Is Netanyahu's defense minister the right man for the job?

MIDDLE ISRAEL: Yoav Gallant can be suitable for understanding the changing battlefield's demands but he is a poor politician.

 DEFENSE MINISTER Yoav Gallant participates in the changing of the guard ceremony at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on Sunday as he assumes his new position. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
DEFENSE MINISTER Yoav Gallant participates in the changing of the guard ceremony at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on Sunday as he assumes his new position.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Justice could hardly be more poetic. 

Having seen his appointment in 2010 as the IDF’s commander canceled, Yoav Gallant this week returned to that fray, not as the chief of staff he never became, but as his superior, the minister of defense. 

Justice is poetic because the cause of that cancellation, Gallant’s alleged construction violations in his house, later proved false. Justice is even sweeter because the man who now made him defense minister is the same Benjamin Netanyahu who canceled his appointment as chief of staff.

Beyond this moral vindication, the encouraging side of Gallant’s appointment is also about professional substance – not just because in a cabinet studded with draft dodgers he is a patriot who gave his country 36 of his 64 years, including multiple operations behind enemy lines – but because he understands his ministry and its work infinitely better than most other ministers understand theirs. 

Having said this, the chances he will fail in his new job are higher than the chances he will succeed.

Yoav Gallant. (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post) (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Yoav Gallant. (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post) (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

GALLANT’S APPOINTMENT seemed natural to everyone, even the opposition. He is a general with rich combat experience, say most Israelis, so surely he can oversee defense. Well, as argued here in the past, that’s wrong. 

The nine retired generals who served as defense ministers included Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak whose performances resulted, respectively, in the Yom Kippur War, the First Lebanon War, the First Intifada and the Second Intifada. The outbreaks of all these were terrible Israeli blunders and in large part directly the fault of those defense ministers. 

By contrast, Israel’s eight civilian defense ministers included David Ben-Gurion, who built the IDF and led it to huge victories in 1948 and 1956; Levi Eshkol, who built the army that won the Six Day War; Shimon Peres, who rebuilt the army that the Yom Kippur War depleted; and Amir Peretz, who ordered the game-changing Iron Dome’s production, overruling the decorated general Barak

Gallant might of course prove to be an exception to the rule, the way Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya’alon displayed civilian wisdom as defense minister, by negotiating with the Treasury a long-term formulation of the defense budget as a ratio of GDP (only for this to be summarily shed by his successor, the civilian Avigdor Liberman). 

In this respect, there is one item on Gallant’s agenda in which he can display vision, and also make good use of his unusual military record as a senior field commander who was not reared in the ground forces. 

A naval commando who later commanded missile boats, Gallant shifted to the ground forces only at age 35, as a colonel who assumed command of a West Bank infantry brigade. Gallant then returned to the navy as the naval commando’s commander, and then returned to the ground forces, first as a division commander and later as commander of the Southern Command. 

This mixed background, and the unorthodox military thinking it fostered, may now prove timely, because the war of the future is changing before our eyes, in the bloody fields of Ukraine. 

With the tank arguably relegated to the battlefield’s margins while artillery stages a comeback and piloted aircraft make way for drones, the war of the future – and the budget priorities it will entail – require a defense minister who can think outside the box where conventional generals might be rigid, and prepare for the wars of the past. 

For this task Gallant is suitable. That cannot be said of the political challenges he is about to face. 

The political challenges Yoav Gallant can't face

THE MOST delicate part of an Israeli defense minister’s agenda is Iran. 

Gallant is thoroughly familiar with this issue’s military side. He was in the General Staff when it prepared for potential action in Iran, and he also saw from close range how Sharon worked on this front when he served as the prime minister’s military secretary. 

Gallant will thus enter the Iranian issue convinced he knows it better than the IDF’s current generals, breathing down their necks and hampering their self-confidence, independence and originality. 

Like Dayan, Sharon and Barak, he might also interfere in the army’s day-to-day management and thus paralyze its generals. Even more crucially, Gallant’s military expertise, and his reputed bellicosity, might obstruct the broad, global view that must be part of any decision about action in Iran. 

Gallant may or may not emerge as a statesman, but during eight years in politics he has proven that, like most retired generals, he is no politician

Having joined politics as the Kulanu party’s Number Two, he fell out with his political godfather, the affable Moshe Kahlon who founded Kulanu. The pair, respectively the finance and housing ministers at the time, quickly stopped communicating. 

Two years later, as Likud’s education minister, Gallant stormed the teachers’ unions, calling one of their leaders a “gangster” and attempting to unilaterally add workdays to the teachers’ calendar. He was summarily rebuffed by the Labor Court, which had to explain to the general one of civilian life’s most elementary facts – that contracted commitments cannot be breached, not even by a minister’s decree. 

Now, this man of quarrels will have to live daily with Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister who was imposed on him as overseer of the West Bank’s Civil Administration, and with National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who thinks he will handle violence in the West Bank over Gallant’s head. 

Good luck to you with all this, Yoav Gallant. We know that you will fight back as these politicians undermine you, but you should know now what Benjamin Netanyahu effectively told his defense minister Moshe Ya’alon the day he betrayed him: in Israel, generals are war’s winners, and politics’ losers.

The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.