Benny Gantz Alon Ron
Benny Gantz. Photo by Alon Ron
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There is something not fair in the fact that so large a part of this farewell interview with former Deputy Chief of Staff Benny Gantz is devoted to the one posting he missed. Gantz retired from the Israel Defense Forces in November after Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant was picked to become the 20th chief of staff. His one year as deputy to Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was marked by increasing tension between Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, culminating with the Harpaz affair.

Gantz spent 33 years in uniform, the vast majority of them heading combat units; he held five positions as a major general in the past decade and was an active witness to history, from the withdrawal from southern Lebanon (Gantz was commander of the liaison unit in Lebanon and shut the gate between the countries himself in May 2000 ), to the outbreak of the second intifada (Gantz was called in a few days earlier to command the IDF forces in the West Bank ) and to the Second Lebanon War. Even now, he is being bombarded with questions about his feelings following the Harpaz document affair, in which Lt. Col. Boaz Harpaz admitted to forging a letter supposedly detailing how Galant could secure the IDF head post.

Gantz described the document in front of a General Staff meeting a short while after the affair broke, as "a carcass whose stench has taken over the room." The evening he officially retired, three months later, he debated how blunt he was permitted to be. In the end, he decided to maintain the statesmanlike appearance he had adopted all through the time of the selection process. But nevertheless, between the lines, his criticism could be understood.

"I find myself recently thinking mainly about our friends who died," he said. "For what reason these people were killed and if we are still worthy of them."

In the document, Gantz appear as a potential Always a deputy, never a chief

Opening up to Haaretz, spurned IDF chief also-ran Benny Gantz talks about the toxic atmosphere among the army brass that created ripe conditions for the Harpaz affair

objective of attack. On the face of it, its author plans "to build a negative profile for Gantz" as part of a campaign whose supposed aim is Galant's appointment as chief of staff.

Gantz himself saw the document some two months before it was leaked to the media. Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi showed it to him "for two minutes."

The document, and what Gantz called a media attack on himself on the eve of the decision about the appointment, led to a meeting with Barak, at the beginning of August, in which he warned about the atmosphere in the general staff. He did not tell Barak about the document.

Speaking to Haaretz, Gantz says he was not involved in any of the underhanded dealings in the race to become chief of staff, either before or after the publication of the document.

"I don't believe anyone doubted me," he said. "Most of the people understood that I was a mere line in the document and that I had no part in it. I wouldn't be able to identify Boaz Harpaz even if he was in a police line-up and I was opposite him."

Gantz says he warned Barak about the atmopshere in the General Staff, which made such a document seem normal. "The warning was not meant to advance my chances but was aimed at the heart of the matter. There was a fight in the top ranks and God knows who was pulling the strings there. You looked at the generals, the commanders of the divisions and you knew the army was different. ... Now I really hope that the truth, no matter how painful, will come to light."

Gantz says he is proud that he refused to make concessions about his positions on basic strategic matters despite the possibility that this might have spoiled his chances of being chief of staff. "When the selection process began, I had three rules that I abided by courageously: I did not speak to the media, I didn't say bad things about the other contenders, and I didn't change my mind on basic matters so as to be appointed chief of staff. I said to myself in advance that, if because of all this I do not become chief of staff, I'll still be able to look myself in the mirror. I didn't budge even one millimeter despite the fact that many people told me I should."

He describes the entire story as "a crappy affair," and adds that State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss' examination of the affair "must investigate in what kind of atmosphere the document was created. Not the logo and the thickness of the font, but on which infrastructure it was built. Otherwise the carcass will continue to stink up the room. ... The IDF does not deserve what happened, nor does Yoav [Galant] - and neither does the mother who sent her son to basic training in August 2010."

As for the decision to pick Galant over him, Gantz says he's mostly gotten over it, though he was somewhat disappointed. "[Barak] decided what he decided. I respect his choice," he said.

Gantz says that the possibility of remaining on in the army as Galant's deputy was not an option for him, though he wished Galant success.

Post-Winograd thinking

Gantz, 51, has not yet decided what he will do in the future. He says he has no intentions of moving to arms dealing. Other possibilities are all still open. In the 15 months that he served as deputy chief of staff, he dealt a great deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

"This took up a considerable amount of my time," he said. "I think Israel has advanced a great deal in capabilities in the past few years. We are not talking about fantasies here but about capabilities. I am very satisfied indeed. We are in a very good spot and we'll be in an even better one when additional things ripen. I hope that these capabilities will never have to be tested. Democracies don't go to war except when it is unavoidable. The Iranians are continuing to strive for nuclear power. The international sanctions are indeed important but they have not gotten them to change their minds. This is a worldwide problem, a regional one and eventually also an Israeli one."

From the fighting in which he participated in the past decade, Gantz reached the conclusion that there is supreme importance for the country and all its components to enlist to deal with the challenge.

"When there is a directive, when there are explicit directions, resources, then there is nothing that the country cannot do. Moves like Operation Defensive Shield, the separation fence, the disengagement from Gaza, and Operation Cast Lead became reality because the resources and capabilities were put at their disposal."

Gantz says the Second Lebanon War effort fell short because it did not follow that model.

"In June 2001, when I commanded the Judea and Samaria division, it was forbidden for me to mention the word 'fence' to journalists even though we had started to plan it," he said. "The official term was 'operating space.' Finally they decided and the project moved. On the other hand, when I was GOC Northern Command [between 2002 and 2004] there was not a single visit there by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. I don't want to settle past accounts but that is a business that requires continued and prolonged involvement at the different levels. I recall a telephone call from Sharon. He said: Keep the northern front quiet for me. I came from Judea and Samaria. I understood."

However, Gantz said there was no genuine dialogue on the strategic issues.

"Today the government understands the significance of the north," he said. "Do you want to call that post-Winograd? Then you can. I don't expect the prime minister to make operative plans for the northern command. He doesn't have to replace me, but I also can't replace the government in the decision making process."

Of the war in 2006, he will not forget the famous visit by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to the northern command on August 7. Gantz, at the time, commander of the ground forces, was there.

"I told him: If we don't employ a maneuvering move, we will not achieve a decisive situation. He said to me: No plan like that has ever been presented to me. I turned completely white. I don't want to judge Olmert and (then chief of staff ) Dan Halutz, but that demonstrates the great importance of having a dialogue between the various echelons. This must be done not under the shadow of the next commission of inquiry but because, without such a dialogue, we make the soldiers tread water for a week while deciding what to do in Gaza. ... In this respect, I give the politicians higher points now. There is a cabinet of seven, discussions, a basis of knowledge and broader mutual understanding."

The Second Lebanon War, as well as Operation Cast Lead, ended better, he believes, than appeared in the media. "It is not without reason that Hezbollah and Hamas have not renewed their fighting against us since then. But I am worried about one thing - they are starting to think that they can launch a fatal blow against us with missiles and rockets serving as a replacement for the Syrian and Egyptian maneuvers of the past. The missiles are there and the targets are there, this could happen. It is clear to them that we would win but they are likely to think that they could cause maximum damage in the beginning, and that would also be their narrative about who won at the end of the war."

Gantz says war will require quick mobilization to swiftly go on the attack.

"In Cast Lead, Hamas went down from firing hundreds of rockets per day to dozens, and in the end to 13," he said. "The moment you gain control of the area, on the large mass of launchers as far as the Litani in Lebanon, or you split the Gaza Strip, you create a situation of decisiveness. We must make every effort to shorten the war as much as possible because of the price that the home front will have to pay on the first day. The missiles will be directed at almost the entire country. We will have to use great force in the beginning. Hezbollah also knows that if it sends M-600 rockets from northern Lebanon to the center of the country, it will get 10 times as many in return."

Gantz assumes that "the Gaza affair will explode again at some time. We shall have to deal with that and to create different conditions of agreement but that is not a strategic campaign. Hamas and the Jihad have become stronger and the range of the rockets from Gaza is growing greater but the strength of the threat is limited in comparison with Lebanon."

No silver spoons

All through the interview, only one question caused him to lose his cool - about his image as a golden boy to whom things come easily.

"I was in combat positions for decades, under fire," he retorted. "As a fighter, and a platoon commander and the commander of the paratroops, the commander of a division in the territories and in Lebanon. I really don't know what the source of that is. But if that is what is considered a golden boy, let it be."