The virtues and pitfalls of former IDF chiefs of staff entering politics

"Run, Eisenkot, run"

KOCHAVI (RIGHT) and predecessor Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Gadi Eisenkot flank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the chief of staff switchover ceremony. (Amos Ben Gershom (photo credit: IDF)
KOCHAVI (RIGHT) and predecessor Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Gadi Eisenkot flank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the chief of staff switchover ceremony. (Amos Ben Gershom
(photo credit: IDF)
In Israel’s 72-year history, it has had 22 IDF chiefs of staff, including the current one, Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi.
Only four of them – Mordechai Maklef, David Elazar, Moshe Levi and Gabi Eisenkot – have not gone, or tried to go, into politics.
And that short list might soon get even shorter, as over the last week there has been abundant banter regarding Eisenkot, which could be summed up in three words: “Run, Gadi, run.”
A number of high-profile journalists, such as Channel 13’s Raviv Drucker, have extolled his virtues and encouraged him to run, and a Channel 12 poll last week indicated that were Eisenkot to head a party list, that list would win 16 seats in the next election.
And that is before most people in the country have any idea where he stands on the marquee political issues or could identify his voice if they heard it on the radio.
Sound familiar? It should.
In October 2018, as elections were in the air and a couple months before the Knesset dissolved itself and sent the country spiraling into the seemingly endless election loop of 2019/2020, Israel Television conducted a poll that found that Benny Gantz, at the time the country’s freshest former chief of staff, would win 12 Knesset seats. And neither his voice nor his positions were recognizable to most Israelis at the time. Today Gantz is the alternate prime minister and defense minister.
This is all indicative of a well-known Israeli phenomenon: a romance a good part of the country has with its chief of staff, a love affair the former generals then leverage into springboards into politics.
“In Israel there is a need to over-idealize generals – just like a kid who has to over-idealize his parents – because in the security stress in which we live, we do not have the luxury to see them objectively,” said Udi Lebel, a professor specializing in political psychology and civil-military relations at Bar-Ilan University’s School of Communication.
If people did look at the country’s security elite objectively, he added, “we would not sleep at night. There is a cognitive need to feel that we are in good hands.”
The population, for the most part, does not look at those who rise to the pinnacle of the military establishment as “regular folk” who decided to make a career in the army instead of selecting another career path, but, rather, as people who stand out because they are head and shoulders above the rest.
“From the start we have a tendency to think that they are ‘wow,’ and by definition they enjoy a benefit that, for instance, an engineer from the Technion [interested in politics] would not enjoy, even if the engineer may be much more intelligent.”
Lebel said this phenomenon has come out clearly in studies he has done with high school and college students. In a recent study, pictures of Eisenkot, Gantz and a third former chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, in full IDF uniform, were placed in front of a group, and the students were asked if those in the pictures have what it takes to be prime minister. About 84% answered that they did, even if some could not name the people in the pictures.
“When I pushed a button and changed his uniform to that of a police officer, and asked if then he was worthy of being a prime minister, the number dropped to around 60%,” Lebel said. Dressing the men in civilian clothes dropped the figures even lower, to around 40%.
What this shows, he said, is simple: “It’s the uniform that makes the person, not the person who makes the uniform.”
INTERESTINGLY, SAID Lebel, who is also affiliated with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, an attraction to the military elites and the former chiefs of staff has traditionally been stronger on the Center-Left than it has been on the Right.
Of the eight former chiefs of staff who have gone into politics since 1987 – Dan Shomron, Ehud Barak, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Shaul Mofaz, Moshe Ya’alon, Dan Halutz, Ashkenazi and Gantz – six went to center or left-wing parties initially, and two, Mofaz and Ya’alon, drifted there after first joining the Likud.
According to Lebel, most of the parties considered to be on the Right – except for the religious-Zionist parties – have moved on from a love affair with military leaders as politicians.
On an emotional level, the ex-generals do not hold an appeal for haredim, and also do not have the same luster for middle-class Mizrahim (descendants of local Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa) or for voters attracted to Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party, he said.
Which is not to say that in the past the Right did not see members of the military elite as important assets to their parties.
When the Likud’s Menachem Begin in the 1970s wanted to wrest control of the country from Mapai, Lebel said, he looked to military leaders such as Ariel Sharon and Yigal Yadin who “he knew were people who gave his party legitimacy and would make it possible for people who were not squarely in his camp to vote for him nonetheless, because as military leaders they were people of the consensus, and represented Israeli-ness.”
With time, he said, the Right has mostly “matured” past its fascination with ex-generals as politicians.
But where the rank still does carry weight is with the Left, with Lebel arguing that this camp has long believed those who have reached top positions in the army are endowed with “leadership capital” that others simply don’t possess. This tendency, he said, has long been a “dominant component” of the Labor Party’s DNA, more than any other party in Israel.
“The Labor Party was the natural habitat of both the political and the military elite during the early years of the state, creating a security-political complex that was inseparable so long as it remained in power,” he wrote in 2016 in a study coauthored with Guy Hatuka from Ariel University. “The phenomenon of former senior army officers in the Knesset list of the Labor Party was far more extensive than in any other political party.”
Interestingly, the steep decline of the Labor Party – in current polls it does not even pass the electoral threshold – corresponds with that period when security figures did not figure prominently in the party’s leadership or on its Knesset list.
For instance, in the 2013 and 2015 elections – when social issues, following the 2011 social justice protests, were a key part of the party’s campaigns – the number of ex-generals on the Labor list dropped precipitously.
While in the 2009 elections members of the military elite – known in Hebrew as bithonistim – made up 30% of Labor’s top 10 Knesset seats, that number dropped to 10% in the 2013 election, and to zero in the 2015 elections.
Avi Gabbay brought a former general, Tal Russo, to fill the No. 2 position in 2019, but with little success. In that election the party won only six seats. Labor’s gradual “demilitarization,” according to this study, has been a factor in its marginalization.
The Blue and White Party, on the other hand, is a case study in the other direction. That party was packed with ex-military elites when it was founded in 2019, featuring three former chiefs of staff in its top four positions. This strategy was guided partly by the belief that since one of the reasons Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to win is his image of being “Mr. Security,” the surest way to beat him is to out-security “Mr. Security.”
And the strategy did well, with the party winning 35 seats in April 2019, 33 in September of that year, and 33 in March 2020, before falling apart after Gantz’s decision to join the government with Netanyahu in May.
And now that Blue and White has self-destructed – recent polls show it will get crushed in the next election – the eyes of the Center-Left are cast in the direction of the freshest ex-chief of staff: Eisenkot.
This camp, Lebel said, “still believes that those who can return it to relevance and political dominance are the military leaders.”
And Lebel has a word of advice to those military leaders: “If you want to get into politics, declare it a minute before the elections.” That way, he said, the public will still remember them in uniform. “Otherwise you will just be seen as another regular guy who says things that are not that impressive. You have to run as a poster. Don’t say a word, because it is the poster that has the ‘wow.’”
This advice echoes an old saying: Better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are unwise, than to open it and remove all doubt. Former generals benefit, as Lebel puts it, from a “wow” factor that evaporates when the public’s memory of their uniform fades as they begin to actually start to speak and express opinions.
Sound familiar?