Does Benny Gantz have what it takes to lead the IDF?
During the two decades he was a colonel and had higher ranks, Gantz accumulated experience but it was not sufficient preparation to deal with the constant pressure in the post of chief of staff.
Benny Gantz, the first Israel Defense Forces chief of staff of the generation born between Operation Kadesh (the 1956 War ) and the Six-Day War, grew up in Kfar Ahim, named after two men killed during the War of Independence, Ephraim and Zvi Guber. From a young age he was aware of the heavy human toll of wars. It is unlikely that he will be rash.
Three years ago Gantz sat in his office at ground forces' headquarters in Kastina, just a little over a kilometer from his family's home in Kfar Ahim. Gantz wondered why Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was dragging his feet about his future in the IDF, which seemed to him to be vague if not totally obscured, pointed toward the moshav of his childhood and talked about the alfalfa field near his home. He said that is where he sits when he reaches an important juncture, to weigh his thoughts, for and against, before making a final decision about anything.
In the coming years Gantz will certainly find himself tempted to slip out of the office of the chief of staff to ponder things in the alfalfa. The big unknown is whether he will be as determined as Ashkenazi in his dealings with the political leadership. On the basis of his views, Gantz seems to be a natural continuation of Ashkenazi, even though they were not particularly close and the latter opted for other officers - Golani veterans - over him.
As the time came for the IDF to leave Lebanon, GOC Northern Command Ashkenazi chose the commander of Division 91, Moshe Kaplinsky, over Gantz - who at the time was the head of the liaison unit in Lebanon - to assume the more senior Northern Command post. In 2001, Kaplinsky and Gantz were promoted to the rank of major general. Four years later it was agreed that they would both serve as deputy chiefs of staff, one after the other, under then-Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. But only Kaplinsky got to serve in that role. Ashkenazi, who had hoped Kaplinsky would stay in the army and succeed him, made life difficult for Gantz, but in the end had to reluctantly appoint him as his deputy.
Like Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Ya'alon before him, Gantz also has a background of being a dairy farmer and paratrooper. Mofaz used to say that because of the milking he developed strong hands - of the sort that impressed paratroopers in rope-climbing competitions. A chief of staff needs strong hands on the wheel, but no less necessary is a solid back.
The experiences accumulated by Gantz, during the two decades he was a colonel and had higher ranks, are not sufficient preparation to deal with the constant pressure in the post of chief of staff. To date he enjoyed partial immunity and suffered only minor exposure. Henceforth, everything will be thrown at him. He will maneuver, in the Clausewitz sense, between constant political, media and legal confrontations. In order to survive in such environment, he will have to radiate strength to the army and the public.
Gantz has no hidden agenda or worldview that he is trying to advance through war. During critical junctures in his career, he witnessed the centrality of the American factor in terms of Israel's security and political considerations. Indeed, he is the second chief of staff, after Motta Gur, who served as military attache in Washington; before that he studied in the United States, at the National Defense University. His tenure as military attache was spread out on both sides of the Potomac, between the Bush and Obama administrations. The top brass at the Pentagon know him and he knows them well.
The problem for Gantz will be with the Israeli leadership, which did not want him until the last minute. Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak now have their backs to the wall. Avigdor Lieberman is threatening that the day after the attorney general announces that an indictment will be filed against him, he'll break up the government and bring elections forward, swerve to the right and become stronger at the expense of Likud, and then move to the left, toward a Tzipi Livni government, in the simplistic belief that the courts will be influenced by his desire for peace.
When politicians find themselves in a weak position before elections, two instincts awaken: the economic one (to lower taxes ), and the military one. This was the situation of Menachem Begin 30 years ago, when he was about to lose the elections, which had not happened up until that point to an incumbent prime minister. Begin, who was also defense minister, sicced Yoram Aridor on the economy, and the air force on Syria's helicopters in Lebanon and on the Iraqi nuclear reactor. In the military realm he was assisted by Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan.
Netanyahu and Barak may be Begin "plus 30." We can already see the economic piece developing. Gantz will require enormous mental fortitude and precise statesman-like conduct to identify the fine line between carrying out the orders of the elected civilian leadership, and maintaining loyalty to those who may try to use him for their political goals.