PLAGUED BY political bickering, social, cultural, ethnic and religious divisions and, probably most worrying of all, corruption at the highest government levels, including allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is under police investigation, Israeli democracy is still protected by three solid independent gatekeepers: the media, the Supreme Court and the military.
And no one better epitomizes it than Lt.- Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. He is my Person of the Year.
Eisenkot is now into the third quarter of his term, and hopes that his fourth and last year will also pass without a war or a major military confrontation. If indeed a war is also prevented in 2018, he will be the first chief of staff in the last 20 years who has commanded and navigated the army to relative quiet and tranquility.
His achievement is magnified because the last year posed several operational challenges, which contained – and still do – high potential for an explosive situation and even a deterioration to war.
The IDF, under his direction, embarked on a wise policy to separate the general Palestinian population from the small minority of hundreds who aspired to, planned and executed acts of terror, carried out by “lone wolves” without any organizational affiliation of orders from known terrorist groups.
In the past, when a terror attack occurred or was unveiled, the IDF, together with the Shin Bet, the Israel Security Agency, would usually employ collective punishment and put the terrorist’s entire home village under curfew.
Since Eisenkot was nominated three years ago, that policy has changed. The terrorists are isolated from the rest of the population, which is allowed to continue with their routine daily life and go to work in Israel. By doing so, Eisenkot has managed to prevent the outbreak of a third intifada, despite the many volatile incidents that have threatened to spread, go out of control and turn into a major confrontation.
December 2017 is a good example to illustrate this point.
US President Donald Trump announced that he recognized Jerusalem
as the capital of Israel. In response, both the Palestinian Authority and its rival Hamas declared what they termed “days of rage.”
Angry at the US, they wanted to challenge and provoke Israel. But under the precise orders of Eisenkot, the IDF and the other security forces showed restraint in order to minimize casualties, and thus curtailed the violence and stopped it from spreading.
AGAINST HAMAS in Gaza, Israel continues to maintain its deterrence and avoids sliding into another round – which would be the fourth in the last decade. Israelis have benefited from 40 months of relative calm – the longest period since the Six Day War in 1967.
And this is all happening despite the fact that Hamas has realized that it is on the verge of being deprived of one of its main strategic tools – the tunnels.
Since Eisenkot entered office, he made the mission of discovering Hamas’s attack tunnels dug from inside Gaza into Israel as a major priority for the IDF. By using precise intelligence, advanced seismic sensors and other technological innovation, Israel has discovered
two tunnels in its territory in the last two months.
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot visits Hamas terror tunnels, December 20, 2017 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
By mid-2019, Israel will complete building a 65 kilometer-long, deep underground wall made of concrete and iron, supplemented above the ground by a 6-meter fence with sensors and other intelligence equipment. Once the ambitious $750-million project is finished, it will be even more difficult for Hamas to infiltrate Israel.
Israeli deterrence has also been maintained against Hezbollah for more than 11 years since the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006. The Israeli-Lebanese border is the quietest among five of Israel’s fronts (Gaza, Sinai, the West Bank and Syria).
In the three years Eisenkot has been chief of staff, the IDF stepped up what is termed by the military as “the Campaign between Wars” (CBW), which included more than a hundred sorties by the Israel Air Force and Special Forces operations in various arenas against states and terror groups hostile to Israel. What has made these missions special was the fact that Israel rarely claimed responsibility for them.
According to foreign reports, most of these were carried out in Syria. It turns out that Israel is exerting the most powerful military measures since the Yom Kippur War of 1973 in that country.
Almost every week, Eisenkot gathers his close advisers – the commanders of Military Intelligence, the Israel Air Force and the Planning and Operations Departments – to discuss and monitor developments in Syria. The CBW’s strategy is a very delicate tightrope walk. It manages to preserve and enhance Israeli interests – to stop the delivery of advanced and precise long-range missiles from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon – without triggering a major war.
Other strategic achievements include the special military ties between the IDF and the Egyptian and Jordanian armies, which are growing all the time. According to foreign reports, Israel helps Egypt with intelligence in the war against Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula and occasionally sends its drones to attack ISIS targets there.
No less impressive is Eisenkot’s stand on the home front against efforts by right-wing ministers, members of Knesset, settlers and rabbis to influence and indoctrinate the military. These attempts are manifested by a demand to exclude women
from serving in combat units or not to serve at all, to dismantle mixed male-female units and to increase religious lessons and sermons.
THE COMMON ground for all of these groups is the effort to change the basic values of the IDF. Eizenkot, who believes that the most important asset the army has is public trust, has created an iron wall between the politicians and the rabbis and the IDF. And with the increased assault by the right-wingers, this is not an easy task, as we witnessed in the case of Sgt. Elor Azaria in Hebron. Azaria killed in cold blood a Palestinian terrorist, who had tried to stab a soldier at a roadblock. The terrorist had been neutralized and while he was lying on the ground, seriously wounded, Azaria, a paramedic, arrived on the scene 11 minutes after the incident was over and shot him dead.
Following the law and codes of military conduct, Eisenkot approved the decision to investigate the case. Azaria was found to be guilty of manslaughter by a military court and sentenced
to 18 months in prison.
The Israeli Right turned the cowardly soldier into a hero and opened a direct campaign against the chief of staff, accusing him of betraying his own soldiers on the frontline of the battle against terrorists. But Eisenkot, loyal to his core beliefs, stood as solid as a rock and repelled all the efforts to influence the legal process and IDF values.
It was in the Azaria case that Eisenkot demonstrated his most significant traits: unbreakable calm and steadfastness. One would imagine that the Azaria case was one of his toughest moments. But when he is asked about it, his answer is that his most difficult moments are when he is informed about the death of his soldiers on the battlefield or in accidents, as well as the refusal of Hamas to return the bodies of two soldiers killed in the last war in Gaza in 2014.
When the borders are calm and deterrence is working, and Israel’s military supremacy in the Middle East is clear and evident, Eisenkot can also allow himself to devote resources, time and money to increase IDF preparedness. During his term, the training sessions and exercises of the regular army and the reserve units have increased tremendously. Better armored vehicles to protect the infantry have been purchased, cyber warfare has become a central tool for intelligence gathering, and the IAF absorbed the first seven F-35 stealth airplanes, which further improve and upgrade its capabilities and consolidate Israel’s aerial strategic supremacy.
But all these trends and developments have not come without a certain price. The IDF has undergone a major budgetary cut, which reduced its standing army by 10 percent – some 4,000 officers were laid off. Another process that has been accelerated in the last three years is the distancing of the IDF from its original ethos of being “the people’s army.” The IDF is more professional but less and less reflects the major sectors of Israeli society, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
Eisenkot is 57 years old, a son of parents who immigrated to Israel from Morocco. He spent his formative years in the infantry’s Golani Brigade, which he eventually commanded. The brigade’s image is as a hotbed for rough and tough soldiers. Indeed, some of these traits can be found in Eisenkot’s personality and behavior. But he is also a product of the terms he served as a military attaché to two prime ministers (Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon), a position that broadened his diplomatic skills and international horizons.
He can’t rest on his laurels. In the year ahead (his last year in office), he faces even greater challenges. A war against Hamas in Gaza can erupt at any moment as a result of a miscalculation, although both sides don’t wish for another conflict for the time being. Another intifada emerging from the unstable West Bank under the shaky and weak leadership of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who is disappointed by Israeli rigidity for compromise is also possible.
BUT HIS biggest test will be on the Syrian front. Iran
is trying to deepen its presence and influence in Syria and to get as close as possible to the Israeli border. Eisenkot has repeatedly made it clear, as do Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, that Israel would not tolerate this. The chance of a direct confrontation between Israeli and Iranian troops or pro-Iranian militias in 2018 is a real possibility.
Clearly not everything rests on the wide shoulders of Eisenkot. He and his generals obey orders from the government. But still, the chief of staff exerts a great deal of power and influence on the decision-making processes, especially when it comes to war and peace. As a military commander who has proved himself to be cautious, responsible, brave and calm, one can hope that his judgment will help Israel to get through 2018 too without a new war.
If he does so, he will be written up in the history books as one of the most successful chiefs of staff Israel has ever had.