An ex-chief of staff isn't always the answer to Israel's problems

The reason people feel an “Eisenkot” is desirable is because they need someone who can compete with Netanyahu for the title of “Mr. Security.”

IS THE GANG getting back together again? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon present Gadi Eizenkot with the IDF pennant when he replaced Benny Gantz in 2015 as chief of staff. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
IS THE GANG getting back together again? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon present Gadi Eizenkot with the IDF pennant when he replaced Benny Gantz in 2015 as chief of staff.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
On February 17, 2016, then IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot met with a group of high schoolers in Bat Yam. It was the height of what became known as the “Stabbing Intifada,” a wave of terrorist incidents carried out mostly by lone Palestinian attackers.
One of the Bat Yam students, a candidate for military service, asked Eisenkot what should be the proper military response when encountering a Palestinian with a knife. A few months earlier, a police officer had shot two Arab teenage girls who had attacked an elderly man on a Jerusalem street with pairs of scissors. One of the girls was killed. The other was critically wounded.
“The IDF doesn’t need to get swept up in statements like ‘Kill or be killed,’ or ‘Whomever comes at you with scissors needs to be killed’,” answered Eisenkot. “I don’t want to see a soldier empty a magazine on a young girl even if what she is doing is grave. Force should be used depending on the mission.”
Eisenkot came under fire from politicians on the Right who warned that his words would undermine Israel’s ability to defend itself. It was just the beginning.
Five weeks later, on March 24, a soldier from the Kfir Brigade named Elor Azaria shot and killed a Palestinian who had just stabbed an Israeli soldier. The Palestinian assailant, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, had already been shot and was laying wounded in the street when Azaria took aim with his assault rifle and shot him in the head. The whole incident was filmed and, of course, it quickly went viral.
Eisenkot wasted no time. Together with the defense minister, he put out a statement the same day condemning the shooting and announcing the opening of a thorough investigation. “This is not the way of the IDF, these are not the ethics of the IDF and this is not the culture of the IDF,” said the chief of staff.
Both incidents, to some extent, shaped Eisenkot’s tenure as Israel’s top military officer. Yes, he led an impressive campaign against Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, and of course, he prepared the IDF for future challenges. But when it came to the way he was viewed publicly and politically, people recalled his stand against Azaria and the scissors shooting. Sometimes that is just the way things are.
This public persona and strong ethical stand has contributed to the way Eisenkot is now perceived: as savior of the Center-Left. If only Eisenkot entered politics, some claim, he would stand the best chance at defeating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Why? According to one pundit, Eisenkot could put up the strongest fight against Netanyahu on matters of national security and foreign policy.
The flaw in this thinking is that another party emerging on the Center-Left is exactly what Netanyahu wants – to split the vote even more between Blue and White and Yesh Atid and ensure that a plurality of votes go to the Right. An Eisenkot party might draw 15 seats, as one poll this week showed, but most such a party’s members would be politicians who just move around within the Center-Left bloc. Only four would come from the Right, which would still give Netanyahu enough seats to form a coalition.
There is speculation that Eisenkot might join with Gideon Sa’ar, who is now out of Likud, but the better question is: why does anyone think that Eisenkot would make a good politician?
While the former IDF chief has indicated his interest in continuing to contribute to the nation, he should heed caution before running for the Knesset. Just glance at the rows of pictures that don the wall outside what used to be Eisenkot’s office on the 14th floor of the Kirya Military Headquarters in Tel Aviv. Only two of his predecessors made it to the premiership: Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, the latter serving for the record shortest time among Israel’s prime ministers, and who most recently returned to politics, only to end up not getting into the Knesset in the first election in 2019.
Every chief of staff who followed into politics Barak was a failure:
The late Amnon Lipkin-Shahak jumped in and left before he could leave a mark.
Shaul Mofaz is most remembered for crossing from Likud to Kadima, fighting with Tzipi Livni to take over the party, and under his leadership Kadima dropped from 29 seats to just two.
Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, a former defense minister, went from being touted as Netanyahu’s heir apparent in the Likud to a backbench MK in Yesh Atid, where he is said to be at odds with the party’s leader, Yair Lapid.
Dan Halutz, chief of staff during the Second Lebanon War, who resigned over the failures of that war, registered with Kadima and announced he was aiming for a top spot on the party’s list but by the time the election rolled around he wasn’t even running.
Now we have the last two chiefs of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz, who if recent polls are to be believed, also seem to be nearing the end of their political careers. Regardless, their terms in office until now will be remembered for a.) the flip-flop they did on their promise not to sit in a Netanyahu-led government, and b.) for failing to realize that from the outset, he was cheating them.
Eisenkot knows all of this, and yet is still rumored to be considering a run for office. I don’t mean to say that Eisenkot isn’t a worthy candidate, and that he shouldn’t enter politics. On the contrary: Israel is in desperate need of fresh political blood and new leadership. The problem is with the idea – born with this state – that the country is always in need of a messiah, and that this messiah always needs to be a former chief of staff.
But if there is anything to learn from the experiences of Eisenkot’s forerunners, it is that generals don’t do well in the Knesset. There has been a similar pushback in the United States, following President-elect Joe Biden’s announcement that he intends to appoint retired General Lloyd Austin as the next secretary of defense. Critics maintain that what’s needed in the Pentagon is civilian supervision, not another military officer.
Generals have many talents, but it seems politics is not where they excel, for various reasons. First is that as tough as the battlefield is, the enemies that these generals face don’t smile at them in the morning and then try to stab them in the back in the evening. They don’t have to build coalitions and break coalitions. They don’t have to get their hands dirty and play dirty.
Most importantly, their status is not the same once they enter politics. In the army they are respected and treated with deference. In politics they face a public that has no problem scrutinizing them in a way they have never experienced.
The feeling that Israel needs new leadership is understandable. Netanyahu has been commanding the country for the last 11 years, but now he is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Even among his supporters, there is a feeling that it’s time for change.
However, political messiahs don’t just appear out of the blue and save a country. One of the reasons Netanyahu has succeeded staying in power for so long is because he really is the quintessential politician, where every consideration is driven by politics: his cabinet decisions, how he dresses, what he says, and with whom he meets.
The reason Gantz has failed so far is because he doesn’t know how to operate that way, just as Mofaz, Lipkin-Shahak and Ya’alon didn’t know before him. Because not every good general makes a good politician.
For real change to come, Israelis have to be able to look at leaders without constantly comparing them to the one who is currently in office – the reason people feel an “Eisenkot” is desirable is because they need someone who can compete with Netanyahu for the title of “Mr. Security.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. For Israel to elect new leadership, people have to imagine new leadership. That can happen with any number of candidates. An ex-chief of staff is not always the answer.