Analysis |

The Army Chief Who Didn’t Shy Away From Political Crises Enters the Battlefield

Gadi Eisenkot's name on the ballot might not tip the scale in favor of the 'anti-Netanyahu' bloc, but he brings experience and talent to the table

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Gadi Eisenkot and Netanyahu in 2019.
Gadi Eisenkot and Netanyahu in 2019.Credit: Haim Tzach/ GPO
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The belated decision by former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Gadi Eisenkot, to jump into the political waters, is good news. It is doubtful that Eisenkot by himself can tip the scales in favor of the camp opposed to Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming election, or even to shift many votes within the camp from Yesh Atid to Kahol Lavan-New Hope (now renamed the National Unity party). But there is value in the fact that an experienced, talented and well-meaning person like him decides to go into politics. And he does it knowing that it will cost him in mudslinging, and with no assurances that the whole affair won’t end in grief, for him and his new partners.

Eisenkot has a long record in public service, during which he closely observed the work of the country’s leaders (as military secretary to two prime ministers, Ehud Barak and his successor, Ariel Sharon.) Then he took part himself in making important decisions, as head of the IDF’s Northern Command, deputy chief of staff, and chief of staff.

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Those who have met him throughout his many years in uniform could not help but be impressed by his serious demeanor, in-depth thinking and national-interest-minded approach that guided all his moves. Unlike some of the generals who have joined politics in the past, not only did he deliberate and hesitate (for too long, perhaps), but he consciously decided against leading a party, preferring a more secondary role from which to learn the political field.

The expected electoral implications are better analyzed by the political pundits. We may assume that absent dazzling charisma, the former IDF chief is not expected to sweep up multitudes of followers. His deliberations between three options – joining Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, or staying out of the game – continued until Saturday. The final decision had to do with the offers of the two parties regarding the impact Eisenkot would have by bringing people with him into the respective parties’ Knesset list. The fact that Lapid rules alone in his party may also have deterred Eisenkot.

And there were apparently other considerations: His difficulty in charting Lapid’s path to forming a coalition after the election, and the fact that in the end, in joining his former commander Gantz, Eisenkot isn’t straying far from his comfort zone. Although Eisenkot is aware of the danger Netanyahu poses to the justice system, and in fact to the democratic system in Israel, he is less outspoken on the matter than Lapid or Gideon Sa’ar. Like Gantz, it seems that the matter burns less in his heart. His personal relationship with Netanyahu has thus far been civil and even good.

If there is a puzzling point, it has to do with Gantz’s in-laws on the right, Sa’ar and Zeev Elkin. Sa’ar has already courted Eisenkot politically before, and the latter has refrained from joining him due to, among other things, disagreements on the Palestinian question. Although Eisenkot is not optimistic regarding the chances of reaching a permanent diplomatic solution in the foreseeable future, he is very concerned about events in the territories and believes that Israel must take steps to strengthen the Palestinian Authority. These are steps that are hard to take, with the party tethered hard to the right by Sa’ar and Elkin.

Eisenkot is considered one of the best chiefs of staff to command the IDF in recent decades. There is no doubt whatsoever that he treated his position and responsibility with great reverence. He dealt a great deal with maintaining the military’s non-partisan status, the boundaries of which he outlined based on an intensive reading of David Ben Gurion’s writings. Eisenkot didn’t fear political crises. At times, he seemed to relish them. It was noticeable during the wave of stabbing attacks in 2015 and 2016, when as chief of staff he forced the right-wing government to take a relatively restrained approach, prevented collective punishment in the West Bank and strictly enforced the rules of engagement upon his troops.

The main incident his term will be remembered for is the trial of Elor Azaria, the soldier from the Kfir Brigade who shot a wounded terrorist to death in Hebron. The then-chief of staff insisted on having the soldier court-martialed, drilled the need to maintain moral standards into his staff – and in return was met with immense volumes of invective from far-right activists (and much criticism from Likud MKs.) Toward the end of Eisenkot’s term, in November 2018, when Netanyahu deliberated whether to approve a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip, after the fiasco of the special forces’ operation in Khan Yunis, the army chief insisted on presenting a different position. Although then-defense minister Avigdor Lieberman pushed for military action in Gaza, Eisenkot believed that it was more important to destroy six offensive Hezbollah tunnels under the Lebanon border, the discovery of which the IDF was keeping secret. Netanyahu accepted Eisenkot’s position and the operation was conducted about a month before his term ended.

There were also mishaps and errors over the years. His part in the Second Lebanon War, as head of the IDF operations branch, under Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, has never been fully explored. At the end of his own term as chief of staff, he failed to accept the harsh criticism of General (ret.) Yitzhak Brick regarding the IDF’s readiness for war and its organizational culture. Instead of embracing Brick’s recommendations and recognizing the validity of some of his critiques, the two generals became enmeshed in a loud and turbulent war, the ripples of which are felt to this day.

And there was, in 2010, the Harpaz document affair as well. Eisenkot and his coterie fell for the fake document kept in the office of then-Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi (detailing false plans among then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s camp to launch a mudslinging campaign against Askhenazi).

A police investigation ensued, and the counterfeiter was identified as Lt. Col. Boaz Harpaz, a reserve officer and associate of Ashkenazi. Some of his friends were also involved in the leaking of the document to Channel 2 News. When initially summoned to give a police statement, he squirmed a bit, in a needless attempt not to get those around him in trouble.

His conduct in the affair merits no medals, but the State’s Comptroller’s staff (and even the affair’s main victim Ehud Barak) did not believe that this was enough to hamper his eventual advancement to the position of chief of staff. All this will likely not stop a renewed frenzy against him from the right, with much regurgitation of old stories. The loyal viewers of Channel 13 News, especially the weekend broadcasts, had best prepare for the onslaught.

Over the past two years, Eisenkot has been wont to tell those around him that his predecessors in the IDF’s command tower in the Kirya – Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi, Dan Halutz and Moshe Ya’alon (the latter three having meanwhile retired from politics) – have “erased the value” of the chief of staff’s stock, meaning the public standing of the position. It remains to be seen how he himself fares in a battlefield so different than anything he has experienced before.

And on the other hand, it is Benny Gantz who is proving to be a better politician than he is usually given credit for. Adding Eisenkot to his list, contrary to many early estimates, is a big feather in his cap. Soon he will turn to another challenge – completing the process of appointing the next chief of staff.

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