There’s a framed photograph hanging on the wall in IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz’s office. You can’t help but notice it as you leave the room.
In the picture, which was hung up recently, appear 31 men in their prime, wearing their olive-green war-weary IDF uniforms, each clutching his personal weapon. There’s Gantz. To his right stands Brig.-Gen. Mickey Edelstein, commander of the Gaza Division, and to his left Maj.-Gen. Sami Turgeman, OC Southern Command. The three of them are surrounded by colonels, brigadier generals and deputy major generals, all of whom are wearing their respective berets.
This is a photograph of Gantz posing with all of the senior officers who participated in Operation Protective Edge
. The inscription on the copper plate just beneath the picture reads, “To our commander in chief: This gift is in appreciation for trusting in us during these 70 difficult days; for leading us by example; for demonstrating initiative and a carrying out a continuous and forceful offensive. We are ready and at your command for additional orders. Sincerely, the brigade commanders.”
This photograph and inscription are Gantz’s response to criticism he received from cabinet members during the operation.
“Leading by example,” the inscription says – meaning that Gantz stood on the front line with his soldiers, not far away in some office. “Demonstrating initiative and forceful,” the plaque continues – exactly the opposite of how cabinet members described him.
The photograph speaks for him.
Of course, since we are journalists, we asked him the same questions about what really happened during the war. We asked him about the criticism that was leveled at him, how he was said to have lacked initiative and dragged his feet.
They said he failed to come up with an offensive plan, that others had forced him to actively root out the tunnels, since he didn’t want to send IDF forces into Gaza. The cabinet members portrayed Gantz as leading an anemic army, afraid to enter Gaza and lacking initiative. Day after day, harsh words were said about Gantz during the cabinet meetings, especially by Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman. And Gantz was deeply hurt by these words. He spent most of Operation Protective Edge walking around frustrated, withdrawn, sharing his true feelings only with a handful of people.
It’s not easy receiving such harsh criticism in the midst of a war.
“The cabinet is doing its best. I’m not interested in getting involved in how people choose to conduct themselves or what they say. At the end of the day, we need to make decisions, and I have no complaints about the way the system functions.”
And yet, many claims were made against you during this war. The term defeatism was used a number of times.
“I believe that the IDF acted responsibly, with initiative, dedication and determination, from the top down. All the rest is interpretation, and I’m not interested in going into all that.” Was there ever a moment where you thought of or recommended overtaking Gaza?
“We informed the government what we thought the best course of action was, and I’m satisfied that our recommendations were accepted. I believe that we performed correctly in Gaza. Lengthy debates took place during the cabinet meetings, and it is a shame that information was leaked from them.”
It was reported that the IDF estimated that there could be up to 500 deaths on the Israeli side. Was that realistic?
“The actual number of casualties was not far off.”
In your opinion, was the leaking of this information a serious episode?
“It is immoral to leak confidential information. I do not believe that this information was leaked by a government or IDF official.”Do you think that in the long term there will be quiet in southern Israel?
“I truly hope so. We are prepared for every scenario, subject to the resources at our disposal, and are constantly improving our capabilities to respond to threats. We have a very high potential to maintain quiet in the South in the long run. But there are 1.8 million Palestinians living in Gaza, and keeping calm in the region also partially depends on that community achieving economic viability. The Palestinians need to be able to live their lives.”There was an urban legend circulating that Hamas intended to carry out an attack in which all the tunnels that were operational would be used simultaneously. Even the prime minister recently referred to the possibility that Hamas could have sent in a thousand of its people simultaneously through the tunnels. Is there any truth to this rumor?
“As we know well, Hamas did not utilize the tunnels for a mass terrorist attack. It took a tremendous amount of effort over a number of years for Hamas to build the tunnels, and they were meant to bring them strategic success. But in reality this didn’t happen. Hamas met with IDF forces every time it poked its head out of one of the tunnels and failed to reach any Israeli population centers. I am of the opinion that we have neutralized this problem.” Are you prepared to tell residents of the Gaza periphery that they can now safely sleep at night?
“We destroyed all of the tunnels we knew about and that we could uncover, using all of the resources available to us. We didn’t just do the bare minimum – we carried out an all-encompassing operation. It is the nature of border communities, on all the fronts, to be vulnerable to terrorist attacks. But Israelis living in these communities can now sleep safely once again.
“Naturally, we are still on high alert, and people are still hypersensitive, but I have great hopes that we will continue to improve our response capabilities. Our level of deterrence is currently extremely high.
“I am aware that residents in the South have suffered through an extremely trying period and I truly appreciate their resilience and the fact that so many of them have chosen to remain living in these communities throughout the years.”
Am I correct to understand from what you’re describing that we won the war?
“We find ourselves now between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The year 5774 has just come to an end. We mustn’t forget how we began the year, how little resources were available to us. There was instability, uncertainty. Training was put on hold and the air force was grounded. We fought on two fronts simultaneously in complete coordination with the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), a huge number of troops were mobilized and all the units involved responded in the proper fashion. So, did we win the war? Yes, we unequivocally did.”But are we still in danger?
“There are a number of dangers, which we must manage wisely and for which we must always be well prepared. If we don’t, we will end up having to carry out one retaliatory attack after another. Each area has its own challenges and dangers, as well as a number of groups with which we can cooperate. We’ve teamed up with Egypt against Islamic Jihad in Sinai. There are a number of countries around the world that are willing to fight against Islamic State and Iran. The Palestinians don’t want terrorists living among them either.”
Do you think the world is overly worried about Islamic State?
“Every time Islamic State comes up against a military force that is organized, determined and unified, they get trampled. The IDF has the wherewithal to defend itself against Islamic State. If they were to attack us, they would lose outright. Islamic State is trying to create geopolitical lines based on a concept of Islam as a political power, not a religion. The Americans created a doctrine they call “shock and awe” by employing a thousand Tomahawk missiles in Iraq. Islamic State is creating its own “shock and awe” by beheading innocent people. But I believe we are capable of dealing with and containing this threat, and that is exactly what we should do.”
Is Hezbollah really capable of conquering parts of the Galilee?
“Hezbollah has acquired attacking abilities in recent years. Without going into too much detail on the issue, these are not the same military divisions that we once saw in Syria. Hezbollah has offensive abilities and attacking experience that it has gained in the Syrian war and in north Lebanon. Therefore we must reiterate that, even if some of the old armies have disappeared, there is no shortage of new, hybrid groups that have developed and must be defended against.” Do we now know which side we favor in the Syrian war? Perhaps it is time to admit that Assad is lesser of all evils?
“The establishment in Syria has fallen apart and is being rebuilt slowly. You can already see, over time, clear signs on the map. There is the central axis with Assad, the Sunnis who are loyal to him, and the Alawite region. There is the Golan Heights, which has fallen to the rebels. There is the Syrian desert, which is empty, and the desert bordering Iraq, where Islamic State is located. There is also Jebl Druse where the Druse are located. These are tribal and religious enclaves, and a sort of map is being formed. There is still a struggle for power taking place that we are keeping our eye on. This is not a reality television show in which we can vote for whom we support.”
On the other hand, at some point there could be a threat to Lake Kinneret from the Golan Heights, for example.
“On May 15, 2011, on Nakba Day, at the inauguration ceremony for the new Shin Bet chief in Jerusalem, we saw signs that the Golan Heights was out of control. There were demonstrations that broke through the northern border fence. We saw this loss of control and took action. We moved military divisions, changed our philosophy and adjusted our level of preparation. We have not wasted three years. We understand the threat and are better prepared than we were in the past. There is a challenge on the other side. Right now they are busy with each other, but I’m not certain we won’t someday have to act there as well. We are ready.” Is there also a scenario in which we capture territory in order to neutralize a threat to the Lake Kinneret region?
“We are preparing various alternatives for action and we will choose the best one possible if and when it’s needed.” Does Hezbollah really have an attack drone?
Hezbollah, through Iran, has a number of drones, including some with offensive capabilities. That doesn’t surprise us. I am not worried, but I am concerned. I believe we know how to down drones and I’m also pretty sure we can shoot down planes, collect intelligence, and act on the ground. Today, it is no longer divisions in an organized army, as it was in previous wars. We are preparing for the next war, which I have spoken of on multiple occasions. It is a massive amount of rockets, drones, and in my speech at Bar-Ilan I described this scenario. I speak about this all the time, with the political echelon as well. These are not horror tales, this is reality. The North poses a bigger challenge. Everything has an answer. If a war breaks out, it will be long and difficult. It will require a strong home front, a hard fighting battlefront, and national unity, as we saw during Operation Protective Edge, and we will win.”
The scenario includes hundreds and even thousands of rockets that are much more precise and powerful than those we saw in Operation Protective Edge. The scenario talks about hundreds of dead on the home front and even more.
“But there is also our side. We will take Lebanon and knock it back 70 or 80 years, in all areas , and we’ll see how that plays out. And it could also turn out that we’ll need to capture Lebanese territory. There are no surprises here, but rather things we are preparing for, year after year, season after season, staring the challenge in the eyes.”
Is Nasrallah still deterred?
“Yes. He is also busy, and stretched thin on various fronts, but I think he understands very well what will happen to Lebanon if he starts something with us.” What do you think about the election of Rouhani in Iran. Is there a real process of change?
“It’s clear that something has happened in Iran. It is a Persian society, with Persian culture that is also open to other things and wanted something else. The closest thing they could find to this something else is Hassan Rouhani. Something happened there. There was an international coalition that acted against them with sanctions and a blockade, and brought Iran to a situation which made it understand that the nuclear program is not the formula for its survival. The nuclear program became their biggest problem. Therefore, Iran decided to slow down, not because its grand vision changed, but because practicality took over. I hope that they don’t go back to that direction, and that we never let them get back to advancing their potential for military nuclear capability. The upcoming period is critical. We must not forget that the Sunni-Shi’te struggle is also knocking on Iran’s door. We don’t want to live with a nuclear Iran.”
Do you think that the added budget for defense, which Netanyahu and Lapid agreed on, is enough?
“I’m afraid that it isn’t. We are looking over the numbers now. The gaps are much bigger than what has been allocated. I’m very concerned by the number that was agreed to. Defense is not a matter of motivation, but of resources. We have motivation, we have already proved this. The question is whether we will be allocated the proper resources to train enough, prepare at the borders, remain in top form, restock, and continue to increase our strength enough to face threats.” Sometimes it seems like you are not aware that there is a country here with different needs. Education, welfare, health. Food security is also national security. Can you look the poor people of the country in the yes and explain to them why all of these billions are being sucked up by the defense establishment instead of helping them?
“Our security challenges here are no less complicated, and perhaps even more complicated than they once were. My critics ask me, ‘Why didn’t we conquer Gaza?’ Do you understand the operational meaning of conquering Gaza? How is it done, how do we go in, how do we maneuver, how do we capture territory, how do we fire, how do we move within the territory and maintain our presence there? Multiply this a few times and you get Lebanon. And we haven’t even discussed Syria or ISIS or the Golan Heights and what will happen when the UN vanishes from there completely. Listen, I got a telephone call from a group of Yom Kippur War heroes. The biggest heroes of 1973. The most senior members. Basically, Avigdor Kahalani.
“Not just Kahalani. And they expressed their deep appreciation for what we did in Operation Protective Edge. They understood the complexity, the different nature of the surroundings we operated in and the high security challenge. Therefore, I don’t suggest looking solely at the fact that we no longer have traditional standing armies against us. We’ve seen that all kinds of far off countries send armies to distant places and it could be that one day we’ll have to face this as well.” Are you hinting at Iran?
You can’t eliminate any possibility. There are security needs. I don’t deal with other priorities on a daily basis, but I acknowledge that they exist. I’ve said this countless times about education, health, and national infrastructure. I understand this. My job is to explain our security needs. We are not in Milan here. We may be in the OECD, but we are in the heart of the Middle East, completely surrounded by enemies. The only thing standing between us and ISIS right now is that they are currently busy with more urgent matters. I suggest we not fall asleep on our watch strategically. I know that there’s no chance that the IDF and the defense establishment will get every shekel we ask for. We are not pigs and we’re aware of the limitations. But our job is to explain the risks and to provide operational standards, training, and preparedness.”Translated by Hannah Hochner.