TEL AVIV, Israel — After keeping a low public profile during the first 11 months of his term, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff who marked one year in office last week, is becoming known here as a voice of moderation, much to the chagrin of many extreme members of the Israeli government.
In multiple public addresses since mid-January, Israel's top military officer has flagged "opportunities" inherent in the nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran.
He has empathized with "the social dynamic we're facing in Israel" and public calls for more equitable outlays of defense versus social spending.
And in the West Bank, Eisenkot urges a clear distinction between the majority of Palestinians, who are deserving of a better quality of life, and terrorists whom he insists must be firmly dealt with through unilateral IDF action and coordination with the security forces of Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
At last month’s annual conference of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, Eisenkot noted that some 400,000 -some residents of 161 Israeli settlements living in the midst of 2two million Palestinians throughout the West Bank "creates a serious operational challenge."
According to Eisenkot, it is in Israel's interest to continue to issue work permits to Palestinians.
"There are 120,000 Palestinians who provide livelihood for 600,000-700,000 family members. It's a moderating influence and I think it is in our interest to allow this."
But it was his comments last week on the phenomenon of so-called lone wolf terror — most often knife-wielding youths who act spontaneously against Israeli soldiers and civilians — that triggered opprobrium from members of Prime Minister Benjanim Netanyahu's government.
In a Feb. 17 talk to high school students south of Tel Aviv, when asked about rules of engagement in the latest spate of stabbing attacks, the IDF chief said, "I would not like to see a soldier empty a clip on a young girl with scissors."
He added that the IDF does not operate according to slogans, and offered as an example the biblical-inspired injunction: "Rise up to kill those who come to kill you."
As opposed to the Israeli police, whose rules of engagement were relaxed by Netanyahu's minister for public security to allow firing on all knife-wielding suspects, or the mayor of Jerusalem, who encouraged civilians to carry arms in self-defense, Eisenkot said a soldier can only "release his safety hatch and fire if there is a danger to him or his comrades."
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon was quick to defend his top military commander, telling a Feb. 18 audience that it was wrong for soldiers to have itchy trigger fingers.
"It is forbidden for us to forget our humanity and get out of control just because our blood boils," Ya'alon said of the 31 Israelis killed — along with nearly 200 Palestinian assailants — by mostly stabbing and car-ramming attacks since September.
But despite backing from Ya'alon and numerous, very vocal members of the opposition, Netanyahu remained silent for three days as members of his Cabinet and politicians from the ruling coalition assailed the IDF chief for words that were interpreted as dismissive of Jewish teachings and harmful to Israeli resolve.
"Jewish values and principles are the infrastructure on which the State of Israel and the IDF are founded," Bezalel Smotrich, a lawmaker from the coalition's Jewish Home Party, wrote in a letter calling for Eisenkot's dismissal.
"Disdain for what Israel holds sacred and for the values that guided us for thousands of years is inappropriate and not in keeping with the military's values or the conduct one might expect of a senior officer," Smotrich wrote.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotoveli, a member of Netanyahu's Likud Party, blasted Eisenkot for comments "that do not serve the depiction of reality on the ground." She insisted the sage's biblical interpretation of "whoever comes to kill you, kill him first" is an "important Jewish principle."
Even Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, a relative moderate from Netanyahu's Likud Party, said he hoped Eisenkot's words would not encourage terror or endanger Israeli lives.
In a Facebook post following an attack in which two 14-year-old terrorists were arrested rather than killed after wounding two Israelis, Katz wrote, "The codes of conduct and limits are clear, but terrorists must not be allowed to remain alive and endanger Jewish lives."
Only Sunday, yesterday, at the start of a Cabinet meeting in which Eisenkot and senior officers were to present a security briefing, did Netanyahu end days of discourse for and against the normally reticent IDF chief. "Last week there was debate surrounding remarks by the chief of staff.
"This is a pointless debate. What the chief of staff said is self-evident, and in any case, the IDF and the security forces operate in this manner," Netanyahu said, admonishing both sides of the political spectrum from using Eisenkot's words "to score political points."
In a Monday Feb. 22 letter to the 200-some members and friends of Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS), an organization of retired generals of the IDF, Shin Bet and Mossad security agencies, Amnon Reshef, in his role as CIS chairman, called on politicians "to keep the IDF out of the games of partisan politics."
"On occasion, we feel the need to make our views known. Most recently in response to the vicious attack by some extreme politicians on the IDF chief of staff for reiterating the moral foundation of the rules of engagement with terrorists," Reshef wrote.
He noted that while there must never be hesitation in acting in self-defense, security forces must act with restraint when no lives are at risk.
Efraim Inbar, director of the conservative Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University here, said Eisenkot might have chosen a better way to reiterate longstanding rules of engagement.
"In this case, it was much ado about nothing. I don't think anybody thinks it is proper to empty a magazine into a 13-year-old girl."
Inbar said Eisenkot's recent willingness to give voice to hot-button issues is permissible, even laudable, given the important role the IDF chief of staff plays in the Israeli political discourse.
"Politicians were trying to make political capital by portraying themselves as ultra-defenders of Israeli security. … But it's important for the IDF chief of staff to explain things to the public."