Monday morning), Eisenkot held fast to the security establishment’s position that collective punishment of the Palestinians should be avoided as much as possible. Work in Israel and the settlements directly provides a livelihood to some 120,000 Palestinians who support their families, and it is in Israel’s interest to preserve this. A return to closures, Eisenkot said, would be a bitter mistake, although that is exactly the method the IDF used in the West Bank more than a decade ago to suppress the second intifada.

Eisenkot also spoke in favor of security coordination with the Palestinian Authority. In contrast, he admitted that there had been no specific intelligence warning ahead of any of the 101 knife attacks that have taken place in Israel and the West Bank over the past three and a half months. He added that a lack of intelligence is making it difficult for the army to formulate an effective response to the current wave of terror, as opposed to the situation in the West Bank after Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, during which he was commander of IDF forces in the area.

As for the Gaza Strip, the chief of staff confirmed Haaretz’s recent report that Hamas has been rebuilding its attack tunnels in the Strip since the war ended nearly 18 months ago. Eisenkot said the situation on the Gaza-Israel border was “very explosive,” and that we should not rely on vague concepts like early warnings and deterrence. He highlighted the need to keep the army on constant high alert in view of the abundant possibilities for escalation on various fronts, even at a time when Israel is not subject to an existential threat to its survival. Over the past decade, Eisenkot reminded his audience, Israel has amassed a great deal of experience of incidents that mushroomed into all-out wars.

The lifting of the potential existential threat is connected to two processes: the world powers’ nuclear agreement with Iran; and the collapse of the Syrian army following the prolonged civil war in that country. Slightly deviating from the government’s official public diplomacy line, the chief of staff depicted the Vienna nuclear accord – and the day after the lifting of sanctions on Iran last Saturday – as a combination of “many risks as well as opportunities.”

Eisenkot refrained from entering into the debate on the identity of the most serious threat to peace in the Middle East – Iran and Hezbollah, or the radical Sunni terror of the Islamic State, Al-Qaida and other such groups.

Conflict with Hezbollah, Eisenkot said, is the key scenario for which the IDF is preparing. He depicted ISIS as a group that has chalked up “very impressive” achievements in facing off against the armies of Iraq and Syria. However, in a somewhat unusual prediction considering other interpretations that are being offered, he said that in Sinai, the opportunity had been created for Egypt to subdue the local branch of ISIS (Wilayat Sinai).

Toward the end of his remarks, the chief of staff stated something that should be obvious: Under complex and sensitive circumstances, the role of the security forces is to preserve Israel as a democratic country, an island of stability with a powerful and moral army. Eisenkot did not go into details, but it seems that in the current public atmosphere, the very mention of democratic values in a speech by the army chief is worthy of attention. When so few politicians express themselves similarly – with the notable exception of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon – it seems Israeli society really does need the chief of staff to remind it of its core values.