Israel Elections: Will Gadi Eisenkot make a political splash?

POLTICAL AFFAIRS: Gadi Eisenkot became the newest ex-chief of staff to swap his olive-colored uniform for a black suit and a blue or red tie, depending on the message.

 GADI EISENKOT gets a steady hand from his party leader Benny Gantz at a press conference announcing his entry into politics earlier this year.  (photo credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)
GADI EISENKOT gets a steady hand from his party leader Benny Gantz at a press conference announcing his entry into politics earlier this year.

Perhaps the only idiom that has remained true in every Israeli election is that Israeli voters love IDF generals.

In nearly every election, another general announces his or her candidacy. Fourteen out of the 21 retired chiefs of staff entered politics, as did 28 major-generals, 11 brigadier-generals and 16 colonels.

To this day, parties seek out security experts to run on their lists – and the higher the rank, the better.

It began with the likes of Moshe Dayan and Yigal Alon, continued with Yitzhak Rabin, Shaul Mofaz and Ehud Barak, and came to a height in 2019 with Blue and White’s “Party of Generals,” including Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, Gabi Ashkenazi and current Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

This election cycle was no different, as Gadi Eisenkot became the newest ex-chief of staff to swap his olive-colored uniform for a black suit and a blue or red tie, depending on the message.

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

After 40 years in the defense establishment, with his last job being IDF chief of staff, Eisenkot went into politics “out of responsibility” to the state, he told The Jerusalem Post.

Indeed, the move from the military’s strict chain of command to the political clashes and showmanship of an election campaign can be challenging. Eisenkot is adamant that leadership is not just about clickbait and TikTok.

“Despite the changes in society across the world, including social media, TikTok, slogans and tags [on Twitter], I still believe that leadership needs to speak the truth, to show a path and a strategy, and to give hope,” Eisenkot said.

“That is the formula for leadership that [we] need to continue fostering.... I am a big believer in the values of the state and in the youth of the State of Israel,” he said.

The leaders of the far-right Religious Zionist Party, MKs Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, have become popular especially among young voters, but to Eisenkot they represent the opposite of what he stands for.

“It seems to me like a paradox that two people whose shared characteristic is that they broke the law, [and] that one did not serve in the IDF at all, while the other served for 10 months, serve as role models for Israel’s youth. This is an upside-down world,” he added.

Eisenkot, 62, was born in Tiberias and grew up in Eilat. He served in the IDF in all of the command positions in the Golani Brigade, including company commander in the First Lebanon War, commander of Golani’s 13th Battalion, and Golani Brigade commander. He later served as military secretary for former prime minister Ehud Barak, head of the IDF Operations Directorate, including during the Second Lebanon War, OC Northern Command and finally IDF chief of staff.

Following his discharge in 2019, Eisenkot joined the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Institute for National Security Studies, as well as a number of boards of directors.

Gadi Eisenkot is still a calculating officer

LOOKING COMFORTABLE out of uniform and with a large smile, Eisenkot is still the calculating officer who looks ahead toward the future of the country.

He may have left the military, but as someone who understands the complexity of the enemies surrounding Israel, he understands that what may once have been ignored by Israeli politicians needs to be front and center to prevent future conflicts.

During Eisenkot’s time as chief of staff, hundreds of Palestinian youths carried out attacks against Israeli citizens and soldiers in the West Bank and inside Israel in what was called the “Knife Intifada.”

And now as he attempts to run for Knesset, a new wave of violence has broken out in the West Bank following a wave of deadly attacks inside Israel that claimed the lives of 20 civilians. In response to the attacks, the IDF began Operation Break the Wave to crack down on Palestinian terrorism.

As if he knew the future, in a January interview with Post’s sister publication Maariv, Eisenkot said: “The question is not whether there will be another outbreak, but when and how intense it will be. It is quite clear that this will happen. There’s no way that it’s not going to happen.”

The violence, he added in that interview, will come “at the least convenient time and place for us.”

Two months later, the wave of terrorist attacks began. Since the beginning of Operation Break the Wave, Palestinian gunmen have killed four members of Israel’s security forces. Over 100 Palestinians have been killed, and over 2,000 have been arrested.

“The reality is always complicated, and Israeli civilians only see it when there are peaks of violence, when the reality is that the IDF continuously thwarts terror attacks in the West Bank,” he said in this week’s interview.

Israel, he said, “had no strategy versus the Palestinians for years. It has never been clear what we wanted, to move forward with the Palestinians.”

And when violence breaks out, “we have to let the IDF and Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency] do their work, and we have to differentiate between terrorists and the regular 90% Palestinians who want to work and live a normal life.”

Like the violence in 2015, most attacks are carried out by lone Palestinian gunmen who do not have any affiliation with terrorist groups. An exception is the Lions’ Den militant group based in Nablus, which has claimed a number of shooting attacks, including the drive-by shooting that killed St.-Sgt. Ido Baruch.

Defense officials, including Gantz and Eisenkot, have claimed that the group consists of only 30 members. But more worrisome is the strong support that the group has across the West Bank, including in the other hot-spot city of Jenin.

But, Eisenkot said, “We have phenomenal operational intelligence. If you look in the past, we knew how to catch everyone and bring them to justice. And it will be the same here. I am sure that the Shuafat attacker will be caught, and I am sure that the Lions’ Den members will all be caught, or they will be killed.”

The day after the interview, the Shuafat attacker – 22-year-old Uday Tamimi – while carrying out another shooting attack at the entrance of Ma’aleh Adumim, was killed by a civilian security guard.

According to Eisenkot, the Lions’ Den is a tactical event that points to a larger problem of a weakened Palestinian Authority.

Due to Israel’s lack of a clear policy regarding the Palestinians, instead of strengthening the PA security forces, they have been weakened. And it is Hamas and Islamic Jihad that have been able to grab hold of the hearts of Palestinians in the West Bank.

Israel, under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pushed forward a dangerous policy that weakened the PA while it strengthened Hamas, he said.

“The stagnation of the peace process with the Palestinian Authority was a mistake. It gave a boost to Hamas,” he said. “We had a joint interest in keeping the PA [security forces] strong.”

Though Hamas and Islamic Jihad have yet to formally voice support for the violence in the West Bank, Hamas cells in the midst of planning attacks have been broken up by the Shin Bet.

“If Hamas is directing attacks in the West Bank, then it has to pay a big price. I see a need to win against the Hamas regime,” Eisenkot said. “Whoever thinks [Hamas] is becoming pragmatic is wrong. I see it as an enemy, and we need to win against it. I don’t trust it.”

Eisenkot is running with Gantz, who has promoted the policy of separating Gaza from the West Bank. He’s given approval for a maximum of 20,000 entry permits for Gazans to work in Israel, with currently 17,000 permits, as long as quiet remains in southern Israel.

According to the former chief of staff, the quietest decade in Israel’s history was not under Netanyahu, despite what Mr. Security says. And Eisenkot should know, as it was under Netanyahu that he served as Israel’s top military officer.

“It was between 1957 and 1967. The figures show it.”

Nevertheless, he did credit Netanyahu for a range of successful missions by the IDF, including the ongoing “war between the wars” campaign, the fight against Islamic State across the Middle East and the thwarting of Hezbollah’s cross-border attack tunnels that were to be used as part of the terrorist group’s “Conquest of the Galilee” attack plan.

But, he said, “it was a big strategic mistake” to push the Americans to leave the 2015 Iran deal.

“I think that [pushing US president Donald Trump to leave the Iran deal] was a severe strategic mistake that enabled Iran to violate the agreement, and under Netanyahu Iran came far closer to becoming a nuclear power,” Eisenkot said.

Touching on the subject of the war in Ukraine, Eisenkot stressed that while Israel must take a strong stand against the Russian aggression, Jerusalem should not supply weapons to either side.

“Israel doesn’t need to be pushed into a war that is between Ukraine and Russia by providing weapons,” he said, explaining that Israel did the right thing by taking in refugees. But “it is important that Israel take a strong stand against Russian aggression and occupation of Ukraine, which is against international law, and Israel should stand with the suffering Ukrainian people.

Into the limelight 

WITH THE November election less than two weeks away, the differences between Eisenkot and his political opponents on the Right are in the limelight. He does not believe that a government led by Netanyahu, with Ben-Gvir as a central ally, is the solution.

“Netanyahu may have a chance of reaching 61 [seats], but this will be a negative development for the state of Israel,” Eisenkot said.

“It will be a government of extremists with a lack of capabilities and wiggle room to do the correct things [on security]. Instead of fighting terrorists, there will be terror attacks, and instead of differentiating between civilians and terrorists, there will be collective punishment,” he added.

“This would be a government with people like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who believe that Israel should rebuild settlements in the Gaza Strip. This is an act of strategic blindness,” Eisenkot said.

A Netanyahu-Ben-Gvir government could also affect the US’s support of Israel, he argued.

“Such a government will have difficulty receiving internal and international legitimacy. I see, in the special relations with the US, a sharing of values and strategic interests of the first degree, and am worried that such a government could harm the relations,” Eisenkot said.

Eisenkot also did not hold back from criticism of Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Lapid was also not operating correctly on security, Eisenkot charged, specifically mentioning Lapid’s speech earlier this month in the UN, where he brought up the two-state solution.

“What Lapid is offering, two states for two peoples, is not relevant now; it does not match the reality that [the Palestinian] leadership does not know how to accept [a state], but, on the contrary, it will lead to a deterioration in the security situation,” Eisenkot said.

Eisenkot also addressed the Lebanon maritime border agreement, which was placed for review on the Knesset floor last Wednesday. He echoed Gantz in saying that the agreement was not “historic,” as Lapid made it out to be, indicating that Lapid was trying to exaggerate the deal’s importance for political gain.

No less important, however, is law and order within Israel, especially in the Negev and Galilee, where crime, especially in the Arab sector, has proliferated. Eisenkot, in a press conference on Wednesday, presented a plan to deal with this issue that included three central facets: Strengthening the Israel Police by significant budget hikes, establishing an “Israeli National Guard” and more; enacting legislation to increase the severity of punishments for crimes such as gun possession; and “eradicating crime” by working to seal off the areas in Israel’s border fences with Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank that are used to smuggle weapons, launching an operation to collect weapons obtained illegally, and other provisions.

“The phenomenon of crime and the loss of personal safety of citizens and residents have come to a point of harming national security during normal times and during emergencies, as we saw during Operation Guardian of the Walls,” Eisenkot said at the press conference.

However, for Eisenkot the most serious challenge on the internal front is the crumbling of solidarity between Israel’s different groups.

“The largest challenge in Israeli society is to create solidarity and create a new and updated social contract that will include all of the different parts in Israeli society, and increase [the level of] commitment, loyalty, mutual responsibility and social solidarity as a central component of Israel’s power,” Eisenkot said to the Post.

Like everything else Eisenkot, he also has a plan for how to do this: “stabilizing the government [and enabling it] to design long-term plans; diverting large funds for the geographic and social periphery; and connecting the parts of Israeli society, including Israel’s Arabs, so that they feel that they are law-abiding citizens who are part of the country.”