Netanyahu Didn't Launch Broadside Against IDF Chief, but It's Nice When Someone Takes the Heat

The prime minister sure took his time before putting an end to the attacks on the IDF chief, who merely stated the obvious: soldiers' response to terror attacks must be proportionate and accurate.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot with Defense Minister Ya'alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Gadi Yampel / IDF Spokesperson

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot has found himself in a political storm after publically clarifying the rules of engagement against the wave of stabbing attacks. Since Eisenkot said Wednesday he didn’t want soldiers “to empty a magazine on a girl with scissors,” he has been attacked by ministers and legislatures from ruling parties Likud and Habayit Hayehudi.

But he has been backed by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, members of those two parties. Eisenkot has also received a tight hug from the opposition, and ultimately, two and a half days late, a declaration of support from the prime minister, who described the entire debate as “pointless.”

Eisenkot, as Benjamin Netanyahu noted Sunday at the beginning of the cabinet meeting, said the obvious: Soldiers or police required to end an attack have great power in their hands. Their response to danger, usually a split-second decision, must be proportionate and accurate. If the person facing security forces is a young Palestinian with scissors, sometimes shooting isn’t even necessary.

It’s not just a moral question, and from Eisenkot’s point of view, it’s largely professional: The soldier must remove the threat. The moment the attacker can no longer endanger civilians or soldiers, his death serves no purpose, certainly not when he or she is a young person.

The IDF and Shin Bet security service agree that more funerals encourage more “martyrs.” An analysis of the attackers’ motives shows that revenge is a main consideration. Many decide to act after a friend or relative is killed while carrying out an attack. Footage showing massive shooting at an attacker lying on the ground only fans the flames.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and other ministers have made a raft of statements on the need to kill terrorists during an attack, but Eisenkot and Ya’alon have been more restrained.

This doesn’t necessarily mean soldiers are more careful than the police. The difference is probably that more incidents involving police are documented quickly because most occur in Jerusalem. When someone attacks a soldier at the entrance to a West Bank village, there’s less of a chance cameras are nearby.

It seems much of the fiery debate over Eisenkot’s remarks stems from a lack of knowledge, or worse, is political. Since October, Eisenkot has visited the West Bank at least once a week; much of his time is devoted to clarifying to officers the policy on the use of force and the rules of engagement.

There’s a good reason for this. Eisenkot is aware of the pressure on commanders (from politicians, journalists and websites) to apply a firmer hand. He’s also aware of the potential fallout from untrammeled shooting, and of cases in which soldiers have deviated from orders.

In a handful of incidents, IDF commanders have even admitted to the excessive use of force, so the claim that there has been gratuitous shooting is absurd self-righteousness.

Some of the remarks voiced in Eisenkot's defense have missed the mark as well. MK Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid party, claimed that "an assault on the IDF chief is like an assault on the IDF." There is no reason to attach a holy status to the IDF; on the contrary, reasons to criticize the military are plenty. The problem lies in the attempt to draw a link between Eisenkot's statement and the results of terror attacks, as can be inferred from a statement released by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz. The minister hinted that civilians who shot at two 14-year-old knife-wielding Palestinians in a West Bank supermarket last week hesitated due to Eisekot's remarks. This assault is below the belt.

After Netanyahu's declaration on Sunday morning that criticism of Eisenkot stemmed from misunderstanding or attempts at political bashing, both of which he disapproved of, Eisenkot delivered a security briefing. Among those who heard him were those who assaulted him, argued with him and defended him. It can be assumed that the broadside directed at him wasn't launched by the prime minister or even coordinated with him. But Netanyahu certainly took the time before deciding to put an end to it. Eisenkot doesn't pose an immediate political threat to Netanyahu (he still has three years before he completes his term, which will be followed by a three-year cooling off period, and he has never expressed interest in a political career). And yet, after five months of terror attacks on Israel's streets, it's nice to have someone else take the heat for the state's failure to put an end to the intifada that has yet to be named as such.