The Israeli Left Is Still Expecting the IDF to Produce Yet Another Political Savior?

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks during a conference in Tel Aviv, January 22, 2020.
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

What do we know about former army chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot? Very little. And what do those who tout him as a future political leader know? Even less. A half dozen articles or so have appeared in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz over the past week touting the former chief of staff. They described the despair and leadership vacuum in the opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the longing for a miracle solution more than what this new promise may hold.

It’s frighteningly similar to past expectations of army chiefs of staff who then proved a disappointment. It’s based much more on a wish than reality. When Prof. Uri Bar-Joseph and Raviv Drucker want Eisenkot, we have to ask why.

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Bar-Joseph is correct when he writes that army chiefs of staff aren’t simply cut from a mold. Drucker is right when he states that as a political brand, chiefs of staff have hit bottom. But neither one can ignore it that the only thing defining that public persona named Eisenkot is his status as a former chief of staff.

Was he a good one? Who knows? Almost all of the information about army brass comes via military reporters and commentators. There is no segment of Israeli journalism that is more of a failure and more disgraceful. With the exception of a few standouts, there is no connection between what they do and journalism.

They focus more on cosmetic aspects, spokespeople and cultivating ties with the establishment, recounting and trumpeting Israel’s heroic deeds to their audiences. As they see it, every military leader is a hero of Israel. In the absence of a particularly failed or acclaimed war, there is no way of knowing who is a good chief of staff.

On the other hand, there is a way of knowing that a career entirely in the army can’t help but shape one’s mindset. And such a mindset is limited, distorted and deficient. In most instances, it’s not appropriate for civilian leadership.

Being an army chief of staff means rising through the ranks of an organization that is not democratic, whose primary on-the-job tool is violence and whose funding is almost limitless. It means dedicating most of one’s years in the military to maintaining the occupation – which is tyrannical, violent and cruel by its nature, and also usually involves the commission of war crimes. There’s no other way. Decades of army service also mean a highly constricted point of view regarding the Arabs: They’re the enemy. And that’s also dangerous baggage to bring with you into civilian life.

In making such a transition, it is possible of course to offer a surprise and to change. Matti Peled was as highly lauded a general in the staff headquarters as they come, and then he became a peace activist. Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and several others underwent a change to some extent after leaving the army, but they were in the minority. When people grow up in such a formative, inflexible and brainwashing environment – in which security is ritualized and power worshipped, and with all its ceremonies and symbols and juvenile uniforms – it’s hard to expect that they will be freed of their constraints and embrace freedom of thought.

Most discouraging is that despite all the disappointments and failures from Yigal Yadin to Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, the center-right political camp has learned nothing and has forgotten nothing, and continues to dream about those sweethearts of one’s youth as the only hope for change. Its reservoir of dreams is still in uniform. How depressing.

So far there isn’t a lot of evidence that Eisenkot is different. He’s affable, fair-minded, popular and admired. His career included support for the Dahiya Doctrine of disproportionate force and the criminal use of live fire on unarmed demonstrators near the Gaza border fence – one of the three war crimes that the International Criminal Court in the Hague is currently deliberating.

But it also included positive breakthroughs, and Drucker and Bar-Joseph rightly highlight them. Eisenkot put a halt to greater bloodshed in his response to the knifing intifada that erupted in 2015 – an uprising by dozens of young Palestinians, some of whom sought to die for personal reasons. Eisenkot had the guts to condemn Elor Azaria, who killed a Palestinian assailant who had already been subdued by other soldiers.

Eisenkot also said he didn’t want soldiers “To empty their ammunition clip on a girl with scissors.” That would be obvious in any well-run country, but in morally blind Israel, it became a courageous, resounding motto, almost like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.” Bar-Joseph even dubbed it a “scale of values.”

That’s how it looks when the system isn’t working right – the left-wing dreams about Eisenkot.

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