For the past year, Gadi Eisenkot has, in his quiet and unassuming way, been repeating the same warning to anyone who will hear.
He said it to me in March as we stood beside the stage at one of the massive rallies outside the Knesset against the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul plans: “Netanyahu should start preparing his answers for the commission of inquiry.”
Eisenkot didn’t make a speech at the rally, though he would have been warmly welcomed by the organisers. It simply isn’t his style and never has been. Of the 23 men who have served as Chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defence Forces, he is without a doubt the most unassuming.
Even after he joined the political scene last August as part of Benny Gantz’s National Unity list, he found it hard to make speeches or give interviews. He doesn’t speak in slogans or soundbites and never raises his voice.
He went into politics after 40 years of military service due to a deep concern over the direction Israel was taking. Three months later, that concern became a sense of foreboding when he saw how the victorious old-new prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was prepared to give Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, men he regards as dangerous anarchists, sweeping powers over Israel’s security policies. That’s when he started to warn of something terrible happening that would necessitate a national commission of inquiry.
Nine months and two weeks after the Netanyahu government he warned against was inaugurated, he joined it.
On October 7 it was clear to him that he had to turn up for duty no matter what. Together with Gantz, and unlike the leader of the Opposition Yair Lapid who demanded that the far-right be removed from government, he had only two conditions. To be part of a war cabinet in which the far-right would not have a presence and to suspend any non-war-related legislation.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, and head of the National Unity party Benny Gantz (not seen) hold a joint press conference at the Ministry of Defense, in Tel Aviv. October 28, 2023.(DANA KOPEL/POOL)
It took Netanyahu four days to agree and they joined. While the other members of the war cabinet (Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer) have made public appearances and done press conferences or interviews, Eisenkot disappeared from view.
He spent eight weeks poring over operational plans, touring the units, not just on the Gaza border and inside Gaza, but on the northern front and in the West Bank as well, speaking with commanders and soldiers at all levels. Insiders say he is probably the most influential among the five war cabinet members when it comes to making the key decisions.
Probably the most important of those so far was agreeing to the four-day truce with Hamas in exchange for the release of 50 hostages. Eisenkot was the minister most in favour of doing whatever was possible to save at least some of the hostages. Gantz went along with him. But the IDF General Staff, which they had both commanded not so long ago and Gallant claimed that Hamas was getting valuable time, when they were reeling from the IDF attack, and not giving nearly enough in return. Netanyahu dithered for weeks.
It was Eisenkot’s quiet insistence that finally won over the other generals and the defence minister. The prime minister, as in other cases, allowed himself to be dragged along by the consensus.
Eisenkot could convince the sceptics because they all knew he was looking out only for Israel’s national interests. Unlike three other members of the war cabinet, he has no desire ever to be prime minister.
And they knew that he was fully aware of the risks: that Hamas would use the days of the truce to relieve and replenish its fighters in their tunnels and prepare ambushes and booby-traps for the advancing IDF troops once the truce was over. They were convinced and more hostages, 110 in total, were released in what became exactly a week of truce: 110 people emerged alive and for a few brief moments, Israelis experienced a sense of joyful relief.
And he could convince the sceptics because they knew that he was not making abstract decisions. He had close family members serving on the frontline in Gaza.
Last week, his youngest son, Gal Meir Eisenkot, a reserve soldier in the commando brigade, was killed in an operation that failed to save more hostages. The next day, his nephew Maor Cohen-Eisenkot was also killed.
Both cousins had been named for Gadi’s father Meir who had emigrated from Morocco to Israel.
As he spoke over Gal’s grave, his voice faltering from tears, he recalled their last meeting a week earlier, on a brief leave during the truce: “You were happy to see and hear that the offensive operations that you were part of contributed to the hostages’ release. You especially talked about the small children.”
He promised him that “we will continue in the fight, in an effort to strengthen the country you loved so much, especially that it will be strong, developed and just.”
Netanyahu attended the funeral. It was the first time he had been to any of the funerals of the 1,300 Israelis who died on October 7 and in the two months of war since. It didn’t escape anyone that he wasn’t asked to eulogise the fallen soldiers: only Gantz was. Or that Netanyahu arrived with a retinue of official photographers and that his office was quick to distribute to the media footage of him laying a wreath on the grave and embracing his war cabinet colleague.
As the shivah for Gal ends, Eisenkot will be back in the war cabinet doing exactly what he has done for every moment of the past two months. And when the moment comes for Gantz, his party leader to leave the emergency coalition, when the war starts to wind down, he will join him in the campaign to replace Netanyahu.
And he will be there at the commission of inquiry, taking the stand as one of the men responsible for Israel’s security strategy, in his quiet voice, answering and asking the toughest questions.