Benny Gantz’s features have long been lined and weather-beaten, reflecting the 37 years he has spent in the uniform of the IDF, most of them in the field. But the lines have grown palpably deeper in the little more than three years since he was appointed chief of the IDF General Staff.
The weight of responsibility felt by this ex-paratrooper son of a Holocaust survivor is obvious whenever you see him. Gantz is calm and far from humorless, but he doesn’t smile often when discussing the security challenges faced by Israel. He doesn’t pound on the table and he’s not an alarmist, but when he says publicly, as he has done several times this week, that he worries about skewed national priorities forcing untenable cuts in the defense budget, and when he then cancels all reserves training, it’s worth paying attention. “There’s no trick and no shtick,” he told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday, explaining the financial constraints under which the IDF is operating and the problems they’re causing. “There’s just the truth.”
The Treasury, unsurprisingly, is not impressed. Broadly speaking, its budgetary experts believe the IDF has long been given about 20 percent more money (in its approximately $17 billion/60 billion shekel budget) than it genuinely needs. Moreover, some analysts believe that Israel’s current defense threats are, relatively speaking, milder than in many years past: The chaos in the region means many potential enemy forces — notably, but not solely, in Lebanon and Syria — are preoccupied with their own domestic struggles.
Gantz and others in the senior IDF echelons are not as sanguine.
If the military top brass is somewhat less panicked by the P5+1 negotiations with Iran than it was a few months ago, slightly more optimistic that the US is leading a more resolute diplomatic line, there’s no similar sense as regards the northern front. Giving up hundreds of lives in the battle to save Bashar Assad, Hezbollah has graduated from a guerrilla group, capable of painful acts of terrorism, to a force with a great deal of operational experience, marshaling large numbers of fighters. Assad now owes Hezbollah a considerable debt. The fear in Israel is that this will be repaid in the form of sophisticated weaponry and greater freedom of operation, including on the Golan, where minor incidents that can prompt drastic escalation are now a near-norm.
The 100,000-rocket Hezbollah threat from the north is accompanied by a widening rocket threat from the south, where Hamas now has dozens — at least — of rockets that can hit central Israel. Fatah-Hamas reconciliation might yield relative calm, or the process might collapse — with dangerously unpredictable results for Israel. The IDF analysis is that there is no interest in an another intifada-style violent uprising against Israel, but there’s also decreasing interest in West Bank security cooperation with Israel. Bitter experience has shown that seemingly small acts of violence, given the fraught Israeli-Palestinian relationship, can explode into years of confrontation. Relations between Israeli and Palestinian security forces can transform, in an instant, from friendly to adversarial.
And then there’s the danger posed by Israel’s very own provocateurs, the race-hate “price tag” attackers.
Cooperation with Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s Egypt has rarely been better. Along the border with Jordan, too, things are relatively quiet. But Jordan hosts a million Syrian refugees, and the potential for instability within the kingdom and/or along its border with Israel is ever-present.
Again, by the relative standards of a perpetually embattled state, Israel’s security situation right now could be a whole lot worse, but Israel is a security-challenged state. Gantz is not predicting the worst; but he is plainly concerned that the IDF won’t be sufficiently prepared for the worst if it happens. “We have taken all the security risks possible,” he said on Monday — by which he meant that the IDF has cut all the fat, and now is into the meat.
In the aftermath of the mismanaged 2006 Second Lebanon War, the Winograd Commission castigated the IDF and its political masters for their inadequate preparation and over-confidence. A mere eight years later, Gantz will not have forgotten that the inability to overcome Hezbollah during 34 days of warfare cost the lives of 165 Israelis and more than 1,000 Lebanese. It also cost the chief of staff, Dan Halutz, his job.
It was an inability born of hubris and baseless assumptions, and also of insufficient training and the neglect of other military basics. The current chief does not want to find himself in a similar position.