Societal rifts a larger threat to Israel than foreign enemies, ex-IDF chief says

Gadi Eisenkot says national security requires solidarity within country’s borders; bemoans declining enlistment numbers and popularity of cyber units

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, right, is interviewed by Amos Yadlin at the Institute for National Security Studies annual conference in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2019. (INSS)
Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, right, is interviewed by Amos Yadlin at the Institute for National Security Studies annual conference in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2019. (INSS)

Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot is warning that Israel’s internal divisions are a greater threat than its foreign foes, according to excerpts from an interview published Thursday.

“I think that the rifts in Israeli society, and the attacks from both sides, the decline in governance, the decline in faith in state institutions, in the courts, crime — all these are the greatest threats for the country’s future,” Eisenkot told the Walla news site. The full interview was slated to be published over the weekend.

Eisenkot, who headed the military from 2015 to 2019 and was thought to be mulling a future in politics, said Israel’s “national resilience” was the most important component of Israel’s national security, but that weakening internal cohesion was putting that attribute into jeopardy.

“People are worried, not because of the Iranian threat, but because of internal weakness, loss of cohesion, inequality, friction between different communities. Entire groups of the public are not being absorbed into society,” he said. “We need to understand that there is no national security without societal solidarity, and there is no societal solidarity without national security.”

He said national patriarch David Ben-Gurion’s vision of Israel as a melting pot was in dire straits.

He highlighted the declining participation in the Israel Defense Forces in recent decades as an indicator of the breakdown. When he enlisted in the military in 1978, 88% of everyone eligible for the army enlisted, and when his son joined, in 2015, that figure had fallen to 67%, he said.

He also decried the trend toward valuing service in cyber units more highly than in frontline combat units.

“The willingness to go to combat units, to kill or be killed, to go into danger, is in decline,” he said, adding that youths from areas in the periphery, with less opportunity, needed to be provided with equal footing, since they are under-represented in elite technology units.

He also criticized policies toward the Palestinians, saying that a bi-national state of Jews and Palestinians would mean “the end of the Zionist vision.”

“You don’t need to be a genius to understand the meaning of millions of Palestinians mixed in with us, plus the complicated situation with Israeli Arabs,” he said.

Police are seen in Lod during ethnic rioting in the mixed Jewish-Arab city in central Israel, May 12, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

He said Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, who is 86 years old, was nearing the end of his tenure, and proposed putting together a multi-year transition plan to improve ties with the Palestinians.

The plan would “begin building a bridge to reduce hostility and strengthen trust.”

He proposed a joint effort between Israel, the Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan, the US and others.

“We need to change the reality of the situation, because it will lead to a single state, which will destroy the Zionist dream,” he said.

Eisenkot was a soldier for 40 years and the 21st commander of the IDF, and was replaced by Aviv Kohavi in January 2019 when his four-year term ended.

As he left the army, he warned against division and politicization of the IDF. During his term, soldier Elor Azaria killed a wounded and disarmed Palestinian attacker in the West Bank and was prosecuted for it. The affair dragged up ugly divisions in Israeli society, including criticism of the army from some politicians on the right and death threats against Eisenkot.

Israel’s disunity and societal schisms were laid bare over the past several years during a series of inconclusive elections, in which no party was able to cobble together a stable government. The current government, a fragile but diverse array of parties from across the political spectrum, has been in power since last summer.

After leaving the military, Eisenkot worked for a number of think tanks. He was one of the most sought-after figures in the 2020 elections, and appeared to hint at one point that he was sent to enter politics, but ultimately decided not to.

A long list of IDF chiefs of staff have gone on to political careers after leaving the military, including Eisenkot’s predecessor, Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

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