The Interwar Chief: Interim Conclusion of Lt. Gen. Eizenkot's Term as IDF Chief of Staff

Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot has entered the final stretch of his tenure as IDF Chief of Staff. Amir Rapaport presents an interim balance sheet of Eizenkot's term in office: he manages to steer the giant ship of the IDF between internal organizational faults and major defense challenges

Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot during an IDF drill (Photo: IDF)

If the foreign reports to the effect that the IAF attacked a strategic chemical facility in Syria during the night of September 6 (exactly on the tenth anniversary of the attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zur, which was also attributed to Israel) are true, then one can imagine the IDF Chief of Staff on that dramatic evening: Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot must have been seated deep in the "Pit", the underground operations center at the Quirya compound in Tel-Aviv, his thoughts focusing on possible subsequent developments rather than on the actual attack.

Whether or not it actually took place, this type of attack is more characteristic than anything else of Eizenkot's term as the "Interwar" Chief of Staff.

In the IDF jargon, the term "Interwar" or "War between Wars" refers to an endless sequence of near and distant operations, most of which remain confidential. Practically, Eizenkot is the first IDF Chief of Staff since the last century whose term in office did not include (up until now, that is) a Palestinian uprising, a full-scale war, or a major operation in the Gaza Strip. Consequently, his term will be remembered for scandals and legal storms – from the stolen computer of the Head of the IDF Personnel Directorate, who resigned, to the Hebron shooting incident where trooper Elor Azaria shot and killed a dying terrorist.

This is far from being the main issue, however.

Eizenkot has entered the final stretch of his tenure, which was extended by Defense Minister Lieberman until the end of 2018. Consequently, on the eve of the next Rosh HaShana (Jewish New Year) holiday, we will know who his replacement would be. By that time, his schedule will be loaded with farewell visits and less with 'business'.

Now, on the eve of the Jewish new year, the end of term seems to be in sight, and Eizenkot's balance sheet is, all things considered, fairly good. He has been one of the most practical, businesslike and successful Chiefs of Staff in the last few decades, but the challenges he faces remain colossal. At the strategic level, the most severe headache today is mainly in the north. Over there, a streak of tactical successes during the interwar period may not necessarily produce the desired strategic result. Israel's current tactics in the north are reminiscent, to a considerable extent, of the attempts to prevent Egypt and the USSR from deploying an array of surface-to-air missiles that would undermine the Israeli air superiority during the War of Attrition (1967-1970). The daring operations of those days did not prevent the strategic failure, which was reflected in the Egyptians succeeding in "Denting the aircraft's wing" during the Yom-Kippur War (1973).

Additionally, like all of the past conflicts, the next conflict will also uncover several substantial faults that currently remain hidden from view, like the underground tunnels that had allegedly taken the IDF by surprise during Operation Protective Edge (that threat is being addressed 'above and beyond', but new threats are already lurking around the corner, in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere – including aerial threats such as UAVs).

Nearing the conclusion of his tenure, there is no longer any doubt that Eizenkot is an efficient, level-headed and mature manager, capable of steering the military even without dripping charisma and dramatic appearances on television. The quiet, calm manner in which he conducted the operations of the IDF during the surge of terrorist knife attacks proved its effectiveness.

Eizenkot's relations with former Defense Minister Ya'alon were normal, and he has been seeing eye-to-eye with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman as well. In the absence of any significant defense/security experience, and possibly based on a structured worldview, the Minister, for his part, leaves a lot of space for Eizenkot, so that he may lead the IDF as he sees fit.

Military-Society Relations

On the eve of Jewish New Year, Eizenkot himself announced the new benefits to be granted to IDF warfighters. This may be indicative of the fact that the interface between the IDF and Israeli society is, to him, a highly problematic issue.

The IDF is currently at the core of serious political and social controversies and debates, as in the case of the Hebron shooting incident (trooper Elor Azaria) or the proper integration of male and female warfighters.

The integration of the orthodox religious sector in military service has been raised to the public agenda once again, after the judges of the Supreme Court of Justice abolished the 21st Amendment to the National Service Law, which enabled the exemption from recruitment for orthodox yeshiva students to be extended until the year 2023. The IDF authorities have already announced that they are reviewing this ruling, and that they are keenly interested in expanding the ranks of orthodox recruits within the IDF for an extensive range of military functions.

These issues, as dominant as they may be, are less serious than two processes that could cause irreversible damage in the long run. The first process is the decrease in motivation to join fighting units among new recruits. This is precisely the problem the "benefit basket" was intended to address.

The other issue has to do with the regular service personnel, and the IDF is trying to address it away from the headlines. The bottom line: the regular service personnel is undergoing a crisis. Regular servicemen do their best to leave the IDF for civilian life at the first opportunity they get, as the general public largely regards them as hedonists and "freeloaders."

The IDF still enjoys the benefit of the best personnel in compulsory service and in the junior officer ranks, but finds it more and more difficult to sign up outstanding officers for long-term regular service periods (fortunately, there are still many high-quality officers in regular service).

Even under Eizenkot's leadership, many IDF officers are neither intellectual nor curious, and invest too much energy in flattery, self-promotion and the excessively rapid rank race, which starts on the very first day of every term in any position.

The organizational diseases of the IDF are chronic illnesses, and they did not break out during Eizenkot's term.

Nevertheless, all difficulties notwithstanding, in his characteristic calm and quiet manner, Eizenkot succeeded in introducing far-reaching structural changes that adapt IDF to the era of modern warfare (structurally, Eizenkot assimilated the Technology & Logistics Directorate within the Ground Arm, for example. He is in the process of establishing a cyberwarfare arm, and will most likely have the Signals & Computer Corps subordinated to the Ground Arm as well. Some of the changes in the actual weapon systems have been reflected in the massive training exercise that ended last week in the north, which included massive employment of unmanned platforms).

At the bottom line, it is amazing how Lt. Gen. Eizenkot has managed to steer the IDF so successfully despite all the internal faults and opposite such serious defense threats, all within a minefield of social booby-traps that keep popping up from every direction.