Analysis

'Aerial and Intelligence Superiority': Army Chief Reveals How Israel Beat Iran's Soleimani in Syria

In series of interviews, Gadi Eisenkot talks about Iran's vision in Syria, a bungled special forces operation, and the outgoing army ombudsman's claim that the army is unprepared for war

Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot in the Knesset, January 2019.
Emil Salman

UPDATE: Netanyahu reveals Israel struck Iranian arms in Damascus over the weekend

As he nears the end of his term as chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot — who in the past almost always refused to grant interviews — has pulled out all the stops. In a series of interviews with the three main Israeli television channels (plus another with The New York Times), Eisenkot summed up his tenure on Saturday.

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There were no big surprises. But the accomplishments of his term, coupled with the media’s generally favorable view of him, allowed him to sum up in a very positive way.

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Meanwhile, in the background, life goes on. Another Israeli airstrike was reported in Syria, while in the Gaza Strip, Hamas released additional details about the activities of the Israeli special forces unit that ran into trouble in Khan Yunis in November. And since there are still two days to go before Eisenkot is formally replaced by Aviv Kochavi, there’s no guarantee that we’ve seen the last operational activity of his term.

Revolutionary Guards Gen. Qassem Soleimani attends a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran, Iran, September 18, 2016.
Office of the Iranian Supreme Le

The New York Times crowned Eisenkot as “the man who humbled” Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force. When asked in Hebrew why Soleimani was still alive, he answered simply, “It’s a question.” Did he advise the government to assassinate the Iranian general? Eisenkot refused to answer.

But in all the interviews, the battle against Iran — which is also a war of wits against Soleimani — was cited as the crowning achievement of his term. Following are a few key points that emerged from the interviews.

Iran in Syria

Israel, Eisenkot said, prevented Iran from implementing its “grandiose vision” in Syria. When Soleimani examines the balance sheet of the last two years, he knows the bottom line is a searing loss. “We struck thousands of targets without claiming responsibility or asking for credit,” Eisenkot declared.

In his view, Soleimani erred due to an excess of self-confidence generated by Iran’s success in saving the Assad regime during Syria’s civil war. He didn’t understand the aerial and intelligence superiority Israel enjoys when the battle takes place in Syria, so close to its own border. The Iranians chose the wrong playing field on which to confront the Israel Defense Forces, and got burned.

Relations with the government

Throughout these interviews, Eisenkot was indirectly settling accounts with former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Anyone who belittled the IDF’s operation against Hezbollah’s cross-border tunnels should have known better, he said, and anyone who compared senior IDF officers to the leadership of Peace Now is surely regretting it. Both those remarks were aimed squarely at Lieberman.

Eisenkot was open about his priorities. He considers the battle against Iran and Hezbollah more important than the battle against Hamas and said it’s not clear what Israel can achieve against the latter. “When you fight for many years against a weak enemy, it also weakens you,” he added.

In any case, Gaza isn’t just a military problem “that can be solved with a club. Anyone who says, ‘With a little more force, terrorism will disappear’ doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

He also vehemently rejected a criticism made by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who charged that “Soldiers are more afraid of the military advocate general than of Sinwar,” referring to Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar.

“No lawyer has ever restricted me as chief of staff,” Eisenkot said. “The responsibility ultimately rests with the commander, not the lawyer.”

The special forces operation in Khan Yunis. A team headed by Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon and including representatives of all the intelligence agencies is still investigating this operation, in which the force was discovered and an officer was killed. Eisekot admitted that what happened involved “mistakes, not a mishap,” adding, “We’re still figuring out where we went wrong, from me on down.”

Nevertheless, he insisted in all the interviews that the operation was essential for national security. “I’d approve it today as well,” he said.

The IDF’s public standing

On this issue, Eisenkot’s term was marked by two main challenges: the case of Elor Azaria, the soldier convicted of shooting dead an already incapacitated Palestinian assailant, and the criticisms voiced recently by outgoing army ombudsman Yitzhak Brik.

Eisenkot called Azaria “an example of an anti-hero, not a hero.” He also spoke of “an aggressive discourse on the political fringes” and urged that the army remain within the national consensus.

What’s interesting is that in all the interviews, the criticisms Eisenkot chose to rebut came from the right. Criticism from the left — about policing operations in the West Bank, or the hundreds of Palestinians killed by army snipers in demonstrations along the Gaza border — isn’t seen as worthy of a response from the chief of staff.

Regarding Brik’s claims that the army is unprepared for war, Eisenkot said the outgoing ombudsman “isn’t sufficiently knowledgeable” about the situation. And he took the gloves off over another of Brik’s claims, that the IDF has a culture of lying. “I reject this with repugnance,” he said. “I think Brik should apologize for it.”

The army and politics

In his interviews, Eisenkot defended his predecessor, Benny Gantz, who recently entered politics and is currently seen as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most dangerous challenger. Noting that he was Gantz’s deputy during the 2014 Gaza war, Eisenkot said, “He was where the chief of staff should be. I saw him from up close, and he performed excellently.”

This was a clear and necessary response to the blows below the belt landed recently by ministers Yoav Gallant and Miri Regev. It will surely serve Gantz in his response to the campaign Netanyahu’s Likud party is waging against him.

Does Eisenkot have any political plans of his own? He evaded a clear answer, saying merely that there’s “an excellent cooling-off law” that gives him four years to think about it — one year of demobilization leave plus a three-year cooling-off period before he can enter politics.

But the very fact that this question arose shows the media’s longing for a general. A few years ago, nobody would even have dreamed of asking whether Eisenkot intended to enter politics. That’s how far removed he seemed from politics in the past.