Middle Israel: Person of the year

The anti-heroic Benny Gantz personified the Israeli who withstood 5774’s dominant event, having arrived as its accidental warrior.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Our person of the year 5774 may well have been an Arab, yet another protagonist of the gruesome epoch that has been unfolding about us since autumn 2010.
Having successively crowned Mohamed Bouazizi, Mohamed Morsi and Bashar Assad – respectively, the Tunisian grocer whose self-immolation touched off the Arab Spring; the Egyptian who personified the tumult’s Islamist tilt; and the Syrian who led the Old Order’s counterattack – 5774 gave reason to choose a fourth Arab, this time someone related to the rise of Islamic State.
The zealous militia, whose conquests and audacity have agitated much of the world, has produced the latest twist in the Arab Upheaval’s ever-thickening plot. Islamic State’s trail of mass graves, emptied towns, forced conversions, public stonings and severed heads has been so bewildering that it made the world forget Syria’s shelling and gassing of its own citizens.
The emergence of Islamic State clearly overshadowed developments outside the Middle East in 5774, none of which can produce our Person of the Year.
Take, for instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
While her election this year for a third term defied a politically lackluster West’s failure to produce effective leaders, she has not shaped a trend that defined the elapsing year, nor seriously impacted a global event – most notably in Ukraine, the one international flashpoint where she has been a player.
A better non-Middle Eastern candidate could have been Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond; not because he nearly axed Great Britain, but because he embodies a global trend, a transcontinental quest for political devolution ranging from Catalonia to Quebec. Yet the bottom line of Salmond’s effort has been failure, meaning he too failed to shape the year.
One person outside this region who might be eligible for the demanding title of Person of the Year is Vladimir Putin. Russia’s de facto leader for the past 15 years has this year restored the Cold War, and with it the East- West suspicion that had been dormant since the Gorbachev era two generations ago.
At the same time, Putin has not affected life outside his immediate sphere, nor does he have such an aim. Unlike Islamic State, whose leader has declared his quest to march on Rome, Putin’s effort is merely to expand his realm, not affect what happens outside it.
It follows, then, that our Person of the Year must hail, yet again, from the Middle East – a conclusion that would likely have led to choices like Islamic State founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or his black-clad henchman, or one of their victims, whether foreign or local.
Such a choice, like the previous three years’, would have implied that events in 5774 within the Jewish state were less dramatic than those outside it.
This was not the case.
AS THE SHOFAR ULULATES tomorrow from the Galilee to Eilat and Israelis consider the elapsing year’s events, thoughts will invariably turn to the 50 days of awe in which 72 Israelis were killed and more than 2,000 were injured and wounded.
The seven-week confrontation that Israel endured, when 4,600 rockets and mortars were fired at its citizens and their homes, dominated the Israeli year so forcefully that even if something truly dramatic had happened abroad, our Person of the Year would still have to be related to the past summer’s violence.
As has happened in the past, when our persons of the year were enemies of Israel like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (5766), the suicide bomber (5761) or Bashar Assad (5773), this year’s might have been someone from Hamas. Yet such a choice would be problematic, for two reasons: First, Hamas’s leadership was disjointed. To this moment, it is unclear just who ordered the rocket attacks that triggered Operation Protective Edge, on what authority he acted and with what purpose, other than the hope to see casualties pile en masse on Israel’s streets.
While Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh saw in the fighting a way to draw funding for his strapped government, some think he wanted only limited salvos, but military commander Muhammad Deif ordered a wholesale attack of his own volition. Others say the dominant hawk was movement chief Khaled Mashaal, who refused from his offshore location in Qatar to approve a cease-fire – even well after those in the field were begging it. The bottom line of all this is that it is impossible to select one Hamas leader over the rest as Person of the Year.
Yet, more importantly, while Hamas triggered the Israeli year’s main event, it did not decide its outcome. Instead, the fight Hamas picked ended with none of its declared goals achieved, and with some of its strategic assets severely damaged.
It follows that Hamas cannot produce our Person of the Year not only technically, but also substantively.
The failure to shape events is also why our Person of the Year cannot be the Gazan resident, by far this war’s tragic hero, the victim of his own election of a leadership which provoked a war that left 2,200 Gazans dead, 11,000 injured and at least 300,000 displaced.
The generic Gazan would be a good choice for the Person of the Palestinian Year, but on this side of the border the war created a uniquely Israeli experience, which in turn begs an Israeli Person of the Jewish Year.
THE ISRAELIS this column has crowned throughout the years as Person of the Year have fallen into two categories: molders and symbols.
The molders, those who shaped events, ranged from prime minister Ariel Sharon (5762) and politician Yossi Beilin (5760) to Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (5759) and Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer (5769). The symbols ranged from fallen immigrant soldier Nikolai Rappaport (5758) to Nobel Laureate chemist Ada Yonath (5770).
The Gaza showdown’s molders, the ones who shaped Israel’s response to its neighbors’ assault, are well-known.
One is Brig.-Gen. (res.) Danny Gold, who invented and lobbied for the mass production of the Iron Dome missile-interceptor that saved hundreds of lives.
The rest are the politicians, most notably Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and the generals who avoided an adventurous invasion, and at the same time fought until the enemy lost so many of its commanders, troops and weapons that it sought a cease-fire.
Any of these molders would be a reasonable choice for Person of the Year, in terms of their roles in shaping its main event. However, one of them – IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz – is different, because he also personifies the Israeli who withstood the tests of 5774.
For one thing, Gantz was a product of the embattled South, having been born and raised in the farming community of Kfar Ahim southeast of Ashdod, where his parents arrived after surviving the Holocaust in Hungary. But more important, Gantz is not the stereotypical field commander. In fact, while tall, fair-eyed and eloquent, he is a colorless anti-hero.
Gantz would never be caught kissing or slapping a soldier á la George Patton, or disobeying orders ala Ariel Sharon, or disparaging the enemy ala Moshe Dayan.
The paratrooper who spent years commanding assorted units in Lebanon and the West Bank rose to command the ground forces and Northern Command, but was passed over for the IDF’s top post, judged as insufficiently original and bold.
It was only after the abrupt cancellation of Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant’s appointment, which had already been approved by the government, that a reluctant Gantz was sucked into the vacuum.
In other words, the man at the center of Israel’s intense fighting last summer was in that case an accidental warrior. Like the rest of us, Gantz personified the public’s arrival at this war in spite of itself, and its resolve to nevertheless endure and win it – if even without the flair of extravagant commando raids and Napoleonic stratagems. There may have been little originality and imagination in Gantz’s deployment of artillery, armor and air power sprinkled with infantry forays and some naval bombardments, but under his unassuming leadership the IDF arrived in the battlefield properly equipped, well-trained, highly motivated and stubborn as a mule. A more flamboyant general might have generated more public excitement, but would doubtfully have delivered a better result.
Gantz was criticized, with good reason, for his premature call for residents to return to their homes along Gaza’s border, during what soon proved to be a short-lived cease-fire. However, in vowing that day that “autumn will soon arrive, the rain will wash the dust off the tanks, the fields will turn green, and a red South, in the positive sense of the term, of anemones and stability, will be here for many years ahead,” Gantz emerged as a practical warrior whose quest for peace is so much larger than his enthusiasm for war.
And that is why he is our Person of the Year, 5774.