From Bergen-Belsen to the Kirya

No one is better equipped than Benny Gantz – by virtue of both background and career – to take charge of the IDF.

Gantz official looking serious 311 (photo credit: IDF spokesperson unit)
Gantz official looking serious 311
(photo credit: IDF spokesperson unit)
Newly appointed IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz could not hold back the tears Monday morning when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu mentioned his mother, a Holocaust survivor, who, according to Netanyahu, weighed 28 kilograms when she was liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after the war.
“I am certain that at the time she never dreamed that 66 years later her son, yet to be born, would be the 20th chief of General Staff of the State of Israel, the Jewish state,” said Netanyahu. “Perhaps she did not dream of such a thing, but it has come true before our eyes.”
Indeed, the Gantz family is a dramatic example of the transformation of an exiled people, powerless to protect itself from its enemies, into a nation with one of the strongest military forces in the world. From Germany’s concentration camps, the Gantzes emerged to send a son to the Kirya military headquarters.
Critics claim that the centrality of the Holocaust in Israeli society’s collective consciousness has created a “never again” mentality that could result in the dangerous abuse of power. But that was not at all evident during Monday’s swearing-in ceremonies.
Revital, wife of the new IDF head, said she hoped her husband would be a “chief of staff of peace – and if he has to use force, I hope he will do it wisely and with discretion.”
In his first communique to his soldiers, Gantz said that “nothing would have made me happier” than to tell you that the battles and the conflicts are over, “but that time has not yet arrived.”
FEW KNOW this better than Gantz himself. After being drafted in 1977, Gantz quickly distinguished himself as an officer, being appointed the Paratroop Brigade’s Battalion 890 commander at the age of 28 and serving hundreds of combat hours in Lebanon.
One of the few IDF soldiers to successfully complete the US Army Special Forces course (the Green Berets), he returned to Israel to take charge of Shaldag, an elite reconnaissance unit that works together with the air force. In that position Gantz was responsible for helping to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel; he must have been reminded of his own parents failed attempt to reach these shores on the SS Exodus in 1947.
In 2000, Gantz was appointed commander of the IDF’s Lebanon Liaison Unit, succeeding Erez Gerstein, who was killed by a roadside bomb. In this position, Gantz oversaw Israel’s hasty withdrawal from Lebanon under prime minister Ehud Barak. Later, as Judea and Samaria Division Commander, Gantz confronted the second intifada.
During his stint as Land Forces commander, the Second Lebanon War broke out. Hamstrung by then-chief of General Staff Dan Halutz’s reliance on air power to overcome Hezbollah, Gantz argued forcefully – some would say not forcefully enough – against what he rightly saw as a misconceived tactical offensive.
Starting in 2007 Gantz received invaluable experience in diplomacy as military attache in Washington. In this position he was intimately involved in coordinating Jerusalem’s position on Iran’s nuclear threat with Washington, including deliberations over a possible military strike. From Washington he also dealt with the negative fallout from Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza two years ago. Finally, as deputy chief of General Staff, Gantz got a broad macro view of the IDF.
ALL THESE diverse roles will help Gantz confront the myriad challenges that await him in a rapidly changing Middle East.
A reassessment of the southern border in light of the revolutionary changes that have taken place in Egypt will be a first order of business. But relative stability to the east can no longer be taken for granted either. King Abdullah II’s regime in Jordan is coming under increasing criticism, even from the powerful Beduin tribes that have been his major source of power.
On the West Bank, meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority’s sinking popularity, and frustration with the lack of diplomatic progress, could lead to unrest. To the north, Hezbollah might be busy in the short term consolidating its political power in Lebanon, but in the longer term, an empowered proxy of Iran with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles capable of hitting the center of Israel does not bode well.
And yet, with all the security challenges, Gantz’s appointment brings a reminder of the wider perspective – of the long road our nation has traveled from the concentration camps of Bergen-Belsen to a Jewish state that is a military power. No one is better equipped than Benny Gantz – by virtue of both background and career – to take charge of that military might.