IDF Chief of Staff: The Government's Caregiver

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IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, August 10, 2014.Credit: Moti Milrod

The Israel Defense Forces chief of staff is the government’s caregiver. He must provide the government with care and help it to walk, even when it does not know where it wants to go and it has lost the desire or the ability to decide on a destination. It is like a person with iron discipline who smokes like a chimney and eats like a pig, but when he is warned that he is risking an early death, he steadfastly fights the temptation to recover and instead condemns himself mercilessly by continuing with his bad habits.

The government, in appointing someone chief of staff, expects that individual to render the army more effective against enemies who, once again, are not exclusively external. There is no chance of realizing this expectation, and not just because a popular uprising among populations that are intertwined with one another cannot be suppressed indefinitely - especially when the rebels have outside support. A war cannot be the continuation of a policy by other means when there is no policy to begin with, and Israel’s governments are afraid of defining a policy — in other words, of setting priorities and giving up what is pleasant and convenient but non-essential. The governments prefer that the army submit recommendations for their approval through the chief of staff, without revealing an over-arching guiding principle. The army is supposed to translate the non-strategy into tactics.

With this very narrow range for maneuvering, Gadi Eisenkot is the correct officer for this incorrect period of time. He has the appropriate blend of a sense of mission on the country’s behalf, a moral backbone and professional know-how. For a decade and a half he has rubbed shoulders with the political echelon as military secretary to Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, as the commanding officer of the West Bank Division (the fourth of the last six chiefs of staff), the head of the Operations Directorate during the Second Lebanon War, as head of a command (the third in a row from the north) and as deputy chief of staff. While all his predecessors were surprised to discover how heavy the added and supreme responsibility of being the chief of staff is even for those with rich experience in high-ranking positions, it seems that for Eisenkot the gap between the dress rehearsal and the debut will be particularly narrow.

Eisenkot’s most heartwarming characteristic is humility. While it is a great virtue in conducting businesslike relations, with no pursuit of power or lust for glory, it could also be an obstacle on his way to a command position that gives him authority over the management of an organization with many forceful personalities.

While the level of the General Staff, as 2015 approaches, is not homogeneous it can take pride in a high-quality core of generals: Amir Eshel, Yair Golan, Aviv Kochavi, Sami Turjeman and Nitzan Alon. Few general staffs in the army’s history have included such a skilled and experienced group (another reason for that is, for example, that this group is a decade older than the particularly outstanding General Staff that commanded during the Six Day War). It has something of the General Staff of Dan Shomron, with Ehud Barak as heir-apparent and generals such as Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Uri Saguy, Yossi Peled and Matan Vilnai (and an oppositional force like Yitzhak Mordechai).

That is precisely what could be the problem for their commander, who shrinks from imperiousness and arrogance. Eight hundred years after King John gave in to his barons and signed the Magna Carta, Eisenkot could encounter similar demands for shared power from his sub-commanders.

As the 21st chief of staff adapts to his job carrying out the offshoots of a non-policy, his immediate test will be forming his relationship with his deputy who, from the first moment, will be a candidate for the position of the 22nd chief of staff in four more years. The precedents for such duos, in which the number one is honest if not nave and the number two is independent and impatient (Take Mordechai Maklef and Moshe Dayan; or Dan Shomron and Ehud Barak), are not encouraging.

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