Mission accomplished: An interview with Benny Gantz on loss and victory

The IDF’s 20th chief of staff talks to the IDF Widows and Orphans (IDFWO) Magazine about Operation Protective Edge and his visits to the families of the fallen soldiers

By GIL STERN STERN TEVET, NAVA SHOHAM-SOLAN
April 18, 2015 22:04
Benny Gantz

IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The wide door opens and the chief of Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Herzl Halevi, and his assistant came out into the hallway. It feels strange for us to enter the office of the outgoing chief of staff after the intelligence chief walks out.

Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, 55, served from February 14, 2011, to February 16, 2015, when at the end of his term he was replaced by Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot.

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We look at Gantz’s face and search for signs of the discussion that just ended.

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At moments like these, the imagination runs rife, and usually goes to faraway places and to young men who were dispatched on dangerous missions.

Just recently, there were reports all over the world about an Israeli attack on several targets in Syria. But perhaps we are extrapolating, and this was just another regular meeting about personnel placements or budgetary problems.

Either way, the smile on the face of the military chief is pleasant and warm. It is evening and he is only in the middle of a long workday.

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“I sleep at night, but I don’t sleep well,” he answers when we ask about having to conduct a normal life while performing a role so complicated and demanding. “The latenight hours are apparently those in which the mind runs wild with scenarios and thoughts that during the daytime I know how to direct and organize. I have been a soldier and a commander for many years and know how to differentiate between things – not to be busy all the time with the most sensitive matters and to give everything its due attention without having the issues that cause concern to constantly be troubling or worrisome.”

Our profession
The conversation is relaxed.

Relatively few words are spoken.

Gantz thinks for several seconds before he responds to questions. He doesn’t function automatically, doesn’t speak in clichés and empty slogans.

He doesn’t have to speak from above about “values” or “mission” or “the love of Israel” when it is possible to speak about particular people and moments.

He doesn’t have to say, “Believe me,” in order for us to believe him. The No. 1 officer has within him something civilian.

Regarding this connection, an officer who served under him when he was a Paratrooper Battalion 890 commander was once quoted as saying, “I was happy that such a man is in the army, but it was also clear to me that he should be a school principal or some leader of change in Israeli society.

Benny is an educator, deep and charismatic. Often the charisma of the battalion commanders arises from the feeling of intimidation that the soldiers experience in a very demanding and relentless atmosphere.

In contrast, Benny always led with his reasoning and good judgment.”

We try to derive from him what it is like to command one of the busiest armies in the world, while living with a daily schedule that includes not only discussions about the IDF’s direction 30 years down the road, but also crucial decisions about ongoing military activity, sometimes at a moment’s notice.

“With the Israel Air Force commander, [Maj.-Gen.] Amir Eshel, I need exactly 30 to 40 seconds to listen, understand and decide,” says Gantz. “We speak quickly and in codes – ‘flight altitude, type of bomb, angle of attack.’ Our profession is about understanding these things and deciding quickly on complex matters.

There is also time for complicated and deep discussions. I have personal time for thinking further and the opportunity for organizing things in my mind when I run. I love to run and do it every day. I run slowly, by the way.”

On the other side of the 14th floor in the General Staff headquarters in Tel Aviv (known as the Kirya), sits Gantz’s successor, still Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Eizenkot. The transition process will take place smoothly and pleasantly, as is characteristic of these two senior officers and gentlemen.

When Gantz met with his staff concerning the long schedule of farewells, it was slowly understood that he was actually going to leave, after 38 years of service.

“At the Israeli College for Security and Investigations event several days ago, they asked me, ‘What have you not yet accomplished in your role?’ and then I realized that this is it. Very soon I will no longer be chief of staff.”

One note after another
Gantz, married to Revital and the father of four, was a soldier and a commander for most of his adult life. He began in the Paratroopers Brigade, was a company commander in the First Lebanon War, participated as a commander of the Shaldag commando unit in operations to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and later commanded the Paratroopers Brigade – a sequence of promotions for IDF senior field commanders that led him to the position of military chief.

We read his interviews of farewell from the IDF and saw that after he announced his retirement in November 2010, it was decided to appoint Maj.- Gen. Yoav Galant as chief of staff. After that appointment was canceled, Gantz was appointed to the position in February 2011. The events that have occurred since then justify new interviews.

Operation Protective Edge, which was launched on July 8, 2014, was completed on August 26, just four months before our interview. The chief of staff tells us about the painful reports he had received during the days of the fighting: Notes containing preliminary information about battles and their difficult results, notes flowing in with names some of which he knew.

“There is the notification about the fallen and seriously wounded Golani commanders in Shejaia; a note about [Lt.-Col.] Dolev Keidar and his men from Officers Training Base One; one about Five, and another about Three, as well as a message concerning the ‘Pillbox’ guard post,” he says.

“It is impossible to let go of the main activity, and incorrect to delve deeply into the human significance of each such notification at the moment it is received, because otherwise it would be impossible to function.”

On the morning of August 1, the chief of staff received the report that he defines as “the most difficult event.”

Lt. Hadar Goldin, an officer in the Givati force that encountered terrorists in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, was kidnapped.

“We understood very quickly that Tzur, Hadar’s twin brother, was fighting in the vicinity with his Paratrooper unit and already on the way to help the forces that were taking care of the abduction.

I gave an order to stop them and first of all to find Tzur, take him out of the fighting right away, and have him meet his mother, who would immediately hear about the kidnapping of her other son.”

Since the end of the conflict against Hamas in the summer of 2014, the chief of staff has visited the families of the 67 fallen IDF soldiers, which has been a long and difficult process.

“The bereaved widows, orphans, parents and friends from Protective Edge whom I meet feel pain, frustration and also anger at times,” he says.

“Along the way, I meet families with different numerators and one clear common denominator – an understanding for what and why we fought. Our fallen did not think that this war was in vain. We know that, because before they fell they spoke and wrote to the families words to that effect.

These meetings, despite their complexity, are sometimes the better part of my day.”

His words imply a feeling of relief that the 100-day conflict that broke out “on his watch” had been one of consensus among the Israeli populace.

Despite difficult events, mishaps, criticism of the IDF and the situation in the region surrounding Gaza, the atmosphere during the fighting did not compare with the days of the Second Lebanon War.

“This was a justified war,” he says.

He tells us about his difficult visit to the home of the family of Sgt.-Maj. Bayhesain (Danny) Kshaun, who was killed in a battle with terrorists close to Nir Am, leaving a pregnant wife and three children.

“This is a very emotional and painful circle,” Gantz says. “Danny immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in Operation Solomon in which I participated as the Shaldag commander 23 years ago, and ever since I have had strong feelings towards the Ethiopians.

Danny’s story is the essence of Zionism.”

Understanding the pain
These are moments in some interviews that call for bombastic statements, lest someone think that the speaker does not stand behind his words, or does not feel and say what he should feel and say at such moments. Not Gantz.

He does not try to strengthen in the ears of his listeners the validity and power of his feelings and thoughts. He does not try to impress.

He conveys a message of security in his own way and suffices with few words, while others might resort to ineffective speeches and empty slogans.

“When facing bereavement, I am modest,” he says.

“My commander and friend Ya-Ya [Maj.-Gen. Yoram Yair], who lost his daughter Shlomit in a military aircraft accident, said that despite the bereavement with which he coped many times as a commander, he never really understood what it was until he experienced it himself. I also know that I cannot really put myself in the place of the bereaved families.”

Gantz believes that on the day that his first son, Nadav, was born, he became “a better commander.” To illustrate this emotional and somewhat complex matter, he tells a story about the muddy and dusty world of the fighters.

“I was in an exercise on the Golan Heights during a brigadiers commander course and we sat down to wait for lunch.

The company sergeant major who was supposed to bring the food was late, as it happened, happens and will happen hundreds of times. That’s how it is sometimes.

“We were already hungry and in those moments, while I was sitting on a rock in the middle of a training fire zone, I thought about my son, Nadav. In a few more years he will sit, tired at the end of an exercise, and will wait for food. All of us, the officers in service, became parents during the years. The small children became soldiers themselves and the challenges we coped with changed accordingly.”

On June 9, 1982, Gantz celebrated his 23rd birthday. Two days later, he lost his close friend, Lt. Umi (Nahum) Goldberg, who was killed while serving as a reserve company commander in the First Lebanon War. Since then, others have been killed, but Umi was unique.

“We were not together when he was killed,” says Gantz. “He was a close friend who I lost. He left his wife Avigail, his sister Ronit and his parents. I will always continue to be the commander of those I lost, but with Umi it is a different sort of pain. It was something more personal.”

After speaking about Umi, and after he hesitates to speak about one fallen soldier in order not to offend the families of others, the dam breaks and the names come out one after another, encounter after encounter: “I met Yonatan Barness before he was recruited, because he had a friend who was killed when I was commander of the explosives unit. Yonatan was my substitute communications specialist in the encounter on the Menara Hills when I was Paratrooper Battalion 890 commander.

“Only after we finished the assault and killed the terrorists did I see that Yonatan was wounded. He died afterwards in the hospital. He wasn’t even the regular communications specialist. He so much wanted to participate and simply jumped on the jeep when he found out about the infiltration. St.-Sgt. Tomer Ron was the son of Daphna from Moledet.

“She was a member of my unit, [and began her army service when I did]. We had not been in contact for many long years, until one day she called and told me that her son who was in a pilot’s course received a package from a boy named Nadav Gantz. We laughed.

“After Tomer was dismissed from the pilots’ course, Daphna called again to consult with me about whether it was good for him to transfer to an elite unit of the Nahal Brigade.

I said to her, ‘It sounds excellent.’ The next time we met was at his [Tomer’s] funeral. He was killed by terrorist fire in Hebron in 2003.”

A few words of thanks
One evening over a year ago, the chief of staff left a bar-mitzva event sponsored by the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization at the Jerusalem Theater. While still in the stairway, he asked his people to deliver a letter that evening to the chairwoman of the organization.

The letter begins with a sort of combined professional- personal style of its sender.

“Re: A few words of thanks,” it reads. “I did not mention it on stage, but as always – the bar- and bat-mitzva ceremony that you organize for the children of our friends who have fallen is among the more moving and important ones.

I would like to thank you and all the members of the organization who are active all year long in accompanying the bereaved families. I find that the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization not only assists with overcoming longings of the past and difficulties of the present, but it also protects and develops the resilience and the strength that guarantee the future. I left an important strategic meeting in order to come to the ceremony, and I am very glad that I did so. And in short... many thanks!” “Why was it so urgent to send the letter? You have already attended such events,” we ask the outgoing chief of staff a year later.

“I experienced strong emotional impacts there. I saw how despite the difficulties, people succeed in observing with these children the important processes of empowerment and reinforcement.

“It’s not in place of anything else, and does not erase the loss and the pain, but it gives them something. This is important. The only thing that we can do for the widows and orphans is to help them to choose life. Just give them the possibility and the strength to choose.”

We don’t ask him the question, “So, then are we going to see you in politics?” It doesn’t seem appropriate.

In the end, we talk about the day after. The hours, the days, the weeks and the months that follow the change-ofcommand ceremony. He talks about his partially fulfilled love of motorcycles, especially Harley-Davidson, and about his father Nachum, who did not like the idea of two wheels.

His father apparently thought that the dangers of military service were more than enough.

“We spoke about this dream of mine more than once and my father would say to me, ‘You will have a motorcycle license over my dead body,’” Gantz says with a smile.

“That’s how it really was. After several years, I got a license and went to my father’s grave to show him. He would have liked that gesture.”

Motorcycling and extended travel are his dreams once his army service is over.

“Open roads, a Harley-Davidson, and riding on and on,” he says.

This interview was originally published in Hebrew in the IDFWO (IDF Widows & Orphans Organization) Magazine.

For more information, go to http://www.idfwo.org/ homePage.htm

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