Despite Faults, Iran Nuclear Deal Works, Israeli Military Chief Tells Haaretz

The entire Middle-East is a tinderbox, says Gadi Eiskenkot, especially the Palestinians. 'We are going to face big challenges' during Israel's 70th independence day celebrations

Israeli Defense Forces chief-of-staff, Gadi Eisenkot
Yuval Shmueli/IDF Spokesperson

In the midst of the interview with Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, at his office on a quiet Friday morning in Tel Aviv, loud drilling sounds were heard suddenly, from a lower floor. “Sometimes I feel as if I’m constantly being followed around by someone with a drill,” he jokes. “Almost every discussion seems to be accompanied by that noise.”

Nine months before completing his assignment, Eisenkot is on his first round of interviews with print journalists. He seems to enjoy it about as much as having a wisdom tooth removed, but nevertheless he replies expansively and with relative openness to a long series of questions. The risk of a military escalation, particularly on the Palestinian front, is his chief concern, but there are other issues on his mind as well: above all, the need to guarantee that the army remains an army of the people, followed by addressing the military’s personnel crisis and protecting it from the claws of the politicians. Eisenkot has some choice words for the political figures who are consistently critical of him and the military.

When asked which problems keep him awake at night, Eisenkot uses a clock metaphor to describe the urgency of the different issues: “The Palestinians are the second hand, Lebanon and Syria are the minute hand and Iran is the hour hand,” he says.

Israel does not see indications that any of its neighbors intends to launch a war, Eisenkot says. It is, however, worried that an accumulation of events – Iran’s move to establish itself in Syria, the confidence that Hezbollah gained in the war there and its efforts to obtain guided-missile technology, as well as the uncertainty in the Palestinian sphere – will lead to unplanned escalation. That in turn could lead the various forces to unite.

That said, Israel is in a position of greater strategic advantage now than in all its 70 years, which gives it unprecedented strength — “and our enemies understand that,” Eisenkot says.

The entire Middle East is a tinderbox, but the Palestinians most of all, he says.

Their situation, already complex, will become more so in the months to come, Eisenkot says – because of Land Day (Friday), Israel’s Independence Day (April 19), Nakba Day (May 15), the pending move of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the winding down of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ era, the moribund peace process, and the fact that Hamas is in crisis in Gaza.

“We are going to face big challenges in the context of the 70th Independence Day celebrations,” he predicts.

The first challenge is expected this very Friday: Land Day, for which the Palestinians planned mass marches near the Gaza Strip fence. Eisenkot ordered Israeli forces by the Strip’s border to be beefed up, complete with snipers and crowd-control means, to thwart any attempt by the marchers to cross into Israel.

The chief of staff describes Gazan economic and civic conditions as extremely harsh, but claims it falls short of a humanitarian crisis.

“There are problems with the electricity and water supply, problems of basic subsistence that have caused extreme tensions in the Strip,” he says. Hamas has encountered difficulty keeping order and has been relaxing its restraint of radical Salafi organizations; it has also been watching in frustration as the IDF destroy its “attack tunnels.”

But the chief of staff distinguished between these moves and long-term projects, which he believes can be discussed only after the Palestinians return two Israeli soldiers’ bodies as well as Israeli civilians held in the Strip. He also recommends that Hamas curb their expectations regarding future prisoner swaps. “They can dream on,” he says, maintaining that Israel won’t do another deal like it did with Gilad Shalit, freeing over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011 to bring him home. At best, Eisenkot says, there could be deals like the one after the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when dozens of bodies and a few Lebanese prisoners were exchanged for the remains of two Israeli soldiers.

What Iran really wants

Compared with the saber-rattling rhetoric emanating from both Jerusalem and Washington on the Iranian nuclear deal, Eisenkot is cautious, noting that no violations of the agreement by the Iranians “can be seen at present, but we assume that Iran can operate secretly. Therefore, keeping watch on developments there is the No. 1 mission for both the IDF and intelligence agencies. We are investing vast resources in obtaining the best intelligence about Iran and its operational ability,” he says. “If its intentions change, we will know. Right now the agreement, with all its faults, is working and is putting off realization of the Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years.”

One issue not addressed by the agreement is the Iranian missile project, he says, which is alarming Europe and the Gulf nations as well. “I observe more international will to handle the Iranian missile threat than to reopen the nuclear agreement,” says the chief of staff.

“Regarding Iran, the window of strategic opportunity is still open in our favor. If the Americans decide to withdraw from the agreement on May 12, we will have to rethink our strategic risk management.”

The missile threat: People don’t get it

Much of Eisenkot’s stint has been devoted to consolidating a multi-year plan called “Gideon,” the aim being to make the Israel Defense Forces better prepared for the next war.

Eisenkot claims that with its combined upgraded abilities – in intelligence, in the air and on the ground and sea – the IDF will be able to win a war with Hezbollah that spreads to the Syrian front. He is confident the IDF will be able to quickly call up its reserves, even under a whole new level of fire from Hezbollah at the bases and warehouses.

“The IDF’s abilities today cannot even be compared to 2006 in attacking targets, antiballistic defense and intelligence,” he says. “But I do not see victory without ground maneuvers. That’s a central part of the solution.”

He admits that the public doesn’t realize how bad the threat of rockets from the north is, but he also doesn’t believe they should constantly be terrorized with new homefront-at-war scenarios. “We will have to deal with a state of emergency, but just for some weeks,” he says. The situation of the home front is going to be a lot worse than during the Second Lebanon War, he says: “The enemy has identified our weak point as the home front.” And that is where it will aim most of its firepower.

A particularly bad day

The worst incident during Eisenkot’s term as chief of staff came on February 10, when an Iranian drone was downed over Israeli territory and an Israeli F-16 fighter jet was shot down, falling also on Israeli territory, in the north. In retaliation, the Israeli air force bombed Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria.

Eisenkot, however, rejects the popular interpretation in the press that Israel had teetered on the brink of war that day.

Deterrence has been working on the Israel-Syrian border for 44 years, he observes. “Even after seven years of chaos in Syria, the Golan Heights is all in all a quiet front. Israel’s strategy there is the right one: no direct military involvement, civilian aid to people living in the villages by the border (on the other side), defining ISIS as the enemy and honoring past agreements with the Syrian army.”

The F-16 shouldn’t have been hit, Eisenkot said, but added that over time, the balance between the sides is in Israel’s favor.

He believes Syria’s recent aggressive tone arises because Assad’s regime has been prevailing in the civil war, and due to the Iranian effort to deepen its military presence in Syria as part of its long-term strategy. The Iranians knew Syria was moving into a new stage and wanted to demonstrate its capabilities in the air, on the sea and in intelligence. Meanwhile, Hezbollah is maturing militarily : It’s been working on obtaining more accurate guided missiles and better aerial defense, the chief of staff says.

However, Israel has been thwarting these efforts, he notes, and for now Hezbollah’s accuracy isn’t up to the mark. “We won’t let them obtain advanced weapons,” he asserts.

Eisenkot does admit to a correlation between the many air raids on Hezbollah arms convoys in Syria and the improvement in Syrian aerial defenses. Both sides have been escalating, Eisenkot says. “The punishment we dealt out became heavier. They realized they were getting slammed, that there is an operation against them, and began to take action against us.”

Only about 1 percent of Israel’s attacks get reported in the press, Eisenkot noted.

In terms of magnitude, the Iranian-Shi’ite presence in Syria remains limited, and hasn’t changed in recent years. Eisenkot estimates that there are about 2,000 advisers and fighters, about 7,500 Hezbollah people, and about 9,000 militias from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan in Syria taking orders from Tehran.

Did Israel make unnecessary trouble for itself with its statements about red lines in Syria? Eisenkot doesn’t think so. “Ultimately it would be best for all Iranian-Shi'ite forces to leave Syria, including Hezbollah and the militias,” he says. “We will not allow them to approach the borders. I don’t boast about it, but we routinely, intensively take action to stymie the transfer of resources to Lebanon, and to foil the establishment [of Iranian or pro-Iranian] forces in the strip we defined along the Syrian border.” He declines to cite the geographical line Israel drew.

Restraining influence on politicians

Eisenkot’s term, says a senior officer who served under him and who for different reasons is not among his admirers, will be remembered mainly for his restraining influence, with which he prevented the percolating of dangerous ideas from the political arena into military echelons. “With regard to the use of force and to moral issues, he demonstrated a steadfastness that enabled the country to enjoy stability in these frenzied times. It’s hard to imagine his successor, whoever that may be, demonstrating the same kind of fortitude.”

This comment, similar to others made by many people in the defense and political establishments, refers to specific debates such as a demand by cabinet members to enact collective punishment in the West Bank following severe terror attacks. In this matter Eisenkot and other generals blocked the tendency of politicians to respond to cries for revenge heard in the street or on social networks. On the weightier decisions, such as the air strikes in the north and, earlier (under chief of staff Benny Gantz), in setting goals during the last round of fighting in Gaza, Netanyahu’s approach is very close to the army’s positions.

This is why Eisenkot lends no support to conspiracy theories recently heard on the left, which warn of a possible initiation of a war to deflect attention from Netanyahu’s criminal investigations. In a recent conversation, Eisenkot said there is no chance he would lend a hand to such a venture. In the interview with Haaretz, he says the considerations brought up in cabinet meetings are “responsible and pertinent. The politicians largely rely on the way in which we define the situation and on our recommendations for action. There is an ongoing dialogue between us. From where I stand I see the prime minister, the defense minister and the cabinet taking a thorough approach that addresses the interests of Israel’s security. I don’t see any conspiracies.”

This is not the spirit he encounters outside cabinet sessions. Two years ago a soldier was stabbed to death in a terror attack, a day after Eisenkot gave a speech labeled “the scissors speech,” in which he said that soldiers standing behind a secure barrier do not have to empty an ammunition magazine at a girl armed with a knife or scissors. In response, Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz posted on Facebook his hope that the soldier’s murderers had not drawn inspiration from the chief of staff’s speech.

Eisenkot dismisses these words and other attacks on him as rhetoric for public consumption. “I make a distinction between what ministers say on the outside and discussions in closed rooms. On the outside they say what they say, each one according to his needs. I don’t want to relate to that. When they enter the room and we explain the situation and possible modes of operation I repeatedly note that their approach is professional and to the point.”

Even more than his predecessor Gantz, Eisenkot has found himself caught up in culture wars and struggles for influence waged by different camps in Israeli society on their favorite playing ground, the territory of the IDF. Early in Gantz’s term there was a blow-up over the version of the memorial Yizkor prayer, first reported in Haaretz. Eisenkot insisted on taking the Jewish Education branch out of the jurisdiction of the Military Rabbinate, placing it under the Manpower Directorate. He reformulated the regulations guiding service by males and females, and got himself into an unnecessary argument with senior figures in the Zionist religious world due to a blanket enforcement of the prohibition on growing beards in the conscript army. These disputes, which should normally occupy only a fraction of a chief of staff’s valuable time, took up much of his time and placed him on a collision course with the religious right.

Over the last year it seems the chief of staff has found himself alone on this front, causing him to make a tactical withdrawal to reduce frictions. This didn’t really help him. Rabbis and politicians, journalists and tweeters persistently assail him and the IDF. Arguments from different circles are part of the mix, including the approach to Elor Azaria, the soldier who killed an incapacitated Palestinian assailant in Hebron; the expansion of female service to include combat roles; groundless feelings of discrimination regarding the promotion of religious officers and even the baseless claim that outstanding commanders had been the subject of criminal accusations because they were part of the Zionist religious camp. Tactical mishaps such as the armed infiltration from Gaza in recent days have also been met with charges that the army is showing weakness and that it is hiding the truth about its performance from the public.

When Eisenkot is asked about these, he quotes an article written by Haaretz’s late military correspondent Zeev Schiff in 1995. Schiff wrote that the IDF had been knocked off its perch at the center of the consensus in Israeli society and that the right wing, whose ideology had always favored the army and sanctified security, was now attacking the army as a failing one that was unprepared for war.

“Then too people claimed the army was feeble, not sufficiently reactive. Schiff foresaw the future, warning that this attitude was a process containing within it a time tomb. This is more or less what we are witnessing now. He saw this clearly. I have gained experience in this area for 20 years, ever since I became the prime minister’s military secretary (first with Ehud Barak, later with Ariel Sharon) in 1999. In those years you could hear the same words by the same people. These are the people who now assail us over events such as the company commander who didn’t react when attacked by the teenage girl Ahed Tamimi – these are people trying to promote an agenda. They don’t really care about the IDF’s image or about Israel’s security. This is a very serious phenomenon. I can only express my regret that these statements were made. This is an attempt to delegitimize the army. They want a different kind of army than the one I envisage, which is a state-oriented one, professional and with well-defined goals. That’s what it should remain. When it is no longer that, we can start talking of an existential threat.”

On the backdrop of the dispute regarding female conscripts, Safed’s municipal rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu accused Eisenkot of causing a drop in the motivation [of men] to serve in combat units, and called for Eisenkot’s dismissal. “Some of these sayings stem from – I won’t use the term ignorance – not knowing the facts,” responds Eisenkot. “People make foolish pronouncements and I’m sure they regret them later. The mixed service of men and women has been around since the army was established. Our approach to this is practical, with the purpose of making the army stronger. There is not a single case in which we forced an Orthodox male conscript to serve in a mixed combat unit. As far as I’m concerned, any dialogue with Zionist religious rabbis over mixed-gender service is over. We’re done with addressing it. I will not hold any more meetings on this topic.”

Eisenkot notes a “deep frustration” among the people attacking him, “stemming from a revolution taking place in their camp, not with me, concerning what they hold dearest. Excellent young people are coming up there, knowing how to choose what’s best for them, knowing that they are respected by the IDF, which allows them to maintain their religious lifestyle while in service. Religious females enlist since they are searching for a meaningful mission and the army knows how to provide them with suitable conditions during their service.”

While Eisenkot’s predecessors are already deeply engaged in the political fracas or spending their time endlessly deliberating whether to jump in, Eisenkot shows no signs of interest in that direction. In any case, a year’s leave still awaits him, as well as three more years of a cooling-off period, according to a law passed by the Netanyahu government.

His term will not be extended for a fifth year, even though a trial balloon on this issue was launched in the media recently. “Come next January 1 to the General Staff parade ground and see me handing over the baton,” he says. “There are excellent candidates for replacing me. My role is to bring forward several of them. Two have served as deputy chiefs of staff (Yair Golan and his replacement Aviv Kochavi). Personally, I won’t recommend anyone. That is the politicians’ job.”