Yet Another Ex-military Chief Weighs His Options in Israel
With the country apparently headed for further electoral upheaval, the somewhat lackluster but highly respected Gadi Eisenkot could be surveying the political turf
The past year’s never-ending election cycle in Israel appears poised for a premature comeback, with the already-deeply strained Netanyahu-Gantz “unity” coalition teetering on the brink of collapse due to a stalled budget.
Despite the short time that has passed since the third round of elections in under a year, much has changed in the political landscape.
The centrist Blue and White party of Benny Gantz, once seen as a rising star, is in freefall after Gantz broke his promise not to join a government led by the Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu, on trial for alleged corruption.
Netanyahu’s former right-wing partner, Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, once a rising star himself, is up in the polls as he and his party sit in the opposition. But Bennett is refusing – for now – to commit to backing Netanyahu for prime minister in the next election.
There is talk, though, of an entirely new rising star who could be ready to join the fray.
Some Center-Left voters appear to be turning their hopes to their latest potential knight in shining armor, Gadi Eisenkot – like Gantz, a former military chief of staff. While Eizenkot himself has remained virtually silent since he shed his uniform last year, talk of his entering politics among those close to him and in the media has picked up significantly in recent days.
The Media Line spoke with several of the general’s friends and colleagues to assess the chances of such a move and to find out what an Eizenkot-led political entity might look like.
“Gadi hasn’t decided yet, but if I’d have to wager, I’d say he’s going to enter [politics] and I think it’s in Israel’s best interest that a man of such character attain a leading role in public service,” says Col. (res.) Kobi Marom, an Eisenkot friend for over 40 years and today a research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya’s Institute for Policy and Strategy.
“He sees the difficult Israeli reality for the past two years, the current problems, the leadership crisis, the widening social divide,” Marom tells The Media Line.
“It worries him and he knows he can contribute,” the retired colonel continues. “For instance, he would have been the perfect candidate to become the ‘coronavirus czar,’ which didn’t happen for all the wrong reasons,” he adds, alluding to a newly created position and hinting at his opinion of Netanyahu’s handling of the issue.
Col. (res.) Zvika Barkai, another former service comrade of Eizenkot for nearly three decades, agrees.
“If Gadi enters public service, he’ll do it for the public good, not because of any personal drive,” Barkai tells The Media Line.
“He has no political ambitions, no obsession for it. He’s not egomaniacal, not a demagogue, he doesn’t feel the need to be the center of attention,” Barkai explains. “So in that sense, only if he thinks the country needs someone like him will he step in the ring.”
He has no political ambitions, no obsession for it. He’s not egomaniacal, not a demagogue, he doesn’t feel the need to be the center of attention. So in that sense, only if he thinks the country needs someone like him will he step in the ring
Born to Moroccan immigrants in the northern town of Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Eizenkot, 60, enlisted in the Golani infantry brigade in 1978. Rising through the ranks, he assumed the leadership of Northern Command following the 2006 Lebanon war, in which the military’s training and preparation were exposed as lacking. After an unprecedented move in which he stepped aside to allow Gantz to become chief of staff because of his belief that the latter was, at the time, better suited for the job, Eisenkot entered into the top post in February 2015.
During his four-year term, Eizenkot garnered praise for his leadership in combatting hostile Iranian activity in neighboring Syria, and exposing and destroying Hizbullah’s tunnels dug into Israeli territory beneath the border with Lebanon. He also procured a long-term, steady budget for the military and advanced its training across the board.
To a man, Eizenkot’s friends and acquaintances laud the general’s modesty and integrity. Phrases such as “Won’t compromise his values,” “Man of his word,” “Fights for what he believes in” and “Unwavering in the face of public pressure” come up nearly verbatim among all.
“Gadi is a very worthy man, brave in both the simple and the political sense of the word,” Maj.-Gen. (res.) Eyal Ben-Reuven, who served as deputy head of the Northern Command and is a former member of Knesset, Israel’s parliament, tells The Media Line.
Gadi is a very worthy man, brave in both the simple and the political sense of the word
“I assume he wants to continue contributing to society. He has a very complex worldview and a straightforward and honest way of presenting it. He’s smart, knows how to handle difficult issues [and is] modest − more so than other generals,” Ben-Reuven says.
“I hold his term as IDF chief in the highest esteem,” he goes on. “While in the Knesset, I followed his development in that role with great appreciation. He didn’t flinch or change his tune when confronted with political attacks from MKs.”
As an example of his character and resolve, several interviewees mention Eisenkot’s handling of the infamous 2017 incident in which an Israeli soldier was caught on camera shooting and killing a Palestinian terrorist who had already been “neutralized.”
His insistence on condemning and reprimanding the soldier in the face of political pressure from Netanyahu, who wished to appease his right-wing base, gained Eizenkot wide-ranging appreciation in military and Center-Left circles while drawing the ire of the Right.
“He stayed true to his values and he paid a price for it,” Marom says.
He stayed true to his values and he paid a price for it
Still, not all those who speak highly of Eisenkot’s character believe those qualities can translate into political success.
“People who stick to their values have very little success in politics,” says Barkai, who, after retiring from military service was elected to serve as a council member in his hometown of Kiryat Bialik.
For Ben-Reuven, who made a similar transition, the change was drastic and challenging.
“You arrive at a whole new world – a very, very problematic one for me and many of my [former military] colleagues,” he notes. “You just aren’t prepared for this type of game. At age 50 to 60, you enter a wholly foreign field, especially in the moral sense.”
For this reason, he has his doubts that Eisenkot can succeed.
“I think he has too much integrity, actually. He’s a man of his word, and in politics, there are situations where you have to throw your word out the window if you want to advance,” he explains. “From what I know of Gadi through decades in the military, I’m not sure he’s able to do that.”
I think he has too much integrity, actually. He’s a man of his word, and in politics, there are situations where you have to throw your word out the window if you want to advance. From what I know of Gadi through decades in the military, I’m not sure he’s able to do that
Prof. Yoram Peri is a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies and teaches political sociology and media at the University of Maryland. He expounds on the different tool sets needed for the military and political realms.
“Interestingly, a lot of [high ranking military officers] fail in their first shot at civilian life,” he tells The Media Line, adding that for those who go into politics, the rules are quite different.
“Unlike military life, politics is not necessarily about getting things done,” Peri explains. “It’s about debating, leading an agenda, having a set ideology, negotiating, reaching compromises. Some do have immediate success in that transition, but most don’t.”
Peri, whose books such as Between Battles and Ballots: Israeli Military in Politics and Generals in the Cabinet Room: How the Military Shapes Israel’s Policy are considered ground-breaking treatises in analyzing the country’s militaristic society, details the reasons that so many Israeli military figures go into politics.
“It’s a uniquely Israeli phenomenon. No other country has so many generals that enter politics,” he says.
“In Western democracies, there are only a handful. In nondemocracies, there are military coups. But no democracy has such a widespread pattern,” he adds.
“People who want to get elected need name recognition. In the US, if you’re a TV star, you have that. In Israel, it’s the army. People here trust the military very much. The exposure of army personnel to the general public is very high since Israel is in a constant state of war. The current anti-politics sentiment also works in their favor,” Peri explains.
“Also, unlike in other countries… generals are discharged at a relatively young age, with time for a second career,” he notes. “It’s a host of circumstances that benefit them.”
Peri, who was a political adviser to assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, claims the political developments of the past year do not bode well for Eisenkot.
“Obviously, the terrible disappointment in Gantz and [Blue and White’s No. 2, Gabi] Ashkenazi doesn’t bode well for Gadi,” he says. “If the last year didn’t happen, he might receive much greater support.”
Like Gantz (and Rabin), Ashkenazi was also an IDF chief of staff.
Eisenkot’s friends are unanimous in their assessment as to where in the political landscape the former general can place himself – which is to say anywhere.
“He has the entire spectrum to choose from,” says Barkai.
He has the entire spectrum to choose from
“I think one of the good things he’s done is he’s never identified politically in terms of Left or Right,” Ben-Reuven states. “In the end, he needs to ask himself one question: Where are my best chances of succeeding?”
This does not mean that Eisenkot has no ideology or core beliefs regarding issues on the Israeli agenda, and on this, there are minor disagreements among his friends.
“He’s not a warmonger,” says Ben-Reuven.
“I’m convinced that on the Palestinian issue, he’s for disengagement and believes in a two-state solution,” the retired major-general and former MK continues. “Socially, he’s on the same side: He believes Israel must strengthen the economically weak and that the government needs to help and support the lower classes. In those senses, he’s left-wing, I think.”
Marom believes Eizenkot’s views are more to the Center.
“What most bothers him is the social divide, widened by our current leaders who are focused on the wrong things – themselves,” he says.
What most bothers him is the social divide, widened by our current leaders who are focused on the wrong things – themselves
Marom also touches on Israeli-US relations, claiming that Eisenkot is acutely aware of the importance of the Jewish Diaspora and the critical task of mending Israel’s relationship with the Conservative and Reform communities in the US.
“Gadi believes in a free and democratic Israel,” he explains, citing the controversial Nation-State law as an example of steps taken by Netanyahu governments that run contrary to Eisenkot’s beliefs in equality for all the country’s citizens.
Getting back to a landing spot on the political spectrum, joining former chiefs of staff Gantz and Ashkenazi in Blue and White is a possibility, some of Eisenkot’s friends say, while others recommend he forge a different path.
“Gadi has virtually no enemies,” Barkai notes. “[Gantz, Ashkenazi and Eizenkot] all know each other extremely well, warts and all. The combination of all three of them could do them good politically.”
Says Ben-Reuven: “Gadi knows them. They’re friends. But Blue and White has flamed out. They’re done…. I wouldn’t recommend the Labor party; they’re pretty much history. He can join [the left-wing Meretz party’s] Yair Golan, another former general. He can also create his own new platform [and] infuse it with great people. It’s worked in the past.”
If Eizenkot does choose to enter politics, he’d be the eighth-straight IDF chief of staff to do so. Recent polls, however, show that the Israeli public is now wary of following another general.
Still, his friends say that after the voters get to know his personality and belief system, they’ll flock to him in droves.
All that Eisenkot has to do now is decide. In Israel’s hectic and even chaotic political reality, that decision could come sooner than anyone might have expected.