Lessons From the Southern Command

The next chief of staff is not the predatory hawk described in some newspapers, but neither will Yoav Galant be the obedient servant of the defense minister and the prime minister

In less than four months, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant will take up his new post as the Israel Defense Force's 20th chief of staff. On Thursday, he bade farewell to the Southern Command, where he is being replaced by Maj. Gen. Tal Russo. In the coming months, the chief of staff-designate will prepare himself for his new position and work with the outgoing IDF boss, Gabi Ashkenazi.

While the media have lavished attention in recent months upon Galant, very little has been written about his opinions on certain military and political topics. He served as head of the Southern Command for almost five years, a relatively long term. During his stint, the area around the Gaza border, which is the command's principal operational theater, witnessed major changes.

Yoav Galant, Roman Poretzky
Roman Poretzky

Galant replaced Dan Harel in October 2005, a short time after Israel withdrew its settlements from the Gaza Strip. Later came the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit and Operation Cast Lead. Between these events, the Southern Command initiated and led a series of moderate-scale operations ("Warm Winter," "Summer Rain" and more ). This was a period of escalation, with thousands of rockets fired at the Negev and hundreds of Israeli reprisals on Gaza Strip territory.

Galant takes with him several key lessons as he leaves Southern Command, lessons adduced as a result of major events - the Gaza withdrawal, the Shalit kidnapping and Cast Lead. Taken together, they reflect a complex worldview that does not readily fit into media-friendly categories: The next chief of staff is not the predatory hawk described in some newspaper columns after the decision was made to appoint him. On the other hand, he clearly will not be a colorless, obedient servant of the defense minister and the prime minister.

One widely held view in Israel - which is shared by some senior IDF officers - is that the withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005 turned out to be a mistake. Settlements there were never supported by a consensus, but since the unilateral pullout, rocket fire at the Negev has escalated, and Hamas has consolidated its control of the Strip.

On the one hand, Galant closely accompanied then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, when he served as the prime minister's military secretary; on the other hand, he is the one who subsequently commanded military operations in the south, meaning that he had to "eat the porridge" cooked by Sharon.

The next chief of staff is not oblivious to Hamas' strengthened position in the aftermath of the IDF pullout. Yet he believes there are major advantages in this current reality: Israel has removed itself from the last millimeter of the Strip, and now defends clearly demarcated borders in the south. It is much easier to defend an electronic fence that separates citizens from the enemy then it is to deploy troops on roads that wind around settlements sprinkled inside Palestinian territory. The mission to defend the settlements necessitated daily clashes with the Palestinians, and caused damage to Israel in the international arena. And Hamas' gradual strengthening was evident in the past as well. Even when Israel controlled the Philadelphi border area with Egypt, it had difficulty stifling smuggling operations into the Gaza Strip.

Kidnapping question

Despite concerns about stockpiling of arms by Hamas, Galant recalls situations in the past in which Israel refrained from launching wars in response to the enemy's weapons stockpiling. Instead, it opted to improve its efficiency and train its troops. On the other hand, Galant believes that Israel cannot become reconciled to another kidnapping, following the Shalit affair. Hamas, for the moment, does not seem to seek military confrontation, but it might nonetheless decide in favor of the benefits it might reap from the kidnapping of an Israeli, in addition to Shalit. And despite the restoration of deterrent powers following Cast Lead, the IDF realizes that Israel has difficulty coming up with a firm message on the kidnapping issue for Hamas.

Galant, like other senior security officials, believes that the response to another kidnapping should be sharp, including large-scale entry into Gaza. In retrospect, the decision to overlook Hamas' daring attempt to kidnap soldiers at the Kerem Shalom crossing point in April 2008 was a mistake. The attempt was thwarted, and that was enough for Israel.

Cast Lead, planned in meticulous detail by Galant and Brig. Gen. Moshe Tamir, was the centerpiece of Galant's term. Israel deployed considerable force in Gaza, sustained relatively limited losses, and strengthened its ability to deter Hamas. The quiet that has ensued since the operation cannot be ignored, even if it is temporary. By and large, personal security was restored to inhabitants of Sderot and Ashkelon, plus the number of rockets fired dropped to a tolerable minimum. On the other side of the equation, there is the Goldstone report, and its implications. In the wake of this very critical document drawn up by an international body, Israel will be sure to consider with extra caution any action it takes during the next military stand-off.

Media reports indicate that Israel's leadership was entangled in disputes both before Cast Lead and while it was going on. Galant stood at the right flank: The southern commander campaigned for the operation to start and later argued that it would be wrong to stop it. Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Ashkenazi finally persuaded Prime Minister Olmert to cease the operation, even though Olmert's gut feeling was in favor of its continuation.

All this is true, but it should be seen in a broader context. Galant lobbied for a military operation because it was his job to do so. He was responsible for preparing the troops and defending residents. Should there have been a need to show restraint, it was the responsibility of higher-ups to act on that need - and Barak and Ashkenazi did precisely that, putting the brakes on the operation until Hamas' rocket fire gave them no choice but to give the all-clear. A week into the operation, thoughts about its cessation came to the fore. For the second time in two years, the Olmert government had launched a military action without an exit strategy.

At no point in the operations preparations did anyone talk about overthrowing the Hamas regime in Gaza as an objective. However, the relative ease with which the IDF took control of a large part of Gaza City whetted Olmert's appetite. A tense argument erupted between Olmert and Barak and Ashkenazi. The prime minister wanted to expand the IDF operation in southern parts of the Gaza Strip, basically in hopes of toppling Hamas. The defense minister and IDF chief of staff wanted to end the operation as quickly as possible.

Olmert relied on Galant's opinion, but as the argument ensued, the southern commander started to express reservations. A more extensive operation in the south, Galant made clear, would require additional months of effort. That apparently ended the dispute. Shortly before his forced departure, Olmert lacked ministerial support to spill more blood, sweat and tears. Looking back, Galant does not regret a "missed opportunity." Quite likely, truth and justice were on Barak and Ashkenazi's side. Action in southern Gaza would, in fact, have necessitated months of military presence, and that surely would have led to IDF casualties; in contrast, the quick end to Cast Lead enabled Israel to strengthen its deterrent capability while paying a relatively low cost in terms of losses. It's hard to imagine when it would have been possible to leave the Strip, had the operation been extended to the Rafah region.