Israel’s former army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, left, and former Defense Minister Benny Gantz announce their political alliance at a joint press conference in Ramat Gan, Aug. 14, 2022

Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

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The Israeli Left’s New Military Messiah

A joint American-Israeli plan to topple Netanyahu starring General Gadi Eisenkot gains steam as the war in Gaza grinds on

Gadi Taub
January 24, 2024
Herzl’s Children
Gadi Taub reports on the two ongoing wars that will shape Israel's future: the military and diplomatic conflict between Israel and her enemies, and the struggle between Israel's Western-oriented elites and her democratic institutions.
See all in Herzl’s Children →︎
Israel's former army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, left, and former Defense Minister Benny Gantz announce their political alliance at a joint press conference in Ramat Gan, Aug. 14, 2022

Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

The Israeli mainstream media is full of disheartening stories that say we are losing the war: They say that it’s unwinnable, that the economy is on the verge of a downturn, that reservists are torn between state and family, that students are losing the academic year and couples are breaking up, that we should Bring Them Home, Now!—not to mention the horror stories about the fate of the hostages, and the constant display, front and center, of the terrible predicament of the families.

Read the Israeli papers, watch mainstream TV and you may arrive at the conclusion that all this is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fault, not Yahya Sinwar’s: Netanyahu is extending the war for his own political survival, Netanyahu kept Hamas alive with Qatari money, Netanyahu tore Israel apart over the judicial reform, Netanyahu is sidelining the generals—Benny Gantz, Yoav Gallant, and Gadi Eisenkot—in his own war cabinet, Netanyahu will ruin our relations with the U.S., Netanyahu puts his own career over Israel’s vital interests, and so on. These talking points run parallel to Washington’s messaging campaign against Netanyahu, as the Biden administration looks to impose its agenda on Israel, with help from its local clients.

The Israeli press, clearly, does not behave as though we are in the midst of a war for survival. Press conferences have become competitions between journalists, attempting to impress each other by asking the nastiest questions. Last week Netanyahu went off script on one such occasion to answer one particularly bizarre monologue disguised as a question by Channel 13’s Sefi Ovadia.

Ovadia “asked” the following: “A personal question with your permission. The public wants to be exposed to the personal side of its leaders. When you retire to your bed [at night] do you tell yourself about, or regret, certain mistakes that you would like to share with the public about things that happened before Oct. 7, shortly before or long before, or are you of the opinion, even in the privacy of your own thoughts, that you are mistake-free, and that it is the rest of the leadership that is responsible for the situation in which we find ourselves. If you’d like to share this with the public, I think it can be interesting.” This, mind you, was in a press conference where the prime minister was informing the public about the state of the war.

Netanyahu’s reply was quoted all over Israel’s social media: “I’ll keep fighting Hamas, and you’ll keep fighting me. That’s the division of labor.”

The Oct. 7 massacre has sealed the fate of the two-state solution on the Israeli side.

There’s a reason why defeatism and Netanyahu-bashing go together. Netanyahu wants to win the war, and surprising as this may sound at first, the press cohort, along with the virtual representatives of the Biden administration in the cabinet—Gantz and Eisenkot—are not exactly on board with that goal. The easy explanation for this is that fighting Netanyahu has defined the professional identity of so many journalists and politicians for so long, that even Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack could not change the trajectory of their lifelong mission. They see Hamas as an opportunity to finally expose Netanyahu for the failure they wish him to be, force an early election they’re certain he will lose, and thereby save Israel from him.

That line of reasoning puts hate at the center: hate so intense, that some would rather see Israel fail than see Netanyahu succeed. But there are greater forces at work here. And there seems to be a detailed plan, in which former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot is playing a central role, that requires, as a first step, weakening Israel. Most of the plan’s adherents don’t want to destroy the country (although some of them want it fundamentally transformed). Rather, they think weakening Israel, and placing it under American stewardship, will help save the country from itself.

The coordinated nature of the anti-Bibi campaign is plain from the repetition of the same arguments and even the same phrases from Netanyahu’s adversaries in politics as well as in the press—on both sides of the Atlantic. It is no coincidence that we began hearing in both Jerusalem and Washington, at the exact same time, voices calling to end the war with a hostage deal, but without destroying Hamas (which is what the oft-used euphemism “an extended cease-fire” plainly means). Losing the war to Hamas will surely topple Netanyahu, and thus remove the obstacle to resuming talks with the aim of establishing a Palestinian state.

To forward this campaign, Eisenkot, who tragically lost a son in this war, has been chosen as the leftist elite’s new messiah, anointed semi-officially with a long flattering interview in Ilana Dayan’s prestigious Channel 12 TV show, Uvda (Fact). Eisenkot is currently sitting in Netanyahu’s war cabinet along with Gantz, another former chief of staff. The Biden administration once had its chips in on the tall and handsome Gantz, who nevertheless has little gravitas.

Eisenkot, or so many now hope, is made of stronger stuff. He has therefore been chosen as the tent pole for the joint American-Israeli project of throwing Netanyahu overboard and installing a more pliant Israeli leader who will pivot from the military objectives of the Gaza war to the larger objective of establishing a Palestinian state.

The Israeli dovish left has always been enamored with generals, who have mostly responded in kind. Hawks by and large don’t make it to the top in the IDF anymore, which is why as our army chiefs became increasingly obsessed with being seen as moral at the same time they lost much of their interest in winning wars.

The left’s romance with dovish generals is a faint nostalgic shadow of a once-proud Zionism that was both strong and humane. But our current brass are not of the original breed. Whereas the original breed won wars, the new breed has replaced the drive for military victory with public self-flagellation and moral grandstanding. We have a grotesque example of this new breed, the radical leftist General Yair Golan, the star of the tiny progressive electorate which did not make the threshold in the last national election. Golan, while serving as the second in command to the IDF’s chief of staff, compared Israel, in an official Holocaust Memorial ceremony, to Germany in the 1930s. Progressives applauded. Haaretz made him a hero. The rest of us were deeply disgusted.

But Eisenkot is not that vulgar, and not an ignoramus. He’s articulate and reflective, and carries himself with dignity. He is also one of those most clearly responsible for the conception of Hamas as a manageable foe that blew up in our faces on Oct. 7. As IDF chief of staff he accelerated the process of cutting down Israel’s ground forces in favor of an army that would be small, technologically advanced, and smart. It was that high-tech army that was overwhelmed by a low-tech band of bloodthirsty jihadi sadists.

But the press is not interested in investigating the army’s failures. It’s too busy trying to pin the blame solely on Netanyahu. And it loves Eisenkot for the role he plays in its imagination, as the U.S.-backed strongman who will help to impose on Israel’s electorate the two-state agenda that it emphatically rejected.

Eisenkot gave a superb performance at his coronation ceremony, with the sure guiding hand of MC Ilana Dayan in her role as thoughtful interviewer. Dayan’s soft tones provided the appropriate backdrop for Eisenkot’s gruff, teddy-bearish lovability, which he used to call Netanyahu—the head of the war cabinet in which he serves—a liar. He delivered his testimony mournfully, with long silences, as if forced into reflection, rather than performing the crude political maneuver of weakening the coalition in the midst of a war, in a bid to hasten what threatens to be a savagely divisive election that will undermine Israel’s ability to fight.

Short of openly supporting the two-state solution, which Israelis are in no mood to hear about, Eisenkot’s message was note for note the same one that Israelis have been hearing from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other members of the Biden administration and its amplifiers in the American press: that the strategic objectives of Israel’s war have not been achieved; that Hamas has lost neither its will nor its capabilities; that the war has been downscaled already; that we should begin to think of ending the war; that a plan for the day after is now necessary; that there is no military way of freeing the hostages; and that we should therefore opt for a deal even if the price is a long cease-fire—code for resigning ourselves to defeat, and leaving Hamas in control of Gaza.

Eisenkot is savvy enough to understand what defeat in this war would mean for Israel’s strategic position in the Middle East. Hamas is the smallest and weakest of the enemies we face. Lurking on our northern border is the far more formidable Hezbollah, and not far behind it, the rising regional power, soon to be a nuclear power—Iran. If we let our weakest enemy get away with mass murder, if we demonstrate that taking hostages can bring us to our knees, this would be a serious, and very dangerous, downscaling of Israel’s strategic position, one that would be impossible for even potentially friendly neighbors to ignore.

Which is exactly what Israel’s left is aiming for. Not because they are evil, but because they cannot shake off the habits of thought which have shaped their identity for decades. In the left’s mind, the greatest danger to Israel’s future is demographic. I was once an adherent of that school, so I’m well versed in the argument: If we do not partition the land, at some point in the future, Israel will lose its Jewish majority and become a binational, or even an Arab-majority, state. Attempting to resolve the dilemma without partition will, theoretically, force us to choose between non-Jewish democracy, and Jewish apartheid. In practice, the argument went, we’ll just turn into another Lebanon.

That’s a serious concern. But the aspiration to end the occupation right now and thereby resolve the dilemma, rather than push it forward into the future, relies on the assumption that there is a safe way to partition the land without plunging into a bloody terror war that will in fact turn Israel into the worst possible version of Lebanon on an even shorter timetable. The majority of Israelis have seen enough before and after Oct. 7 to conclude that leaving Judea and Samaria is simply out of the question. What that means is that life is often imperfect: We will have to carry the hump of the occupation without making a choice between the Jewish and democratic characters of the state for the foreseeable future.

Israel’s electorate has given both partition and peace a serious chance. Both failed. Israel has withdrawn from large areas in Judea and Samaria, and received terror in return. It unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, and got years of rocket barrages and smaller-scale wars, culminating in Oct. 7. Voters have therefore turned their backs on the idea of peace through partition, as no one in their right mind can countenance the prospect of a mega-Oct. 7 emanating from the West Bank.

In its despair the Israeli left has invested its hopes in extra-democratic means. It has created “human rights” NGOs to slander Israel abroad, as a means of generating external pressure to end the occupation; their journalism became grotesquely slanted against their own country; and above all the left—even the moderate left—has invested its hopes in American pressure. The U.S. will put its foot down and force us to do what we don’t understand we should. Our trusted friend and ally, the great benevolent beacon of liberty, will make us end the occupation, and thereby save us from ourselves.

And finally, it seems like all the stars have aligned! Here’s an opportunity to end the split between Hamas and Fatah that Netanyahu kept alive, bring the Palestinian Authority back to Gaza so it can govern over a weakened Hamas, and then force a chastened, Netanyahu-free Israel to finally submit to the two-state solution.

That’s all very nice. Unfortunately, though, the solution that the left is offering is not a solution to anything. On that score, the historical record is quite clear: Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon didn’t weaken Hezbollah, as we were told it would. Rather, it allowed Iran to build a large and capable army on Israel’s doorstep, while taking over Lebanon itself. Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza didn’t lead to an improvement in the country’s international and strategic position, nor did it help establish Fatah as a stabilizing force. It led to Fatah’s cadres being thrown off rooftops as Hamas took power, then to a series of wars culminating in the large-scale disaster of Oct. 7, and to the construction of a gigantic underground terror fortress spanning 350 miles of tunnels—built with international aid dollars—in which our citizens are now being held hostage.

Israel’s detached elite has drifted so far from the rest of us that it is unable to grasp the extent of its failures. But the rest of the country can see the failure of the peace framework, and the existential threat it poses, quite plainly. The Oct. 7 massacre has therefore sealed the fate of the two-state solution on the Israeli side. To assume that the tragedy that took the two-state modality off the table can in fact be used to breathe new life into it requires a stratospheric level of estrangement from the public mood.

The joint American-Israeli fantasy project of deploying Gadi Eisenkot as the battering ram to open a path for an American regent to preside over the latest version of the two-state solution will meet the test of reality long before any election is called. Soldiers, regular and reserve, who are returning from the front will all have their own firsthand stories to tell of what they encountered. They will not be happy to find they have sacrificed so much in order to leave Sinwar and his gang alive, while installing Abu Mazen’s gang as the putative lords of Gaza. The idea of turning the West Bank into a second Gaza Strip is likely to impress them as dangerous insanity.

The Israeli press may still try to leverage the predicament of the hostages to cut a deal with Hamas and end the war. But most Israelis call Hamas “Nazis,” which should tell you all you need to know about what they think. Israeli politicians who try to cut deals with Nazis are likely to pay a steep price with voters. And that showdown may come sooner than Eisenkot and his trans-Atlantic backers think.

Gadi Taub is an author, historian, and op-ed columnist. He is co-host of Tablet’s Israel Update podcast.