Analysis

Israel Army Chief Made a Political Mistake and May Have Crossed Netanyahu

The meeting last week between Eisenkot and Ehud Barak, a former IDF chief, comes at a politically sensitive time and could provoke Netanyahu to demand explanations

FILE PHOTO: Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot
Ilan Assayag

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot made a political mistake when he decided to meet with Ehud Barak last week. Eisenkot often meets with those who have preceded him as army chief, sometimes individually and sometimes in groups, to update them and receive advice. His predecessors did so too before him, as well.

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For his part, Barak – without any connection to the political mischief he instigates – remains a first-class strategic analyst. But the meeting between him and Eisenkot, reported first on Monday by Amit Segal of the Israel Television News Company (formerly Channel 2 News), was held at the peak of a campaign that's being led by Barak on Twitter and in public appearances against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The former prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief is accusing Netanyahu of corruption.

The timing of the meeting with Eisenkot, where it was held – in Barak’s home, not far from IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv – and the fact that no clarification has been offered as to whether Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman knew about the meeting in advance (Lieberman’s office refuses to comment on the question) – leave one with an uneasy feeling.

It would have been better if Eisenkot, who knows that many people on the right have been lying in wait for him for some time – because of a number of things he has said as army chief, the Elor Azaria trial and the dispute over whether women should serve as combat soldiers – had shown more sensitivity. It would have been better if someone close to him had lit a red light beforehand.

Then-Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak, left, with Israel Defense Forces GOC Northern Command, Gadi Eisenkot, June 2010.
Ariel Hermoni/Israel Defense Ministry

As expected, since Segal's report, attempts have been made to reap political profit and to make a connection between the meeting and Barak’s speech the next day at the Banana Festival (!) in the Jordan Valley, where he warned that the present right-wing government's policies will spark a mass refusal among senior IDF brass to carry out orders.

Any link between Barak's comments and the meeting is absurd. Eisenkot is smart and experienced when it comes to his dealings with the political leadership, after serving as military secretary for Prime Ministers Barak and Ariel Sharon, almost two decades ago. The army chief grapples with strategic and political issues all the time, and does not need Barak’s advice on the limits to obeying orders. Moreover, Barak has been sounding this warning for a long time so it is unlikely he heard about it from Eisenkot – who denies that the issue even came up in their conversation.

In fact, the scenario Barak warned of has no basis in reality, for now. From all available information and from the prime minister's own declarations, it seems as if the police are about to recommend indicting Netanyahu in Case 1000, the gift and bribery affair, at the very least.

There are many reasons to criticize Netanyahu in a long list of areas, from the complete freeze on the peace process with the Palestinians to his dangerous legislative initiatives. But when it comes to ordering the use of military force, he has actually demonstrated caution, perhaps to an even greater extent than most of his predecessors did, as I have written here many times before.

During the period in which Netanyahu and Eisenkot have been working together, since February 2015, the premier has never pushed for a single dangerous military operation against Eisenkot’s advice. The two have their disagreements, including the crisis over the metal detectors that were set up at the entrances to the Temple Mount following disturbances there in July and also with respect to the Azaria trial – but these have been legitimate disagreements, not incidents after which a chief of staff ups and resigns.

We can guess that in Netanyahu and Lieberman’s offices, they were not pleased to hear Segal’s report on the meeting. It is likely that Eisenkot will now be asked to provide explanations, and if information about them does not leak out then we'll know the politicians have an interest in killing the story before it goes anywhere. But this incident has taken place during a very stormy period of public protest, when Netanyahu’s legal and political future is the main issue of dispute for the public, the media and the social networks.

Netanyahu is at the height of his tensions with Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, and there is increasing strain in his ties with the State Prosecutor’s Office as well.

Next week Eisenkot will begin his fourth and last year as chief of staff; he is due to finish his term on January 1, 2019. The fourth year is never a simple matter for any IDF chief. When you add a political crisis into the mix, a real potential of military friction on most fronts and a debate over the identity of his successor – the coming year will certainly not be any easier than this one has been.