Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot, Israel’s former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, announced in mid-August that he would enter politics. He joined the newly created alliance of two parties—Blue and White, led by his predecessor Benny Gantz (now serving as minister of defense) and New Hope, led by veteran politician Gidon Saar (now the minister of justice). The Hebrew name of the new party—ha-Makhaneh ha-Mamlakhti—does not easily translate into English. “The Camp of National Responsibility” is an approximation. Mamlakhti, or “of the state” or “representative” is a term Ben Gurion used when he wanted to say that national interests writ large should overcome all political party preferences, and this seems to be the message that General Eizenkot now wishes to impart.
Following his decision to join the new party, Eizenkot was immediately attacked by both sides of the Israeli political map. The left saw his decision as a betrayal, since Eizenkot has expressed support for the two-state solution and for separating from the Palestinians. As chief of staff, Eizenkot presided over the decision to court-marshal a soldier who had shot to death a wounded Palestinian attacker lying prone on the ground—a decision that won the respect of many Israelis but was brutally reviled by the far right. He is now joining a combination of Gantz, whose centrist views are similar to his, and Saar, who is well to the right of Netanyahu on the Palestinian question. But then, as keen observers of the Israel scene now realize, this election is not about solutions to external conflicts. Rather, it is shaping up as a struggle for Israel’s internal sources of strength—populist sentiments versus constitutional perspectives of the establishment. Eizenkot is a voice for the latter.
For this reason, Eizenkot is being reminded by critics on the right, who resent his challenge to Netanyahu, that being an illustrious general (and Eizenkot, despite his roly-poly appearance, was a well-regarded commander in chief) is no guarantee of political success. Rabin did poorly in his first term of office as prime minister (1974–1977). Yigael Yadin (who commanded the IDF in its early years) created a new centrist party in 1977 but then was completely sidelined while in office as Menachem Begin’s deputy prime minister. Ehud Barak was Israel’s most decorated soldier and an ambitious and innovative chief of staff, but his short tenure as prime minister (1999–2001) is widely held out to be one of the least successful ever. Similarly, Ariel Sharon, who was a revered major general in the IDF and then later became prime minister (2001–2006), saw his popularity decline following his decision to disengage from Gaza.
The list goes on. Gantz—in combination with former chiefs of staff Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi—actually came close to victory over Netanyahu in the ballot box, but then faltered and settled for a partnership with him (which Netanyahu then reneged upon). Gantz is still a serious contender, and could end up as prime minister in some scenarios. But his two military colleagues vanished from the political scene.
Will the same now happen to Eizenkot? Much depends on the impact of his presence on voter dynamics, which for the time being does not appear to be dramatic. He brings to the new party not just his military background and strategic acumen; he is also the son of a Moroccan family, despite his German-sounding name (a clerk’s misspelling of Aznakut, the name of a community in the Atlas mountains, apparently made at the time of his parents’ immigration to Israel in the 1950s). His military service was not in the elitist paratroopers, from which so many Israeli generals (including Gantz) have come, but from the Golani Brigade, almost synonymous in Israel with tough guys from poor backgrounds who make good through brave military service. He is, in other words, a figure that may help his colleagues in the new party—and others who seek Netayahu’s ouster—rid themselves of the tag of “North Tel Aviv elitism,” which the Likud spokespersons have attached to them. Will his presence draw massive support for Ha-Makhaneh ha-Mamlakhti? Probably not. But any mathematical analysis of the impending elections on November 1 points to a very narrow margin between whether Netanyahu and allies will win the 61 seats needed in the Knesset or will fail to do so, which will throw open various other possibilities (including, alas, a new round of elections). Hence the importance of the Eizenkot effect, even if its potential shift in Knesset seats will, at best, be counted on the fingers of one hand.