Ex-IDF chief: Government has failed in pandemic response, lost public’s trust

Speaking at IDC conference, Gadi Eisenkot appears to criticize prime minister’s attacks on police and state attorney’s office, questions sale of F-35s to UAE

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

Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya's annual conference on September 10, 2020. (Screen capture: IDC)
Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya's annual conference on September 10, 2020. (Screen capture: IDC)

Former army chief Gadi Eisenkot criticized the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday, declaring the effort a failure and saying the cabinet had lost the public’s trust, as the number of new cases per day rose to nearly 4,000.

“We are waking up to mornings with nearly 4,000 new sick people, and this shows a failure in handling [the virus],” Eisenkot said, speaking in an on-camera interview as part of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya’s annual conference.

“The public must be told the truth: There’s currently a pandemic; there probably won’t be a vaccine until the summer of 2021; and therefore we need a strategy, we need mutual responsibility, we need discipline, we need leadership, we need precision, we need to manage risks,” he said.

In recent weeks, the government has repeatedly waffled on what steps to take: a full national lockdown, a lockdown only in cities with high infection rates, or some less severe restrictions. Ultimately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the cabinet opted this week to impose a partial, largely unenforced curfew in 40 cities and towns — most of them ultra-Orthodox or Arab — with the highest numbers of cases, amid staunch opposition to a full lockdown in these areas by ultra-Orthodox politicians.

This decision to forgo a full lockdown in these locations despite growing infection rates led many Israelis to believe that the decision was the result of political expediency rather than legitimate public health considerations.

Meanwhile the cabinet is set to debate a possible national lockdown during a critical meeting Thursday.

A Magen David Adom medical worker tests people at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing in Jerusalem, September 8, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Recent events indicate a deep crisis that must be handled at the professional level,” Eisenkot said.

“When you are giving orders to socially distance and to lock down and the public has lost trust [in you] — that, in my eyes, is the biggest problem,” he said.

The former army chief called for the government to work on building back that trust and to adhere to the recommendations made by public health experts.

Eisenkot also appeared to denounce Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing campaign of criticism against the police and state prosecution, who have charged him on counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on September 9, 2020. (Screen capture/Facebook)

“You can levy criticism, but there’s no place for excoriation or a desire to destroy the legal and police systems,” Eisenkot said.

Eisenkot, who currently works for a number of think tanks, also expressed concerns over recently announced plans by the United States to sell the fifth generation F-35 stealth fighter jet to the United Arab Emirates, allegedly with Netanyahu’s blessing, as a side deal to an emerging normalization agreement between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi. Netanyahu’s office has denied that the premier signed off on the sale, which many former and current defense officials fear will challenge Israel’s military advantage in the region.

The Israeli military and Defense Ministry have long opposed the sale of the F-35 to other countries in the region on these grounds. They were not consulted — beyond a brief phone call between the head of the National Security Council and the head of the Israeli Air Force — about the plans to sell the aircraft to the Emiratis, as Netanyahu kept the proposed normalization deal a secret from Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, in a dramatic break from historical precedent.

A new F-35 fighter jet at the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel from the United States on July 14, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The stance of the defense establishment for years was [to ask the US] not to provide weapons that were game-changing or that gave an advantage to countries in the Middle East even if they are not designated as enemies and even if we don’t share a border because there can always be pivots and changes,” Eisenkot said.

Since his legally mandated cooling-off period following high-level civil service ended, many in Israel have wondered if the former IDF chief will eventually run for political office, as nearly all of his predecessors have.

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