The Mixed Legacy of IDF Chief Benny Gantz

As he enters his final year, Gantz can take pride in the moderation and realism he brought to the post. But major social trends are exposing the army to unprecedented pressures.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

On Friday morning, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz began his fourth – and final – year as chief of staff. This is generally the stage at which chiefs of staff start to let things go to their head: to persuade themselves that the public’s fondness for them is due solely to their extraordinary personal skills and not to the bars on their shoulders. In the fourth year, chiefs of staff tend to reflect on the rare possibility that their term will be extended, by another year. They also receive unctuous visitors and make pilgrimage to journalists and functionaries, toy with political dreams and accept with feigned modesty offers to have public squares named after them.

To Gantz’s credit, he has so far behaved with greater caution than some of his predecessors, and seems less likely to fall into traps that ensnared them. He has seen vividly what happened to the two generals who occupied the office on the 14th floor of the General Staff building in Tel Aviv before him.

Dan Halutz, now the chairman of the Israel Basketball Association, was recently spotted getting dictates from the chairman of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club, Shimon Mizrahi – an experience that might make him yearn for the simpler time when all he had to cope with was Hassan Nasrallah. Gabi Ashkenazi, who was brought in to rehabilitate the Israel Defense Forces after the failures of the Second Lebanon War, is now awaiting the start of the public part of the police investigation of the Harpaz affair (relating to an alleged attempt to improperly influence the appointment of the chief of staff) – part of the fallout from his long and unnecessary feud with Ehud Barak.

Gantz hasn’t forgotten how he was chosen as chief of staff at the last minute, with 10 days’ advance notice, after the appointment of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant was canceled, in the wake of accusations of irregularities concerning construction in his home. Gantz also knows that he was only the third choice of Barak and of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot declined the honor during that tempestuous weekend in January 2011. Maybe this is the source of the remoteness with which Gantz views the political establishment and the reason he avoids the political hurly-burly.

It’s an approach that also suits Gantz’s temperament – he prefers to keep out of public brawls. One of the accomplishments of his first three years, for which he will be favorably remembered is his success in stabilizing the General Staff after the Harpaz furor, and the way he has improved the atmosphere both within the IDF and in his relations with the defense ministers he has served under – first Barak and now, even more pronouncedly, Moshe Ya’alon. He has brought back to the army’s day-to-day management a more businesslike approach, less personal and less roiling, more amenable to criticism.

But the bulk of the credit accruing to Gantz lies in an area that is barely known to the media and the public: in the secret operational and intelligence activity which is being carried out on a larger scale than in the past, mostly across Israel’s borders. The IDF has made a considerable contribution in terms of the judicious and measured way this is being carried out, while thwarting dangers stemming from the upheavals in the Arab world and preventing israel from becoming entangled in a possible slide into war.

This week, on the sidelines of a large event, Gantz, air force commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel and the director of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, were seen huddling together to discuss what – to an outside observer – looked like an urgent matter. These three officers, along with Eizenkot, the deputy chief of staff, constitute the small group that is in the forefront of the operational activity that remains unknown to the Israeli public, as long as it doesn’t go wrong and as long as Pentagon officials keep their lips sealed.

Gantz believes in a cautious and responsible approach to the use of military force, such as Ashkenazi also displayed on strategic issues, notably the Iranian nuclear project. The substantive line the current chief of staff took at key junctures in the spring and summer of 2012 won plaudits from ministers who followed the decision-making process closely. If the Palestinian sector does not flare up this year – the possibility that it will still exists – Gantz could get through a whole term without a large-scale military operation. (Operation Defensive Pillar, undertaken in Gaza in November 2012, ended after eight days without the use of ground forces.)

If a war does not break out, Gantz’s final year as chief of staff will be examined through the personnel prism. Even though he and Ya’alon blocked a significant cut in the defense budget, the IDF is now having to undergo a substantial process of streamlining and reorganization. This is being done without a binding multiyear plan, the approval of which has been delayed for the past three years. The lack of a longterm plan is a serious drawback, one that is harmful to the IDF’s performance. It is an issue about which Gantz should probably have shown greater determination in his dealings with the political decision makers.

The changes that are now taking place are the price that has to be paid for six years of being pampered, of the army living beyond its true means, after the Lebanon setback in 2006, in addition to the need to divert resources to new and expensive areas, such as cyber warfare, new intelligence capabilities, use of drones and augmentation of missile- and rocket-intercept power.

Simultaneously, the army is locked into a series of large-scale projects involving major munitions purchases, which were approved during the years of plenty. These projects – involving an F-35 squadron, a sixth Dolphin submarine, the Mark IV Merkava tank and Merkava armored personnel carriers – will gobble up budgets not only at the acquisition stage but year in and year out, due to the high maintenance costs.

During the Gantz years, a tendency has been renewed that was prominent toward the end of Ya’alon’s term as chief of staff and then under Halutz, but was suspended in the Ashkenazi period: an emphasis on technological capabilities and long-distance combat – air force, intelligence, cyber – at the expense of the ability to execute broad land maneuvers during combat. The change, which is seen above all in resource allocation, is the result of the interplay between budgetary constraints and an understanding of the new Middle Eastern reality, in which the likelihood of conventional military confrontations (division vs. division, tank vs. tank) has lessened, while the threat of rockets being fired on civilian populations and of terrorism along the borders has grown.

But this thrust also addresses the decreasing patience of the Israeli public with losses in battle. The IDF can still, if needed, enter West Bank and Gaza Strip cities in order to suppress a Palestinian intifada. But a deep land push into Lebanon or Syria is now looking increasingly like it would be difficult to execute. Whereas the training for the ground forces will be significantly reduced this year, the air force will lose not a single hour of flight practice. The disparity between the IDF’s land and air capabilities appears to be growing apace.

Some 5,000 career army personnel will be let go as part of the cutbacks (and 1,000 young officers and noncoms will be taken on in their place). In addition, brigades and units will be dismantled, and the number of tanks and planes has been cut to an extent not seen in the IDF for a few decades. The reductions are based on calculated risks, and we have to hope that the calculations are being done intelligently.

However, the true strategic danger resides in the realm of personnel, where the IDF will now have to cope with a severe morale crisis. The army is becoming, to its detriment, an arena of infighting between social pressure groups: rabbis from the hesder yeshivas (which combine military service with religious studies) vs. professors, feminists vs. ultra-Orthodox. Everyone is preoccupied with issues that are not related to the heart of operational activity. This is a very slow-moving story (a new document concerning rules of joint service of women and Orthodox men has been awaiting approval for two-and-a-half years), in which insults are hurled to and fro by all the parties involved.

In general, the IDF now seems to be getting less automatic reverence than it did in the past. Even politicians from the right and the center – MK Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) and ministers Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Gilad Erdan (Likud) – have no compunctions about attacking the army publicly.

Everywhere one looks, the IDF faces significant personnel problems. It’s a gloomy picture, and the high command cannot make do with behaving like some commentator concerned about ongoing social processes. The high natural increase among the number of ultra-Orthodox is gradually leading to a reduction in the proportion of men who serve (only about 73 percent of those in the relevant age bracket will be drafted this year). The proportion of women who serve has also fallen, due to the ease with which women can sign a declaration that they are religiously observant (only about 57 percent of all eligible women will be drafted this year). For the past three years, there has been a decline, slow but steady, in the proportion of draftees who want to serve in combat units, especially in the ground corps.

The demand for reconnaissance units and the infantry is still high, but this comes at the expense of the “bland” combat corps: armored, artillery, engineers. Instead, there is a rising demand for “lite combat” units, which are generally less dangerous and sometimes also a little more comfortable(air defense, Home Front Command, combat intelligence) or technologically prestigious (cyber warfare, drone operators). Combat-support units which do hard work and enjoy little glory – including logistics and munitions personnel in the fighting units – are experiencing a genuine crisis. Compulsory service is suffering from other problems as well, ranging from mounting complaints about the disgraceful salaries paid to soldiers – an issue recently deliberated by the High Court of Justice – to the high dropout rate during service.

The problems are only exacerbated in the career-service army. “Anyone who wants to be a noncom in a field unit on a limited-time track will be accepted,” a senior officer admits. “We can’t pick and choose, we are just not succeeding in filling the ranks.” The other career personnel are operating under the pressure of two contradictory trends: growing criticism of waste and of salary and pension terms that are described as a dream and as corrupt, and at the same time an unusual wave of dismissals within the army. Readiness to sign up for the career army in staff positions – with a higher retirement age, slower promotion than in the past and without a noncontributory pension (a form of pension that has not been in effect for new joiners since 2004) – is slackening in direct proportion to the erosion in morale among career personnel and in their public image.

For the first time, a budding crisis is being felt even in the fighting units. Brigade commanders in the less prestigious corps admit that they are having a hard time signing up outstanding officers for company commander and above, and often have to compromise with the second or even the third candidate in terms of quality.

In the long run, if the IDF does not recognize how powerful and significant these processes are, it is liable to find itself in a situation similar to that of the police, with their problematic command norms and operational capabilities. Already, you can find senior officers in the IDF, and not only in the police, who visit the courts of Haredi rabbis in the hope of getting a blessing. Even in the new Middle East, these are behavioral aberrations that Israel can ill afford.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.Credit: IDF Spokesman

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