Rivlin: 'You were the right person in the right place'

At farewell ceremony, PM salutes outgoing IDF chief for fighting Iran

Netanyahu says Eisenkot had ‘not one day’ without work during his four-year tenure as army commander, and Israelis only aware of a ‘tiny fraction’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Outgoing IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot sits with his wife, Chana, and granddaughter at a farewell ceremony in the army's Tel Aviv headquarters on January 13, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)
Outgoing IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot sits with his wife, Chana, and granddaughter at a farewell ceremony in the army's Tel Aviv headquarters on January 13, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday lauded outgoing army chief Gadi Eisenkot for blocking Iran and its proxies on four fronts during his tenure as commander of the Israel Defense Forces.

Speaking at a farewell ceremony attended by a bevy of senior political and defense officials, Netanyahu said the general also succeeded in instituting a series of streamlining and modernizing measures as part of the multi-year Gideon Plan.

“In the Middle East, there’s no mercy for the weak. Only the strong survive. The constant cultivation of our strength is a necessary condition of our existence. It is also a necessary condition for achieving peace with our neighbors,” Netanyahu said.

“The citizens of Israel know just a tiny fraction of what has been done in the past four years,” he said.

In addition to the prime minister, President Reuven Rivlin also spoke at the farewell ceremony at the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters, known as the Kirya.

“You were the right person in the right place. Happy is the people that has you as one of its sons. I know that you prefer to be out of the limelight, but nevertheless, I hope that we will see you in public roles again,” Rivlin said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Aviv Kochavi, named as the IDF’s next chief of staff, at the PM’s office in Jerusalem on October 29, 2018. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Eisenkot’s successor, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, was also in attendance, along with his predecessors, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi.

Kochavi will formally take over as chief of staff on Tuesday.

“Over the past four years, we have worked without stop to ensure the power of the IDF,” the outgoing army chief said in his speech.

President Reuven Rivlin, left, sits with outgoing IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot during a farewell ceremony in the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters on January 13, 2019. (Mark Neiman/GPO)

In his remarks, prime minister said the outgoing army chief focused his four-year tenure on combating Israel’s nemesis Iran.

“The greatest threat to our existence comes from the regime of ayatollahs in Iran, which has made our destruction its motto. To that end, [Iran] strove to develop nuclear weapons, precision weapons and cyber weapons. To that end, it has developed a front against us in Lebanon and tried to build a front against us in Syria — and this time with the Iranian Army,” Netanyahu said.

The prime minister said the military under Eisenkot had helped block Iran’s efforts to construct an atomic weapon by providing intelligence to the United States, which convinced US President Donald Trump to pull out of the 2015 nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic.

Netanyahu, along with other hawks on Iran, say the nuclear agreement would allow Tehran to manufacture a bomb once the deal ends after 10 years, which the accord’s supporters deny.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on an archive brought out of Iran by the Mossad that documents Iran’s nuclear program, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2018. (AFP/Jack Guez)

Last year, Netanyahu revealed that the Mossad and IDF Military Intelligence had acquired Iran’s nuclear archive, which included the country’s plans for nuclear-tipped missiles and other information that contradicted Tehran’s claims that it had never planned to develop atomic weapons.

The prime minister said Eisenkot and the IDF sought to “block the nuclear agreement with Iran, which paved its way to a nuclear arsenal, and to reinstate the sanctions against Iran. This goal was achieved.”

Netanyahu said the IDF had also succeeded in countering Iran’s plans to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, reiterating comments he made earlier in the day.

Quoting “eminent Zionist leader Israel Zangwill,” Netanyahu said the military had adopted the view that it must nip things in the bud.

“This goal too was achieved. The IDF, led by you, Gadi, attacked hundreds of times — even more, hundreds and hundreds of times — Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria,” the prime minister said.

A blast caused by an Israeli airstrike on Iranian targets in the Damascus International Airport on January 11, 2019. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Earlier in the day, Netanyahu said over the weekend Israel had bombed a number of Iranian weapons depots in the Damascus International Airport, in a rare acknowledgement of the type of military action Jerusalem usually refrains from commenting on.

“Our intention to block Iran in Syria is clear and understood by all, including the Russian president, with whom I speak regularly, and the Russian chief of staff, whom you, Gadi, speak with regularly,” Netanyahu said.

Israel’s relationship with Russia, which backs Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and represents the most significant player in the war-torn country, has been strained since a Russian spy plane was shot down by Syrian air defenses during an Israeli air raid. Moscow publicly blamed Israel for the loss of the plane and its crew.

The prime minister’s comment appeared to be an effort to assuage concerns that Israel’s ability to operate in Syria was being curbed by Russia.

Netanyahu said the IDF and Mossad had prevented the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group from acquiring precision-guided munitions, which present a far greater threat to Israel than the current “dumb” varieties that it has in its arsenal.

“Hezbollah planned that today it would have thousands of precision-guided missiles. In fact, it has a few dozen,” he said.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, center, visits soldiers searching for Hezbollah attack tunnels on Israeli-Lebanese border on December 4, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The prime minister said Eisenkot’s fourth mission in the campaign against Iran was to take away Hezbollah’s — as well as Hamas’s — cross-border attack tunnels that entered Israeli territory.

Earlier on Sunday, the Israeli military announced that it had uncovered all of Hezbollah’s attack tunnels, which crossed into northern Israel from Lebanon. Last month, the IDF launched Operation Northern Shield to find and destroy these passages.

At the farewell ceremony, Netanyahu confirmed that this operation was the reason why Eisenkot’s tenure as chief of staff, which was due to end on January 1, had been extended by two weeks.

“I believed that within this time you would complete the mission,” the prime minister said.

“We haven’t allowed Hezbollah to kidnap soldiers or civilians. We’ve done the work, and I’m proud of it,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with outgoing IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot during a farewell ceremony in the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters on January 13, 2019. (Haim Tzach/GPO)

Netanyahu also praised Eisenkot for implementing a number of cost-cutting and efficiency measures, known collectively as the Gideon Plan, which are meant to make the military better suited for fighting the types of wars and enemies it is liable to encounter.

“The Gideon multi-year plan will let the IDF to plan what it needs, as it should,” Netanyahu said.

“Gadi, under your command, major work has been done in the IDF, but major work also lies before us,” he said.

Turning to Eisenkot’s replacement, the prime minister said, “Aviv, I want to promise you that you also won’t have one day off, but we trust you.”

The prime minister wished the outgoing army chief well, following four intensive years with little sleep.

“We’ve been together innumerable hours in security cabinet, for innumerable cups of coffee. I know exactly how you take your coffee during the different hours of the day,” Netanyahu said.

“Now you can spare some time for games of squash, which you’ll win. And more important, you can have time with [your wife] Chana, with the kids and with the granddaughter, and with your mother, Esther, who is the true source of your strength,” he said.

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