‘A commander of the first degree,” wrote an enamored David Ben-Gurion in his farewell letter to IDF chief of staff Moshe Dayan, 61 winters ago; a commander “with comprehensive political wisdom.”
One could hardly get a more emphatic compliment from the Old Man, who in this case echoed military thinker Carl von Clausewitz’s insight two centuries ago that a good general must also be a statesman.
Israelis recall generals who lacked the statesman’s instincts, whether anecdotally, as when Lt.-Gen. Motta Gur warned in 1977 that Anwar Sadat’s visit was a setup for a terrorist attack, or substantively, when Lt.-Gen. Rafael Eitan brewed in 1982 the assault on Beirut.
Fortunately, Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, whose four-year command of the IDF ends next Tuesday, was a warrior and a statesman.
THE FIRST question Eisenkot had to answer was who the IDF’s enemies are. The second was how to prioritize the fighting each of them required.
When Eisenkot assumed command, Bashar Assad seemed on the verge of defeat in Syria, while Islamic State was advancing in northern Iraq. Both situations created temptations to intervene, an option that in other times might have been pursued eagerly, and cost dearly.
Eisenkot and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ruled that Israel will focus only on what threatens it directly. Israel obviously shared intelligence with the anti-ISIS coalition, and when its fanatics penetrated southern Syria the IDF treated them as a threat, but when it came to Islamic State’s distant strongholds the IDF watched from afar the fighting on both sides of the Euphrates.
That policy left Eisenkot with the Palestinians on the one hand and the Iranians on the other. His choice was clear, and his action was resolute.
Iran, in Eisenkot’s doctrine, is the most dangerous enemy Israel faces, and confronting it should overshadow all other fronts. Hamas, at the same time, should be merely contained. Its defeat will be an aftershock of Islamism’s broader downfall, which will begin when Iran will shed the mullahs’ regime.
The principle of targeting the Iranian effort was not Eisenkot’s invention, having been made plain in January 2015, a month before he became chief of staff, when Iranian Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi was killed by an unidentified aircraft’s missile along with Hezbollah commander Jihad Mughniyeh and 10 others when they emerged east of the Israeli-Syrian border.
Israel never assumed responsibility for that assault, but all attributed it to the IDF, as others in the arena lacked either the motivation or the means to wage such an attack.
The aim, therefore, was clear, but to be a statesman Eisenkot had to change the situation while configuring its international complexities and political constraints.
The challenge was the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ plan to cast across Syria and Lebanon a continuum of mostly Shi’ite militias, as well as aerial and naval bases.
Eisenkot therefore had Military Intelligence, the air force, and an assortment of special units painstakingly gather information and plan operations against the Iranian design. Air force strikes against Iranian arms convoys and missile factories proliferated and intensified.
While this was happening militarily, Eisenkot inspired Russia’s resistance of Iran’s naval designs in Syria’s Mediterranean coastline, which is even shorter than Lebanon’s and is punctuated by Russia’s naval base in Tartus.
Realizing Iran’s plans were anathema to the Saudis, the rest of the Gulf states and also to Turkey, and fully understanding the meaning of Trump’s takeover in Washington, Eisenkot figured the big blow Iran’s scheme demanded was deliverable.
Eisenkot therefore let Iran spend more money and energy on its Syrian buildup while lobbying with the politicians to let him wage the sharp and sudden blow he was preparing. The green light arrived last May, when 24 IAF jets struck 50 Iranian targets across Syria, including barracks, radars, missile batteries and drone launchers.
The Iranian project was debilitated for the foreseeable future. This was Eisenkot’s crowning achievement, achieved because he balanced his military resolve with diplomatic wisdom, managing to serve the Israeli interest in an arena crowded with multiple armies and foreign air forces peppered with local militias, without triggering a full-fledged war.
THE SAME political wisdom was deployed in the entirely different situation of Sgt. Elor Azaria, who shot dead in Hebron a terrorist who lay neutralized on the ground, after having been shot while trying to stab another soldier.
Eisenkot in this case understood that the politicians he faced were divided, but, being the statesman who understood the broader picture, he took a stand, joining then-minister of defense Moshe Ya’alon and the field-level commanders who thought Azaria’s conduct was both immoral and anarchic.
Moreover, Eisenkot understood, and defied, the situation’s social dimension, whereby hotheads like MK Avigdor Liberman tried to incite the mob against the military court.
It was this coolness that also helped Eisenkot avoid a major attack in Gaza, even when Liberman, by then the defense minister, demanded it.
Eisenkot the statesman obviously did not disobey orders; he simply made the strategic case that major action in Gaza would end up in its conquest, whose costs would outweigh its benefits. As it were, Netanyahu was convinced, and Lieberman retreated to the opposition.
WHAT WILL statesmanship demand of Aviv Kochavi, as he takes over from Eisenkot?
Kochavi is the first IDF commander to have spent his entire military career fighting guerrillas and terrorists, having been too young to fight in the IDF’s last conventional battles, against the Syrian Army in 1982, the year he enlisted.
Kochavi has earned expertise and a reputation fighting Hezbollah and Hamas, most notably in creating the technique of crossing densely built and militarily explosive slums by breaking through walls rather than getting trapped in meandering alleys.
He will therefore be expected to reprogram warfare in Gaza, for instance in confronting its border skirmishes and explosive balloons.
Then again, the Eisenkot Doctrine will remain alive. Iran, posing a brazen threat where it has little to gain politically and much to lose economically, can be made to leave. Gaza has nowhere to go.
The IDF’s departing commander displayed the statesmanship that high-end generalship requires
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