Security and Defense: Signs of the times

A year into his post, Gantz faces daunting challenge of preparing for war at a moment’s notice.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz_390 (photo credit: Ori Shifrin/IDF Spokesman)
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz_390
(photo credit: Ori Shifrin/IDF Spokesman)
On Sunday, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz visited northern Samaria to inspect the military’s deployment in what is possibly the most tense region of the West Bank.
Following a four-hour tour that included stops at Mount Kabir, which provides expansive views of Nablus to the southwest and the Jordan Valley to the northeast, as well as a military outpost near the settlement of Yitzhar, Gantz got in his jeep to head back to the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv.
But after driving for just five minutes, he picked up the phone, called the regional brigade commander and said: “My jeep has been hit by a roadside bomb. I am injured and one of the soldiers with me has been captured.”
Within minutes, the road was swarming with additional forces, alerted to the area in search of the “abducted” soldier. Gantz stood nearby, one eye on his watch to see how long it was taking the forces to deploy and the other eye on a map to see if the troops sent by the brigade commander were familiar with the terrain and were following their orders.
Surprise drills such as this one have become Gantz’s trademark since he took up the post as the IDF’s 20th chief of staff last February.
A few weeks ago, at the end of a visit to the Ramon Air Force Base, when the base commanders thought he was about to leave, he announced that the Syrian Air Force had infiltrated Israeli airspace and was on its way to bomb targets in the South.
Again, Gantz stood by, watching the clock as fighter jets were scrambled and pilots suited up and jumped into their cockpits. He called off the surprise drill only after the jets were already on the runway and about to take off.
These small drills might not mean much from an operational perspective but they are intended to help create a new mindset within the IDF. In today’s Middle East, which is fraught with upheaval and instability, war could break out at a moment’s notice. Israel needs to be prepared.
Had Gantz been asked, he would have preferred to have been appointed chief of staff under different circumstances. In his farewell briefing with the press in November 2010, Gantz openly voiced his disappointment after losing the race to succeed Gabi Ashkenazi to then OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant.
But then Galant lost the post following allegations that he had appropriated public land for his personal use and Gantz was called back from civilian life to fill the role he had prepared for his entire career. Looking back at his rich resume, one can understand why.
Before becoming chief of staff, Gantz served as the deputy head of the IDF, as the military attaché to the United States, as head of the Ground Forces Command, head of the Northern Command, commander of the Paratroopers’ Brigade and commander of the Judea and Samaria Division at the height of the second intifada.
Gantz also returned to the Kirya at a time of unprecedented instability in the Middle East. No one knows yet what will happen in Syria, Egypt, Turkey or Iran. And at the same time there is Hamas in the Gaza Strip, where Gantz has ordered the Southern Command to complete preparations for a large operation that could be launched there soon.
The current IDF intelligence assessment for 2012 predicts that the chances one of Israel’s enemies will initiate a conventional war against the Jewish state are slim. On the other hand, the chances that one of the unstable fronts Israel faces will deteriorate and descend into conflict are believed to be high.
It is within this unfavorable paradox that Gantz needs to maneuver between the military’s needs as he sees them and the directives he receives from the political echelon above.
This was the case regarding the recent heated public disagreements that erupted between him and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz over the defense budget as well as reports that surface every so often about socalled tension between him and Defense Minister Ehud Barak about the appointment of generals.
Senior IDF officers close to Gantz play down the reports about tension with Barak. Take the appointment of a new commander of the Israel Air Force as an example. The current IAF chief Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan will step down in April and the two main contenders are Major-Generals Amir Eshel and Yohanan Locker.
Claims that Barak and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu were pressuring Gantz to appoint Locker were dismissed by the senior officers who said that neither had ever spoken with the IDF chief about the appointment.
Claims that the generals’ opinions on the viability of a strike against Iran were one of the key considerations in the appointment process were also dismissed as nonsense since, while the next IAF chief might need to command over such an operation, his opinion of whether or not it is the right thing to do is irrelevant for the political echelon in its own debates.
As reported this week in The Jerusalem Post, in the past year the IDF has significantly increased the number of covert operations it has conducted overseas in comparison to the previous year. This is a direct result of the way Gantz views the role the IDF should be playing at this time, even when on the surface things seem quiet.
Gantz’s attraction to covert operations, which might stem from his days serving as commander of the elite Shaldag Unit, is also demonstrated by the recent round of appointments he made to the General Staff. Maj.-Gen. Nitzan Alon, appointed to become the next head of the Central Command, is the former commander of Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit). Maj.- Gen. Noam Tibon was also an officer in the unit. He is building a team of officers whose expertise is operating in the shadows.
This was also demonstrated by Gantz’s revolutionary decision in December to establish the Depth Corps, a new unit that will oversee operations deep in enemy territory.
The corps will be headed by Maj.-Gen. Shai Avital, a former commander of Sayeret Matkal, who has been out of the IDF for over a decade. Gantz selected Avital due to his expertise in deep covert operations. The purpose of the corps will be to enable each unit – Sayeret Matkal, Shaldag and Shayetet – to retain their unique capabilities and at the same time create better coordination between them.
The establishment of the corps is a “sign of the times,” according to one senior officer, and is representative of the understanding that with the increase in the range of missiles in Lebanon and Syria, the IDF needs to know how to operate in places that are not just a drive across the border.
Gantz has also put a major emphasis on improving the IDF’s cyber capabilities. Already as deputy chief of staff in 2010, Gantz was the one who decided to divide the IDF’s cyber units between Military Intelligence (offense) and the C4I Directorate (defense). Gantz recently approved a multiyear plan to boost these capabilities, which is still pending implementation due to the uncertainty surrounding the defense budget.
In terms of military buildup, Gantz laid down several key principles in the internal military discussions held ahead of the approval of the Halamish multi-year procurement plan. In general terms, the plan is meant to continue the upgrade of recent years to the IDF’s ground forces and at the same time improve its strategic capabilities with the procurement of platforms like additional F-35 stealth fighter jets and missile defense systems such as the Arrow, Iron Dome and David's Sling.
Gantz has spoken in the past about the correlation between Nazi Germany and the current Islamic regime in Iran, whose nuclear program has turned into one of the main challenges he is facing as chief of staff.
Gantz was involved in preparing the IDF for a possible confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program as deputy chief of staff. Before that, he was the military attaché to the US just months after the controversial National Intelligence Estimate of 2007, in which the US intelligence community shied away from concluding that Iran was working on a nuclear bomb. Israel, the US and Europe now share the same assessment that Iran is actively working on developing a nuclear weapon.
Gantz rarely speaks openly about Iran. Last month he made international headlines when he told the Knesset that more “unnatural events” could be expected in Iran. A day later, an Iranian nuclear scientist was killed in a car bomb in Tehran. On Wednesday, in a rare speech at the Herzliya Conference, he urged the West to prepare a credible and viable military threat that could be used if and when it is needed.
The current assessment within the IDF is that while Iran appears to be determined to obtain the bomb, it is possible that a combination of sanctions with tough diplomacy could succeed in further delaying Iran’s program and even push off the need to use military action until 2013.
This is why Gantz is investing in cultivating such a close relationship with Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff who visited Israel two weeks ago. There was the intimate dinner with spouses shortly after Dempsey arrived – which included a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York (a known Dempsey favorite) and led to hugs and warm pleasantries throughout the following day of meetings.
After returning to the US, Dempsey gave an interview to the National Journal in which he admitted that Israel and the US view the Iranian threat “differently.”
While the Israeli press had a field day playing up so-called disagreements, the IDF was actually satisfied that Dempsey’s visit was a success since he now understood how Israel views Iran and why.
The relationship with Dempsey is viewed as being critical for the IDF as it faces growing challenges in the region. Dempsey and Gantz’s predecessors, Ashkenazi and Adm. Mike Mullen, spoke weekly and when the Israeli Embassy was stormed in Cairo late last year, Gantz, in a single phone call, was able to get Mullen on the phone to intervene.
When he was drafted into the IDF in 1977, Gantz knew that his service would be different. Of course, he did not know that one day he would become the chief of staff, but because of his background and the images of his mother, weighing just 20 kilograms on the day of her release from Bergen Belsen, his service, he knew, would have special significance.
As the son of Holocaust survivors, the survival of the State of Israel is something Gantz takes seriously especially in light of the open threat from enemies like Iran. As a result, he has spent the past year focused on ensuring that the IDF will be prepared for anything looming on the horizon.
However, his term did begin with one of the worst opening hands imaginable – a defiant Iran on the brink of nuclear power, a revolution in Egypt, anarchy in Syria, a Hezbollah takeover in Lebanon and an unprecedented Hamas military buildup in the Gaza Strip.
Even though a year has passed, the situations on all of these fronts has not changed and some have even worsened. Gantz’s mission, though, remains the same: to keep the IDF on its toes and prepared for the challenges ahead.