Israel's New Army Chief Inherits a Headache on All Fronts

Friction with Hezbollah could spread to Syria, a bad nuclear deal with Iran is possible, and tensions are rising in Gaza and the West Bank.

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IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot with his predecessor Benny Gantz at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, February 16, 2015.Credit: AFP

The Gaza war with Hamas was a defining event for Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who retired this week. Nearly six months later, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot is the new man in charge.

The main source of pride for the two sides after this unnecessary war was the gain each deprived the other of. Hamas boasts that it stood up to the most powerful army in the Middle East for 50 days without surrendering. Israel says Hamas crawled to a cease-fire obtained in Cairo with nothing to show but survival.

Gantz kept positive when the fighting ended, drawing a lesson from the Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah in 2006. In that conflict, the army berated itself publicly over its failures, confirming the public’s negative view (fed by frustrated reservists who took part in the fighting). In this way, the IDF helped the politicians who blamed the army.

This time around, the IDF left Gaza determined to defend its narrative. In other words, if we say we won enough times loud enough, it sinks in. Still, is Israel measuring the IDF’s achievements correctly? After all, the army confronted a much weaker enemy in Gaza than it did in Lebanon.

And will the capabilities shown in Gaza suffice in another round against Hezbollah that could break out without either side wanting it? Was enough achieved in Gaza to postpone the next round? Can Israel afford 50-day wars in an era when fighting breaks out every two or three years?

Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon managed the war with level heads. Our leaders eschewed harsh rhetoric and didn’t opt for a long and expensive occupation of Gaza or an effort to oust the Hamas regime (where the alternative is anarchy and the rise of groups like the Islamic State).

The army is right in arguing that it carried out the government’s orders by destroying 32 Hamas tunnels. And the deployment of Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries greatly reduced the losses on the home front. But it doesn’t seem the IDF will sufficiently investigate the shortcomings that happened during and before the war.

The New Middle East

The unrest in the Arab world was the second watershed of Gantz’s term. The Middle East when Gantz took office in February 2011 no longer exists, and the implications for Israel’s strategic situation are far-reaching.

The conventional military threat has virtually disappeared with the erosion of Syria’s military power in the four years of fighting there. Changes are occurring on Israel’s borders at an unusual pace, and the number of regional players, terror groups and guerilla organizations has doubled.

The Intelligence Corps warns that a flare-up on one front could spread to others. The Lebanese border could ignite and drag in the Syrian front. In Gaza and the West Bank tensions are accumulating, and Iran’s nuclear program brings the prospect of a bad agreement with the major powers that would overturn the status quo in the region. For Eisenkot, these threats are one big headache.

Amid the new reality, Gantz did well in the north; this includes a division-level command headquarters in the Golan Heights specializing in protecting the border. There is also a new border fence.

Meanwhile, day-to-day security operations have avoided unnecessary entanglements, and covert activity on the other side of the border is taking place all the time with the public barely knowing about it. The goal is to prevent quality weapons systems from reaching terror groups.

Gantz's success in this last respect especially earned the politicians’ respect. On the other hand, the focus on the air force’s success highlighted the ground units’ difficulties, which were clear during the Gaza war and certain border incidents. In these cases, the IDF was sometimes portrayed as a cumbersome, unsophisticated army.

Gantz is the first chief of staff in a decade to end his term without much bitterness, unlike his three predecessors. Ya’alon, for example, clashed with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. They cut Ya’alon’s term by a year.

Dan Halutz’s term as chief of staff was overshadowed by the 2006 Lebanon war. Gantz’s immediate predecessor, Gabi Ashkenazi, left amid a confrontation with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and a controversy over the so-called Harpaz affair, a scandal involving a forged document created to skew the selection of Ashkenazi’s successor.

Shaky ground forces

Gantz, meanwhile, remained the gentleman with good relations with the political leaders. That’s important; Gantz played a key role stopping the crazy ideas about attacking Iran more than two years ago.

The toughest problem that Gantz is leaving behind concerns the ground forces. The failures of the Second Lebanon War were supposed to be a turning point. Ashkenazi took office with a rare consensus on his abilities and unlimited leeway to make changes.

In his first two years, he did many necessary things; in particular, he got the army training again. But in the second half of his term Ashkenazi was deeply mired in his clash with Barak, so the revolution the IDF badly needed stalled. And Gantz didn’t contain the fallout.

When the IDF debated dividing resources, the ground forces ended up the poor cousin of the air force, the Intelligence Corps and the cyber forces. About a month ago, a scathing report by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira disclosed reserve units’ poor training. The situation at regular army units isn’t much better.

Another disturbing disparity concerns combat equipment. It’s no secret the IDF used huge quantities of weaponry, particularly precision weaponry, during the Gaza war, far beyond its original calculations. If there is another war with Hezbollah, much more precision weaponry will be needed. The gap would be filled by bombs that are less smart, as it were. Their use would cause high civilian casualties.

And the Gaza war highlighted Israel’s reliance on U.S. military assistance during the fighting. When the Obama administration deliberately dawdled, Israel’s air force faced a shortage of Hellfire missiles. Netanyahu’s insistence on a diplomatic confrontation with Obama could undermine relations with the Americans here, too. .

The IDF’s enemy is changing and Israel is still looking for an appropriate response. Will Eisenkot favor continuity or change? He undoubtedly understands the difficulties; the public is less tolerant of huge defense spending. Much will depend on his relations with whichever defense minister is appointed after the March 17 election.

But more than anything, Eisenkot is taking office amid the risk of a military conflagration — one that has to be won without spreading to Israel’s other borders. Like Gantz, Eisenkot is very aware of the limitations of military power.

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