Welcome, Chief of Staff Eisenkot. Your success will be the success of us all and I join with all Israelis who wish you the unspoken hope of every IDF chief of staff – that your term of service will end without any wars. There is no doubt that you enter the arena with some very serious threats on all of Israel’s borders. It will be your job to navigate a course for Israel and the IDF through one of the most volatile periods that Israel has known.
Caution and the aptitude to see the whole picture coupled with the best intelligence, active combat readiness and the ability to think out of the box will be determining factors in the decisions that you will have to make. We know from experience that the political leaders are not always the best equipped to make the right decisions and we will all have to rely on your ability to present all of the options and the most probable consequences when the leaders make those life and death decisions. We know that the political decision makers more often than not do not engage in real strategic planning or even serious strategic thinking. You sit at the head of the most systematic strategic planning and thinking mechanism in the State of Israel. I hope that you will lead that mechanism to expand the options of decision making proposals to the decision makers.
When Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister he asked his chief of staff, Amnon Lipkin Shahak, to advise him on the peace process. Having integrity, Shahak responded to the prime minister that the IDF did not know how to do that.
He told the prime minister that the IDF was very capable of preparing for the next war, but lacked the know-how to plan for peace. Rabin as a former chief of staff himself understood completely and used other tools in his toolbox to create a discreet team of intelligence officers from various branches of the intelligence community to advise him on the peace process. That was thinking out of the box and had Rabin lived, the advice he was receiving from that team would have helped him to steer a course toward real peace that probably would have avoided the tragic paths that we later fell into.
Given the graveness of the threats surrounding Israel today and the fact that there is a convergence of threats between Israel and its immediate neighbors there are some tools in the chief of staff’s toolbox that should be immediately considered. Israel has peaceful relations with Egypt and Jordan and security cooperation still intact with the Palestinian Authority. Israel is not alone in the need to face those threats that undermine the security of Israel and its neighbors. A regional approach to those threats at the intelligence and military level would broaden the spectrum of options that the chief of staff could place in front of the decision makers.
I am quite sure that you know your Egyptian counterpart Colonel General Sedki Sobhi, the commander of the Egyptian armed forces, just as he knows the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the Jordanian Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Mashal Mohammad al-Zaben. On the Palestinian side the most senior-ranking official engaged in the security coordination is Major General Majed Faraj.
I believe it would be more than wise to convene a joint meeting of the four chiefs of staff and to launch together a process of regional security cooperation that goes beyond the current bi-lateral security cooperation and coordination.
We do not yet know if the next Israeli government will launch a new political initiative toward the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The lack of a new initiative, the further entrenchment of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the continued siege and closure of Gaza will not contribute to regional security and stability. Those factors could in fact be the impetus to the next round of Israeli-Palestinian violence which will make regional security cooperation and coordination next to impossible. But even with the lack of political progress a pre-emptive military strategic plan for regional cooperation could still be successful and provide greater protection for the entire moderate Sunni circle in the immediate neighborhood surrounding Israel.
It is clear that Israel will not allow the Hashemite Kingdom to fall to the likes of Islamic State. Israel is cooperating with Egypt in the defeat of the jihadi groups in Sinai that have threatened Egypt’s sovereignty there and increased terrorism within Egypt proper. Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the PA share a common interest to insure that Hamas or other jihadi groups do not take over the West Bank. The best way of countering those threats would be the combination of a bold Israeli political initiative that would embrace the Arab Peace Initiative as the basis for genuine negotiations. This would enable Israel to engage directly with other member states of the moderate Sunni circle including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait. This would strengthen regional planning and cooperation in facing the Iranian threat. It would also reduce the immediate threats facing Israel and the region from the continued destabilization of Syria and the increasing empowerment of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The key to the regional coordination would be a genuine peace process with the Palestinians that would end Israel’s occupation. But this process is not in the hands of the Israeli chief of staff – even though you would be wise to advise the next prime minister that the best way to advance Israel’s security in the immediate future is through this regional approach with Israel and Palestine in the core.
Nonetheless, regional security coordination and cooperation would enhance Israel’s security even vis-à-vis the Iranian threat and thereby the very worrying continued militarization of Lebanon with its huge arsenal of missiles pointed at Israel. It seems that Hezbollah is unlikely to use that arsenal against Israel unless Israel attacks Iran and Tehran instructs its primary proxy army to launch all that it has against Israel. Those who think that the “Dahia doctrine” of the 2006 Second Lebanon war created the deterrence that has prevented Hezbollah from launching a new offensive against Israel lack understanding of the mentality of Hezbollah.
Possible broader security coordination and cooperation between Israel and its neighbors serves as a much better form of deterrence against possible threats than what Israel has done until now. It is not a 100 percent assurance against aggression and attack, but facing common threats to Israel and its neighbors together provides greater security for us all.
So, Chief of Staff Eisenkot, no one envies your job or the responsibility on your shoulders. Use your arsenal of brainpower, and not only your arsenal of hi-tech weaponry and explosive materials. Your main task is not to win the next war, but to help Israel to avoid it entirely.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.