Analysis

Israel Needs a Speedy Return of Its Army’s Ailing Chief of Staff

Gadi Eisenkot is undergoing a medical procedure, but despite attacks on him from the right, he appears to enjoy Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman's trust.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, July 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot was hospitalized Thursday to undergo a medical procedure. Three days before, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced that in consultation with the prime minister he would extend Eisenkot’s appointment for an additional, fourth year. The government will vote on this at the end of the month. During Eisenkot’s absence, Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan takes over.

Though Lieberman’s decision comes relatively early – Eisenkot will have served only three years on February 14 – it’s not unexpected. Despite the attacks on the chief of staff from the right, it appears he enjoys the defense minister’s trust.

Eisenkot’s need for medical treatment was known only to a few people; the Israel Defense Forces spokesman announced the need for the procedure on Monday. People who met with Eisenkot for a long meeting the day before didn’t notice any change in him.

And since well before that, Eisenkot has taken care to maintain his usual busy schedule. On Monday he convened the top brass from the brigadier generals up for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the military college at Glilot. Later in the week he toured the 91st Division on the Lebanese border.

Lieberman and Eisenkot, despite clearly divergent opinions on many issues, are creating an atmosphere of substantive work and industrial quiet. So far Lieberman has been easygoing as far as the general staff is concerned. He doesn’t intervene much in operational decisions and the day-to-day management of the army; he leaves these to the chief of staff. If Eisenkot wants a specific method for a special action, or to appoint colonels and brigadier generals, Lieberman’s answer is always the same: You’re the chief of staff; you’re the one who’s supposed to know do as you see fit.

The Azaria angle

The main source of tension between the two in recent months has basically been political: the repercussions of the Elor Azaria affair. It’s no secret that Lieberman pressured the army to be lenient with the soldier who shot and killed an immobilized assailant in Hebron. This pressure increased after the verdict two weeks ago in which Sgt. Azaria was convicted of manslaughter, but thus far Eisenkot hasn't budged.

At the moment, all sides are awaiting the sentencing pleas Tuesday. Only after the sentence is handed down will it be clear where things are heading, whether to an appeal as Azaria and his lawyers are planning, to a commutation of the sentence by Central Command chief Roni Numa, or to a request for a pardon by the president.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman with generals, summer 2016.
GPO / Ariel Hermoni

The Azaria affair is also causing tension with the prime minister. At the meeting with Netanyahu at Glilot, air force chief Amir Eshel attacked the ministers. Eshel’s tone was apparently sharper and more direct than the lone sentence that has leaked from that meeting: Channel 10 reported that Eshel told Netanyahu that in the absence of backing, the IDF’s military independence was being harmed.

On the eve of taking up his post last May, Lieberman spoke out aggressively against Hamas and threatened to kill its leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh. Actually, Israel has pursued a completely different policy.

This week, when there was a need to ease Gaza’s severe electricity shortage, the army made possible the transfer of fuel shipments funded by Qatar. Lieberman, who in a lecture Wednesday attacked the Hamas leaders “who dine on meals with four Michelin stars in Qatar,” is a partner to Israel’s effort to stabilize Hamas’ control in Gaza. But this is a policy of limited duration. If there’s a further security escalation, Lieberman might revert to his demand to topple the Hamas regime once and for all.

Keeping the people’s faith

In this context, too, it’s no exaggeration to say Israel needs Eisenkot’s speedy return. There’s no reason to coddle the IDF or the chief of staff. The media is obligated to report on problems in the army, be they the serious neglect in the war reserves store units or the manpower crisis in certain combat units.

These issues require a public discussion, even if the chief of staff is concerned that such openness will harm the image of the IDF and accordingly, the public’s faith in it. Still, Eisenkot is essential now, in large part because of his temperament and experience.

On the left, Netanyahu has been accused many times of exaggerating security threats and taking unnecessary risks, all for his political needs. But actually, we have to distinguish between the prime minister’s rhetoric and his actions.

There hasn’t been any substance to the second accusation. Netanyahu was burned twice by security entanglements during his first term at the end of the 1990s the opening of the Western Wall Tunnel and the failed attempt to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in Amman. Since then, Netanyahu has mostly tried to keep his cool.

Regarding the Syrian civil war, he usually acts responsibly and cautiously. In the last round of fighting in Gaza – 2014’s Operation Protective Edge – he did all he could not to expand the war, and he didn’t take the risk of trying to topple Hamas. Even the Iranian nuclear affair, about which he was sharply attacked in the media, shows that on the bottom line he proceeds cautiously. He didn’t translate into military action his deep commitment to destroy the nuclear sites, about which he talked a lot in public.

Netanyahu didn’t do that because of the sweeping opposition from chiefs of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz and Mossad chiefs Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo – and also because he feared the political risk. The possibility that an Iran war could endanger his premiership apparently caused him to drop the idea.