On Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot ends his tenure as the Israel Defense Forces’ 21st chief of staff. During his tenure, there were no wars or even major military operations. His time at the helm was marked by a long string of short periods of escalation in the territories and along the borders, as well as special operations beyond Israel’s borders. He should be held in high regard for his part in actually heading off the drift from escalation to war.
Eisenkot prevented the Netanyahu government from descending into war at least twice. In the fall of 2015, a wave of “lone-wolf” terrorism erupted in which hundreds of Palestinians set out to commit stabbings and car rammings, some of them within the Green Line. It was Eisenkot who resisted the politicians’ pressure to impose wide-scale collective punishment on the attackers’ villages and towns, on the argument that it would only make the violence worse.
The wave of stabbings petered out after a few months due to widespread efforts by the army and the Shin Bet security service, as well as coordination with the security forces of the Palestinian Authority. During this period, Eisenkot refused to ease the army’s open-fire orders.
In what has been dubbed his “scissors speech,” he said soldiers don’t have to empty their weapons of bullets when up against a Palestinian girl armed with scissors.
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In the case of Elor Azaria, he made sure that the soldier, who was filmed shooting and killing a Palestinian terrorist as he lay injured on the ground in Hebron, was prosecuted. This generated fierce criticism of Eisenkot in the Knesset and on social media. On the day of Azaria’s conviction, extremist, right-wing thugs rioted in front of the Defense Ministry and threatened to kill the army chief of staff.
Last summer, it was again Eisenkot who had to explain to cabinet members that the army couldn’t shoot Palestinian children who were floating incendiary kites over the Gaza border and that the burning of fields in the Gaza border region was not a pretext for war. At the same time, he led a successful campaign to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and to foil weapons-smuggling to Hezbollah. He also recently oversaw the effort to find attack tunnels on the Lebanese border.
Eisenkot’s term included missteps. The army’s refusal to frankly consider criticism from its ombudsman, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Brik, is to Eisenkot’s discredit. The General Staff also reacted belatedly to the army’s serious personnel crisis – from lower motivation among recruits to serve in combat units to the flight of young, talented officers from the standing army.
But in his major test – his conduct as a public servant who could stand up to politicians and a political environment that often exerted pressure that was not to the point – Eisenkot came through with honor. His successor, Aviv Kochavi, will face similar challenges, which can be expected to intensify during a highly-charged election campaign.