The Galant Enigma

What kind of chief of staff will Yoav Galant turn out to be and how will he deal with the multiple challenges facing the IDF?

yoav galant311 (do not publish again) (photo credit: flash 90)
yoav galant311 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: flash 90)
IN EARLY SEPTEMBER, DEFENSE Minister Ehud Barak took the Israel Defense Forces General Staff by surprise.
After raising a Rosh Hashana New Year toast, in which he effusively praised the top brass, the defense minister pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket and started reading what most of the shocked generals saw as a damning indictment.
“I am concerned at the attempt by senior officers, in the regular army and the reserves, to halt and so defer the process of appointing the next chief of staff and illegitimately influence the outcome,” he declared, referring to a forged document intended to discredit contenders for the top post.
What stunned the top brass was Barak’s timing. The affair around the so-called “Galant document” had been winding down. Police found that no generals had been involved, and Barak had gone ahead with his preferred choice, naming Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, the head of southern command, as Israel’s 20th chief of staff, an appointment approved by the government a few days later. But after sharing his lingering concerns, Barak had a few more surprises in store for the assembled generals: He announced that he was setting up a committee under Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik to investigate the circumstances surrounding the forged document and that the term of the next chief of staff would be cut from four years to three.
The subtext of all this was that the current chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, with whom Barak has been at loggerheads for months, had gotten too big for his boots, and the defense minister was pulling rank to restore the proper democratic balance between the military and the elected civilian authority to which it is subordinate. By launching an investigation and reducing the next chief of staff’s tenure, Barak was making it clear who calls the shots.
Skeptics, however, argued that Barak was simply exploiting a chance that had come his way to further clip Ashkenazi’s wings, a man he sees years down the road as a potentially serious rival for leadership of the Labor party.
Be that as it may, in reasserting the authority of the defense minister in such a blunt manner, Barak was also sending a sharp message to Ashkenazi’s chosen successor, Maj. Gen. Galant.
INDEED, GALANT COMES TO THE top job in difficult circumstances. Besides Barak’s newfound assertiveness, he inherits a high command riddled with bitter rivalries.
The forged document designed to undermine his candidacy revealed a string of acrimonious relationships in the high command, some involving him personally.
“I can’t remember when a new chief of staff has come into office with a weaker hand, and with the balance of power between him and the minister of defense weighted so much in the minister’s favor. For people who talk about the military being in control of Israeli life, this is a real turn-up,” Stuart Cohen, an expert on military- civilian relations in Israel at Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center for Strategic Studies tells The Report.
More important for Galant than his personal travails will be the state of the army he inherits.
Ashkenazi took over at one of the IDF’s lowest ebbs, after its poor performance in the Second Lebanon War of 2006, and the key question is how effective has his intensive rehabilitation program been.
And, as Galant prepares to assume command in February, after Barak denied Ashkenazi a fifth year in office, there are some other intriguing questions on the circumstances of the changing of the guard. For example, why was the defense minister so intent on forcing Ashkenazi out and bringing Galant in? Does it say anything about Israel’s plans vis-a-vis Iran? Indeed what is likely to be on the newly named chief of staff’s agenda? And how ready is the IDF to meet future scenarios like war with Iran that involves fighting on several fronts or peace with the Palestinians that entails dismantlement of settlements and evacuation of settlers? In the immediate aftermath of the 2006 shambles in Lebanon, during which the IDF failed to stop Hizballah firing rockets and missiles at Israeli civilians for 34 straight days – largely because of hesitancy in committing ground forces – the army initiated 11 major investigations into the reasons for its poor performance, and dozens of others on the details.
One of the most incisive was by Maj. Gen. (res.) Amiram Levin, a former head of Northern Command. He put the IDF’s ineptitude down to a critical conceptual error: Elevation of high-tech fire power over classic fighting values, like close combat and capture of territory, on the mistaken assumption that wars could be won at long distance, without endangering troops, by modern super-accurate firepower alone. As a result, the IDF had neglected its once staple reserve army, seen as no longer essential for achieving victory. That explained why many of the reserve units that reached the front were so poorly trained and illequipped.
Levin’s recommendations were sweeping: The IDF should reemphasize the importance of classic warfare as an adjunct to modern firepower, with the reserves as the main force, and the regular army as a production line for reserve units and a holding force until the reserves arrive in time of war.
WHEN HE TOOK OVER IN February 2007, Ashkenazi immediately introduced a five-year work plan, incorporating these ideas. Reserve units were rebuilt, training of ground forces dramatically intensified and equipment stores replenished with state-of-the-art supplies and upgraded war materiel. For the first time in years, the IDF carried out large-scale ground exercises, designed to complement its high-tech firepower with an enhanced capacity for sweeping ground maneuver. In a major reform, Ashkenazi decentralized logistics, restoring systems that had been in place during the IDF’s heyday, so that swift-moving ground forces could be supplied by their own integrated logistics units.
According to Ground Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, the ground army today is far better trained and much stronger than it was four years ago. Turgeman also speaks of a new “integrated” doctrine, based on firepower and maneuver, and real time coordination between various units, like, say, air, ground and intelligence. “We recognize that to win and achieve good results we need to coordinate all our capabilities to create a single joint operational force. That’s how we train, that’s how we write our doctrine, and that’s how we will operate in the next war,” he said in a special Rosh Hashana interview with Israel Radio.
Some of this could be seen in Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza in the winter of 2008-9. Together with Galant, as Southern Command head responsible for Gaza, Military Intelligence Chief Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin and Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) Chief Yuval Diskin, Ashkenazi honed a new system for fighting embedded guerrillas.
One of the key innovations was the introduction of interagency command stations with officers from the Shin Bet and Military Intelligence working in tandem with counterparts from the air force, ground forces and navy, providing real time intelligence and battle estimates, as well as pinpointing targets for advancing ground forces. After receiving raw intelligence on enemy positions, the stations presented operational plans of attack within minutes. The result was hundreds of Hamas fighters killed, including many commanders, and virtually no Israeli losses. Galant has since briefed senior officers from other armies on the system.
Other notable military successes during Ashkenazi’s tenure include the bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor at Dir Azur in September 2007, the bombing in January 2009 of a convoy of around 20 trucks in Sudan carrying Iranian arms to Gaza (an action Israel has not acknowledged) and the seizure on the high seas by naval commandos, in November 2009, of an estimated 500 tons of Iranian weapons destined for Hizballah aboard the Antiguaflagged Francop.
But Ashkenazi’s watch was not all plain sailing. There was a significant operational failure in May this year, when naval commandos, sent in to intercept an international “peace flotilla” to Gaza, were attacked by Turkish activists and left nine dead as they fought to extricate themselves. The incident showed poor planning and an inexplicable lack of basic intelligence.
STILL, MOST ANALYSTS AGREE Ashkenazi has done an excellent job in rebuilding the IDF, but differ over what it augurs for future battlefield performance. Maj. Gen. (res.) Ya’akov Amidror, a former head of research in military intelligence, argues that before the Second Lebanon War, the high command imposed a language on the IDF that made it impossible for it to function. It was vague, not goal-oriented, and spoke of creating “effects” that would break the enemy’s will to fight, rather than defeating its forces on the battlefield, and of “controlling” areas rather than capturing them.
Amidror says that under Ashkenazi this has changed drastically, and that the change in the use of language has had a major impact on the way the IDF is structured, trained and armed.
“Because as soon as you start using a language that recognizes the need for physical victory on the field of battle, that becomes the basis for everything else,” he tells The Report.
Amidror, however, warns against reading too much into Operation Cast Lead as a measure of the IDF’s new capabilities. “It was a very limited operation, in a very small area, against a very weak enemy. We should look rather at the glitches to make sure they don’t happen again and not get too carried away by the success,” he declares.
Other generals are less downbeat about the achievements of Cast Lead. Maj. Gen. (res.) Doron Almog, a former head of Southern Command, who investigated the border kidnapping of Israeli soldiers that led to the Second Lebanon War, praises the way Ashkenazi has rebuilt and retrained the reserve army, and says that even though Cast Lead was a limited operation, it reflects a significant advance. “If you look at the way the army operated as a welloiled machine, air, ground forces, intelligence, communications, all well-coordinated, it showed a high level of operational capability,” he tells The Report.
While giving Ashkenazi credit for restoring the IDF’s capacity for sweeping maneuver and close combat, some analysts are skeptical over the extent to which the generals are actually prepared to use ground forces on a large scale.
Avi Kober, a senior researcher at Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center and an expert on military affairs, maintains that the IDF is still obsessed with long range high-tech firepower and still in “post-heroic mode,” bent on avoiding casualties and therefore loath to commit ground forces to battle. “From what I hear, it’s firepower, firepower all the way, with fewer losses on our side and fewer civilian casualties on the other side,” he tells The Report.
In Kober’s view, the IDF under Ashkenazi will only commit ground forces on a large scale in what it sees as an “existential situation” – for example, in quelling a major attack from the West Bank. “If it is the West Bank, that’s one thing. But in Lebanon or Gaza, they are not prepared to put lives at risk. In Cast Lead, for example, they refrained from committing ground forces on a scale large enough to topple the Hamas regime. They are not prepared to pay a high price for something that is not considered vital,” he asserts.
Kober asserts that the generals are only paying lip service to the role ground forces will play on the future battlefield and that wherever possible they will try to operate without them.
“They are training hard and I suppose they do have genuine contingency plans to use the ground forces. But my feeling is that at the moment of truth, either the IDF or the government – or both – won’t want to pay the price,” he insists.
KOBER DESCRIBES ASHKENAZI as a “very cautious man,” and suggests that Galant, who has a more aggressive image, might change things. The two men are known to have clashed during Operation Cast Lead, with Galant pushing for more ground troops to step up the offensive and topple the Hamas government.
Another key area where Kober argues that Ashkenazi has failed to make significant change is in the training of the officer corps. “In my view, here the balance is a big zero,” says Kober. When Ashkenazi took over in February 2007, the teaching of military theory and history had been removed from the curricula in the staff colleges.
That remains the case today. Indeed, the current commander of the IDF colleges, Maj.
Gen. Gershon Hacohen openly opposes the study of military theory and history.
In Kober’s view this leaves IDF officers at a huge disadvantage as military professionals, compared to counterparts in, say, the US or Britain. “There is no contradiction between being a good professional with a sure grasp of military history and theory, and being an excellent field commander. Today, when warfare is becoming more complex, it’s not enough to be tall, tanned and strong with a capacity for leadership,” he avers. Here too, Galant, who is known as something of a military history buff himself, might make a change.
Other challenges Galant faces may be beyond his control. For example, the postheroic mode in which the IDF finds itself is very much a reflection of values in Israeli society as a whole. Indeed, Bar-Ilan’s Cohen, who monitors relations between the military and civil society, argues that over the past decade or so civilian agencies have been dramatically tipping the balance of power vis-a-vis the IDF in their favor by intervening directly in what used to be sacrosanct military matters.
“Look at parents. Look at feminist groups.
Look at rabbis. Look at the law courts. Look at the press. The wider context is that we are seeing a changing relationship between civil society and the military, which is a very healthy thing, but which makes life very difficult for the military. We are not the only ones, by the way. There is not a military in the Western world that doesn’t complain about judicial intrusion or pressure of women’s groups. It’s not just a Jewish mother thing. It’s happening all over the Western world,” he asserts.
Another challenge for Galant, specific to the IDF, is the ongoing, steady decline in enlistment figures. This is largely because of a demographic trend in which the ultra-Orthodox haredim, most of whom choose not to serve, are becoming a larger percentage of the general Jewish population. In 2010, manpower division reported a shortfall of around 10,000 soldiers in the regular army, and to combat the dwindling numbers produced an ambitious plan to draft more than 50 percent of 18-yearold haredim by 2020.
But so far, according to Cohen, there is no sign of anything having changed. “Ashkenazi has been unable to arrest the decline. And unless the new plan kicks in, it’s going to get worse. If you look at the registration of kids in high schools, the percentage in haredi schools is getting higher. This means that in 15 or 20 years down the line we could have a real problem,” he says.
FOR BARAK, TWO ISSUES LOOM LARGE ABOVE ALL the rest: Stopping Iran from going nuclear and providing a multilayered missile defense system for Israel. Reports are that he did not see eye to eye with Ashkenazi on either. Indeed, some in the defense establishment speculate that these basic differences explain why Barak was so intent on replacing the current chief of staff and appointing the potentially more like-minded Galant, as his successor, as quickly as he could.
It is no secret that Ashkenazi initially opposed the development of the Iron Dome system designed to intercept short-range rockets and missiles, and although he later came round, there is speculation that he might not want to purchase as many of the systems as Barak would like.
The differences on Iran cut much deeper. Both Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have made it clear that they want to keep a military option on the table. Indeed, some pundits see Netanyahu’s newfound readiness to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians as intended, at least partly, to produce more favorable regional conditions for American action against Iran’s nuclear program, and, at the same time, create a better international diplomatic climate for a possible Israeli strike.
Ashkenazi, however, is known to have serious reservations about the wisdom of Israeli military action. According to insiders, Barak even suspected that the chief of staff had gone behind his back to invite American pressure against an Israeli attack through his close friend, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Admiral Mike Mullen.
Several ex-generals, including Almog, share Ashkenazi’s caution.
“You have to bear in mind that any operation against Iran could set the entire Middle East alight. At the very least, Hizballah and Hamas will retaliate. And I can’t say how ready the IDF is to operate on so many different fronts simultaneously,” Almog warns.
In Almog’s view, if there is an attack on Iran, it should only be as a last resort, and preferably with strong American backing. “What is a last resort? To come to that kind of assessment, you would need very detailed intelligence. Naturally, it would be better to get into something like that with a strong strategic ally like the US on your side, with close coordination and even operational cooperation between the two armed forces,” he declares.
FOR GALANT, FORMING A CLEAR VIEW ON IRAN WILL likely be his first order of business. The fact that Barak chose him as chief of staff suggests that his initial positions are not all that far from the defense minister’s. Other items on his immediate agenda when he takes over in February 2011: Establishing good working relations in a new general staff after the departure of senior figures like Ashkenazi, Yadlin and deputy chief of staff Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz; starting work on a new five year work plan due to go into effect in 2012; deciding what resources to allocate to anti-missile defense, which is Barak’s pet project; developing means of countering the kind of criticism meted out by Judge Richard Goldstone to Operation Cast Lead; combating a potential upsurge of rejectionist terror aimed at subverting peace talks with the Palestinians; and preparing for an IDF role in evacuating settlers if peace moves with the Palestinians bear fruit.
Some analysts argue that since so many officers come from the ranks of the settler-supporting national religious movement, Galant’s army will not be able to dismantle settlements and evacuate settlers the way the IDF did in Gaza in 2005.
Cohen dismisses this view as “sheer nonsense.” “For two reasons: First, the IDF is sensitive enough not to place people from a particular settlement in the front line of those evacuating it. Secondly, I don’t see within the national religious community that degree of opposition to dismantling settlements, certainly not on the part of serving officers. I read the questions they ask their rabbis, and I read the rabbis’ replies. And all the indications are that, barring a few not very important rabbis, the vast majority of national religious rabbinic opinion is very much against any refusal to carry out orders,” he declares. Cohen also cites the precedent of the Gaza disengagement in 2005. Then only a handful of national religious soldiers said they could not in good conscience take part in the evacuation. “Statistically, it was a non-event,” he says.
Galant saw the 2005 disengagement from up close as then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s military secretary. That experience should serve him well if he has to plan a similar evacuation of settlers from parts of the West Bank.
GALANT’S RISE TO THE TOP WAS by no means a foregone conclusion.
The son of working-class parents, he grew up on the tough streets of the mixed Israeli-Arab port city of Jaffa. He was born in November 1958 to Fruma, a holocaust survivor who had come to Israel aboard the legendary “Exodus,” and Michael, who had fought with the storied “Samson’s Foxes” reconnaissance unit in the War of Independence and participated in the major Negev “Operation Yoav,” for which he named his son. Fruma worked as a nurse, Michael on a drilling site, then as a truck driver and later opened a shop for electrical appliances and repairs. Galant spent much of his early childhood in a small apartment with his grandparents. After his father died in 1975, Galant helped in the store, often sleeping there to protect it from burglars.
His leadership qualities came to the fore early in youth movement activities, but it was in the army that he found his métier. In 1977, he enlisted in the elite navy commando unit, “Shayetet 13” (Flotilla 13), and soon stood out as a soldier of exceptional ability. Former Navy Commander, Adm. (res.) Yedidya (Didi) Yaari, then deputy commander of the Shayetet, recalls that Galant led many of the secret Shayetet operations in the run-up to the first Lebanon War, in 1982. According to Yaari, then-chief of staff, the late Rafael (Raful) Eitan, used to come specially to listen to Galant presenting operational plans for Shayetet raids.
Yaari describes Galant as a man of exceptional intellectual prowess, extremely articulate, who would always present at least three possible scenarios for every action. “This is the time when his character as a leader was formed,” he wrote in a recent column in Maariv. According to Yaari, Galant also inherited the Shayetet’s open style of debate, where all soldiers from the bottom up are free to have their say but then unite scrupulously behind any decision taken, even if against their views.
In 1983, Galant took a two year break from the IDF, traveling to Alaska where he worked as a lumberjack. After returning to the navy, he became a company commander in the Shayetet, and in 1992, then-Navy commander Ami Ayalon (who went on to head the Shin Bet and became a prominent Labor politician), earmarked Galant for Shayetet chief. Ayalon made Galant an offer few would have refused: That he take over as Shayetet commander in two years, and study at Harvard in the interim.
Galant, however, already with an eye on the chief of staff job, preferred to get experience with the ground forces, serving as commander of the Jenin (Menashe) Brigade instead. Indeed, after his stint as commander of the Shayetet, 1994-1997, Galant made the switch to the ground forces permanent, serving over the next five years as commander of the Gaza Division, the 340th Armored Division (reserves) and chief of staff of the ground forces command.
The next step in his rise to the top came with his appointment in 2002 as Sharon’s military secretary, where he was able to make a wide range of useful contacts. Then, as head of southern command (2005-the present), he enhanced his reputation, especially through his handling of Operation Cast Lead, for which he received much of the planning credit.
Galant has a BA in Economics and Business Administration from Haifa University, and is married to Claudine, a former Navy Lt. Col. and a cancer survivor. They have a son, an officer in the Shayetet, and two daughters.
A tall man with a quiet presence, Galant loves the sea and loves to go kayaking. His friends speak of a sensitive man with a genuine interest in people and great composure under pressure. Critics say he has a vile temper and is ruthless about getting his way.
They point to what they describe as Galant’s “bullying conduct” on Moshav Amikam near Zichron Yaakov, where he bought a plot in the late 1990s. According to the critics, after building a house on the plot, Galant built roads to the property without a permit, and appropriated 28 dunams of public land on which he planted an olive grove. Neighbors on the moshav are divided over what exactly happened. Some say the moshav got the land in question from the Israel Lands Administration and gave it to Galant legally and as his due. Others claim there never was any such transfer, and point to a court ruling ordering Galant to return some of the land, which he did only three years later.
The issue came up before the civil service committee that vets candidates for high office, and considers whether there are moral or other reasons that disqualify them.
The committee, under Judge Yaakov Turkel, dismissed the Amikam land affair as a “dispute between neighbors,” which had already been resolved. It found that “there is nothing in the land affair to disqualify the appointment for moral or any other reasons.”
One cabinet minster, however, was not convinced.
Michael Eitan, Minister for Improving Government Services, registered the only government vote against Galant’s appointment, accusing him of “acting like a Mafioso” on the moshav.
So what kind of chief of staff will Galant turn out to be: The bully trampling all underfoot his critics predict or the good listener and clearheaded decision-maker his supporters say he is.
The key question of character is this: Is Galant a sycophant with no backbone who has schmoozed his way to the top, as some critics suggest, or a strong-willed man of independent mind who will stand up even against a strong defense minister for what he sees as the national interest? In 1978, then-defense minister Ezer Weizman appointed the taciturn Rafael (Raful) Eitan as chief of staff, expecting little opposition and boasting that he would “do the thinking.”
Eitan remained in office for five years, seeing off Weizman, Menachem Begin and Sharon as defense ministers, and becoming one of Israel’s most dominant chiefs of staff.
Similarly, Galant may well have some surprises in store for Barak.