ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 146

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'We prevented Israel from grave strategic mistake' in north

In critique of PM, Eisenkot says talk of ‘absolute defeat’ of Hamas is a tall tale

In TV interview, war cabinet minister who lost soldier son says new elections needed soon to restore public trust; warns only way to save hostages in near term is through deal

War cabinet minister Gadi Eisenkot speaks to Channel 12's Uvda program in a segment that aired January 18, 2024. (Channel 12 screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
War cabinet minister Gadi Eisenkot speaks to Channel 12's Uvda program in a segment that aired January 18, 2024. (Channel 12 screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

War cabinet minister Gadi Eisenkot appeared to criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s management of the ongoing war with Hamas in Gaza, suggesting in an interview Thursday that talk of complete victory over the terror group was unrealistic and indicating that new elections should be held within months to restore public trust in government following the devastating October 7 attacks.

Eisenkot, a former IDF chief of staff, sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Channel 12’s “Uvda” program, which also touched on about the personal toll the war has taken on him and his family. Eisenkot’s son, Master Sgt. (res.) Gal Meir Eisenkot, 25, was killed while fighting in Gaza in early December, followed by his nephew, Sgt. Maor Cohen Eisenkot, 19, a day later.

The interview with Eisenkot aired hours after Netanyahu rejected the idea of holding elections in the middle of a war that he has said could well continue into 2025 and vowed to “bring about a complete victory” over Hamas in response to the Gaza-ruling terror group’s October 7 attacks, when thousands of terrorists went on a killing spree across southern Israel, massacring 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking some 240 as hostages.

Regarding the progress of the war, Eisenkot said in the interview, it was accurate to speak of far-reaching success over Hamas in northern Gaza, but “whoever speaks of the absolute defeat [of Hamas in Gaza] and of it no longer having the will or the capability [to harm Israel], is not speaking the truth. That is why we should not tell tall tales.”

He elaborated: “Today, the situation already in the Gaza Strip is that the goals of the war have not yet been achieved, but the war is already not happening. There is a reduced troop deployment, a different modus operandi.”

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas’s military and governing capabilities in Gaza and remove the terror group as a threat to Israelis, but has come under criticism for not having a postwar plan for Gaza as the death toll climbs in the Palestinian enclave. Israel has also promised to secure the return of the hostages.

Eisenkot’s National Unity party agreed to join Netanyahu’s coalition on an emergency basis in a demonstration of political unity after the October 7 terror onslaught.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center-left) consoles war cabinet minister and former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot (center, back to camera) at the funeral of Eisenkot’s son, Master Sgt. (res.) Gal Meir Eisenkot, in Herzliya on December 8, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Asked whether Israel’s current leadership is telling the public the truth, Eisenkot responded simply, “No.”

Failure and responsibility

He also appeared to take a jab at Netanyahu’s refusal so far to take direct responsibility for the October 7 intelligence, military and leadership failures.

“I am already at the stage and at an age where I do not follow any particular leader with my eyes closed, and I judge a man by his decisions and the way he leads the country,” he said. He noted that he does not rely personally on Netanyahu in the stewarding of the war but, rather, on the collective decisions made by the war cabinet.

Eisenkot said alleged failures in the chain of command “do not absolve [Netanyahu] of responsibility,” a likely reference to Netanyahu’s repeated insistence that he was not warned by security chiefs about an impending Hamas attack, and that all security chiefs had consistently assured him the terror group was deterred.

Eisenkot termed October 7 “the greatest disaster to befall Israel since its foundation” and “the greatest failure in the history of the state,” and said that the entire political and military leadership “bears responsibility for it.” Netanyahu, by virtue of his role, “carries sharp and clear responsibility,” he said.

Why Hamas was able to carry out its plans when the security establishment knew what it was planning far in advance but failed to realize the danger, he said, would be at the heart of the state commission of inquiry. The IDF chiefs “are not arrogant” people, he said, but their failure was unprecedented.

He also indicated regret that a plan codenamed “Lightning Strike” that he developed during his term as IDF chief of staff, to target Hamas inside its Gaza tunnel network, which was designed to constitute “a knockout blow” to the terror group, was not able to be utilized — both because military chiefs did not internalize what was about to happen in the lead-up to October 7 and because the plan had been attempted in May 2021, with partial success. The day that plan was used was meant to be “the blackest day for Hamas,” said Eisenkot. “We did not have that card to use three months ago.”

He also appeared to criticize Netanyahu’s refusal to hold high-level discussions regarding postwar planning in Gaza.

“You have to show leadership in the ability to tell the truth to people, the ability to chart a path,” he told “Uvda.” “You have to think about what’s next,” he said.

And he expressed concern about the government’s handling of the war and deep dismay about what he called “an ambush” of IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi at a recent cabinet meeting. “I was pretty shocked by that show — it looked like an ambush, not spontaneous… It was very disrespectful, to put it mildly.”

Elections soon, to restore trust

Eisenkot also said elections should be held in the coming months to renew the public’s trust in leadership.

“It is necessary, within a period of months, to bring the Israeli voter back to the polls and hold elections in order to renew trust, because right now there is no trust,” said Eisenkot.

“As a democracy, the State of Israel needs to ask itself after such a serious event, ‘How do we continue from here with a leadership that has failed us miserably?’” Eisenkot continued.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a government conference at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Pressed to respond to Netanyahu’s claim that elections in the middle of the war would harm public unity, Eisenkot responded, “The lack of trust from the Israeli public in his government is no less serious.”

Narrowly avoided war against Hezbollah

In the candid interview, his first since his son was killed in Gaza, the usually laconic Eisenkot said he and National Unity leader Benny Gantz, also a former IDF chief of staff, prevented Israel from preemptively attacking the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon in the days after the murderous October 7 attacks.

Eisenkot said that on October 11, Israel was on the verge of striking Hezbollah but he and Gantz managed to convince Netanyahu and the war cabinet to hold off.

“Our presence there prevented Israel from making a grave strategic error,” Eisenkot said.

Had a decision been made to attack Hezbollah, “we would have fulfilled [Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya] Sinwar’s strategic vision” of bringing about a regional war, he said.

The entire axis — “Syria, Iraq, Iran” — would have gotten involved, he said, and then “[the war against] Hamas, which caused us the greatest damage since the establishment of the state, would have become a secondary arena,” he said.

The Israel-Lebanon frontier has seen daily fighting but has stopped short of an all-out war.

This week, Halevi said that “the likelihood of it happening in the coming months is much higher than it was in the past.”

Eisenkot recalled prioritizing the Hezbollah threat over Hamas in 2018-19, toward the end of his 2015-2019 term as chief of staff, when the IDF tackled what he recalled were six Hezbollah tunnels that penetrated into Israel in what was called Operation Northern Shield. He said Hezbollah had 6,000 Radwan fighters training for a major attack in the north at the time.

At present, he said, Hezbollah terror chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah “does not want” a war, and neither does Israel. Nonetheless, he did not rule out the potential for escalation to war.

‘The alternative is hell’

Asked about the death last month of his youngest son Gal, Eisenkot said, “The mornings and nights have become more difficult, but for me at least, there is no alternative because I know that the alternative is bad personally, bad as a family, and therefore, it’s something I have to remind myself of every day. I feel I have to [keep going]. The alternative is hell.”

Gal Eisenkot was killed after a bomb exploded in a tunnel shaft near soldiers in the Jabaliya camp in northern Gaza on December 7, 2023. He was rushed in critical condition to a hospital in Israel, where he died of his injuries.

Gal Eisenkot (L) with his father, then-IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot. (Courtesy)

Eisenkot said he knew that Gal, a member of the 551st Brigade’s 699th Battalion, and his crew “were going on a mission to take over buildings, which would allow access to the [Hamas] leadership, where there would be hostages [and hostages’] bodies.”

He said he believed it was “appropriate” for the IDF to attempt missions to try to retrieve the bodies of hostages, even at risk of soldiers’ lives, as was the case with his son.

It is believed that 132 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military last month.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 27 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza. One more person is listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Prioritize hostages

Asked about reports that Netanyahu delayed the November truce by a week as he sought better terms, Eisenkot made clear that he urged acceptance of the deal. “I said that if they didn’t do the deal, I’d get up and leave.”

He also said he attempted in vain to persuade his leadership colleagues to accept Hamas terms for one more group of releases on the eighth day of the deal, even though Hamas was proposing to include the bodies of three dead hostages, and not to honor other terms regarding which categories of hostages, including women, would be freed that day. Eisenkot said he knew that once the truce collapsed, the prospect of releasing those who might have gone free that day would be dimmer, and that attempting to negotiate further deals would be harder. The truce indeed collapsed, and no new deal has been attained since.

On the remaining hostages, Eisenkot told “Uvda” that there would be no Entebbe-like operation to save them.

A daring rescue like the 1976 operation by an Israeli elite commando squad that saved 98 hostages from Palestinian and German terrorists in Entebbe, Uganda, “will not happen,” he said.

On June 27, 1976, the terrorists hijacked an Air France jet flying from Tel Aviv to Paris diverting to Entebbe airport in Uganda, where the hijackers were welcomed by dictator Idi Amin. The legendary mission claimed the lives of four hostages and that of Yoni (Yonatan) Netanyahu, Netanyahu’s older brother, who led the rescue squad.

Entebbe hostages come home, July 4, 1976. (IDF archives)

Eisenkot said the hostages taken by Hamas on October 7 are “spread out in such a way,” mainly underground, that the “probability, after Ori Megidish, is extremely low.”

Pvt. Ori Megidish was rescued in late October by the IDF and the Shin Bet, days after Israel launched its ground operation into Gaza. She remains the only hostage of those taken on October 7 to have been rescued through a military operation.

Troops “are still making every effort and looking for every opportunity [to save hostages] but the likelihood is low, and to say that [it’ll happen] is an illusion,” said Eisenkot.

Israelis mark the first birthday of Kfir Bibas held hostage by Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, January 18, 2024 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“It needs to be said, bravely, that… it’s not possible to return the hostages, alive, in the near term, without a deal,” he says, blasting “anyone trying to sell fantasies to the public.”

Eisenkot said a pause to the fighting in Gaza “for a certain amount of time” will likely be required as part of any potential deal, pointing to the weeklong, Qatar-brokered agreement secured in late November.

He said the next pause will likely be longer “by three or four times, but after that, [the fighting would resume and] the war objectives will still be in effect.”

Eisenkot said returning the hostages needs to be the central priority, more urgent than destroying Hamas. Israel had utterly failed to protect those who were killed and abducted on October 7. “And so I have no question as to which mission is the more urgent and greater priority.”

He also said the IDF must avoid harming the hostages in Gaza even at the price of passing up an opportunity to eliminate Sinwar. “For me, there’s no dilemma: For me, the mission to save civilians comes before killing the enemy. The enemy can be killed afterward.”

He said that he would “pick up my things and leave” his coalition position if the plight of the hostages were not addressed as a priority. “I know what my red line is,” he said. “It relates to the hostages… and also to the way that this war must be run.”

Asked about reports that Sara Netanyahu has urged families of hostages not to publicly protest against the government’s handling of the crisis, he said he feels he has “no right” to tell the families what to do or not to do. When meeting the families, he said, he has told them to do what they think is right.

The future

Asked, “Are you convinced that Netanyahu is not seeking as long a war as possible [in part to avoid a reckoning over the events of October 7]?” Eisenkot paused for several seconds and then said, “I hope not… If I were to reach that conclusion, I wouldn’t stay another minute.”

“What interests me is how to advance Israel’s security and ensure that the deaths of my son and others were not in vain,” he said.

Asked about his political future, he said, “I am part of a party but I know how to make my own decisions, too.” (Eisenkot entered politics, joining Gantz’s party, in August 2022.)

Asked repeatedly whether he could or should be prime minister, he said the question was “not relevant” and “I don’t think about it today.”

Rather, he said, he was trying “to be strong” in the wake of his son’s death and to “contribute and have an influence” for the good of Israel. He said Gal “was always the most opposed to my entry into politics,” but that, during the war, “I heard him speaking completely differently.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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