Time for a transparent IDF

The question is whether any of this really matters. Would there really be differences between any of the four, all of whom appear on paper to be qualified to lead the IDF?

Gadi Eisenkot
Fifteen years ago, in September 2003, Gadi Eisenkot was serving as commander of the Judea and Samaria Division in the West Bank. It was the height of the Second Intifada, and Palestinian suicide bombers were exploding in Israel on an almost weekly basis. For each attack that succeeded, another dozen were stopped in their tracks.
Eisenkot, who would become the chief of staff in 2015, had taken up his post a few months earlier, and immediately was thrust into the middle of Israel’s war on terror. One Friday at 3 a.m., the Division received a tip: Mohammed Hanbali, a top Hamas commander and one of the most-wanted terrorists in the West Bank, was hiding in an apartment building in Nablus. A few attack options were considered, but Eisenkot decided to send in two teams of commandos. One was from Shayetet 13, Israel’s version of the US Navy’s SEALs, and the other from Oketz, the IDF’s elite K-9 unit.
During the raid, one of the navy commandos was killed and an Oketz fighter was seriously injured. Hanbali, a bomb-maker responsible for the deaths of dozens of Israelis, was killed.
A few weeks later, Eisenkot met with the parents of the dead IDF commando. They asked the division commander why he decided to send troops in on the ground. Why, they wondered, hadn’t he ordered an air strike?
Eisenkot explained that a bombing would have been disproportionate, and would have ended with dozens of dead civilians. In addition, he explained, to win the war on terror, the IDF needed to get as close to terrorists as possible. Technology and stand-off air strikes are not enough, he said. “We need to be able to kill a terrorist from five meters away with a rifle.”
In a few months, Eisenkot will step down from his post as the IDF’s 21st chief of staff, and hang up his uniform after more than 40 years of service. The Hanbali story is one he likes to tell when asked how to defeat terrorism. It not only explains his strategy of engaging the enemy, but to some extent also exemplifies his tenure.
As chief of staff, Eisenkot perfected the “war between the wars,” the military’s term for the covert war it wages – even during times of quiet – against its enemies. While his three predecessors fought public wars – in Lebanon and Gaza – Eisenkot’s term has been marked by covert activity aimed primarily at preventing Israel’s enemies from obtaining advanced weaponry. This is most evident in Syria, where dozens of air strikes have taken place against Iranian and Hezbollah targets, as well as more recently in the Gaza Strip, where he skillfully managed – so far – to avoid a larger military confrontation.
He is a chief of staff who hasn’t hesitated to use force, but he’s also been smart about how and when to use it.
This is important to keep in mind as Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman contemplates who he will choose to replace Eisenkot in February. Four candidates are in the running: Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, his predecessor Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan, former head of the Operations Directorate Maj.-Gen. Nitzan Alon, and former head of Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Eyal Zamir.
Each officer has his advantages. Kochavi is seen as the leading contender, and as someone groomed from early on in his career as a potential chief of staff. Golan was viewed very much in the same way until the controversial speech he gave two years ago on Holocaust Remembrance Day, during which he compared trends in Israeli society to those of pre-World War II Germany.
Alon is seen as a creative officer. He is a former commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, and has led troops on countless operations deep behind enemy lines. Nevertheless, his tenure as head of the Central Command put him in the crosshairs of the settler camp. His appointment would not bode well with Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing voters.
Zamir is the least experienced of the four. Before serving as head of Southern Command, he was Netanyahu’s military aid. A veteran armor officer, Zamir lacks a top management position like the other three. If he is passed over now, Zamir stands a good chance of being offered to serve as the next deputy chief of staff and to contend for the top post in four more years.
The question is whether any of this really matters. Would there really be differences between any of the four, all of whom appear on paper to be qualified to lead the IDF?
The problem is that the public will probably never know. While the chief of staff is one of the most important positions in Israel with one of the highest public profiles, there is little, if any, understanding of the appointment process – how it is done and why decisions are ultimately made the way they are.    
No matter who Liberman and Netanyahu select as the next chief of staff, they will say the same thing: He is the most qualified, the best suited, the most talented and the right person to lead the military in the face of its many challenges. The name will then be brought to the cabinet for a vote, and the ministers will serve as the rubber stamp they know they are. They don’t care though. After all, we are talking about the IDF.
In a country where the IDF plays such a prominent role, this is wrong. Adding to the problem is that in recent years, IDF generals refuse to be interviewed by the press. Eisenkot, for example, has given only a handful of interviews during his four-year tenure. Golan’s last interview was after his controversial Holocaust comment, and given to an official IDF website. Kochavi hasn’t spoken on record to the press in years, and the same applies to Alon and Zamir.
This silence is a relatively new phenomenon. It started after the Second Lebanon War, when Gabi Ashkenazi returned to lead the IDF in place of Dan Halutz, the fighter-pilot-turned-chief-of-staff who relented to public calls to resign. Ashkenazi understood that the public wanted a chief of staff who worked and didn’t talk. Until today, he is still considered one of the best military chiefs in Israel’s history.
The public loved this new approach, and other generals understood that giving interviews and answering questions didn’t really help them. They meet with journalists for off-record briefings, but only rarely do they actually give interviews. This perpetuates the public sentiment that the IDF brass is solely interested in security and nothing else.
Eisenkot explained this strategy in one of the rare interviews he gave: “You give an interview for an hour, and then you need to explain what you meant for three days. It’s a waste of my time.”
The problem is that it’s not a waste of the public’s time. The chief of staff is subordinate to the cabinet, and the cabinet works for the public. But no one in the public, the Knesset or the cabinet really knows what these generals believe, what their plans are for the future, and what they think about a range of security, diplomatic and social issues on which the IDF directly has an impact.
In 2010, the State Comptroller blasted the process used to appoint officers to the General Staff, from which the chief of staff is then chosen.
“This so-called procedure,” the comptroller wrote in a scathing report, “is not based on any framework, has no rules or regulations, is not clearly based on written materials or documents, is not documented, and for the most part is dependent on the relations existing between the chief of staff and the minister of defense.”
Did anything change because of the report? Of course not. That does not mean that it can’t.
The pending appointment of a new chief of staff is an opportunity to create new transparent regulations for the way officers become generals and move up in position and rank. There are a number of possible models, from requiring the approval of a professional committee before the cabinet vote, to holding confirmation hearings before the Knesset or at the very least, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
IDF generals wield great influence over Israel and its citizens. It is time we knew a bit more about them.