Security and Defense: Confronting axes of evil

Incoming IDF attach? to US Benny Gantz tells the 'Post' about threats that will make his job challenging.

benny gantz 88 (photo credit: IDF)
benny gantz 88
(photo credit: IDF)
Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz's office on the top floor of the Kirya Military Headquarters has quite a view of Tel Aviv and its outlying areas. To the West is the Mediterranean Sea, one of Israel's longest borders. To the East, even on a cloudy day one can make out the hills of Judea and Samaria. To the North lies the coastal strip of Hadera and Haifa, hit by Hizbullah missiles during the Second Lebanon War. And to the South are visible the smokestacks of the Ashkelon power plant, frequently targeted by Palestinian-fired Kassam rockets. With this view in sight and in mind, Gantz, 48, will liftoff on Sunday - together with his wife and three children - to take up his new post as the IDF's military attaché to the United States. Once viewed in the General Staff as a cushy job for generals on their way out of service and into retirement, the position of military attaché in Washington has in recent years gained prestige, as it has begun playing a key role in strengthening and maintaining Israeli-US security relations. During the 2006 war, Maj.-Gen. Dan Harel - today the deputy chief of staff - was instrumental in airlifting advanced American missiles and munitions to Israel's frontlines. Before him, Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin - today head of Military Intelligence - played a key role in bringing an end to the Defense Ministry's crisis with the Pentagon over Israel's decision in 2004 to upgrade Chinese drones. Neither of them, however, had to deal with the challenges that Gantz will face in the coming years in his office at the Israeli Embassy in DC. According to high-ranking defense officials, Gantz's new position will be of extreme importance for Israel in the coming years, ahead of possible Israeli or US military action against Iranian nuclear facilities, in addition to an American withdrawal from Iraq that could have potentially detrimental consequences for Israel. One advantage that Gantz will bring to the job is his vast military experience. At the age of 28, he was appointed a battalion commander; at 42, he received the rank of major-general; and since then, he has served as OC Northern Command and head of the IDF Ground Forces Command. Before that, he was commander of the Paratrooper's Brigade, commander of the Lebanon Liaison Unit and commander of the Judea and Samaria Division, during the height of the second intifada. Upon his arrival in Washington, Gantz will step directly into the fray started earlier this month with the publication of the controversial National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which claims that Iran froze its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has yet to restart it. In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post this week, Gantz calls the NIE report an "internal American issue," yet says he does not think the world fully appreciates the "severity and urgency" of the Iranian nuclear threat. "Therefore, one miss can lead to a situation where the Iranians are already nuclear, and only then will we want to take action." Still, Gantz says he is confident that America remains an ally Israel can count on when in need. (This, according to defense officials, was made clear to the IDF during a visit to Tel Aviv last week by Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.) Gantz weighs his words carefully, as though aware that a slip of the tongue could generate negative diplomatic fallout. While clearly trying hard not to sound as if he is arguing with the NIE report, Gantz does call into question the claim that Iran has stopped its nuclear weapons program - something that has been publicly rejected as well by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. "In a large country like Iran, in a culture like Iran, the ability to do things covertly is not something that seems so farfetched," he says. "And I would not stop tracking this situation in the widest way possible, since this is an international and not just Israeli interest." ANOTHER CHALLENGE Gantz will face while in Washington will be trying to ensure that America's eventual pullout from Iraq does not have negative consequences for Israel. How seriously the IDF takes this potential threat can be seen in its multi-year plan revealed in September, which contains a chapter on Iraq raising the possibility that following a US withdrawal, the country could turn as hostile to Israel as it was in the days of Saddam Hussein's rule. "We cannot know what will happen," he says. "But [Iraq] could develop into some sort of axis of evil. In the Middle East, things quickly develop into existential threats and there is no ocean to protect Israel." Senior IDF officers said that while in Washington Gantz might even be called upon by the Pentagon to provide insight and advice on such a withdrawal. After all. Gantz was the commander of the Lebanon Division during Israel's withdrawal in 2000 - the last soldier to leave the country and close the gates, which had to be reopened in last summer's month-long war against Hizbullah. Gantz played a key role in that war. As head of the Ground Forces Command, he was essentially one of the key advisers to then-chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Halutz, who was from the air force and had very little experience commanding ground forces. Gantz speaks about the war as a "missed opportunity." Had Israel activated its ground forces in a large-scale operation in southern Lebanon at an earlier stage of the war, he says, it would have been easier to rid the area of Hizbullah. Since the war, he has been working around the clock to rehabilitate the IDF and its ground forces. He was one of the authors of the new training regimen for infantry and armored units, and has spearheaded initiatives to develop and procure new technological platforms, such as an active-protection system for tanks and surface-to-surface rockets for infantry brigades. This is all being done, he says, ahead of the possibility of a new round with Hizbullah - or even a war with Syria - or one against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. While claiming that Israel achieved some successes during the war - particularly with the deployment of the beefed-up UNIFIL force and by restoring its image of deterrence - he says he still foresees the possibility of another violent round with Hizbullah on the not-too-distant horizon. With Iranian and Syrian support, he says, Hizbullah is back at its former military strength, and its leadership, including Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, is not keeping its plans for Israel a secret. "You don't need intelligence to know what their goals are," Gantz says. "All you have to do is listen to what they say openly." A new war, Gantz promises, would look much different from the one Israel fought in the summer of 2006. "We will allow better maneuverability on the ground," he says, adding that Lebanese governmental institutions would also be deemed legitimate targets. "If it [Hizbullah] does something, they will pay a heavy price," he says unequivocally, adding that in the next war he would much rather be an Israeli soldier than a Lebanese one. Gantz also admits that there was a misconception about, and over-reliance on, the air force - that it alone could stop the Katyusha rockets that pounded northern Israel during the war. "We cannot rely just on stand-off capabilities," he says. "The solution is in an offensive." IN ADDITION to authoring the training regimen, Gantz also played a key role in formulating the IDF's cabinet-approved multi-year plan, which includes a massive investment in ground forces over the next five years - funding new tanks, armored personnel carriers, rocket capabilities for infantry units and more. "For years, we invested in the air force," he says. "Now we are investing in the ground forces." There is no time to waste in doing this, Gantz stresses, explaining that what the Second Lebanon War really did was tell Israel the "story of future wars." While Israel had watched from the sidelines for years as Hizbullah built up an unprecedented arsenal of missiles and rockets, the war was the first materialization of a new type of fighting and tactic called "bypassing the army." This type of warfare, he says, has been adopted not only by Hizbullah in Lebanon, but also by Syria and Hamas. "Syria can use its [ground] divisions in conventional warfare, but can also maneuver with rockets and attack the [Israeli] homefront," he says, pointing out that Hamas's use of anti-tank missiles and roadside bombs in the Gaza Strip is all being done in order to keep the IDF busy, so the terror group's rocket-launching cells can fire Kassams into the western Negev. Turning to the escalation in Gaza, Gantz says he sees a growing "axis of evil" that begins in Iran and connects with Syria and Hizbullah, and then with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Looking at all the different fronts Israel faces, he says there is a common thread which he predicts will not be broken without military means. "We pulled out of Gaza, and the terror that followed came at the initiative of the Palestinians," he says of the 2005 unilateral disengagement. "We came back from the Camp David [peace talks between Israel and the PA in 2000], and they started a conflict. We pulled out of Lebanon and Hizbullah started a war." With regard to the possibility of a large-scale operation in Gaza, Gantz says that while Israel has never been the aggressor in its many conflicts, it does retain very powerful offensive capabilities which, if the situation there does not improve, may have to be used. "If there is not a positive change, then I do not see an alternative to intervention," he says. Had the war in Lebanon never happened, Gantz would most likely not be off to Washington. Instead, he probably would be nearing the middle of his term as deputy chief of staff under Halutz, and preparing to face off against former deputy chief of staff Maj.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Kaplinsky for the top military post. The war changed all that. Halutz and Kaplinsky resigned, and Ashkenazi - whom he says is the right person in the right job at the right time - was called back from retirement to rehabilitate the IDF. Despite all this, Gantz decided to stay in uniform, because he felt he still had something to contribute. His decision to remain in the military and take up the post in Washington also means that he will be one of the leading candidates to replace Ashkenazi in three years. THE PANORAMIC view from his office on the Kirya's 16th floor is not the only image Gantz will take with him to Washington. The son of Holocaust survivors, Gantz says he does not take the survival of the state of Israel for granted, especially in light of the threats from enemies like Hizbullah and Iran. The image of his mother, weighing a mere 20 kilos, being liberated from Bergen Belsen has followed him throughout his entire military career. When he enlisted in the IDF 30 years ago, he decided from the beginning that he would not be any ordinary soldier, but would become an officer and contribute more years to the country than he needed to. This image was also with him when he served as commander of ground forces during Operation Solomon, the 1991 airlifting of more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Then he found himself wondering whether things would have been different had there been a Jewish state during the Holocaust. "The State of Israel is very dear to me," he says. "This is who I am."