Netanyahu with Gantz.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, during a graduation ceremony of navy officers in Haifa, Israel, September 2013. Photo by AP
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IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz believes that the situation in the Middle East has created a “strategic opportunity” for Israel. Unlike 10 years ago - before the American invasion of Iraq, and before the frequent Arab regime changes -  there is no nation that currently poses a threat to Israel. Egypt is unstable, like Syria, and Jordan – “which from the start never posed a threat” – is mired in conflict. According to a senior IDF officer who recently spoke to Gantz, the “Israelis themselves are beginning to contemplate how to take advantage of this strategic opportunity.”

Gantz hasn’t shared his views with the public, nor has the IDF Spokespersons’ unit reported on their commander’s beliefs. Gantz has found for himself two spokesmen. One of them is three ranks lower, Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz, and the other only one rank lower, General Martin Dempsey, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. Roughly a month ago, Dempsey spoke to businessmen at the offices of the Wall Street Journal, about a recent conversation he had with his Israeli counterpart.

What is this strategic opportunity that Gantz has identified? Dempsey became tightlipped, and didn’t expound. Assuming that the senior IDF commander has shirked off the aspirations to start a war (unlike some of his predecessors, Moshe Dayan during the mid-fifties, Rafael Eitan in the early eighties), it could be that Gantz sees an opportunity for making peace and security arrangements, putting an end to the conflicts that Israel’s neighbors forced upon it.

The IDF is not really the people’s army, it’s the government’s. The government decides, and the people execute – after being conscripted. But in order to convince the public that ultimately votes on the government decisions, the government fawns over the expertise of its military men, which, it claims, is nothing but pure professionalism, completely void of any political context. This is an agreed upon falsehood – when the government wants to hold onto a conquered mountaintop, it touts out the Chief of Staff to explain that without this essential point of deterrence – Israel would face certain doom.

Somewhere in between being “a free people in our land,” and “it’s good to die for our country,” Israeli society, along with the government, is running away from the fundamental question: What is our land? Assuming that the conflict surrounding populated areas in the West Bank will be resolved by formulating an agreement for land swaps, who is qualified to decide that the initial patches of land that the Palestinians will receive in exchange for Ofra and Kedumim are any less Israel than the settlements that were founded after 1967? There has never been an official, sanctioned government survey deciding that the West Bank is more essential than the western Negev. The IDF certainly didn’t say so, as the only entity asked to outline the security map from before the Six Day War.

The classic Israeli aspirations then were to reach a peace agreement with the Arabs that recognized the armistice lines, with minor changes. Outside of those lines, Israel wanted to create buffer zones – Sinai, without a large Egyptian force near the Negev, no Jordanian tanks, or Iraqi soldiers. So Israel agreed, in exchange for Patton tanks from the Americans. Jordan got the same tanks – but committed that they would never venture west of the river. King Hussein, who agreed to this, with certain exceptions, knew that if his tanks were to cross into the West Bank, just minutes away from Jerusalem and Kfar Saba, Israel would see it as a declaration of war.

The IDF’s operational plans on June 5, 1967 were based on destroying the Egyptian armored corps in Sinai over the previous three weeks, and preventing the Jordanian tanks from crossing into the West Bank. In her book on the Six Day War, entitled “Shomrei Hahotam, (keepers of the seal)” Amira Shahar describes a two pronged deceptive strategy meant to destroy the tank brigades on the eastern side of the river. “The deception was meant to create the impression that the IDF was planning to take the Jordan River Valley from the northeast and west, also to conquer Irbid, in order to advance its troops and eventually cut Jordan off from Syria and Iraq.” The plans included leaks of information, double agents, air reconnaissance missions, land reconnaissance during the day, concentrating river-crossing gear in Beit She'an, and testing the ability of tanks to navigate terrain similar to certain essential points of the Jordan-Israel border.

The objective was not to conquer the West Bank and the western part of the Jordan River Valley along with it. In actuality, Israel wanted to ensure that it didn’t get bogged down in an additional front, while the IDF was busy with a difficult ground campaign against the Egyptian army. On June 2, Col. Natan Grossman brought his deceptive “Tigris” force, comprised mostly of engineers, to Beit She'an. Then GOC Northern Command, David Elazar, gave the operation a green light, but it was cancelled by the general staff on June 4, apparently due to the fact that the 60 trucks necessary for transporting the river-crossing equipment were not available.

It seems that those missing 60 trucks, along with the Jordanian eagerness to pull the trigger, prevented the Jordanian tanks from rolling over the east bank, and led to the chain of events that resulted in the unexpected Israeli conquest of the West Bank. The “Tigris” force was sent to engage in a similar deceptive operation in the South Hebron Hills, but there too, its operation was cancelled, due to the speed of the developments. The results do not speak to the intentions, however: then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan did not lie when he publicly declared that Israel had no intention to conquer. In a closed briefing to the members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on June 7, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol hinted at peace agreements upon the war’s end. Dayan, the Labor Party’s right-wing pole, told Eshkol that Israel should not cross the line set by the international community and take control of the Golan Heights, while Ya’akov Hazan, the left-wing pole from Mapam, encouraged Eshkol to do just that.

In light of the expected founding of an independent Palestinian state, questions of security along Israel’s eastern border have returned to the nation’s daily agenda, especially due to the plans proposed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and retired general John Allen. We’ve returned to the starting point: In order to defend Israel, with a combination of Israeli and international military presence, as well as disarming of hostile Palestinian forces, we must first define the exact parameters of the Israel we’re trying to defend.

Here, the internal factor comes into play. Israel littered the area with mines as a means to prevent evacuating it. The old claim, that military presence alongside permanent settlement will increase security, was duplicated east of the Green Line, in the West Bank, and the Golan, and only complicates the bargaining, because military presence can be removed with an order, but civilian presence is not so easily removed. Dozens of small settlements have sprung up in the Jordan River Valley, home to thousands of settlers.

This week, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, as a politician scheming to be head of Likud, and perhaps prime minister, visited the Jordan River Valley, and sucked up to the settlers. He spoke of the fears that rockets could be launched from the West Bank at Tel Aviv or Ben Gurion Airport, legitimate danger that should be dealt with diplomatically and with appropriate security policy. But first, he expressed his opposition to removing settlers as part of a peace agreement. “I’m an advocate of settlement,” said Ya’alon. “I believe in it. In places where Jews don’t live, there’s no security either. Whoever really wants peace must talk about coexistence, and not removing Jews like what was done in Gaza, and the ensuing destruction there that led to rockets being fired on Israel.”

That is a political statement, not a security one. The prime minister’s Likud advisers know better than to get too close to debates about plans including removing settlers from their homes. Gantz, his second in command Gadi Eizenkot, and other senior officers that comprise the upper echelons of the IDF are remaining silent so as not to quarrel with their superiors. As usual, American assistance is essential. Dempsey, playing the role of Gantz’s spokesman, was asked this week what Gantz meant by strategic opportunity. Dempsey chose to leave it to imagination.