Politics is where ex-IDF chiefs of staff go to fade away

INSIDE POLITICS: Many ex-chiefs of staff have gone into politics in Israel's history, but only Ehud Barak was successful.

 GADI EISENKOT (left) is welcomed to the National Unity camp by Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar earlier this week.  (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
GADI EISENKOT (left) is welcomed to the National Unity camp by Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar earlier this week.

“How many chiefs of staff do you need in order to defeat one reserve captain?” one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s close confidants joked early this week, reacting to breaking news of the latest ex-IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, entering politics.

The statistics speak for themselves: During Netanyahu’s political career of over 30 years, seven out of eight chiefs of staff joined politics after completing their army service. Only one of them – Ehud Barak – beat him in an election to become prime minister, and that was way back in the late ’90s. Since then, Shaul Mofaz, Moshe Ya’alon, Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz, have all jumped into political waters with high hopes, and Eisenkot is the latest to do so.

Netanyahu’s trauma from Barak’s 1999 election victory made him wary of IDF generals spilling into the political system. Over 15 years ago, he initiated a bill calling for a cooling-off period barring former security officials from running for office for at least three years after ending their military service. It was supposed to deter the aspiring commanders in chief by cooling off their recent battlefield glory and fame, but apparently it was counterproductive. All the IDF chiefs of staff following the legislation’s adoption in 2007 – Ashkenazi, Gantz and now Eisenkot – waited out the required three years and then teamed up together on the political battlefield to confront Netanyahu. But, so far, none of them has been able to repeat Barak’s achievement and conquer the highest post. Ironically enough, the warlord of the political operation that ended Netanyahu’s 12-year rule last year was not an acclaimed commander but, rather, Yair Lapid, who is usually degraded for his lack of military experience.

One would expect that the influx of chiefs of staff and their recent history of political failures and missteps would eventually lead to a markdown in the brand, but no. Time and again, every top IDF general who reaches the end of his term is highlighted as “marriage material” and turns into a hot political asset – especially for the Center-Left’s electorate, which dreams of returning to power and reviving the good old days of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin, when defense and security were identified with Mapai and the Labor Party.

When Gantz made his political debut in January 2019, fans and admirers tagged him as a modern incarnation of Rabin. Three-and-a-half years and four elections later, Eisenkot is the long-awaited newcomer taking his first steps in politics, and his successor, the current chief of staff, Aviv Kohavi, is already tapped to be a potential future political player as well.

 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)

Eisenkot announces entry into politics

EISENKOT’S ANNOUNCEMENT on Sunday morning that he would join a three-way alliance with Gantz and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar ended weeks of anticipation, rumors and speculations about whether and where he would plunge into the political waters.

Both Gantz and Lapid were courting him, hoping to freshen up their teams with his new blood, and both spent hours with him in recent months, discussing the state of the nation as well as mutual political endeavors.

Lapid offered him the No. 2 slot on the Yesh Atid list, Gantz only the No. 3 slot, but Eisenkot stressed it’s not about the ranking, but about his vision of forming a large ruling party that would break the political deadlock and lead to a broad and stable government.

At first, he nobly and naively tried to convince Lapid and Gantz to reunite and revive their historic Blue and White alliance. Both sides politely refused. Meanwhile, his ongoing deliberations only enhanced their rivalry, and the lingering wait for “Gadi’s choice” turned into a prestige tournament between the two.

Before reaching his final decision, Eisenkot laid out several parameters and conditions to Gantz’s and Lapid’s people. He insisted on entering the partnership with a group of candidates that would form an independent force of loyalists for the future, and demanded a public commitment to hold internal democratic primaries ahead of the next elections. Last, but not least, he conditioned his partnership on a prescribed name, the “National Unity Camp.” “National unity” is a vague translation of the unique Hebrew term “mamlachti,” which was originally conceived by founding father Ben-Gurion.

According to well-informed sources, Lapid was willing to consider a future primary race, but giving up the “Yesh Atid” brand was a nonstarter. Gantz initially intended to decline the name change as well, but the fear that Lapid would offer a better bid pushed him to accept all of Eisenkot’s conditions, including giving up “Blue and White” – a catchy name in which, through four elections, he’d invested millions of shekels in branding – for the bulky “National Unity Camp,” which sounds clumsy and old-fashioned even in Hebrew.

Gantz agreed to pay a high price for Eisenkot’s ticket, just as he was generous while forging the first part of the alliance with Sa’ar last month, pushing his own party loyalists back slots on the list while securing New Hope ministers realistic seats. The alliances are his only way to gain strength and create momentum in order to reach his ultimate goal. By teaming up with Sa’ar, from the Right, and Eisenkot, from the Center-Left, he is hoping to attract two to three seats from each electorate and grow to become a medium-sized party, which can legitimately compete for the premiership and turn Lapid and Netanyahu’s battle into a three-runner race.

Eisenkot is supposed to appeal to hawkish Labor voters, and the latest addition of former Yamina member Matan Kahana is supposed to gain traction among young and moderate religious audiences. It specifically endangers Ayelet Shaked and Yoaz Hendel, the right-wing refugees of the Bennett-Lapid government, rebranded together as “The Zionist Spirit” list, which is struggling to pass the electoral threshold. Gantz and Sa’ar hope to ultimately force them out of the race and then absorb their supporters.

Gantz, Sa’ar and Eisenkot are convinced that their joint enterprise is the only way to prevent Netanyahu from reaching a 61-seat majority, but it’s too early to tell whether the latest general to go into politics is really a game changer. Initial polls published hours after their debut announcement projected a slight increase, of one to two seats, in the party’s power, but showed no change whatsoever in the paralyzed divide between the pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu blocs.

In the past 13 years, Netanyahu has turned the political system into a cemetery for chiefs of staff: anyone who tried to confront him found himself buried with the saints. Can Eisenkot break the curse? Time will tell.