Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz – the man the prime minister didn’t want at the army’s helm – will complete a four-year term of service as the IDF’s top commander Sunday, having shepherded the army through the Arab uprisings, the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the cyclonic civil war in Syria, and the ever deteriorating security situation along Israel’s border lands.
His era was marked by propriety – a departure from the scandal-smeared term of his predecessor – and a lack of outright military victories, raising questions about whether such victories are even possible in the age of asymmetric and amoral warfare conducted against civilians and from within civilian centers.
Gantz’s legacy, though, may be shaped by inaction: He did not send the planes to Arak, Fordow, Natanz, and Parchin. The decision to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, of course, was not his to make, but it is exceedingly difficult to execute such a mission without his resounding approval, which, it seems, he did not provide.
Addressing the international negotiations and the potential need for military force against Iran, Gantz said, in 2014, “it’s preferable without force but if there’s no choice then it can [be done] with force.”
He said that Israel “unequivocally” had the capacity to strike Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, and that “we’ll know to act when needed.”
Like his predecessor Gabi Ashkenazi, though, Gantz did not feel, during his four years of service, that the midnight hour had arrived. He apparently disagreed with former defense minister Ehud Barak, who asserted, in January, that Israel’s capacity to act militarily against Iran’s nuclear program is “declining and in danger of eroding.”
Striking a rogue nuclear program led by a powerful rogue state openly at odds with the West for decades is difficult but doable, Barak seemed to be arguing; striking the infrastructure of a state that has been welcomed back into the family of nations, that has agreed to the demands of the United States government, that is ostensibly in lockstep with the International Atomic Energy Agency, is another matter entirely, and one that the wearers of the military cloth are not always sufficiently aware of.
Gantz’s successor, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot – for whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found no accolade beyond “experienced” when authorizing his nomination – is of a similar mind regarding Iran: the time for action, Eisenkot believes, has not yet come.
Gantz, a skilled and cautious officer, was born in 1959 to religious parents: a Hungarian mother who had survived the Holocaust and a refugee father from Romania. In 1977, after graduating from an agricultural school and losing his religion, he joined the Paratrooper Brigade, participating in Operation Litani in 1978, and the Lebanon War in 1982, where he led a paratrooper company in west Beirut. In 1991, he headed Shaldag, the air force’s special operations unit, which played a central role in, among many other operations, the airlifting of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
By the age of 42 he had been made a two-star general. In the fall of 2009, Barak, then the defense minister and deeply at odds with the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi, had to nominate a new deputy chief of staff – a post that is seen as almost mandatory on the path to the top spot. Ashkenazi wanted Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot. Barak, looking for an officer willing to risk a strike against Iran, wanted Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant. The two compromised on Gantz.
In September 2010, even though Galant had never served as a staff officer in the General Staff – neither as a deputy chief or as head of the operations branch, crucial posts on the path to the summit – Barak gave him the nod to be chief of staff. Veteran military reporter Amir Oren, writing in the Haaretz daily, likened Galant – a personally brave and purportedly strategically malleable officer – to Rafael “Raful” Eitan, the chief of staff who enabled the 1982 Lebanon War. Gantz retired, departing with a bad taste in his mouth.
In February, two weeks before Galant was to take command of the IDF, the attorney general declared, amid a scandal surrounding Galant’s building violations and his improper signed court testimony about those violations, that it would be legally difficult to represent the government’s decision before the Supreme Court.
Days later, Netanyahu and Barak were compelled to cut their losses: Gantz, the officer who had been forced out, the one who was called “the prince” by his detractors, a man known for his propriety and caution, was sworn in.
The new chief realigned the army’s standing along two pivotal borders: the Sinai desert and the Golan Heights. Recognizing that the hill line along the sloping plateau of the Golan was no longer the line of last defense against columns of Syrian tanks, but rather a border that would likely come under attack from either of the two warring sides in the Syrian civil war – the Sunni Al Qaeda affiliates and the Shiite Hezbollah affiliates – he released Division 36 from its role as both guardian of the Golan and a forward fighting force, and founded a new division, 210, devoted to, and equipped for, perimeter security.
He bulked up Division 80 in the south, adding several new regional brigades and an elite desert reconnaissance unit to help stop the flow of contraband into Israel and to bar the entry of global jihad terrorists based in the Sinai desert. Hundreds of miles and thousands of tons of thick metal fence were placed along both borders, and Israel, which has terrorist entities entrenched along four of its edges – Egypt, Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria – has endured the regional tumult, during Gantz’s tenure, in relative safety.
Additionally, Gantz’s moral compass remained true throughout his term. He ousted the brave and talented Tzabar Battalion commander after it became clear that he had poorly handled a sexual assault complaint lodged by two of his soldiers and conducted an improper sexual relationship with a subordinate female soldier. Moreover, he instructed army patrols and doctors to provide medical aid to wounded Syrian civilians and militants. Since the start of the war there in March 2011, the army has treated and evacuated to a hospital more than 1,400 Syrian fighters and aided thousands more in the field.
If Israel is forced back into combat in Gaza in the coming two to three years, the campaign will be seen as a failure. If it holds for 10 years, like the Second Lebanon War, it will be seen as successful
In terms of religion, he showed early in his tenure that, as is the case across the Orthodox world, the trick is often knowing, when facing a conundrum, which rabbinic authority to approach. In June 2011, an uproar broke out over the traditional remembrance prayer for fallen soldiers: should it be “God shall remember” the brave and true sons of daughters of Israel who fell in the service of the country, as Rabbi Shlomo Goren wrote in the seventies, or should the army stick to the original text, which read, “The People of Israel shall remember…”
Gantz tapped Maj. Gen. (res) Yishai Beer to head a commission that would resolve the matter. Beer, a religious armored corps general who also happens to be a professor of law and a former head of the army’s court of appeals, found that the original text was the most proper, residing in harmony alongside other texts that explicitly mention God.
The war in Syria, having claimed 200,000 lives, has knocked on Israel’s door repeatedly. Both Iran and Syria have attempted to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah in return for its service in Syria. Israel has reportedly responded on more than six occasions; each of those strikes carry with it the slight, but not insignificant, chance of being drawn into war. Gantz, like his predecessor, was reportedly able to walk a fine line with Syria while maintaining the Israeli deterrence vis-à-vis Hezbollah.
He also led two operations against Hamas in Gaza. The first was particularly well handled: Operation Pillar of Defense lasted for a total of eight days and began with the targeted killing of Hamas’s military commander, Ahmad Jabari.
The second, Operation Protective Edge this past summer, ended ambiguously. It took 50 days. Thousands of rockets were fired at the citizens of Israel. And Hamas, a terror organization that learns quickly from its mistakes, was neither thrown back on its heels during its campaign against the mighty Israeli military nor was it ever surprised. Its military machine, operating a few miles overland from Israel, was never in danger of being crushed.
If Israel is forced back into combat in Gaza in the coming two to three years, the campaign will be seen as a failure. If it holds for 10 years, like the Second Lebanon War, it will be seen as successful.
Gantz’s successor, Eisenkot, who served as his deputy, has watched events closely. As chief operations officer and OC Northern Command, he saw Ashkenazi, the gruff infantryman brought back into the army after the tenure of the air force general Dan Halutz and the debacle of the Second Lebanon War, place an emphasis on the basics of ground warfare and field leadership from the front – two elements that were found lacking during the war and have since improved. As deputy chief, he saw Gantz, after the scandal-ridden term of his predecessor, stress propriety, lead by example, and adjust to changing circumstances.
In terms of Gaza, therefore, he is surely aware that, if the army is forced back into action, the people of Israel will demand a clearer result in a shorter period of time.
In terms of Iran, the decision to not reach a decision is primarily the burden of the government of Israel and its prime minister. Speeches, it would seem, have not stopped the frankly brilliant Iranian advance. But Gantz and Ashkenazi, who headed the army during the past seven years, will bear a great deal of responsibility if US President Barack Obama’s audacious deal-in-the-making with Tehran turns out to be a doozy, and Israel, having waited, is faced with a fait accompli.
Eisenkot, who is said to be against a strike, will then have to reassess and, to borrow a term from Obama, bend the arc of his predecessor’s legacy.