Yet another top general in the mix as Eisenkot enters race -analysis

With economic issues central in these elections, Gantz and Sa’ar trumpeted a man whose positions on these issues is fairly unknown.

 Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot at the National Unity Party.  (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot at the National Unity Party.

An Israel Democracy Institute poll last month showed that 44% of respondents named economic issues as the main factor influencing which party they would vote for in the upcoming election.

That poll dovetailed with increased public discussion about the cost of living and economic issues. A feeling echoed throughout the media indicated that economic issues might now be more important for voters than in the past, when security and diplomatic issues dominated the campaigns. More talk about the price of bread and teachers’ salaries; less about Iran and the Palestinians.

In the IDI poll, only 11% listed a party’s stance on security and foreign policy issues as the factor that would determine their vote.

So what did the new joint Blue and White-New Hope list of Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar do on Sunday? Announce that former chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot would be joining their newly renamed party, The National Unity Party.

That’s right. With economic issues on many people’s minds, Gantz and Sa’ar trumpeted the addition to their list of a man whose position on the economy and social welfare issues are, well, pretty much unknown.

 The National Unity party member heads signing: Gideon Sa'ar, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot.  (credit: PR) The National Unity party member heads signing: Gideon Sa'ar, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot. (credit: PR)

Not that Eisenkot’s positions on the marquee security/diplomatic issues are that much of an open book, either. The proof of this is that for months, he has been wooed by Sa’ar’s New Hope Party, Gantz’s Blue and White Party (before the two merged last month), Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party, and the Labor Party. On Sunday, Meretz MK Yair Golan, who served under Eisenkot as deputy chief of staff, said that Eisenkot’s positions on Judea and Samaria are closer to his than they are to Sa’ar’s.

Why was Eizenkot pursued by several parties?

That’s quite a range: from Sa’ar – adamantly opposed to a two-state solution – to Golan, adamantly in favor. In other words, precious little is known about what Eisenkot thinks about the cardinal issues. Yet he was pursued energetically by several different parties. Why?

Because there is still the belief, widely held in this country, that if someone was the head of the IDF, he must have something others don’t possess. He must be something special. Israelis have a difficult time seeing the country’s chiefs-of-staff objectively. Everyone sends loved ones into the army and wants to believe they are in good and capable hands; that the person at the top of the military pyramid is head and shoulders above the rest, and someone who can be relied upon. There is a romanticization of chiefs-of-staff.

And it is a romanticization that the former generals use to their advantage. Now that Eisenkot has at long last announced his entry into politics, it means that of the country’s 21 ex-chiefs of staff, all but three have gone into politics. Of the 18 who have gone into politics, two have gone on to become prime ministers: Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.

In October 2018, as a new election was in the air two months before the Knesset dissolved itself, Israel Television conducted a poll and found that Gantz, at the time the country’s last chief of staff, would win 12 Knesset seats. That was at a time when neither Gantz’s positions on just about anything, nor even his voice, was recognizable by most Israelis.

And Gantz was not an exception.

In recent years, Gabi Ashkenazi, Moshe Ya’alon, Shaul Mofaz and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak were all furiously courted by parties believing they were political assets. They all ended up going into politics and serving as ministers.

However, at a certain time – as the above-mentioned four retired generals can attest – the “wow” factor of being the former head of the army wears off, and the ex-generals are left to swim in this country’s swirling political waters just like anybody else. Some do it more adroitly than others. Possessing the title of former chief-of-staff ensures a gilded entrance into politics; it does not ensure political success.

Ideology retreating in Israeli politics

In addition, the courting of generals – and the public’s support for them despite not really knowing where they stand on the country’s major issues – reflects the retreat of ideology in Israeli politics. Once upon a time, there were sharp ideological differences between the major parties. But as Labor and Likud have lost seats over the years, and as mid-sized splinter parties have come to the fore, real ideological differences between the various parties have become fuzzy.

One would be hard pressed, for instance, to find sharp ideological differences between Yesh Atid and the new Gantz-Sa’ar-Eisenkot party, nor between Labor and Meretz. While there might not be huge ideological differences, there is fierce personal competition. Israeli political campaigns of late have not been driven by ideologies, but by personalities. And in personality-driven campaigns, parties need to pepper their lists with popular, well-known personalities.

This is where ex-generals come into play. In this country, few personalities are better known or more liked than recently retired chiefs-of-staff.

There is something else at work as well: a yearning for someone new and fresh to come riding in to save the day. This is especially true with the country going to its fifth election in 43 months.

Granted, during the last three-and-a-half years the country has gone through a pandemic, weathered one major and two minor conflagrations in Gaza, signed peace accords with three Arab countries, and seen a change of presidents in the US. During this same period, however, the Israeli population did not fundamentally change, nor did the candidates who are vying for their votes.

In the first election in 2019 in this current unending cycle, it was Gantz and Lapid – then working together – against Benjamin Netanyahu. In November 2022, it will be Gantz and Lapid, working separately, against Netanyahu. It is the same Israelis voting for the same top candidates.

So if you have the same voters, concerned about the same issues, voting for the same candidates running at the top of the various lists – though in slightly different configurations – why should the results be that much different this time?

The parties, therefore, are looking for that one game-changer, that singular logjam breaker. Perhaps a fresh, dynamic, respected personality could make the difference this time and ensure that the results in November will be more conclusive than they were the four previous tries.

Sa’ar and Gantz are betting Eisenkot is that personality. They should temper their expectations, though, especially considering that the same thing was said about Gantz just four short years ago.