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Leaks, Lies, and Right-wing Slander: Why Israel's Army Chief Is Happy to Be Going Home

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot give a press conference, Tel Aviv, December 4, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot give a press conference, Tel Aviv, December 4, 2018.Credit: AFP

With Tuesday's dramatic announcement that the Lebanese Hezbollah militia had dug tunnels under Israel's northern border frontier, the public stage of the tunnel-search operation began. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arranged a press conference, timed as usual to coincide with the top of the evening television news broadcasts. Not for the first time, Israeli army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who was at the prime minister's side, looked like he would rather be anywhere else.

Eisenkot sat there, as usual, in his everyday uniform rather than dress uniform attire. His entire body language screamed “Help!” When it was his turn to speak, he sounded like a prisoner reciting a message drafted by his captors. He would probably have found root canal work more enjoyable.

This is not the way the chief of staff comes across in closed meetings far from the public view, however. In the past year, cabinet ministers say, he has to a large degree been the one advancing the Israeli line of action, in both the north and south. He was the one who pushed for the offensive approach to stop Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria and then to neutralize the tunnel threat from Lebanon. He was also the one who pushed for a more restrained approach in Gaza, a stance that led him to clash vocally with certain cabinet ministers.

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Netanyahu felt the same way, but often kept himself at a safe distance behind the chief of staff. The prime minister’s frequent public statements this week regarding the tunnels in the north were notable compared to his silence just a few weeks ago in the course of the escalation in the south, when a massive barrage of rockets was launched into Israel from Gaza.

The prime minister’s current need for publicly demonstrated support from the army sometimes leads to a problematic blurring of boundaries. This was striking at the press conference, where senior officers were effectively serving as extras in footage that is sure to find its way into Likud election campaign material before long. And it was even starker when Netanyahu forced Eisenkot and Southern Command chief Herzl Halevi to participate in a politically charged meeting with the heads of the local authorities in the Negev last month.

The sensitivity of things will only increase as the tension grows over decisions that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has to take on whether to indict Netanyahu. If another military escalation occurs in the meantime, the prime minister’s political rivals will question whether his judgment is being affected by his legal predicament. Public skepticism will also increase as a result. This is a critical question in a country where the draft is still mandatory and where the civilian home front is likely to be harmed in any wartime scenario.

That too would be nothing new: In 2006, after the Second Lebanon War, Aluf Benn reported in Haaretz about a consultation that then-Prime Minister Ehud Omert held before deciding on the failed ground operation in the final 60 hours of the war. The man who arranged the meeting and also took part in it was none other than Olmert’s opinion polling consultant, although the parties involved denied that any political issues were discussed.

Bad blood

Eisenkot has recently been in the habit of starting meetings by noting how much time he has left in his tenure. In less than six weeks, he’ll be on route to being a free and happy man again. This is something he learned from one of his predecessors, Gabi Ashkenazi, who would count down what remained of his “sentence” with more than a year left to go as army chief of staff.

The outgoing chief of staff does not hide how weary he has become of the politicians. It wasn’t just the press conference that was forced upon him this week.

Eisenkot is disturbed by the false leaks from cabinet meetings, by the attacks on the military advocate general, by the growing tendency of the political right wing to portray the army as weak and defeatist, and by the possibility that all this will erode public trust in the army (despite latest annual Israel Democracy Institute survey indicating stability in this regard).

As his term draws to a close, he still awaits the report of the committee he convened to review issues raised by the army's ombudsman, Yitzhak Brik, on army preparedness.

Meanwhile, the bad blood that accumulated between Eisenkot and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned last month, is plainly showing now that there is no longer a need to feign mutual affection. This week Lieberman took off the gloves in an almost public manner. And Eisenkot, in private, speaks about the former defense minister in a way that recalls Ashkenazi’s relations with Ehud Barak.

The media were filled this week with Lieberman’s complaints about the chief of staff’s refusal to embark on a ground incursion in Gaza last month. And the public only heard the softened version. In conversation with the former defense minister, some people heard him say that the army was “impotent” in Gaza and that the “pathetic” operation in the north was designed to erase the bad impression left by the critical series of letters written by Brik and reported in Haaretz. But at the time, when Brik had been yearning for support from Lieberman, the defense minister declined to get involved. After some hesitation, he actually declared that the army was readier for war than it had been since 1967.

In recent months, the army's general staff has felt that Lieberman was acting like an internal opposition, losing his patience with the officers and frustrated by the alliance between Eisenkot and Netanyahu. In an interview during the summer with the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Lieberman complained that “too many lawyers” were sitting in on meetings. At one meeting where the necessity of a Gaza operation was debated, Lieberman is said to have told the astounded officers that sometimes he felt like he was talking there to leaders of the left-wing Peace Now movement.

In response, Lieberman’s office told Haaretz: “The outgoing defense minister has never commented upon and will never comment on closed military discussions or on rumors and gossip.”

Lieberman was justly proud that he managed to keep the appointment process for the next army chief of staff from descending into a confrontation among the various candidates, as happened in the Harpaz affair, the 2011 affair over the selection of the subsequent chief of staff. But unfortunately for him, the success was not complete. The dirt just came out at higher levels, as a result of his disagreement with the prime minister.

The quietest candidate

Members of the general staff say that Maj.Gen. Nitzan Alon, the quietest and most modest of the candidates to succeed Eisenkot, spent several weeks believing he had a promise from Lieberman that he would be the next chief of staff. But Lieberman was not able to make this happen due to Netanyahu’s opposition. He was compelled to shift his support to Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi. Then, too, Lieberman resorted to a ploy — making an announcement of the nomination while Netanyahu was away (on a secret visit) in Oman.

In the wake of all the current upheaval in the appointment process for a new chief of the Israel Police, Alon’s name has even been mentioned as a possible candidate for the post. But when the time comes to appoint new heads of the Mossad espionage agency and the Shin Bet security service, he is likely to be viewed as a serious candidate.

All of the candidates emerged from the appointment process for the next army chief of staff with some hard feelings. Alon had been given a promise that evaporated. Kochavi, who had been pegged as future chief of staff material from around the time he was 30, ended up being perceived as a choice of last resort, who neither the prime minister nor the defense minister wanted as their first choice.

Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir was assigned to the position of deputy chief of staff only after Netanyahu’s intervention and Lieberman’s resignation. (Lieberman had not backed the appointment). And the fourth candidate, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, was essentially out of the running two and a half years ago, after his controversial Holocaust Remembrance Day speech and the public hazing that the right had subjected him to ever since.

It’s no wonder that Eisenkot is wrapping up his tenure with displeasure over the conduct of politicians, and that Kochavi will be starting his term as army chief of staff in a less celebratory mood than should have been the case (and without getting the longer period to break himself into the job that he had wanted). But the situation also presents a certain advantage. Like Benny Gantz and Eisenkot before him — chiefs of staff who were also only appointed to the position after the prime minister had exhausted all of the other possibilities — Kochavi doesn’t owe anyone anything. This could be a useful point of departure for him, if he chooses to adopt it.

Despite everything going on behind the scenes, interestingly, Lieberman refrained this week from directly criticizing Netanyahu. And when he resigned last month, he did not make his criticism about the government’s policy in Gaza personal. When you consider that Netanyahu chose to keep Sharon Shalom, Lieberman’s chief of staff and loyal confidant, in place at the Defense Ministry, perhaps it indicates that the parting of ways between Netanyahu and Lieberman is only temporary.

Since there was no army operation in Gaza last month, Lieberman had to resign from the government and outflank it on the right to survive the next Knesset elections. But after the elections, Netanyahu may not be able to find a more comfortable partner than Lieberman at the Defense Ministry. And that's not just because he is not keen to give Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett the job.

The prime minister’s chief concern is his political survival in the face of the looming threat of criminal indictments. Since Lieberman, like the ultra-Orthodox parties, doesn't think it necessary that the prime minister resign if and when he is indicted, it’s quite possible that Netanyahu will ultimately choose to reward him once again with the defense portfolio. In other words, it may be premature for the army to be badmouthing Lieberman.

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