IDF Chief of Staff: Iran knows heavy price of confronting Israel

In an extensive interview, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot talks Iran and Syria, the Palestinians, women and haredim in the army, and his Moroccan roots.

IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot's First Hand Account of of the Attack on the Syrian Nuclear Facility in 2007, When He was the GOC of the Northern Command (IDF)
The Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Force, Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, squirms uneasily in his swivel chair. Doesn’t the IDF have enough money to buy the chief of staff a more comfortable chair? We ask him.
He smiles and replies – this time without shifting in his seat, “Being uncomfortable means I’m always paying attention.”
Eisenkot is the IDF’s 21st chief of staff.
He will turn 58 this May, making him one of the oldest chiefs of staff the IDF has ever had. Born in Tiberias and educated in Eilat, he spent lots of time sailing.
His parents were born in Morocco.
Four months ago, Eisenkot participated in the Countering Violent Extremist Organizations Conference in Washington where chiefs of staff from 70 countries gathered to brainstorm about how to neutralize the threat of Islamic State.
“I have selfies with the Moroccan chief of staff in which we’re shaking hands and hugging each other,” Eisenkot says, with a devilish smile on his face. “There are currently two Moroccan chiefs of staff on Planet Earth.”
The interview with The Jerusalem Post’s sister publication Maariv was held in Eisenkot’s office on the 14th floor of the Kirya, the IDF general staff building in central Tel Aviv. It took place on March 21, the day the Israel military censor finally agreed to release information about Israel’s attack on a Syrian nuclear reactor. Eisenkot explained that even before he was updated by then-IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi about the plan, he received details from senior Mossad contacts close to time of the incident.
Eisenkot did not try to wiggle his way out of answering our questions; the interview lasted more than 90 minutes.
The chief of staff divulged to us that in the last year, Israel carried out hundreds of attacks to prevent Hezbollah from strengthening. As a result, the Shi’ite Lebanese organization does not yet have precise missiles capable of hitting specific targets in Israel as was previously reported.
The Iranian (and Syrian) threat
On May 12, US President Donald Trump is expected to announce whether his administration will decertify the Iran nuclear deal. What’s the best scenario for Israel? “Our goal is to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear capability forever.
The question is: Which method will have better results? The current debate is based on whether the deal will be helpful or not. Everyone agrees that the deal is not good enough, and that it has many holes. It has, however, brought about a change in strategy. The involvement of international supervision has delayed their nuclear plan for 12 to 14 years. Then again, we can also look at the glass half empty, which everyone agrees on, that what the Iranians really want is to achieve nuclear capability. In the meantime, they’ve made a decision to stop this process for a period of time.
“The question is: Will the May 12 decision bring about an increase of pressure, improved supervision, or the revocation of the deal? And what exactly would a revocation of the deal mean? This isn’t a deal between two sides, but between five permanent member countries of the United Nations Security Council plus one, and Iran. Therefore, there’s no cut and dry solution.”
Is it possible that a country like Saudi Arabia, which has spoken about the possibility of Iran achieving nuclear capability, could also be preparing a surprise for us, a surprise like the Syrian nuclear reactor?
We should always assume that we don’t know everything. In the complicated reality of the Middle East, every country is trying to gain advantage and protect its interests. Therefore, we must invest our energy in intelligence gathering about possible threats from our close neighbors.
Do you think we should be worried about Saudi Arabia in particular?
The Saudis’ public stance is that if Iran reaches nuclear capability, the Saudis will, too. What that means is that they do not currently have these capabilities.
But Saudi Arabia is a wealthy country, and therefore has no budget constraints regarding the purchase of advanced technologies.
Saudi Arabia has requested from the US nuclear reactors for civilian purposes. Is Israel objecting to this?
We’ve had a long-standing objection to this for years, since having such a platform could be used as a stepping stone to military use.
Have you met yet with MBS [Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince]? Rumor has it that he met with senior Israeli officials.
With MBS? If you mean Meir Ben Shabbat [head of Israel’s National Security Council], then yes.
Can we talk about an Israeli-Sunni coalition?
We are collaborating on intelligence and security issues with countries with which we have a peace agreement, as well as working on secret deals. I wouldn’t say we have a deal, but we’ve identified common interests, which includes neutralizing the Iranian threat and bringing about regional stability.
We also have a common ally – the US.
Times are changing and the issues that were obstacles in the past no longer are, such as the Palestinian issue.
This problem has diminished but not disappeared altogether.
That’s right. It is still central, but has diminished in importance since we face common threats and we both benefit from this cooperation. Once when I was at a conference, a Saudi general got up and gave a speech that easily could have been given by Nitzan Alon, IDF head of Central Command.
Since the F-16 was downed, has the Israel Air Force been actively operating in northern Israel?
Yes. This intensive campaign is giving expression to the IDF’s strong points: our superior intelligence gathering, our air capability in the Middle East, and the fact that Israel is considered the strongest entity in the region. Israel is working around the clock to promote our interests, which include preventing our enemies from achieving advanced capabilities. For years now, Israeli citizens have been living under calm conditions.
Unfortunately, we only speak of these issues when missiles are shot at us.
Considerable secret activity is also being carried out by the IAF and Navy, which add to the security of our country and enable us to live safely. These are the challenges the IDF faces.
What threat do we face from the Iranians on our Syrian border?
Actually, the Iranian presence in Syria has lightened in recent years, as they’ve tried to reduce their casualties.
At one point, they had 3,000 troops stationed there, but today there are much fewer. They’ve gradually built up a militia of 10,000 fighters, mostly Shi’ites from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
They get paid hundreds of dollars – an amount they never could have dreamed of earning back home. One-third of Hezbollah’s main army is stationed in Syria. In total, they have 20,000 troops under their command.
So why all this talk about an Iranian presence near our border?
What’s happened in Syria over the last six months is that the trend has changed. Islamic State has been subdued and the Iranians realized that they can move on to Plan B – their vision in which they achieve Shi’ite hegemony in the region. They saw that the best conditions for setting up air, land, sea and intelligence centers in the Middle East was by building a base in Syria. They’ve been investing a lot of money in Syria.
They want to station a huge number of troops there, and have been hoping to even have use of a port there. They also have plans to build military air bases along the border.
This is where we draw the red line and say we cannot allow this to happen. For months, we’ve been dealing with this issue.
Over the last year, the IDF has been actively working to prevent the Iranians from getting close to our border. The bottom line is this: They haven’t dared to get close to our border because they know that they’ll pay a heavy price if they do.
And nevertheless, they still sent a drone into our airspace.
The Iranian drone was a crossing of our red line. This was the first time the Iranians crossed over into Israeli territory.
At least we were given a glimpse of their device.
What’s our current policy regarding Syria?
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war seven years ago, our policy has remained constant: to avoid direct involvement; to aid in efforts to overpower al-Qaeda and Islamic State; to create a neighborly relationship all along the border; and to prevent the Iranians from building up a base on Syrian land. I believe these policies are correct, and we have been successful in implementing them.
Have we been mistaken in our approach toward Islamic State?
Islamic State is an incredible phenomenon that has grown out of globalization and terrorism. It poses a very significant threat. Whoever thinks that Islamic State is a positive force since it’s fighting against [Syrian President Bashar] Assad is absolutely wrong. We need to think about the long term and where Islamic State could reach if it weren’t stopped. The coalition that has formed to fight Islamic State is larger than the Allies that fought Hitler. Seventy states, including the US and Russia, have been fighting together for three years to overcome Islamic State, and the organization is still alive and kicking.
Defeating it is a shared goal for Israel, Iran, Turkey, Russia and the US.
And what about Assad?
If we look at what happened since the Arab Spring in Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and to a certain extent in Syria, we will see that chaos has ensued in every country in which the leader was brought down.
Therefore, the only types of rule that I can foresee succeeding in the Middle East (except maybe in Lebanon) are a religious, military dictatorship, monarchy or chaos. Let’s not forget that former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was chosen through democra tic elections. We must keep in mind that Assad is a murderer and it is immoral to support him.
So what lesson should Israel learn from all of this?
The lesson Israel and countries all around the world should learn is that there needs to be someone who takes responsibility and is accountable. When I joined the prime minister on a trip to meet with the Russian president, he said that the lesson he’s learned from Syria is that we need to have a responsible body in charge, and I agree with him.
Do you agree with Israel’s policy that action should not be taken to prevent our enemies from becoming stronger?
It’s a known fact that Hezbollah used to have only tens of thousands of missiles and rockets, but now they have more than 100,000.
The claim that we’ve allowed Hezbollah to grow stronger is false. We’ve increased our efforts tremendously over the last three or four years. Granted, it’s extremely difficult to prevent countries and organizations from becoming more powerful. But we still have a lot of work to do to slow down their progress. We’ve succeeded in drastically thwarting Hezbollah’s progress and other dangerous entities in Syria. And there’s activity around the clock. Amir Eshel, a former Israel Air Force commander, claims that there’ve been a hundred flights, so that means that all in all there’ve been hundreds of actions taken that were meant to prevent and limit the enemy’s progress.
The result is that Hezbollah is incapable of attacking a specific target within Israel. It cannot arm an airplane or shoot a missile that will hit a specific target inside Israel. We, on the other hand, have tens of thousands of opportunities to harm them.
Would achieving this capability be a casus belli for Israel and justify a preemptive strike? What if our intelligence missed some information and Hezbollah actually has precision missiles in its arsenal?
The question is: Do they have a few or are they being mass produced in factories? If it’s the latter, and they have an entire arsenal of precision missiles, then that is something to worry about, but I don’t think we need to worry about that at present.
Do you think it’s a matter of months or years?
It depends on what actions we take, but I don’t foresee such a threat in 2018 or even 2019. We are actively working around the clock with the most advanced technology available to prevent such an attack. We have the best intelligence gathering, and the capability to hit thousands of targets in one day, with exact precision. Very few militaries can say the same. We also have the best security systems in the world and our enemies are well aware of them: Iron Dome, David’s Sling and the Arrow.
The Palestinians
Let’s talk for a minute about the Palestinian issue. Do you believe that the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas are adding to Israel’s stability? Abbas is 83 years old and not in the peak of health. He’s not in a life-threatening situation, but he and a few other Palestinian leaders are unwell. It is absolutely in Israel’s best interests that the PA have a strong, well-functioning leadership that has a good relationship with Israel. There are 2.8 million Palestinians living in Judea and Samaria, and someone has to manage their lives. It’s not hard to imagine what would happen in the absence of such leadership.
We certainly don’t want their health and education systems to collapse. We want law and order and a working police force. Otherwise chaos will overtake everything.
Who do you think Abbas’s successor will be?
I don’t want to name names. What’s important to us is that the PA and its security forces function properly.
What about the Gaza Strip and Hamas?
Even if we are really, really unhappy with the ruling party in Gaza, it’s still much better than not having anyone in charge at all. The debate on whether or not we should try to bring down Hamas is complex. What would be the alternative – a Gaza that turns into Somalia? It’s always better to have a ruling body to take care of residents, no matter how bad it is.
How worried are you about the mass march in Gaza and the protests planned for this Friday?
We are reinforcing the barriers and a large number of IDF soldiers will be stationed in the area to prevent any attempts to trespass into Israeli territory.
Our main goal is to prevent civilians, especially women and children, from being harmed. We are adamant about preventing any incidents.
Will there be any firing of weapons?
Opening fire will be allowed if someone is harming security infrastructure and there is a threat of a dangerous crime. Last year, hundreds were injured while they were trying to destroy part of the fence. We will not stand for this.
What are your thoughts about the general situation in Gaza?
I’m very concerned about it. A humanitarian crisis is ensuing and there are severe problems with regard to water quality and the lack of electricity. The health system has practically collapsed and rising sewage levels and pollution are spilling over into Israel as well. Poverty in Gaza is overwhelming. Hamas is losing control and its relationship with the PA is deteriorating. Despite all this, it continues to build high-trajectory rockets and anti-tank missiles and purchase materials needed to construct underground tunnels.
Yoav (Poli) Mordechai, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, has been making great efforts to attract world attention to deal with Gaza. On the other hand, some politicians are happy that Trump announced the US will be cutting the budgets of the UNRWA and PA. What is the IDF’s policy?
We suggest differentiating between the two parts. Firstly, it’s in our best interest that Gaza have functioning electricity, water and health systems, and that the ground water remain free of disease, which could lead to massive sickness. Secondly, it’s important to know that our interests are conditional. We do want Gaza to have an open port, thriving commerce, and better living conditions. But in order for that to happen, we must first bring Operation Protective Edge to a close. Hamas must return the Israelis who are being held captive there, as well as the bodies of the two fallen IDF soldiers. From our point of view, they must comply with these preconditions before any progress can be made. The person responsible for making this decision is [Hamas leader Yahya] Sanwar, who is focusing on a few hundred Palestinian prisoners sitting in Israeli prisons. He is keeping more than two million Gaza residents hostage because of his primal fear of his friends in prison.
It’s still not clear what the IDF’s policy is regarding the Palestinians.
This is a political question. In the past, the lines were clearer. After the Oslo Accords, we knew what the three stages were; we knew what direction we were going and what the final status was supposed to look like. Since 2000, this process has become disjointed and is constantly changing. In this complicated reality, in which there are so many internal disagreements within Israeli society, the IDF’s role is to provide security and freedom for the politicians so that they can make decisions from a position of strength, and not while dealing with an intifada or running for cover from a barrage of rockets.
In my opinion, we’ve been quite successful in our efforts to compartmentalize the two sectors of terrorists and civilians.
Existential threats
Is Israel’s existence being threatened?
I don’t see any threats to Israel’s existence.
From a military point of view, Israel is invincible. Despite the reduction in the size of our reserve soldiers, we still have the largest military in the Middle East – even larger than Turkey’s army. I’m not saying this to be arrogant; it’s just that I know what our capabilities are. When I’m asked what I’m afraid of, I reply that I’m concerned that the sea is a noisy border that could become louder.
Are you referring to comments about the IDF being weak and worried?
All of these comments about the IDF being weak are complete nonsense.
They are baseless and are not new. They’ve been circulating since 1995. I won’t say that I love the idea, but they are part of an effort to promote false agendas. Roni Nomeh Alov, OC Central Command, who is finishing his term, said that during his tenure we killed 253 terrorists.
Only four of them turned out not to have been involved. In the eight years before Nomeh was in charge, we killed only 115 terrorists. I don’t like employing the “blood test,” but the statistic does prove that the IDF has deployed a large number of forces to thwart terrorism.
The problem is that these lies slowly turn into reality. Doesn’t this affect your choices?
The people who are making these statements are trying to promote a specific agenda and this is unacceptable.
I don’t know the opinions of each and every major-general in the Central Command. Yair Golan [the deputy chief of staff who compared the Weimar Republic to Israel] and Nitzan Alon [who was called a leftist by the extreme Right, and activists protested in front of his home] are two officers who’ve contributed to the security of Israel a hundred thousand times more than the people who criticize them. It’s a shame that people spend so much energy trying to vilify IDF officials.
Social issues in the IDF
What is your opinion on the exclusion of women in the IDF?
These are the same people I already mentioned. There was no joint service when I was doing my mandatory army service. In the War of Independence, 120 women lost their lives in battle and about 100 women were taken prisoner of war. When I began my tenure as chief of staff, there were already eight mixed IDF battalions. I added another two so that the Paratroopers and Golani could carry out additional training exercises. In 2008, due to pressure from these same individuals, the command was frozen. As a result, the IDF was turned into an organization like roads with no traffic lights. With no leader in charge, each commander did whatever he thought was right. And so, following recommendations from the committee that was convened during Benny Gantz’s tenure, I realized that there was a need for clear rules regarding what is and what is not allowed. That’s why I approved the IDF’s joint service protocol.
It will be in effect for one year, at which time it will be reviewed. Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich has an even larger number of mixed gender units in the border patrol, and I don’t hear anyone lodging complaints about them.
What about haredi units?
Just this past month the first unit of haredi soldiers who served for two years and eight months completed their military service.
The IDF has grown by 5,000 soldiers since these soldiers signed up in 2015. Some people claim the IDF has not inducted nearly as many haredi soldiers as planned. But there is another way of looking at it: The number of haredi conscripts has risen 10-fold over the last decade. At this very moment, there are 7,000 such soldiers serving in the IDF, 400 of whom are officers or career soldiers.
And what about female soldiers?
There is also a rise in the number of female soldiers, the largest trend being among graduates of religious high schools. In 2011, there were 900 religious female soldiers; in 2017 the number rose to 2,400, and in 2018 this number is expected to reach 2,700. This is an absolutely incredible phenomenon. What are people so angry about? That I’m instigating a women’s revolution? This didn’t happen today – it happened 18 years ago when all these amazing women were born. They are joining an organization that is enabling them to keep their religious lifestyle while at the same time growing professionally and developing their skills and capabilities. This is a great opportunity for them to work side by side with secular Israeli commanders.
Getting personal
Did you grow up in a religious home?
I grew up in a traditional home. My mother would go to the synagogue, but I didn’t. I would go to my sailing club on Saturdays with Rabbi Yigal Levinstein [who today is the leader of the movement that opposes joint service, as well as a homophobe]. He was secular back in those days and his mother was an English teacher. He and his brothers were excellent sailors, much better than I was. They almost made it to the Olympics. He was a company commander of the 460th Bnei Or Armored Brigade and his brother was a Phantom pilot.
So maybe the best thing to do is ignore all the mumbo-jumbo?
When you’re working inside the IDF, you see the incredible gap between the public discourse and what actually goes on inside the organization. The military needs to be given support so that it can carry out its job. Surveys show that 90% of the public trusts the IDF, which is well above any other public institution in the State of Israel. The reason for this support is simply because the Israeli people know that the only way we can continue to exist is if we have a strong military.
Have you experienced much pressure to make changes during your tenure as IDF chief of staff?
This has been a constant since the founding of the IDF. But Israeli society has changed – it’s become much more violent – and with the onset of the Internet it’s become so easy to publicize all sorts of unintelligent and incorrect beliefs. We must unite together in order for the IDF to be strong and for us to win the war. To achieve this, we must resist the urge to always be making changes. We must be professional, impartial and stately. All of the criticism of me in my role as chief of staff revolves around these issues. I choose to do not what’s popular, but what is good for the IDF. My job as chief of staff is to build a wall around the IDF and prevent outside forces from influencing what goes on inside the military.
An Israeli documentary titled The Ancestral Sin was recently screened. It tells a story similar to yours – about the son of Moroccan immigrants who live in the periphery, in Eilat, where you grew up.
What’s your take on the film?
I’ll answer you by telling you about my kids. When they came home from school and told me they wanted help on their family roots project, they asked me: Where are we from? Are we Ashkenazi? Sephardi? So I just repeated what my daughter’s friend (who was in a similar situation) would say: My parents are from North Africa and your mother was born in America, so I guess that makes you African-American.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.