Analysis

Outgoing Israeli Army Chief Was Effective on All Fronts. Except One

Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot was consistently attacked, mostly from the right-wing ■ Despite Trump's contentious Syria comments, U.S. will continue to support Israel's actions against Iran

Gadi Eisenkot attends an event at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, June 2018
Tomer Appelbaum

Eleven days from now, Gadi Eisenkot will conclude his tenure as the Israeli army's chief of staff. It’s a time for farewells. Reporters, Knesset members, soldiers and ordinary citizens have been standing in line for pictures with him. Eisenkot, a very shy man by nature, accedes reluctantly to all the requests for selfies. It’s plain that he has mixed feelings.

On the one hand, he’s being showered with love and respect. But he’s also being kept busy giving lengthy explanations about the decisions he made during his tenure and how he arrived at them.

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Though Eisenkot can certainly point to many achievements as chief of staff, he can hardly be called a consensus figure. Those days are apparently gone forever. Over the past four years, he has been regularly attacked, mainly from the right wing of the political map. His designated successor, Aviv Kochavi, won’t have an easier time of it either.

These difficulties derive from the nature of the political discourse in Israel, which has grown much more extreme in recent years due to the influence of social media. But they also reflect the challenge of explaining military activity, much of which does not get media coverage and that aims to strike the right balance between covert action, deterrent threats and the use of firepower.

In various settings lately, Eisenkot has been speaking about how the average Israeli only sees the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the army's activity.

When 500 rockets and mortars were fired at southern Israel from Gaza in mid-November, what ordinary citizens heard from the media was that Israeli deterrence was dead. They weren't aware that the latest escalation began with an operation by a special Israeli army unit that ran into trouble deep in Hamas territory in the Gaza Strip. Nor was the average Israeli aware of the hundreds of air strikes and special operations carried out in recent years.

The outgoing chief of staff sees a drastic difference between the intelligence picture that he receives, which shows how the army's actions are deterring and putting pressure on the various organizations (from Hamas to Hezbollah), and the picture painted by the Israeli media and responses on social media. The news, he said, goes from zero to 100 in no time. Therefore last summer, the incendiary balloons launched over the border from Gaza nearly — and unjustifiably — turned into a pretext for war. The army expended great efforts to keep such a war from erupting.

In this political and media climate, it’s very easy for the public to be manipulated, and the manipulation can also come from Knesset members and cabinet ministers. And it’s practically impossible to put the genie back in the bottle once it has been let out.

The most recent wide-scale operation conducted by the army under Eisenkot’s command became public exactly a month ago. In Operation Northern Shield, five attack tunnels dug by Hezbollah under the Lebanese border into Israeli territory were uncovered. The search for other tunnels is still ongoing. As time has gone by, Eisenkot has become all the more convinced that it was the right decision to conduct this operation in the open, that Hezbollah has sustained extensive damage as a result.

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By destroying the tunnels, Israel has denied Hezbollah a key component of its plan to launch a surprise attack along the border. Had the plan come to fruition, which could have happened within just a few months, Hezbollah could have secretly sent hundreds, possibly thousands, of its fighters into Galilee communities.

The supreme test for the chief of staff was how he used firepower during his tenure — and in that regard, he should receive very high marks. At his urging, Israel adopted an aggressive and active stance against the smuggling of arms to Hezbollah via Syria and, in the past year and a half, against Iran’s attempts at military entrenchment in Syria as well. These are moves that have dealt a blow to the enemy’s capabilities and possibly also rendered the next war more distant.

In the West Bank, Eisenkot insisted on preserving the army's rules of engagement (and came in for unprecedented flak in the Elor Azaria case, in which a soldier was convicted of manslaughter for killing a subdued terrorist). The army chief of staff also prevented the cabinet from imposing broad collective punishment on the Palestinians in the wake of the wave of stabbing attacks in the fall of 2015.

Israeli Defense Forces chief-of-staff, Gadi Eisenkot
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

These are two moves that clearly helped to keep a third intifada from igniting. In Gaza, the relatively restrained approach that Eisenkot took was controversial, but he feels confident that he has better prepared the army for a possible war there and, for now at least, that he also prevented an unnecessary war.

All things considered, the attacks from the political right about the supposed weakness demonstrated by the army in the last few years appear completely groundless. The more relevant dispute has to do with how well the army has been able to build itself up.

How has it dealt with challenges such as decreasing motivation to volunteer for combat duty or in the face of young officers showing less inclination to sign up for career service or the dwindling ranks of the reserves, and what impact have sociological and economic factors (budget limitations) in the country at large had on the army’s readiness for war? This column has called attention to criticism regarding the army’s preparedness that has been voiced by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik, the army ombudsman. Eisenkot feels he can fully answer this criticism, and he will likely do so in the television interviews he gives next week just before he steps down.

Five fronts + 1

Eisenkot likes to refer to the challenges facing the Israel Defense Forces in various areas as 5 fronts + 1: Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza, ISIS (in southern Syria and Sinai), and at a greater distance — Iran. Kochavi, his successor, cannot know from the outset if and where there will be trouble once he takes over. But assuming that the operation to destroy the tunnels at the Lebanese border soon ends without significant interference from Hezbollah, then the organization’s “precision project” will remain the primary threat for the army to contend with in the coming year.

After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his United Nations speech in September, revealed the sites in Lebanon where the Iranians had begun to build precision weapon factories for Hezbollah, the factories were removed from there within days. The outgoing chief of staff remains firm in his view that Hezbollah currently has very few precision rockets and extremely limited capability to manufacture such rockets in Lebanon.

In other words, Eisenkot believes that, as of now, Israel’s efforts to thwart this project have been a success. In his speech at a conference sponsored this week by the Calcalist financial daily, the chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, hinted at the possibility of an escalation in connection with the weapons manufacturing plants: “Hezbollah could also make a mistake and respond without thinking to our actions in Lebanon or somewhere else. The difference between a response that leads to a broader action and one that doesn’t is just a matter of luck.”

The army and the intelligence community are continuing the effort to thwart arms smuggling and production. Ten days ago, there were reports of an Israeli air strike in the Damascus area. The Russians issued a condemnation, claiming that the action endangered civil aviation.

Israeli Defense Forces chief-of-staff, Gadi Eisenkot
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

But the wording of the condemnation was not as severe as it could have been. Evidently, Jerusalem and Moscow are groping towards establishing some new rules of the game in Syria. Israel wants to continue to block weapons smuggling while Russia wants to reduce to a minimum the risk to its personnel in Syria while simultaneously safeguarding the regime of President Bashar Assad. As soon as the Russians — who made their displeasure over the downing of their Ilyushin jet in September keenly known — calm down a little, it may be possible to find more areas of agreement. But this will require Israel to keep the number of air strikes down and to stay away from the areas where Russian interests lie, particularly northwestern Syria.

Last week, after the latest air strike, the U.S. State Department issued an unusual press statement entitled “Israel’s Right to Self-Defense.” The statement began: “The United States fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself against Iranian regional actions that endanger Israeli national security and the safety of the Israeli people.” 

Following its announcement of the withdrawal of American forces from Syria, in the past couple of weeks the Trump administration has been conveying the message that Israel will receive near-total backing for its continued activity against Iran and Hezbollah on the northern front. The administration is concerned by the intensity of the criticism from pro-Israel groups in Washington over the troop withdrawal and ever since the president’s announcement has been trying to highlight coordination with Israel and support for the operations of the Israel Defense Forces.

Although the air strike in Syria was not mentioned, the timing of the State Department message was not coincidental. The administration sought to project its total support for Israel’s moves against Iran. The White House was pleased to have the opportunity to demonstrate support for Israel, particularly in a week when the headlines were all about Trump’s plans to withdraw from Syria. In its press statement, the State Department also said: “Iranian support of and supply to terrorist groups in Syria and across the region that have the clear intent and capability to strike Israel are unacceptable. The United States fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself against the Iranian regime’s aggressive adventurism, and we will continue to ensure that Israel has the military capacity to do so decisively.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo relayed a similar message in his meeting with Netanyahu in Brazil, telling the prime minister that the withdrawal from Syria won’t dent America’s commitment to Israel’s security. Administration representatives said similar things in background talks with journalists and leaders of pro-Israel organizations.

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An official from one of these organizations told Haaretz this week: “It’s no coincidence that the intensity of the criticism of the administration has lowered a bit in the last few days.” And he added: “The White House made an effort to convince people that Israel will continue to receive significant backing, not only verbal, for the things it has to do in Syria to prevent the Iranians from entrenching there.”

Anger at Trump spiked after he remarked last week: “We give Israel $4.5 billion a year. Israel is going to be good.” Reacting to the comment, the official from the pro-Israel organization remarked: “This was a classic case of Trump saying something without thinking about what he’s saying, and then afterwards his advisers have to go explain what he said. Bottom line, the administration says that Israel is receiving and will continue to receive whatever it needs in order to cope with the Iranian threat.”

Next week, Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, will visit Israel as part of a regional trip that will include a stop in Turkey as well. In his meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and then with Netanyahu, Bolton is expected to present them with the revised timetable for the American withdrawal from Syria.

Netanyahu and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham have urged the administration not to withdraw all the forces immediately, but instead to spread the withdrawal out over several months. In one of his tweets this week, Trump hinted that he was willing to do it this way: “We’re slowly sending our troops back home.”

But then, after all the efforts by Trump’s aides and advisors to explain the president’s moves, what so often happens in Washington under this administration happened once again. At a televised cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Trump contradicted many of the explanations his underlings had labored to provide. About Syria, he said: “We’re not talking about vast wealth [and therefore it doesn’t greatly interest him]. We’re talking about sand and death.” The president then went on to say: “Iran is pulling people out of Syria. They can do what they want there, frankly.” He also would not spell out a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.