Out of the ashes, to the height of self-sufficiency

Editor’s Notes: Nobody better exemplifies the near-miraculous transformation of the Jewish nation than the IDF’s new chief of staff.

Benny Gantz lays wreath at Yad Vashem 311 (photo credit: IDF )
Benny Gantz lays wreath at Yad Vashem 311
(photo credit: IDF )
‘The IDF is strong, ready, and a deterrent to our enemies,” the IDF’s new chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz told his troops in a Holocaust Remembrance Day message this week. “It is capable of thwarting any enemy that rises up to try to kill us.”
Indeed it is. And one would rather, by far, be on Israel’s side than that of its enemies in any looming conflict.
But as the 63rd anniversary of our independence arrives, even as Gallup’s global pollsters find our people to be the seventh- most contented on the planet, the threats to Israel are multiplying, in a region where, given the whirlwinds of turmoil, utter instability has become the new norm.
And making those very real threats still more galling is the deepening sense we have here that our enemies are somehow indulged, tolerated, differentiated from the enemies of others – and that we are often expected, uniquely, to suffer their onslaughts rather than confront them. Thus, to take the most recent glaring example of such immoral discrimination, the free world this week rejoices, understandably, at the elimination of mass-murdering Islamist terror chieftain Osama bin Laden while, simultaneously, the free world legitimizes, incomprehensibly, the Palestinian Authority’s partnership with the mass-murdering Islamist terrorists of Hamas. Incomprehensibly, that is, unless different standards are applied when evaluating the enemies of the Jews...
Great big, indomitable America quite rightly asks and is asked no moral questions about the targeted killing of suicide-bomb patron bin Laden and the continued fight against al-Qaida. Tiny, vulnerable, besieged Israel is first castigated by the UN and purportedly responsible world powers for the “unlawful,” “extrajudicial execution” of suicide-bomb patron Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and now encouraged to learn to live with Hamas.
Jerusalem Post reader Joel Kutner, in a letter to the editor this week, suggested pointedly that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “commit to memory” sections of President Barack Obama’s speech announcing the elimination of bin Laden. The president declared: “As a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are.”
Any and every Israeli leader could and would say precisely the same about this country. And any and every Israeli leader should have the right to have such sentiments instinctively endorsed by any moral listener.
BENNY GANTZ, of course, wasn’t meant to be the chief of staff at all. That most challenging of roles was to have been filled by Yoav Galant. Gantz had risen as high as deputy, but narrowly missed out on the top spot, and was beginning to reconcile himself to a life out of uniform when the emergency summons came.
Born in Israel to a mother who was barely alive when she was liberated from Bergen- Belsen, Gantz emblemizes the near-miraculous revival of the Jewish nation after the Holocaust: The survivor’s child is now chief protector of the insistently surviving nation.
Standing tall and straight, Gantz nonetheless carries a perpetual air of concern. He exudes confidence and gravitas but also, in the furrows of his forehead and the lines around his eyes, shows the burden of responsibility. All the way through to his gut, he knows the evil that humankind is capable of doing to the Jews. He knows that it now falls to him, more than anyone else, to ensure that “never again,” rather than becoming an empty slogan, remains an ironclad fact.
And the Jewish state’s enemies are shifting, changing, multiplying, strengthening.
LOW, LOW down the international news agenda and the international diplomatic agenda, but at the very top of Gantz’s and Israel’s list of concerns, is Iran. Sanctions are having an impact, though not a crippling one. Viruses and other curious phenomena have affected the nuclear program, but not stopped it. And Iran’s march to the bomb, it is important to note in this era of regime change, is supported not only by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the clerics who empower him, but also by the “reformist” opposition, the “Greens,” who seek to replace him.
While world attention is focused elsewhere, Iran moves relentlessly closer to its goal. It has broadly mastered the technology and, should it decide to make an all-out push for the bomb, it could build a device in less than 24 months, perhaps even less than 12. If nothing changes in the near future, that “break out” period will shorten inexorably – as the Iranians’ mastery of the technological processes grows. Three years from now, it is believed, therefore, Iran would be able to make a dash for the bomb in a matter of months. Few analysts believe Iran would be so foolish as to initiate that final push unless or until it is certain it can reach its destination. The clock is ticking.
If the nature of the Iranian threat is all too familiar, Gantz has also taken office amidst the rise of all manner of unfamiliar challenges – including regional revolutions and recalibrations that even Israel’s vaunted intelligence services did not see coming. Egypt’s ouster of Hosni Mubarak? Nobody foresaw that. The Fatah-Hamas “reconciliation” accord? A bolt from the blue.
Day after day, the shifting flux of Egyptian affairs prompts new challenges. Yes, Israel empathizes with a population that wanted to be rid of its autocratic leadership. But, yes too, Israel worries that the push for freedom will be subverted – that the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood could exploit an overhasty election process, just as Hamas profited in Gaza and the West Bank in 2006. And, yes again, as the Egyptian natural gas pipeline is repeatedly sabotaged, and the terms of that deal questioned; as wouldbe presidents express varying levels of hostility to the Israel- Egypt peace treaty; and as a sense of kinship with the people of Gaza flourishes, there is concern that the protesting Egyptian public, which was emphatically not focused on Israel in the infancy of its revolt, will seek out a familiar scapegoat amid its frustrations at the slow and problematic nature of change.
For Gantz and the IDF, the immediate practical consequence is that Egypt is “in play.” Remote from a collapsed central control, Sinai is becoming an anarchic zone of arms smuggling and terror planning. And the new Palestinian-unity-brokering Egypt shows every sign of removing itself from the battle against Hamas. An open Egypt-Gaza border might free Israel of some of its obligations to the people of Gaza, but it would also fatally undermine the IDF’s efforts to prevent arms smuggling into the Strip. Those rockets and other weapons systems too large to smuggle through the tunnels might soon be able to cross overland. No need, then, for “aid” flotillas; no possibility of a naval blockade intercepting the arms flow.
The new chief of staff was a young soldier when president Anwar Sadat flew to Israel in 1977 to launch the peace process. Gantz knows full well that when he was fighting with the IDF in west Beirut in 1982, not a single Egyptian soldier interrupted the tranquility of the newly peaceful border. In utterly unpredictable May 2011, by contrast, there is simply no telling what kind of response from Egypt would follow an outbreak of conflict on another front. There is no telling, that is, whether today’s Egypt, a country with which Israel had wanted to believe relations were normalized, might soon decide to ally itself with an enemy of Israel, or worse.
While questions about Egypt’s orientation abound, for the IDF there can be no waiting for answers. The new, unpredictable Egypt requires an allocation of resources, equipment and manpower to a frontier that, relatively speaking, was deemed quiet and essentially unthreatening just a few short months ago.
THE MOST likely flashpoint for conflict in the foreseeable future, however, remains the North. Here, too, of course, instability is the new norm. Bashar Assad’s mini-replication of his father’s 1982-style assault on his own people may be sufficient to put down public opposition. Alternatively, Syria may have a new leadership in months. Or it may be turning into another Libyanstyle failed state.
A collapsing Syria might weaken the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah- Hamas axis of evil, but it might also enable Iran to widen its influence. Syria under the Assads has been implacably hostile to Israel, has tried to develop nuclear weapons, and has amassed a vast range of dangerous armaments on our northern doorstep, but it has also acted with a kind of rationality and predictability. A war with Assad’s Syria would be hard but straightforward; the IDF has the capacity to set the nation back 50 or 100 years. A Syria without effective sovereign control, with its weaponry falling into unpredictable hands, would present all manner of fresh problems. For an insight, just look at Lebanon.
As the 2006 Second Lebanon War brought home, conclusively defeating an amorphous terrorist organization, embedded in the very heart of a civilian populace, in a state incapable of exercising sovereignty, is a near-impossible task. Watched closely by Israel for years, Hezbollah has developed in directions best-suited to outflanking and undercutting the IDF’s military advantages and superiorities. And, as underlined by Israel’s recent release of intelligence materials showing Hezbollah’s deployment in the villages of south Lebanon, it has only deepened its devilish intertwinement with the civilian population in the past five years.
In innumerable homes on the other side of our northern border, residents can point to their living room and, right through the doorway, their missile room. And the missiles, 40,000 or more of them, have ranges from eight kilometers to hundreds of kilometers. No other non-state actor – and Hezbollah is still not quite a state actor – has that kind of weapons capability. Certainly not the unlamented bin Laden’s al-Qaida.
For all its cunning, Hezbollah is not beyond reach; it certainly does have centers of power that the IDF can get to. But it poses a mounting danger.
UNDERSTANDABLY, MILITARY chiefs are guarded when describing the strides various enemy states, Hezbollah, Hamas and others are making, day by day, in reducing Israel’s military edge. But if you look at the components of fire power – range, numbers, diversity, accuracy, depth and devastation – their capacities are improving in all.
There are new nonconventional threats. New terror concerns. Threats to IDF communications systems. The potential for the mighty to be humbled via cyber-warfare and other asymmetrical innovations means that even the supremacy of Israel’s air capabilities, though unchallenged in any conventional sense, can no longer be taken for granted.
And then there are the Palestinians – led, now, by an alliance of the purportedly moderate and the avowedly extreme. First, we argued among ourselves as to whether Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority was genuinely prepared to accept the compromises necessary for a viable accord that would keep our state militarily and demographically secure alongside theirs. Then we worried that, even if Abbas did vindicate Netanyahu’s declared confidence in him as a “partner,” he might be swept away amid the regional turmoil. Now we see overt betrayal in his embrace of the Islamists – the ruthless extremists who killed their own people in seizing control of Gaza and have every intention of doing the same to ours.
And we hear the international community, including, risibly, even the United States, suggesting that this empty “reconciliation” – which Hamas will breach at its convenience – might somehow be constructive. Hamas, whose prime minister declares insistently that it will never recognize “illegitimate” Israel because the Jews have no right to sovereignty here. Hamas, whose charter urges adherents to “kill the Jews” to hasten the day of judgment. Hamas, which condemned the US’s “criminal” elimination of the “Muslim warrior” bin Laden. The new Palestinian alliance cannot possibly “advance the cause of the peace,” to quote the White House Chief of Staff William Daley. What it can do, what it does, is give Iran a stronger foothold alongside us and reduce, at a stroke, Israel’s capacity to loosen its security grip in the West Bank.
THE PHYSICAL threats – in a region that, as we turn 63, is moving further away from acceptance of Israel’s fundamental right to exist – range from a single attacker all the way through to weapons of mass destruction. From knife to nuke, and everything in between.
Gantz’s task, in his first weeks and months in unexpected office, is to assess each potential front, each potential threat, and decide how the IDF can and should prevail: What will constitute victory on today’s muddled battlefield, and which resources does he require to achieve it? The chief of staff is no longer simply the first warrior. He must oversee the legal implications of any battle he fights, and prepare the media ground as well.
He is also first protector of the home front – in a climate where, for some time now, the IDF has been making clear that the next major conflict will likely be the first in which Israel’s civilian fatalities will outstrip the IDF casualties.
The Iron Dome missile defense system – successful, astoundingly, on eight of the nine occasions when it was fired during the recent Gaza flare-up – is no panacea, but it is a considerable boost. No other nation currently boasts the defenses that Israel offers its civilians. Then again, no other nation is attacked the way we are.
Ultimately, no war can be won simply with defensive capabilities. Yet the better the home front defense, and the safer the IDF knows the people of Israel to be, the more options Gantz has for offense.
Doubtless, in the weeks and months ahead, we will hear the defense establishment lobbying for extra money to meet the expanding range of threats. What Gantz needs more than money, though, is people – good people.
He needs to minimize the draft-dodging. He needs backing from government to institute national service for all Israelis, including non-Jews and the ultra-Orthodox, with the IDF empowered to choose the personnel it feels it must have to keep this country safe. He needs to hold on to the best and the brightest in uniform for longer, with the resources, for example, to retain hi-tech specialists for whom the financial benefits of the private sector are so compelling.
And he needs to shape the IDF in his image – an army committed to victory, achieved with integrity, founded on the moral rock of our inalienable right to be here.
IN TODAY’S often morally misguided world, it is very difficult to be recognized as both strong and just. Usually, however absurdly in some cases, it is the weak who are automatically regarded as having justice on their side.
As it turns 63, the Jewish nation sometimes feels as though it is back, not in 1948, without a friend in the neighborhood, but a few years earlier still, with barely a friend in the world. But in life-saving contrast to those dark years, we have revived our homeland, and it flourishes.
We are and will continue to be both strong and just. We have built a vibrant, diverse, declaredly contented society. And with an army now headed by a general who emblemizes that rise from the ashes to the height of self-sufficiency, “we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are."