IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen Benny Gantz is aware of the decisive role that history has summoned him for. Unlike a number of his predecessors, he is taking pains to avoid placing himself at the center of attention by making his opinions public. At the same time, however, he has stated his opinions frankly and forthrightly when asked.
When we met this week shortly after Holocaust Remembrance Day and just before Independence Day, the period which symbolizes the days in which we recognize destruction and celebrate renewal, he was very careful not to cross that thin line separating a public servant and an elected official. But reading in between the lines of what he said, it is possible to discern clear-cut, unequivocal positions.
“An Iran with a militarized nuclear capability could potentially be an existential threat, but it is not necessarily an existential threat,” he said. “These statements were made in the past and I think it would be appropriate to clarify them. We are the strongest country in the region, and I think that we need to make sure that the situation stays this way in the future. The problem of a nuclear Iran is much more of a global problem than it is an Israeli problem, so we need to find every possible way to make sure that the international community doesn’t let up in dealing with this, and I think that it is doing this. I think that what we see in terms of sanctions and the international pressure and the statements that we hear from the Americans are all indications that the world is moving in this direction.”
And what if the world doesn’t succeed?
“The IDF must use every avenue to prepare an operational alternative wherever it will be asked to take action; and at the last possible moment that this will be feasible given the strategic conditions that prevail. And this is what the IDF has been doing in recent years. I think we have a considerable capacity to act. In a businesslike fashion, we need to prepare to implement this capability, but we should also understand the ramifications of this type of event.”
Do you believe the Americans are serious in their intentions to stop Iran?
“I believe they are serious. They are simply judging the situation from a different point of view than we are. The difference between us and the Americans are found in two areas: the scope of our capacity to act, and the sense of urgency. They have many more capabilities, but, as a result, they don’t feel that sense of urgency. We do feel a great sense of urgency. There is also the simple yet critical fact that there aren’t two giant oceans that separate us from Iran, and we are living with our civilians in a war zone.”
In your meetings with them, have they tried to convince you not to attack?
“In the meeting room, I hear the same things that you have heard in public, only worded differently. We haven’t asked for permission and we haven’t been given any stop signs. Israel is a sovereign state with the ability to make its own decisions, and they [the Americans] understand this as well. There are discussions and exchanges of opinion on strategic matters, but I do not ask anyone for permission, and I don’t accept dictates.”
If Iran decides to make a mad dash toward the bomb, how long would it take for it to manufacture one?
“It’s a matter of a year, two years.”
And if the supreme leader, Khamenei, decided to attain a militarized nuclear capability, would we know about it in time?
“I think that we will either see a major breakthrough or some integrative processes, or something else that we are supposed to see in this whole story. So we need to make every effort, in conjunction with the international community, and particularly the Americans, to make sure this doesn’t happen, and to prepare for the possibility that we will have to face this challenge.
“It seems to me that on the one hand it is our professional duty to prepare an operational alternative, and on the other hand to maintain a strategic dialogue where it needs to take place. From the most ethical place possible, I am telling you that we are handling this in the most professional and clear-sighted way possible. And we are not devoid of this capability. Far from it.”
Is the home front ready for what is likely to happen in the wake of such an attack?
“The home front needs to get itself organized irrespective of the Iranian issue. The threat of missiles and rockets present in the Middle East, with or without Iran, requires the home front to be ready. We are talking about tens of thousands of missiles deployed from the north and almost 10,000 missiles deployed in the south, so we need to continue to improve the defenses of the home front, because life in the Middle East will not change.”
One of the most significant decisions made by Gantz in the 15 months he has been on the job was to establish the Depth Corps, a fourth army command [the IDF currently has Southern, Central, and Northern Commands] assigned to handle theatres that do not have a common border with Israel. These are areas, far away from our borders, in which terrorists hold training camps and orders are giving to carry out attacks against Israel. The goal of the new command is to combine the capabilities of units and organizations, so as to enable new forms of thinking to come to the fore and to craft new operational plans.
“The long-range threat is not something that I can ignore,” Gantz tells us. “The range of the weapons arrayed against us, the terror networks – these are no longer the first or second line of defense, the point of contact. This type of traditional fighting still exists, but the threats hatched against us from afar are such that we need to know how to be ready to deal with them directly - with the aid of international actors in the intelligence and technological fields. Combat battalions today are not just battalions in the literal, traditional sense, but they are also Iranian forces who are operating everywhere, and Libya, which is a huge weapons cache. And who knows what will happen with Syria and Iraq. We are examining all of these areas from an intelligence standpoint, and a new command will be required to address these issues and to develop operational ideas and, if the need arises, to command these depth missions.”
Will this really happen? Because there is a sense that many in Israel are fearful of such actions over the large number of potential casualties.
“Our day-to-day routine, and here I’m limited as to what I’m able to say, doesn’t mean that we aren’t doing anything. Besides, we are developing a combat doctrine out of the understanding that we will have to operate on a number of fronts, at great distances, all at the same time.
“Obviously we will make every effort to minimize casualties as much as possible, but this will not dictate whether or not we act because we just don’t have that luxury. In addition, the home front will be subject to an active, potent threat, so it would be proper for the army to take these risks.”
We sat down with Gantz at the height of the scandal which engulfed the deputy brigade commander, Lieutenant Colonel Shalom Eisner, who struck a Danish national during a protest in the Jordan Valley. Gantz received the results of a preliminary probe. After he was briefed on the final results of the investigation, he made the decision to remove Eisner from his post. The IDF chief determined that Eisner had failed to live up to his professional, moral, and military obligations that befit a commander.
Gantz believes the entire saga is not a reflection of Eisner as a person, but he is very disturbed not just by the incident but also by the fact that it took Eisner over 24 hours to report the incident. “This is a failure on the command level,” he said. “A professional failure is how your prepare for these kinds of incidents. A failure on the command level is how you perform during the incident, and an ethical failure is how you behave as a person and an officer.”
The gates of the West Point Military Academy bear the words “Duty, Honor, Country.” What is your motto for the army?
“I cannot be around officers who do not simultaneously bring with them these two qualities: determination and wisdom that befits a commander. A smart commander who is not determined won’t help me. A determined commander who isn’t smart or wise also doesn’t help me. And I am one of those commanders who demand both of these qualities.
“I demand that my commanders lead from the front because that is the only way they will understand what is going on in the battlefield, so that they can correctly hand out orders and decide what action to take. This is because I cannot possibly see what it is that they see. I’m dying to see it, but I don’t see it. And this is what our commanders need to understand, and I think that ultimately they understand this.”
“In this incident, there was an error, and determination on its own cannot solve this. One also needs wisdom. This is what separates a commander from the regular soldier. Otherwise, the commander and the soldier would be the same thing. He is there first and foremost as a fighter, that is true, but he is also a commander and he needs to bring both [of these qualities].
“I don’t send a logistics officer to break up demonstrations. I send the brigade commander, the deputy brigade commander, a battalion commander. He needs to know to bring both determination and wisdom that is becoming a commanding officer, and [Eisner] didn’t do this.”
Are you disturbed by the fact that this incident has been turned into a political issue where the Left has taken a position against the officer while the Right is automatically supportive of him?
“I judge people’s behavior, and not what it is that someone is trying to say about somebody else about this or that issue. In the complex world in which I live, there is just one solution, which is quite simple, and that is ‘truth.’ This is the only immunizing apparatus that I know of. I’ve been a soldier for 30 years, and I know that if you give people the truth as it is, they cannot argue with it. This is my way of immunizing myself, and it is the only way to survive in this complex world, and that is with the truth.”
Perhaps this is another symptom of societal problems and disagreements over religion, politics, and international intervention?
“This is a serious problem, and I will explain. On the Iranian issue, you will write whatever you write and the commentators will say what it is they know and a few former officials will talk, but the state will leave us to deal with it.
“On the other hand, when we are talking about the relations between the army and society, then everybody is suddenly an expert and everyone has something to say. Paradoxically, we have an opposite scenario. That means that issues which I deal with 20 percent of the time become issues that I deal with 80 percent of the time, and vice versa. And this is because everyone is suddenly an expert.
“Take, for example, the issue of how soldiers commute from their homes to the base. What is your story here? They kept us busy with this whole issue of train tickets for soldiers. The free tickets for soldiers initiative is a project that succeeded and it was introduced to aid the welfare of soldiers. Society likes to deal with things that it thinks it understand, while leaving us to deal with other things.”
In his year as army chief, Gantz has been forced to deal with incidents of discrimination against women as well as the “Yizkor” incident, events that once again raised questions about the role of religion in the IDF. It is a question that has become more urgent given the growing influence of national religious soldiers in combat units and the senior and junior officer corps.
“These are wonderful boys,” Gantz said. “They are patriotic, they are part of us, and I really don’t see this as a problem. I don’t look underneath soldiers’ helmets to see what’s there. I do think that the state needs to ask itself how it is dealing with issues of compulsory military service for everyone, which is a critical issue.”
“The citizens of the State of Israel need to give of themselves to the State of Israel, because the army has been, is, and needs to continue to be the first thing that people look at as an entity of volunteers, an entity of people performing a service, an entity that is seen as addressing the country’s needs. This is because our geopolitical environment is different than the one that the Swiss army chief of staff needs to deal with. He was in my office about six, seven months ago and he bragged to me how his defense budget increased because of the problems in the Middle East. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”
So what is the solution?
“Compulsory duty. Compulsory duty for all citizens of the State of Israel, no matter who they are. It’s not just military service, it’s obligatory service.”
You’re a reasonable guy. Does this have a chance of passing from a political standpoint?
“The state has to do this. We are half-the-people’s army, this is not okay, and this is not sustainable. You can wait another year or two, or you could make some shady, under-the-table agreement that will last three or four years, but this won’t really put off the decision for another day, nor will it solve the problem.
“We have no choice, we must decide to go for some kind of solution, one that is more reasonable and fairer. It’s a question of fairness, and I think fairness will be an issue of tremendous significance for Israeli society in the future.”
Last summer’s social protest pushed the IDF into a corner. On the one hand, it has to deal with a slew of defense tasks and challenges, with special emphasis on the Iranian issue and the revolutions sweeping the Middle East. On the other hand, it will have to cope with the need for cuts in the defense budget in order to free up budgets and resources for socioeconomic needs. Not only has Gantz been asked to make cuts and mull the suspension of training and a dwindling of supplies, but he has also found himself engaged in head-to-head clashes with Finance Ministry officials, and even the finance minister himself, who accused the army chief of failing to comprehend his subordinate status in relation to the civilian echelon.
“If there’s something that I understand well, it is the subordinate status of the army to the political echelon,” Gantz says. “I think that these statements were out of place, out of line, and incorrect. But this isn’t the important thing. It isn’t a personal dispute between me and the finance minister. The State of Israel has a prime minister and a government that has a responsibility, and I told the government that we will do whatever it decides we should do, and if it decides that we need to wage war by throwing stones, so be it, we will fight with stones.
“We will not stop discharging our mission because of this issue. We will simply inform you of the consequences. Sometimes it’s inconvenient for people to hear these things, so they make the accusations that they do.”
Is there no money?
“The key question is what the multi-year budget will look like. During one of my meetings with the prime minister, I told him that my first mission as a soldier from an operational standpoint was to provide security for Anwar Sadat when he arrived in Jerusalem to talk peace. Now I’m the chief of staff, and it is unclear to me who the next president of Egypt will be and what policies that country will take.
“Forty years have gone by, and we are approaching a situation in which I hope will be better, one in which there will be respect for civil rights, where the street will indeed have influence on the decision makers in other countries because this would be a pretty good prelude to democracy, where women’s rights will be such that a woman will not be beaten with sticks if she is caught driving, as we have seen in Saudi Arabia. All is well and good, let there be no more wars here.
“But why do I have a feeling that this is not what will happen? Why do I have the feeling that in Egypt a regime is coming to power that no matter what happens we will not be in as good a place as we were? Why do I get the feeling that Sinai is coming unhinged from a security standpoint? In fact, it is already unhinged. Why do I get the feeling that Syria, with or without Assad, will not be the same stable place, even if it was an unfriendly place before, and in the best case scenario it will be unstable but not hostile to us while in the worst case scenario, it will be both unstable and hostile?
“And why do I get the sense that Hezbollah is five times stronger than what it was during the Second Lebanon War? Why do I know that Gaza has 10,000 missiles, with more to come?
“I don’t know what is going to happen in Iraq, and I don’t know what is going to happen in Iran, and we have seen the value of stable regimes. In other words, we are living in a Middle East in which I believe the window of opportunity has closed, and we cannot afford to take risks regarding future developments.”
Does the treasury not understand this?
“I have no problem with whatever budget they decide upon, but it should be made perfectly clear: We will have a stripped-down army. In other words, we will have an untrained, ill-equipped army that is short on supplies and one that will not be fully prepared to carry out its missions. We cannot allow this to happen, and this has nothing to do with me personally.
“This is the most important organization that the state has from a security standpoint, and we are not in Switzerland. I don’t think that defense is the top priority in this country, because I think education is. Still, when I look at how we live our lives here, I cannot ignore this basic fact.”
The test of victory
Gantz is wont to speak in a low voice. His words are measured carefully, and his tone is calm. There are moments when he stops to think in order to make sure that his statements are accurate. At no point does he ever raise his voice, at least during our interview. Rare are the moments when he loses his cool. This is why he has often been accused of lacking sufficient assertiveness, and that he lacks sharpness from an operational standpoint. The few top generals who have followed him closely during his tenure and gained insight into the sensitive jobs he has undertaken throughout his career beg to differ with these statements. They claim that Gantz sanctifies deep thought and careful consideration, but he knows when to cut to the chase if necessary.
Still, his real test, the only one by which he will be measured, is victory, in single operations and, above all, in war. He believes that the army is still capable of gaining victory. “We will win wherever we find ourselves in action,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
What constitutes victory?
“You need to differentiate between victory, which is a strategic term, and dealing the decisive blow in battle, which is an operative concept. The state will not win if we don’t deal the decisive blow, and we need to deal a number of decisive blows so that the state will win.”
Let’s be more specific. What constitutes a decisive blow in Gaza?
“We can conquer Gaza. It’s just a question of what price we have to pay on a national level. It’s not an issue of the number of casualties, because in war there are always casualties, but it’s a question of administering Gaza for an extended period of time. We are capable of bringing about a situation whereby the Gaza Strip will not want to continue the war. ‘Cast Lead’ established a new threshold of deterrence that was intact for a relatively limited time, but the atmosphere of that operation is still with us. If I take the Second Lebanon War, which was supposedly a less successful war, the strategic results of that war are very strong in terms of the deterrence established. So these are the philosophies and the strategies that we are promoting in order to make even more impressive gains in the future.”
And what constitutes a decisive blow against Iran?
“That is a much wider, and more strategic issue. It isn’t on the same plane as the Gaza and Lebanon cases, because it has more to do with… let’s call it strategic blows.”
From your vantage point, as an army general, one can assume that your point of view has changed. There was a time when you used tactical maps. Now, you look at the entire globe, right?
“To say I look at a globe would be a bit of a stretch, but you could see for yourselves. I have a tiny map in front of me, but when I want to be reminded of the proper proportions, I open up another screen on the computer (he clicks the mouse, and the screen affixed to the wall shows a much larger map which stretches from Greece in the West to Iran in the East). It’s important that we know how to develop general ideas, operative ideas, and even command certain missions. The way in which we perceive decisive blows and the way in which we perceive combat require us to work simultaneous on numerous fronts and at long distances.
Can we deal a decisive blow against Iran?
“I don’t think that we need to aim for a decisive blow. I think that we need to deal with Iran.”
And what of the terrorism in Sinai?
“When it comes to Sinai, we need to provide an operational response that will be predicated on intelligence-gathering capabilities as well as defensive capabilities while preserving, to the highest degree possible, our cooperation with Egypt in order to prevent the region from spinning out of control and to be ready for bad days ahead that I hope do not come.”
Do you think the solution for all of these fronts is for Israel to live underneath a ceiling that protects us from missiles?
“On a fundamental level, the State of Israel, particularly its large urban population centers, needs to live under a defensive ceiling. It is by no means hermetic, and it won’t provide the ultimate solution in the future. This defensive means is needed to allow the army to exhaust its offensive capabilities and its ability to deal a decisive blow.
“From a strategic standpoint, we cannot continue to ensure our existence here strictly from a defensive posture. Can my soccer team send all 11 players on offense and leave just one goalkeeper behind? No, this is impossible. I need to also have defensive players back there. But wars have always been decided by offensive campaigns.”
Gantz, makes no effort to conceal his optimism. When we asked him about those who wonder if the State of Israel will survive, his answers are emphatic.
“The people of Israel can be proud and confident, but they must also be sober-minded, because I don’t think that the environment in which we live is one devoid of challenges. But we need to be balanced and to know how to provide the appropriate solutions, with an eye toward history and not in a way that suggests hysteria.”
“We should remember from whence we started,” he said on Independence Day. “We should remember where we are now, and what a long way we have come. I really think that we have a lot to be proud of. I think that ultimately we should look at ourselves and say, ‘If we’ll be okay, then things will be okay.’”
Gantz points to two framed pictures that sit on the bookshelf behind his desk. One picture is that of David Ben-Gurion, and the other is a framed picture of a poem written by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Next to the two pictures is a glass that is halfway filled with wine, which for him symbolizes what is really important.
“In the 1980s, my mother was lying in a hospital in Bonn, Germany,” he says. “She had just gone through a surgery that was just incredibly difficult, awful. She’s barely alive at this point. She puts a flower and this glass of wine on her. The hospital ward director comes by in the morning to see how Frau Gantz is doing. So she says to the director, ‘Listen, the surgery was difficult and all that, but I’m still alive, so I’m looking at the glass half-full.”
The doctor was a Palestinian who was born in Gaza, worked as a dishwasher in an Israeli hummus joint in order to save money for medical school, and ended up treating the mother of a battalion commander of the paratroopers who in 30 years would become the chief of staff.
What is the lesson here?
“The strategic reality around us keeps me quite preoccupied, but I know that I can’t really impact it, because I can’t set things straight in Egypt or Syria. I need to be ready for the outcomes in these places, and to propose solutions that will work toward coping with these kinds of events.
“But I’m also disturbed by the budget issue and by ensuring that the army is not stripped down, and that it will be able to continue to blossom and develop. These things which either do not depend on us or are insoluble still need a solution.
“The only thing I know for certain is that we are here. Can I say that I can sit in one room with a woman, an ultra-Orthodox man, a religious person, a rightist, and leftist, a Jew, and a non-Jew and say that this is one state? As officers in the IDF, it’s out of our hands. These aren’t questions that are dealt with in my work environment. But I do hope for a happy ending.”