In mid-January, 2019, Israel will have a new Chief of Staff (COS). Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi will be promoted to lieutenant general and will replace Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.
While the change of guard at the helm of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is usually a smooth process, the office of the COS, with its full pack of duties, responsibilities and sensitivities, is only second in importance to the prime minister. It is not a cliché or exaggeration to say that the COS determines on a daily basis questions of life and death, and war and peace.
The 59-year-old Eisenkot, always struggling with his weight, is leaving office after nearly four years. His beaming smiles with his bearish look create an impression of softness. But his look can be misleading. He knows how to be tough, and, if necessary, to inflict painful blows on enemies and rivals.
During his tenure, Eisenkot successfully navigated the IDF and the country through several minefields, overcame obstacles and confronted challenges on six fronts. Five of them were well-known to him before he entered office. The sixth was a complete surprise.
The five fronts (arenas in military jargon) are Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Gaza and Sinai. The major tool that Eisenkot and his 21 subordinate generals on the General Staff use in their battles is CBW, an IDF acronym, which means “Campaign between Wars.”
Since its independence in 1948, Israel fought four classical wars with tanks, air force, artillery, naval warfare and special operations aiming to defeat the enemies’ armies and conquer territory, in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973.
The Yom Kippur War (October 1973-January 1974) was the last of its kind. The IDF fiercely fought against the Syrian and Egyptian armies. Since then, all eight confrontations – two in Lebanon against Hezbollah (1982, 2006), three in the West Bank (1987-90, 2002-2005 and 2015-16), and three in Gaza (2008-9, 2012 and 2014) – have taken on a completely different shape. These were asymmetrical battles between IDF regular and reserve troops and the guerrilla and terrorist forces of Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
Between these much publicized and visible wars, the IDF under Eisenkot was involved in considerably less noticeable operations, mostly carried out under the public radar. In these CBWs, which are ongoing in all arenas, close to home and far away, the IDF has mainly used the air force, intelligence units, special forces and, occasionally, naval boats and submarines.
Since Israel maintains almost total silence, we need to refer to past foreign reports to illustrate the nature of the CBW operations. These reports published outside Israel revealed that Israeli war planes, including the newly acquired US-made F-35 “stealth” jet, which, according to Kuwaiti daily, Al-Jarida, flew over Iraq and Iran. In other reports, Israeli drones crossed from Azerbaijan to Iran. Israeli warplanes and naval missile ships in the Red Sea attacked boats carrying Iranian weapons to Gaza and destroyed weapons depots in Sudan, which stored Iranian weapons.
Israeli submarines, which according to foreign reports are equipped to carry nuclear-tipped warheads, also sailed to the Persian Gulf near Iran.
The Gaza Front
Five months before Eisenkot entered his modest office on the 14th floor of the Kirya tower overlooking central Tel Aviv, the third Gaza campaign (Operation Protective Edge) ended in August 2014. Hamas emerged with severe pains and bruises and agreed to a ceasefire and negotiations, after 50 days of fighting. Egyptian intelligence submitted a document of six points for reaching a long-term solution. Both sides agreed to it, but eventually only two clauses – one-third of the document – were implemented. These were the ceasefire and basic reconstruction with Qatari funds of thousands of buildings damaged during the fighting.
But the two sides have refused to compromise and honor the other items of the Egyptian proposal: Israel’s lifting of the siege of Gaza, building air and seaports, significant economic upgrading and a deal to swap prisoners and bodies.
For three and a half years, the ceasefire somehow held. But in March 2018, Hamas began a war of attrition by sending thousands of demonstrators to the border and flying incendiary kites and balloons, which set Israeli fields on fire. Israel responded with air strikes and snipers’ fire. Hamas reacted by renewing rocket launches against rural communities and towns in Israel and the two sides found themselves sliding into a new war.
Eisenkot was determined to prevent it. He believed that despite the damage and the sense of insecurity shared by many Israeli citizens near Gaza, the state cannot unleash the strongest army in the Middle East against Gaza because of kites and border protests.
He found himself in a face-to-face confrontation with then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman, his direct superior, who advocated an all-out war in Gaza to topple the Hamas regime – but he didn’t give in. The question whether to go to war was brought up twice in the last six months before the cabinet, and the majority of ministers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu included, backed Eisenkot. War was averted and Liberman resigned.
The Gaza ceasefire is still holding but Eisenkot has no illusions that sooner or later – whether in weeks or several months – the same old, unresolved issues will emerge and challenge his successor, Kochavi. Until then, Israel hopes to locate more Hamas tunnels – so far, 17 have been discovered – and complete the construction of the remaining 40 of 66 kilometers of its underground and above-ground, heavily fortified barrier enveloping Gaza.
The West Bank
In September 2016, nine months into his term, Eisenkot faced another Palestinian front – in the West Bank. Unlike the first and second intifadas, this one was unorganized. It was in a way spontaneous or its perpetrators drew their inspiration to carry out terror attacks against Israelis from social media. The terror wave was termed as the “lone-wolf intifada” or the “knife intifada.”
This was characterized by the employment of “cold” weapons, such as knives and cars, used mainly by teenagers with no organizational affiliation. The Palestinian Authority decided to stay out of the violence and its security services continued to cooperate with their Israeli counterparts and the military. After 13 months, with a death toll of 500 Palestinians and 45 Israelis, the IDF and the Shin Bet security service, which provided accurate intelligence, quashed the wave of terror.
Eisenkot deserves part of the credit. He wisely managed the crisis by isolating the terrorists and separating them from the rest of the 2.8 million Palestinians. He opposed any proposal to use collective punishment (such as imposing curfews on entire villages and towns) as occurred in previous uprisings. By doing so, he allowed 400,000 Palestinians to continue working in Israel, the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, in the security services, the PA and the private sector, to provide for and support their families and lead as normal a life as possible.
The home front
It was Eisenkot who eventually had to pay a personal price. In the midst of the Palestinian terror wave, an IDF soldier, Sgt. Elor Azaria, who arrived at the scene of a terror attack 12 minutes after the incident was over, murdered in cold blood a Palestinian terrorist who had already been shot and neutralized.
Eisenkot and the entire General Staff, including the IDF legal counsel, decided that Azaria had violated the code of engagement and the core values of the military and that he acted against the norms and spirit of the army.
His decision to prosecute Azaria caused unprecedented criticism from the Israeli right, including ministers, such as Netanyahu and Liberman, who demanded that Azaria not face trial because his act could and should be justified in the wake of the circumstances of a terrorist attack.
But Eisenkot, who was accused of “stabbing the soldier in the back,” refused to cave in to pressure. He showed his stubbornness, determination and moral compass. Azaria stood trial in a military court and was sent to jail, although he was given a relatively light sentence.
this was not the only case in which Eisenkot found himself fighting on unknown territory – the home front. He was forced time and again to repel endless efforts by the Right and their rabbis to politicize the army and implant their ideology and religiosity, as well as brainwash the young conscript, contrary to the IDF code.
The ISIS threat
Another unexpected challenge Eisenkot faced was that of ISIS, which peaked in 2015 when Isis declared the creation of the “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. Though Israel was a marginal target for these Islamic fanatics, it did establish branches near Israel’s borders in Sinai and on the Golan Heights. It took more than two years and the involvement of two international camps, one led by the US and another by Russia and Iran, to defeat ISIS and liberate most of the territories it controlled.
Israel’s contribution to the worldwide struggle was marginal. Nevertheless, Israel did help by providing intelligence, which helped the coalition planners to designate targets of ISIS leaders, safe houses and bases. In addition, the Mossad and military intelligence obtained valuable information regarding terror plots by ISIS members against Western targets in Europe, Asia and Australia. The information was forwarded to the relevant security service. The terror attacks were prevented and the Israeli intelligence community gained further credit and prestige from its peers.
At the same time, Israel reportedly acted independently by using its air force against ISIS concentrations near its borders in Syria and Sinai. On the peninsula Israel has two main interests. The first is to prevent the supply of rockets and other military equipment from ISIS in Sinai to Hamas. Indeed, in recent years, shipments of more than 10,000 rockets were discovered and destroyed on their way to Gaza. The second is to free Sinai from the grips of ISIS. According to foreign reports, Israel has supplied Egypt with intelligence and sent its warplanes and drones on hundreds of missions to pinpoint targets.
The Syria-Iran-Hezbollah Axis
With all due respect to the other arenas, the IDF under Eisenkot has perceived Iran to this day as the major threat facing Israel and it has been a continuously evolving one. Until 2015, it came from Iran’s aspirations to acquire nuclear weapons or at least to reach the nuclear threshold. That year Iran signed the nuclear deal with the world powers. It slowed down its nuclear development and, in return, the crippling sanctions were lifted, hundreds of billions of dollars held in bank accounts around the world were unfrozen and revenues from expanded oil exports poured into its economy.
The money has lubricated Iran’s aspirations and vision to control the Middle East. Eisenkot and his team detected three major Iranian efforts: to implant a 100,000 strong force of Shi’ite warriors from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq in Syria, to establish air and maritime positions in Syrian air and seaports, and to build factories in Syria and Lebanon to improve missile accuracy.
Israeli strategy has been to disrupt Iranian plans at any cost, even taking calculated risks despite the presence in Syria of a strong Russian contingent force.
Under the chaos of the civil war and with excellent intelligence, Israel sent its air force to carry out hundreds of strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria. These were mostly secret CBW operations, which rarely made the headlines.
It has been a very successful campaign. As of today Hezbollah has only a handful of precision missiles, though it did have a huge arsenal of nearly 150,000 inaccurate rockets and missiles, which can cause a great deal of damage. Iran failed to deploy its forces near the Golan Heights and was forced to reduce its troops and those of Hezbollah in Syria.
The Israeli strikes prevented Iran from constructing factories to upgrade Hezbollah missiles and there are no significant Iranian intelligence, air and naval posts.
Still Eisenkot knows very well that despite its setbacks, Iran has shown on other occasions that it can be patient. Thus it is clear to him that Iran hasn’t abandoned its aspirations for hegemony and opening a second front, in addition to Hezbollah in Lebanon, on which to confront Israel. This will continue to be Kochavi’s mission.
In my humble opinion, Eisenkot will be remembered as one of the best chiefs of staff Israel has ever had.