Generally Sensitive

How many IDF officers attain the rank of major general at the age of 42? And how many senior officers are willing to say `I failed' in public? The secret of the charisma of the new head of the Northern Command, Benny Gantz.

Since July 2001, Benny Gantz has borne the title: "Youngest major general in the Israel Defense Forces." In a General Staff where most of the generals are pushing 50, Gantz received his rank at the age of 42, after only three years as a brigadier general. Last week, he began to serve as head of the Northern Command, a key position that will make him one of the most promising candidates for taking over at the top of the military pyramid when the time comes.

What is the secret of the meteoric rise of Benny Gantz? The simple explanation comes from the realm of internal IDF politics: Gantz is the protege of Shaul Mofaz, the chief of staff who filled the upper echelons of the armed forces with officers associated with him by virtue of their common past in the Paratroopers Brigade. Somehow it happened that all those officers who used to gather around the conference table of Paratrooper Brigade commander Colonel Shaul Mofaz, today head all the most sensitive and important sectors in the IDF.

Last week's swift promotion was not the first for Gantz. At the start of his career, when the company commander of Battalion 50 was removed after a training accident, Gantz was called in to take his place. After the commander of the Lebanon Liaison Unit (LLU), Brigadier General Erez Gerstein, was killed in February 1999 in the explosion of a roadside bomb laid by the Hezbollah, young Gantz was brought in to take his place.

The next promotion, again under sad circumstances, came in September 2000, on the eve of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, when he replaced the commander of the IDF's Judea and Samaria Division, Brigadier General Shlomo Oren. Oren was removed from his position because of his role in the Duvdevan affair that took place the previous month, in which three soldiers were killed by friendly fire. [Duvdevan is a special forces civilian undercover unit.] Gantz served as commander of the division for barely nine months when he was taken, at the height of the fighting in the territories, to be senior field commander in the north - a step that seemed to be designed to prepare him for the post of head of the Northern Command. And, in fact, after only about seven months, he was promoted, as expected, to his present, senior position.

A prince or a frog

It's no wonder that Gantz's swift military advancement earned him the nickname "the Prince." He is tall and has a certain charisma. Many interviewers have praised him with descriptions like "noble," "easygoing," "calm," "without pretense," "dignified," etc. But the Prince himself dismisses the aristocratic title, and in his own opinion, is more like a frog. "In the swamps where I find myself, I am still looking for the princess who will give me a kiss," he told a colleague recently.

Gantz knows whereof he speaks. Despite the dizzying advancement, his princely aura has dimmed with the years, and his debit side is no longer blank, as it was until "Morning Twilight," the operation for withdrawal from Lebanon, and the events of "Operation High and Low Tide," at the outset of the present conflict with the Palestinians.

Benny Gantz, married to Revital and the father of two, lives in the center of the country. He was born in 1959 in the immigrant moshav of Kfar Ahim near Kiryat Malachi, the son of observant parents, Holocaust survivors, who married in the British detention camp for illegal immigrants in Cyprus, and were among the founders of the moshav. He took his kippa (skullcap) off the day he entered the gates of the Kfar Hayarok agricultural boarding school, where he studied dairy farming.

"I was quite popular, not a mythological figure, but I was OK," wrote Gantz two years ago in the brochure issued in honor of the 50th anniversary of the school. This "OK" did not reflect excellence in his studies: In 10th grade, he had seven failing grades, which resulted in a threat of expulsion. In the end, the school administrators forgave him - mainly thanks to his activity in the committees that conducted the social life and ran the farm at the school. He was in charge of the work roster; this key job revealed the first signs of his leadership ability, when he was only 16.

"Everything creates a responsibility for taking things upon yourself," he wrote in the school paper, summing up the contribution of that institution in the formation of his personality. When he visited the place during its jubilee celebration, for the first time since his graduation in the summer of 1977, he made his way first of all to the "smoking corner" (he remains a heavy smoker to this day).

Gantz enlisted in Battalion 50 (the Nahal paratroopers) when the battalion was suffering from a poor image, due to a series of operational blunders in Lebanon. The turning point came when Doron Almog, who heads the Southern Command, was appointed to lead the battalion. Gantz is one of the outstanding products of that successful period. "Wise, balanced, brilliant and mischievous," is how his soldiers remember him. "We never had any doubt that if he remained in the army, he would become a senior officer."

After completing a stint as company commander, Gantz was sent to the United States to a U.S. Marines course. During the Lebanon War, he joined a paratrooper force that fought in West Beirut. In 1984, Almog invited him to be his deputy in the "Shaldag" clandestine unit that operated in the north. The next milestone was serving as the commander of Battalion 890; the main battlefield was southern Lebanon.

In 1989, Gantz was asked to command Shaldag. His term lasted for two years, and their crowning achievement was Operation Solomon, which brought the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel, in May 1991. Veterans of the unit did not overly admire him: "He's not a star, he's not the great white hope. He's OK, he's a man of values with absolutely no wickedness in him. On the other hand, he's conservative and not exactly a trailblazer. His message is not to rock the boat."

Photogenic officer

Gantz is not one of those impulsive, domineering commanders, who thirsts for battle and shoots from the hip. If anything, he represents the commander who is democratic, who has doubts, who seeks advice - and who, some say, is hesitant.

Says the commander of a special forces unit: "This gimmick, of [being] the type who has doubts - he overuses it. Benny is a man with whom it is a pleasure to work in a team, he's an `artist' at creating a feeling of partnership and identification, he doesn't try to influence by force, he's calm, never under pressure. The problem is - and it drives some people crazy - that he tends to postpone decisions for tomorrow and then for the day after, perhaps even in order to make them go away. But remember, postponement keeps the options open."

The most obvious sign that senior officers are interested in Gantz's advancement was his appointment as Hebron Brigade commander after the massacre of 29 Arab worshipers by Dr. Baruch Goldstein in the Cave of the Patriarchs, in 1994. He then appeared often in the media, not only because of the sensitive situation, but because he belongs to that species of photogenic officers whom the IDF Spokesman enjoys exposing to the public: one with a combination of fluent speech, calm, modesty, not an ounce of machismo and - a bonus - he looks like a general.

"I will lead the brigade quietly and confidently," was the sentence with which he opened his introductory talk when appointed commander of the Paratroopers Brigade in 1995. Here he stopped, dragged on his cigarette with eyes half-closed, and even before he continued, the message was already clear: From here on in, his style of running things would be entirely differently from that of his predecessor, Yisrael Ziv. The officers had a hard time digesting the independence and the freedom suddenly being dished out to them in generous portions, after being accustomed to the inflexibility of Ziv, who dictated what they had to do, 24 hours a day.

Gantz's head of operations in the paratroops, Itai Virov, hit the nail on the head when he dubbed Gantz "Benny-Huta" [a play on words meaning "Benny, the relaxed"]. Gantz, as usual, surrounded himself with excellent people, remained goal-oriented and focused, and he left the handling of areas that didn't interest him to his "board of directors." He didn't get his hands dirty, he kept himself at a distance and wasn't overly familiar with his soldiers.

"He wasn't a friend, he was a father," agree all the brigade commanders who served under him, almost all of whom are big fans of his. On the other hand, they blame him for being too soft on commanders who wielded a negative influence. "He is not quick to lash out, he's above those things, and when he discovers those involved in intrigue he ignores them. In the paratroopers, things worked out somehow. But in the Northern Command, which is not his home court, his delicacy is likely to be a disadvantage."

`I failed'

Toward the end of his term as brigade commander, a force of the elite paratroopers commando unit was attacked by a Hezbollah ambush in May 1997, eight kilometers north of the security zone in southern Lebanon. In the ensuing battle, three soldiers were killed: Captain Eran Shamir (the deputy commander of the unit), Staff Sergeant Ze'ev Zommerfeld, and Staff Sergeant Ran Mezuman. Seven others were injured, including the commander of the unit. "Operation Chariots of the Gods" had aimed, according to Lebanese sources, to install sophisticated radar deep within Lebanese territory, in order to trace Hezbollah movements.

The losses, the complications, the equipment left behind, disturbed Gantz more than was expected: "Other brigade commanders would have investigated, drawn conclusions and continued without batting an eyelash," say his colleagues, "but Benny had a hard time getting over it."

There are quite a few critics who claim that Gantz suffers from an overdose of sensitivity, and that as a result of "Chariots of the Gods," he lost stature. In any case, before being appointed to his next position, he went to study in Washington, D.C. As for his behavior in battle, some compare him to a solid investor in the stock market, who will always go for the safe investment, and avoid risks. He'll never say, "Attack, I'll get permission later."

His appointment as head of the LLU two months after Erez Gerstein was killed aroused a great deal of criticism on the part of the Golani Brigade clique in the Northern Command, headed by Major General Gaby Ashkenazy. The members of the brigade had hoped to receive Colonel Gadi Eisenkot, the Golani Brigade commander; Gantz seemed to them an inappropriate substitute. The reason for their opposition was not only the historical rivalry between the Golani Brigade and the Paratroopers Brigade, but the feeling that "Benny," as one of the group then defined it bluntly, "is a guest, he won't find his place."

Gantz was sent to Lebanon to be the "official receiver" - when it was already clear that the withdrawal was near. After the pullback of troops in May 2000, which was also described as "retreat," "flight" and "desertion," Gantz stood up at a conference summing up the operation, and publicly announced, "I failed." Without hiding anything, he presented the blunders one by one, starting with the mistaken assessment of the situation.

The reactions to his admissions were divided. "Today it has become a trend to get up and engage in public breast-beating, but then it was definitely an unusual sight," testifies an officer in the paratroopers, one of Gantz's comrades in arms. "He didn't hide a thing, and to me that's strength, that's courage. There were some people of course, mainly guys from Golani, who didn't like what they interpreted as whining." In a discussion Gantz held with his staff officers in Metula preceding the conference, there were loud calls for his retirement.

Only two days after Gantz began to command IDF forces in the West Bank, the Al-Aqsa Intifada broke out. "He was attentive and open, challenging, his remarks were wise, he gave support, he inspires a great deal of confidence," says a brigade commander who served at the start of the uprising in the Hebron sector, which was then especially violent. "They say that he's an elitist? That's not the impression we got."

In the headquarters of the regional brigades, on the other hand, there was not much enthusiasm for the new commander. The feeling there was that Gantz was not as aggressive as the times demanded. All this changed when Brigadier General Yitzhak Gershon slipped into Gantz's shoes in July 2001. "Don't forget, a new battalion commander has arrived," he made it clear from the beginning. As opposed to Gantz, the thinker, the strategist, Gershon immediately began to act, dictating an entirely different pace of decisive and belligerent activity.

The settlers had no praise for Gantz, either. They saw him as a captive of the Oslo spirit, and a person who considers the Palestinians to be partners. In the affair of the "outing" to Mount Ebal, during which Rabbi Benjamin Herling of the settlement Kedumim was killed, they blamed Gantz for the delay of five hours until the group was rescued, after dark. After the battle at Joseph's Tomb, during which Druze Border Policeman Madhat Yusuf bled to death before being rescued by the IDF, Gantz was in distress. The chief of staff, who identified the symptoms, made an effort to remove his favorite from the front line in time.

The competition

When the IDF Spokesman announced Gantz's appointment as senior field commander, he also announced the appointment of Brigadier General Moshe Kaplinski, former commander of the Golani Brigade and of the Galilee region, as military secretary to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. That same day, both men received the rank of major general, and this was the beginning of the unofficial competition for the job of next chief of staff, at the end of the decade.

This was also the case when, last month, there was a simultaneous announcement of the appointment of Kaplinski, 44, as head of the Central Command and of Gantz, 43, as head of the Northern Command. The close race between the pair, one from the paratroopers and one from Golani, will continue to intrigue the senior echelon of the IDF in the coming years.

Even before the evacuation of southern Lebanon, the first signs of this competition could be detected: Kaplinski was the commander of Battalion 91 and Gantz, the commander of the LLU - two neighboring areas of responsibility. Gantz was roundly criticized for the hasty retreat. The equipment left behind, the fighters who were forgotten, and even the abandonment of the South Lebanese Army were attributed to him alone, as though he had given the order, whereas Kaplinski was praised for his behavior. In hindsight, the comparison is unfair. All Battalion 91 had to do was to dismantle three or four outposts, and therefore it is no wonder that it carried out the mission flawlessly. The situation was different for the LLU, which included various headquarters, which are naturally more difficult to dismantle at short notice.

"The absurd thing," says a senior officer angrily, "is that Gaby, Kaplinski and Benny, the senior commanders in charge of the withdrawal from Lebanon, which was carried out in a shameful manner, were upgraded despite the disgrace. As for Benny, twice in a row, in South Lebanon and in Judea and Samaria, his leadership proved deficient during the major tests. His case proves that it's not enough to be nice. It's not that he's not talented, but to be in charge of the Northern Command - his appointment will one day blow up in our faces."

Gantz took up his position as head of the Northern Command last week, facing broad opposition in addition to compliments. Some oppose him for practical reasons; others are interested parties who have been pushed to the rear by his swift promotion. They are trying to delegitimize the appointment. When one examines the subterranean currents, one discovers that it is not Gantz they are after. He is yet another tool to use to protest the judgment of the chief of staff. n