Outgoing IDF Chief Gantz: Now Is the Time to Offer Gazans Hope

Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz will leave his post in four months. Before that, though, he wants to set the record straight on his army’s performance this summer and deflect any barbs sent his way by right-wing ministers.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, October 1, 2014. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Office
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

This was a difficult summer, long and bloody for the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli society as a whole. However, the person who commanded Operation Protective Edge in Gaza has no doubts regarding its results. “The politicians defined the purpose and objectives, and we fulfilled everything that was demanded of us,” says Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, a month after the conflict in Gaza ended. “Let any officer attending the Command and Staff College analyze it methodically and he will mark every aspect of the campaign as a success. We won.”

In an interview with Haaretz, Gantz notes the “potential for many years of quiet” following this summer’s war in the south. The military achievements, he argues, could deter Hamas for many years to come. “The organization won’t rush into escalating the security situation in its present condition,” he believes, but another component must be considered, in addition to the military consequences. Israel, the army chief says, must act wisely with regard to Gaza, which requires “an economic anchor that will consolidate the military achievements.” Maintaining quiet will also depend on the “carrots” Hamas obtains in the agreement to be negotiated following the hostilities, specifically an easing of economic restrictions in the Gaza Strip.

Gantz believes Israel should be vigilant implementing the mechanisms, formulated recently with the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority, that are designed to control the influx of building materials and other goods into Gaza. Some of these could serve Hamas in rebuilding fortifications and rearming itself. In the same breath, though, Gantz adds that “we have to act rationally. The Strip must be opened to goods – there are 1.8 million people there, stuck between Israel, Egypt and the sea. These people need to live their lives.” The balance, he says, must tilt toward hope over despair, otherwise the fighting could resume – despite Hamas’ dire condition.

Gantz began his term in February 2011 as a consensus chief of staff. He was called in at the last moment, summoned while taking an overseas holiday just before his planned retirement, in an attempt to extricate an IDF overwhelmed by the stench rising from the Harpaz affair [when forged documents were allegedly used to discredit the campaign of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant to become chief of staff]. Now, in spite of recent events, it appears Gantz will end his term in four months still commanding respect.

Tangible achievement

When the final cease-fire went into effect on August 26, the public’s reactions were mixed. The media described the general atmosphere as sour. The relatively heavy Israeli casualty rate (73 fatalities, including six civilians), persistent rocket fire on the south, and Hamas’ refusal to accept Israeli analysis pointing to its defeat, even after 50 days of fighting – these all raised question marks among Israelis.

The quiet that has settled, for now, on the Gaza border has somewhat dimmed emotions and allowed a return to routine with the advent of the holiday season. Longer-term, significant concerns remain among residents of towns and kibbutzim in the south and along the Gaza border. But the criticism that was expressed during the campaign regarding decisions made by policy makers and various aspects of the IDF’s performance did not translate into public protest or political moves at the end of hostilities.

In contrast to the manner in which the Second Lebanon War ended in 2006, the IDF had a tangible achievement at the end of this one – the destruction of 32 attack tunnels leading into Israel (all of the ones definitively identified by the IDF) and the success of the Iron Dome anti-missile system in intercepting close to 90 percent of all rockets fired by various Palestinian organizations at heavily populated areas.

Now the political and military leaderships want to set the record straight. This was apparent in the round of appearances made by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon at conferences last week, devoted to summarizing and analyzing the war, as well as media interviews by the chief of staff. They all seemed to say: We won, we accomplished our goals, we delivered a blow that won’t be forgotten soon (although both avoiding the term “pulverized” favored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu).

It’s hard to argue with Gantz. He is a seasoned interviewee, a pleasant-mannered man who stands in contrast to some of his more media-suspicious predecessors. An interview with him leaves you feeling you have been in a fencing competition in which you struck only air. When asked about some malfunction or weakness that was exposed during the fighting, his response is almost always the same – he admits to some of the facts, but claims the issue has to be more thoroughly investigated, quickly returning to looking at the “half-full” glass. Nevertheless, any concerned citizen can only wonder about the gap between the favorable view leading politicians hold about the campaign and their own performances, and some of the results seen on the ground.

During the war, Gantz received several below-the-belt political blows, mainly because the IDF found itself situated – through no fault of its own – in the middle of unfriendly fire traded between Netanyahu and his opponents in the coalition, the opposition and the media. Cabinet members complained (sometimes in on-the-record interviews) of weakness and unimaginative thinking on the part of military commanders, as presented at top-level, decisive meetings. In response, somebody – was it the Prime Minister’s Office, as argued by some? – leaked a classified document to the media, which revealed estimates that hundreds of army casualties would result from conquering all of Gaza, as demanded by some right-wing ministers.

Infamous speech

Gantz was justifiably called to task for his now infamous “blooming anemones” speech. With terrible timing, he waxed poetic about a quiet future developing along the border, with his words being interpreted as a call for residents of the south to return home. His words backfired, though, as Hamas again targeted the border settlements, inflicting many casualties in the last days before the final cease-fire. It sometimes appeared the chief of staff was the target of accusations simply because he was there, close to the prime minister. In one such case, it was reported that Gantz promised a member at Kibbutz Nahal Oz that things “would be fine,” shortly before a mortar shell landed there, killing 4-year-old Daniel Tragerman. The criticism implied that this wasn’t what the chief of staff was expected to say while visiting a kibbutz under fire on the front line.

Gantz was at the kibbutz during the incident that Friday, August 22, and arrived at the family’s home within 10 minutes of the shell landing. “We’re human beings before we don our uniforms. Such an encounter would be etched on anyone’s mind,” he reflects now. When asked about the harsh criticism directed at politicians and the army by the border residents, he replies, “That pains me greatly. I know what efforts we made for their benefit, not as a favor. We fulfilled our commitments – down to the last soldier – before, during and after the campaign was over. I’m aware of emotions directed at us, and I plan to visit the families of victims who were killed on kibbutzim in the area.”

Gantz refuses to discuss what took place in the cabinet during the fighting, referring the interviewer to cabinet members. “Let them describe what really happened there.” What does he think of the criticism leveled by cabinet members? “I think it’s important to show statesman-like behavior. I will stop at this point.”

He flatly rejects accusations of a lack of initiative and determination on the part of the IDF. “The army conducted itself appropriately. It did not discuss internal disagreements openly, nor did it resort to tricks. The IDF said nothing about others. I believe we conducted ourselves ethically throughout the campaign. I will continue to do so until my last day in the job, even if some in the media label me a sucker.”

Like Ya’alon, Gantz decries claims of sourness, stating that “in meetings with people, I encounter other kinds of responses.” He admits he anticipated (and would have preferred) a shorter war in Gaza. He is pleased that political leaders did not accede to Hamas’ demands for a cease-fire under less favorable conditions for Israel, two weeks prior to the final one. “This could have been a strategic mistake. It’s good that we continued without yielding.”

Gantz still balks at suggestions for a total conquest of Gaza. The IDF, he believes, presented the correct professional recommendation, noting that this is not the kind of decision that should be left for public opinion to make.

Need to upgrade

There has been criticism of late regarding the extent of firepower employed by the IDF, and the intense use of smart bombs – not only due to their high costs, but also due to the possible impact on the army’s readiness and capability if other conflicts developed in Israel during the fighting in Gaza. “I suppose we could have been more economical, but we conducted a risk-management analysis and assumed that a second front in the north would not emerge,” Gantz says. “We therefore decided to maximize our efforts in the south, instead of conserving resources while increasing risks to our soldiers.”

If needed, he explains, the army would have set a different order of priorities during the war. “We’re aware of the different possible scenarios and our equipment stocks, and how much is expended each day. All these issues are subject to the approval of the cabinet and the prime minister.” He notes that these aspects should have been taken into account by anyone who, after three weeks of fighting, was proposing different courses of action. Gantz did not elaborate further on his point. The interviewer’s interpretation of these words is that ministers who favored the conquest of Gaza should have asked what the costs would be, and how this would affect our readiness on the Lebanese border.

Gantz agrees with the assessment that the war emphasized the need to upgrade the IDF’s ground forces. “The ground forces aren’t yet where I’d like them to be,” he says. “We know what we want. The war was a living laboratory of what we had anticipated the battlefield would look like.”

The chief of staff admits the IDF’s preparations for facing the tunnel challenge were at fault, in both training and obtaining the appropriate equipment. “When the ground operation was approved, we were ready – we had made plans in order to better combat the tunnels. There were high-priority areas containing tunnels, but later the aim was to go after all of them. The ultimate test is in dealing with reality as encountered on the battlefield. I hugely appreciate the conduct of the participating brigades and divisions, as well as that of Southern Command.”

And what did Hezbollah learn from the war in Gaza? According to Gantz, “it again understands the costs involved in fighting us, in addition to what it learned in 2006. It sees that Israel does what it deems necessary. They followed the operation of Iron Dome, our intelligence and weaponry. They were probably amused by the internal squabbling that took place here during the fighting, but that’s the way things are in a democracy. We’re stronger than them partly due to this as well.”

What worries him at the end of his term is the defense budget for the next 18 months. Even though the prime minister and Finance Minister Yair Lapid agreed on a 14 billion shekel ($3.8 billion) supplement up to the end of 2015, Defense Minister Ya’alon called this a bluff. Gantz says that with this amount, he “can’t guarantee sufficient readiness, even with smaller forces,” following last year’s cuts.

“I’m worried about a possible explosion,” he continues. “We don’t expect war to be initiated against us in the coming year, but there could be a deterioration as a result of specific events, as happened this year in Gaza. We must be prepared for such an eventuality. Neither Hezbollah nor Hamas currently wants to start a war with us. Our enemies face other challenges at the moment, but the instability is such that I can’t promise we won’t be fighting in Lebanon in 2015.”

The fighting in Gaza again sparked some concerns regarding the religious flavor of some statements by senior skullcapped commanders. Gantz doesn’t see a long-term problem here. When asked how he envisions a future chief-of-staff, he says, “There will be generals both with and without skullcaps. Both kinds will be excellent commanders. It’s not a threat and there’s nothing to it.” He doesn’t directly address the battle order issued by Givati Brigade commander Col. Ofer Winter to his soldiers before they entered Gaza. [Winter told his soldiers, “History chose us to be the spearhead in the fight against the Gazan terrorist enemy that defies, blasphemes and curses the God of the armies of Israel.”] It seems Gantz didn’t like the wording, but didn’t want to issue a public reprimand to a senior combat unit commander fighting in Gaza. Winter’s superiors admonished him, but not through a formal procedure. The chief of staff comments only that “commanders should act wisely.”

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