Will new kid on the block Eisenkot rise to the top of the political tree?

Every former chief of staff is hot political property but Mr Eisenkot's also that rare candidate who can appeal to more right-leaning predominantly Mizrahi voters


IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkott speaks at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on January 02, 2018. Photo by FLASH90 *** Local Caption *** תמונות של הרמטכל אייזנקוט ואהרון ברק בכנס צה"ל והחברה הישראלית שהתקיים במרכז הבינתחומי בהרצליה

The then Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, was about to give a high-level presentation in one of the cavernous meeting rooms on the fourteenth floor of the IDF General Staff tower in Tel Aviv. The lights had already been dimmed as the last participant shuffled to the back of the room.

In the dark he bumped into the short and pudgy figure of Major-General Gadi Eisenkot, then Gantz’s number two. When he expressed his surprise that the Deputy Chief of Staff wasn’t sitting at the front, General Eisenkot joked, “We golanchiks are used to sitting back and letting the paratroopers talk.”

He was referring to the legendary rivalry between two of the IDF’s crack brigades, but also to the contrast in personalities between the two generals leading Israel’s military at the time.

For most of his career, Mr Gantz was promoted more rapidly than Mr Eisenkot, serving in a quick sequence of senior postings. The tall dashing paratrooper was almost universally admired by those above him for his commanding poise, eloquence and self-confidence and was made a full general in 2001.

Officers who served under him have more nuanced views. They praised him for listening to the views of all his subordinates but also criticised him for often being long-winded, indecisive and reluctant to take unpopular stances.

The more taciturn Mr Eisenkot became a full general in 2005. Some felt he lacked the charisma of his friend and rival but everyone agreed he was a sound commander who never hesitated to speak his mind, though he used few words.

As the years passed and they both neared the finish line of their IDF careers, he was the one tipped for the top job in 2011, after then Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s original candidate, Yoav Galant, became embroiled in a real estate scandal. But General Eisenkot, at the time head of the IDF’s Northern Command, did something no general had done before and asked not to be appointed Chief of Staff.

His reasoning was that he had not yet served as Deputy Chief of Staff, and therefore lacked a wider perspective of the entire IDF.

The only remaining candidate was the third choice, about-to-be-ex-General Gantz who, after being twice passed over, was on his way to civilian life.

He had already made his farewells when he was called into Mr Barak’s office and told he was to be Chief of Staff after all. General Eisenkot became his deputy and then replaced him in 2014.
Eight and a half years later, Mr Eisenkot agreed this week to serve under Mr Gantz again.

Over the past couple of years he has been the most highly-anticipated debutant on the political scene.

Every former chief of staff is hot political property but Mr Eisenkot, who was born to Moroccan parents in Tiberias, is also that rare candidate who can appeal to more right-leaning predominantly Mizrahi voters, due to his family background and Golani record, as well as to the centre-left, who were impressed by his public attempts as chief of staff to curb disproportionate responses of his soldiers to the wave of “lone-wolf” Palestinian stabbing and ramming attacks at the end of 2015 and early 2016.

General Eisenkot said then, “I don’t want to see a soldier emptying a magazine on a girl with scissors.”

Parties across the political spectrum would have eagerly placed him in the upper reaches of their candidate lists and Mr Eisenkot has had long conversations with leaders of most of them over the past few months.

Until last week, it was widely believed he would join Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid as number two on the list. The announcement on Monday that he was rejoining Mr Gantz came as something of a surprise.

This was partly because it was barely a secret that Mr Eisenkot doesn’t hold him in very high esteem, and partly because his positions on key issues like the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the status of Arab-Israeli citizens are significantly to the left of Mr Gantz’s other new partner, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who merged his own New Hope list with Blue and White just a few weeks ago. Mr Eisenkot will be third on the candidate list of the new party, National Unity.

The main factor in his decision was his assessment that Yesh Atid is ultimately a one-man show. Mr Lapid’s politics may be more to his liking but his chances of achieving real influence in the party founded by the current prime minister over a decade ago and run by his tight-knit circle of veteran advisers, is much smaller.

Mr Gantz’s party has, in less than three years, merged with other parties, split with them, then merged again and changed names three times in the process.

It is still run on rather chaotic lines. In what was the final test of their intentions, Mr Eisenkot demanded a commitment to holding party-wide primaries for the leadership — a demand that Mr Lapid in the past avoided and only agreed to last year, after his main challenger and former ally, Ofer Shelah, had left the party. Mr Gantz on the other hand was willing to commit to holding primaries six months after the elections.

This is a personal blow to Mr Lapid, who failed to woo the new shining star, but Mr Eisenkot still plans on joining him. He believes that, ultimately, the two centrist parties must unite to serve as a credible alternative to Likud and has concluded that that the best of way of doing that is to boost Yesh Atid’s rivals so they can ultimately merge (again) on an equal footing.

Many generals who arrive in politics with great promise quickly find themselves out of their depth as they discover that, unlike in the army, they are no longer surrounded by subordinates who carry out their orders unquestioningly. Mr Eisenkot’s more considered entry may prove he has a better idea of what he now faces. Who knows, he may yet again end up replacing Mr Gantz.

Threatless lists
Meanwhile, Yoav Galant, the general who in 2011 nearly became IDF Chief of Staff instead of Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, is now facing them from the other side of the political divide.

Mr Galant won the third spot in the Likud primaries last Wednesday. Which is surprising considering the fact that back in 2015 he was number two in Kulanu, the now defunct right-wing party which was touted as an alternative to Likud. What’s even more surprising is that Eli Cohen, a colourless accountant who was number eight on Kulanu’s list that election, won second spot in the Likud primaries.

Messrs Cohen and Galant came in immediately after Yariv Levin, Netanyahu’s chief lieutenant. They won spots on the list which would have normally been taken by up-and-coming Likud stars, those tipped for leadership one day.

But those who not so long ago were seen as potential leaders have either been banished deep down the list or left Likud altogether. No one is assuming that either of these two could one day lead the party. So how to explain their sudden prominence?

It isn’t due to any real qualities they have. They are neither gifted orators nor campaigners and in their stints as ministers in previous Netanyahu governments failed to distinguish themselves with original policies or reforms.

But perhaps this is the very reason they did so well. They are vaguely respectable, not the kind of candidates who scare wavering voters and, ever since joining Likud a few years ago, have been slavishly loyal to Benjamin Netanyahu.

They don’t pose a conceivable threat to him as they have no real following in the party. Which is why they were useful filler on the lists of recommended candidates texted to tens of thousands of party members on the day of the primaries.

Likud has one star and the burden of winning this election is on him. Mr Netanyahu’s preferred supporting cast are grey men who can fill a suit for the group photograph and be relied upon to not say anything too controversial that can detract attention from his carefully crafted messages.

And, above all, not to get ideas above their station.

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