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Israelis Love Their Army Chiefs

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Outgoing Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot at a graduation ceremony for incoming Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, Tel Aviv, January 15, 2019.
Outgoing Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot at a graduation ceremony for incoming Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, Tel Aviv, January 15, 2019. Credit: Moti Milrod

Is Benny Gantz a leftist because he pledged to do his utmost to fix the nation-state law and help the Druze, or a rightist because he commanded the brutal 2014 Gaza war? Is Gadi Eisenkot a leftist because of his conduct in the Elor Azaria case, or a far-rightist because he employed snipers against young Gazans protesting at the border fence?

Every chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces has had to undergo a political hazing, either during or after his tenure. That’s the way it is in a militaristic country where every chief of staff is a prospective prime minister.

In all the interviews Eisenkot gave in recent days before stepping down, he said he wouldn’t consider whether to go into politics until after the cooling-off period, but he didn’t rule it out altogether. Every interviewer asked him about his political intentions, because in Israel, this option is automatically granted to every chief of staff, to be cashed in whenever he so desires. It’s part of the retirement package.

One can easily imagine that, three years from now, some people will try to get Eisenkot to join their party, or urge him to start his own party, once the shine of the other former chiefs of staff like Gabi Ashkenazi, Moshe Ya’alon and perhaps Gantz too has worn off.

Israeli politics, which can never get its fill of security types, won’t give up on this military embellishment even if that person is appointed to head the education, interior or social affairs ministry.

As it is, expertise certainly doesn’t appear to be a prerequisite for a ministerial position, not even concerning security. Defense ministers like Amir Peretz, Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Arens, Shimon Peres and even Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t enter the job with any impressive military title, and some who did – Shaul Mofaz, Yitzhak Mordechai and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, generals one and all – probably wouldn’t be considered such worthy candidates for defense minister today.

The yearning to see a chief of staff in a prominent political position derives from the illusion that Israel needs a military commander to be the one who picks up the phone at 3 A.M. But the chief of staff-turned-politician isn’t the person who will take this call or decide the fate of the next war, but rather the prime minister and the IDF chief of staff at the time. By then, the advice of the former chief of staff will be suspect as tainted by political interests, perhaps involving a score to settle with his successor, and he'll be out of the loop anyway.

None of this bothers the public, which always seems to see itself as a brigade seeking an experienced military commander to lead it. What’s good for the army is good for the country. Ultimately, the army is what defines Israel’s values; it’s the thing by which morality, loyalty and patriotism is measured. The army fuels the fire of the melting pot. It dictates the national budget and thereby the country’s priorities as well.

This is why so many are tempted to believe that a chief of staff can do for the country what he did for the army. If the IDF is the most moral army in the world, then the country he leads will be the same. If the chief of staff obtained huge funding for the army, he’ll know how to run the economy, and if he’s a certified operator of the melting pot, he’ll be able to heal the rifts in society.

This is the same trap that led people to think that a successful director of a media company could run a political party, and that a formidable military censor was a suitable culture minister.

More than anything, the public’s readiness to give Gantz 15 Knesset seats before he has presented any of his diplomatic or economic plans, and its yearning to see Eisenkot in politics, show how abjectly willing it is to make itself the subject of human experiments. When the goal is to oust the prime minister, former IDF chiefs of staff are the most enticing figures around.  

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