Why They Rejected the Victorious General Winter

Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter doesn’t settle for the strategy of containment. He takes the battle to the end

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File photo: Brig.Gen. Ofer Winter commands a Givati Brigade exercise in January 2015.
File photo: Brig.Gen. Ofer Winter commands a Givati Brigade exercise in January 2015.Credit: IDF Spokesman

Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter is being ousted from the army not because of his kippa, or because he’s a graduate of the premilitary academy in Eli. The “kippa” that the General Staff forum for promoting generals can’t accept is the fact that Winter is the defiant antithesis of the years-long mentality of containment. We’ve had similar unique officers in the past; Moshe Dayan called them “noble horses.” The first of these grew up against the backdrop of disgraceful military failures after the War of Independence.

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The Israel Defense Forces has changed beyond recognition since then, mainly in terms of technology and firepower. But in the real test, the test of the battlefield, it shows weakness – to the point of risking the country’s future, as the Winograd Commission after the Second Lebanon War determined. Since the Yom Kippur War, the IDF has fought in two wars and about half a dozen quasi-wars. With the exception of Operation Defensive Shield during the second intifada, it failed to win a single campaign.

And that’s when fighting an enemy far inferior in quantity, intelligence and matériel. This integral crisis gave rise to unconventional figures. In the 1950s most of them grew up in the cooperative farming communities; today some of them come from the religious-Zionist community, the current serving elite.

In the first decade of the state, unconventional and sometimes even eccentric officers were allowed to advance, and in the end even lead the IDF. Today this large and talented – but also conformist – General Staff rejects them.

>> Israeli army running out of talented, experienced senior officers | Analysis

A senior officer who once was Winter’s commander says that Ofer radiates lightning. When he’s in the company of subordinates, you can feel the electricity in the air; when he enters the discussion room, all eyes are on him. On “Black Friday” during Operation Protective Edge when Lt. Hadar Goldin was abducted in Gaza, Winter tried to rescue him (also) via the Hannibal Directive, giving the military permission to do whatever necessary to prevent a kidnapping. In that battle, many civilians were killed as well. Instead of receiving credit for his total attempt to make contact with the enemy – a central IDF ethos – this ethos became a stumbling block for him.

But the soldiers and officers, and not only in the Givati Brigade, see Winter – especially after this battle – as an admired commander; someone daring, someone who takes you by surprise and tries to achieve total victory. The same is true of the soldiers’ parents.

I sometimes have the opportunity to speak to soldiers. One of my questions: Commando Meir Har-Zion, Gen. Rafael Eitan and their ilk were the heroes of my generation. Who are your heroes? The name most often mentioned, after Maj. Roi Klein (who was killed in the Second Lebanon War), is Ofer Winter. Brig. Gen. Moshe Tamir and Lt. Col. Emmanuel Moreno (who also was killed in the Second Lebanon War) are also frequently mentioned. They’re the icons, not any of those who have shown Winter the door. I’ve never heard a soldier mention the name of one of (the good and worthy!) officers who have just been promoted instead of Winter.

I think the reasons mentioned this week for not promoting him had no decisive influence on the decision by the forum making the appointments. Nor was it the suspicion that during Operation Protective Edge he gave information to Minister Naftali Bennett (who anyway as a member of the security cabinet is privy to the most clandestine state secrets). The forum also probably attributed proportionate importance to Winter’s famous order of the day that many are people seizing on – he mentioned the “blasphemous enemy” during the 2014 fighting in Gaza. The cries to oust him – like those of members of the Israel Democracy Institute (who crucified him at a well-attended conference) – probably carried no weight either.

The main reason, which honors him, is related to his personality; a personality that on the battlefield doesn’t hesitate and doesn’t practice containment. And as is typical of such daring personalities, he goes to the brink – and to the end. Although several impressive generals are now serving on the General Staff – courageous, smart and wise generals on a highly professional General Staff – this body lacks generals who shake things up. Such leaders are essential for the Ground Forces, whose only unequivocal victory in recent decades has been the uprooting of Israelis in Gaza from their land and homes.

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