Outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot - A look back

Gadi Eisenkot talks war, peace and legacy.

GADI EISENKOT: Still an enigma. (photo credit: IDF)
GADI EISENKOT: Still an enigma.
(photo credit: IDF)
Plans for a future war are drawn up by the IDF’s Operations Directorate in what is known in Israel as the Bor (Pit), the heavily-fortified underground command center hidden beneath the Kirya Military Headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Back in 2007, just a few months after the end of the Second Lebanon War, Gadi Eisenkot convened a series of debates there to discuss what the IDF would do if a new war broke out with Hezbollah. Eisenkot had served during the war as the head of IDF operations, but was named head of the Northern Command just a month after the fighting had ended in a shaky United Nations-imposed ceasefire.
Eisenkot was pushing the military to approve a new policy, one he believed would ensure that a future war with Hezbollah would end quickly but painfully, although this time just for Lebanon. He called it the Dahiya doctrine.
It was named for the Dahiya neighborhood in Beirut which, until the 2006 war, could only be accessed by card-carrying Hezbollah members. During the Second Lebanon War, the IDF bombed large apartment buildings there, claiming that they were being used as Hezbollah command centers, and covered a series of bunkers where the organization’s top leaders, including Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, were hiding.
The idea was simple: Israel’s answer to a future war, Eisenkot explained, was disproportionate damage to Lebanon.
“What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on,” Eisenkot said at the time. “We will apply disproportionate force and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases.”
That was 10 years ago. According to updated Israeli intelligence assessments, the possibility of war with Hezbollah is higher today than it has ever been in the 10 years since Eisenkot made that comment. It is especially poignant considering that next week he will wrap up four years as Israel’s 21st chief of staff and a term that ended without war. The Dahiya doctrine, will for now, stay on paper.
ON TUESDAY, Eisenkot will hang up his uniform after 40 years of service. While he has long been in the public eye, he remains something of an enigma. Short, burly and quiet, Eisenkot is far different than some of his predecessors. He shied away from the media and spoke in public only when necessary. Even then, his remarks often seemed forced. His background as an infantry grunt in the Golani Brigade provided him with a tough-guy persona, but even that was dismissed in the beginning.
A few years into his service, for example, Eisenkot was sent to Bahd 1, the IDF’s Officer Training School. When he returned to his brigade, though, he was put in charge of the same soldiers he had once served alongside. At first, his new subordinates didn’t take their new commander seriously. One night he told them to all be outside their tents at 6 a.m. wearing shorts and sneakers for an early-morning workout. Yet in the morning only one soldier was there. Eisenkot went into one of the tents and flipped over a soldier’s bed. A half hour later, everyone was outside and from that day on, it was smooth sailing.
He climbed the ranks, serving in every position in Golani up to brigade commander. His first taste of the inner workings of the government came in 1999 when he was appointed military secretary to then-prime minister Ehud Barak. It was there where he gained some of the diplomatic skills that helped him navigate a government over the last four years that didn’t shy away from using the military as a political tool.
How he will be remembered remains a question. Dan Halutz, the former head of the Air Force, is remembered for serving as chief of staff during the Second Lebanon War, which ended with a state-appointed commission of inquiry and his eventual resignation. Gabi Ashkenazi is remembered as the IDF’s rehabilitator after that war and the chief of staff who restored the public’s confidence in a military that fought poorly against Hezbollah. Benny Gantz, now the head of a political party, landed in the post after the unfortunate Harpaz Affair and is remembered for overseeing Operation Protective Edge against Hamas, one of the longest wars in Israeli history.
During Eisenkot’s term, though, there was no war or other single event to define it. When he took up his post in early 2015, ISIS was roaming freely throughout the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula; Iran was on track to getting a nuclear weapon – the nuclear deal was finalized that summer; and Russia had begun deploying its forces in Syria. At the time, tens of thousands of fighters from Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias were deployed in Syria, fighting to preserve the Assad regime.
FOUR YEARS later, all of that is different. While the United States has pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran has remained a part of the deal and, according to Israeli intelligence, has stuck to the its restrictions; Hezbollah and Iran’s ambitious plan to set up a base of operations in Syria has been halted, and according to the IDF, there is a nearly 50% reduction in their force deployment; Hezbollah’s attempt to obtain precision-guided weapons has also been stopped, thanks to the hundreds of strikes the IDF has carried out over the last few years. Without these attacks, defense officials say, Hezbollah would today have hundreds, if not thousands, of missiles with the ability to strike anywhere inside the Jewish state.
This was made possible by escalating what the IDF has grown accustomed to calling the “War Between Wars,” code for a constellation of covert operations – from the air and by ground – that continue below the radar against Israel’s enemies. Israel’s policy over the years has been consistent; even after reports emerge about another air strike in Syria, the country remains quiet – it neither confirms it was behind it nor denies its involvement.
That is not always possible, like at the end of December when the IDF was forced to activate its missile defense systems in response to Syria’s launching of surface-to-air missiles at Air Force jets following another such bombing raid.
In the government, ministers give Eisenkot credit for keeping Iran at bay in Syria and stopping the flow of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Privately, Eisenkot speaks proudly of the IDF’s achievement in getting Hezbollah to dismantle its missile factories in Beirut, where it had planned to upgrade the accuracy and range of its massive arsenal.
While Eisenkot – unlike his predecessors – managed to avoid an all-out conflict, not everyone saw that as a positive achievement.
One such person was Avigdor Liberman, the former defense minister who worked alongside Eisenkot for almost three years.
“Sometimes I feel like what I am hearing is a meeting of the leadership of Peace Now,” Liberman said at a meeting with the military’s top brass around the most recent flare-up with Hamas in November.
While Liberman and Eisenkot mostly got along throughout their joint terms, they also butted heads. Liberman wanted an aggressive approach to Gaza while Eisenkot pushed for ceasefires and moderation, urging the security cabinet to stay focused on Israel’s true threat to the north – Hezbollah.
While this might have made sense, it raised the ire of a number of ministers who felt that Eisenkot was playing politics, going over their heads and finalizing issues – before they were even brought to the cabinet – with the prime minister, a ploy used over the years by successive chiefs of staff.
“He is a serious officer,” one government official said. “But he made a great effort to avoid escalation, even when it seemed like that was the right solution.”
In October, in leaks to Hadashot news following a security cabinet meeting over Gaza, one unnamed minister was quoted as saying,
“In the final analysis, Eisenkot’s policy on responding [to Gaza violence] has failed and allowed the situation to deteriorate.”
Education Minister Naftali Bennett went head-to-head with Eisenkot during the “Great Return” marches over the summer on his handling of aerial incendiary devices launched from Gaza that ravaged southern Israel.
The army was reluctant to shoot the Palestinians who launch the kites and balloons, since children are often among the cells. Bennett didn’t agree. At a security cabinet meeting in July, he urged Eisenkot to change the rules of engagement. “These are terrorists for all intents and purposes,” the minister said.
But the chief of staff stood his ground, and told Bennett: “I disagree with you. It’s against my operational and moral positions.”
Likud MK David Bitan, a confidant of Netanyahu, also criticized the chief of staff’s policy on Gaza, saying in a radio interview that Eisenkot was “responsible for our lost deterrence in Gaza.” Eisenkot, Bitan said, was “not recommending operations” and the cabinet could not order broad military action without the backing of the army.
When it comes to Gaza, time will tell who was right. The current ceasefire is not expected to last and with Israel now in an election season, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have difficulty transferring more Qatari cash to Hamas or putting up with rocket fire. Any concessions like these would give his political adversaries ammunition to use to attack him. If Hamas provokes Israel, Netanyahu will need to respond with force. Eisenkot might have simply delayed the inevitable.
WHILE EISENKOT worked hard to prepare the IDF for a future war in the North, his legacy is now tainted by a report IDF Ombudsman Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick released a few weeks ago in which he claimed that the military was not prepared for war.
A Yom Kippur War hero, Brick launched an unprecedented campaign to warn of what he termed a looming disaster, taking his case to the Knesset, the prime minister and the press.
“The IDF is undergoing a process of deterioration that has reached its peak in recent years,” Brick warned at a recent Knesset hearing. “In the past three years, a lethal encounter between drastic, unregulated and sometimes irresponsible cuts of thousands of career soldiers and… the [simultaneous] shortening of male service has created complete incompatibility and critical gaps.”
Eisenkot naturally pushed back. He appointed a panel of ex-officers to review Brick’s report and independently investigate the ombudsman’s claims. They released a new report at the end of December claiming that Brick was wrong and that the IDF was as prepared as ever for a new ground war.
For Eisenkot, it no longer really matters. The test will eventually come and his role in how that war ends will not be forgotten. If the IDF performs well on the battlefield, it will be to his credit, but if it fails, Brick’s dossier will be pulled out once again, although this time as an indictment of the former chief of staff.
IN ADDITION to clashing with ministers, Eisenkot also had his run-ins with the general public. A recent study by the Berl Katznelson Foundation and the Vigo research company found that inflammatory comments against Eisenkot jumped online by 35% over the past year.
According to the study, which looked at sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, as well as blogs and forums, hate speech against Eisenkot jumped by a huge 712% since 2015, when he began his term.
The study found that the large majority of inciteful comments – 74% – came from right-wing users and only 5% from those on the Left. Another 21% came from people whose political affiliation could not be determined.
One case that likely contributed to this trend was that of former IDF soldier Elor Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter in 2017 for the shooting of a neutralized and unarmed terrorist in Hebron. The Azaria trial sparked unprecedented national debate with many current and former generals finding themselves on different sides of the case. Many in the IDF’s top brass, including Eisenkot and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, called Azaria’s actions “unethical.”
But that wasn’t necessarily the popular position. According to several polls, there was widespread public support for Azaria, indicating a significant gap between the views of the chief of staff and the Israeli public. And when Azaria appealed his sentence in March 2017, hate speech against Eisenkot, the study found, jumped again by 30%.
Eisenkot didn’t fold. He stood by his conviction for how a military is meant to conduct itself as well as the values that should serve as its foundation. Shooting and killing an unarmed Palestinian – even if he had moments earlier attacked a soldier – was beyond Eisenkot’s pale.
Another place where he stood strong was in pushing women through the military’s glass ceiling despite frequent opposition.
This year alone, the Armored Corps received its first four female tank commanders and the Navy announced that the first female naval combat soldiers will serve on the new missile ships due to arrive in the coming years. The first woman was appointed to command an Israel Air Force squadron and another to command transport planes.
Nevertheless, Eisenkot had his limits, making it clear that women would not serve on the frontlines.
“People tried to accuse me of feminism, but I’m not a chauvinist or a feminist,” the IDF chief said last year. “There is integration (of women), but it needs to be to a certain extent.”
So what kind of military does Eisenkot leave behind? That remains to be seen. The threats to Israel in recent years have continued to increase, even under Eisenkot’s careful watch.
While a quiet day in the Middle East is not a small achievement, his successor Aviv Kochavi will have to hit the ground running when he takes up the mantle from Eisenkot next week.
In Israel, a new chief of staff is usually a cause for celebration and Kochavi has all the experience and credentials to indicate that his tenure will be successful. He is a known reformer; as head of Military Intelligence he built up the directorate, incorporating new capabilities and technologies never used before. But as events of the past few months indicate, there is no time to rest. Israel’s enemies are not taking a break.