On the eve of Independence Day, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz invited a group of senior editors from the local newspapers, television channels and radio stations to his bureau for a briefing and an Independence Day toast. The conversation, which was defined as “deep background” and no parts of which can therefore be cited, went on for a considerable amount of time. After more than an hour, the door opened, and in walked a female officer with no less than the rank of major, who proceeded to serve Gantz a large glass of Turkish coffee. Here, it seemed, was a twist on Strauss-Elite’s coffee ad, in which an Israeli captain asks for hot water and a small glass.
It is possible that this female officer is typically busy throughout the year with highly important operational matters, and that on this particular day she decided to pamper the boss with a cup of coffee. That would, of course, be legitimate. Nonetheless, I felt I was watching a scene from “Mad Men,” glimpsing a world in which the men are in charge and the womenfolk are merely there to serve.
My mischievous brain, already cauterized by my constant reading of Guy Rolnik’s columns in The Marker, couldn’t help but begin making actuarial calculations: How much are this major’s pension rights worth? Will she receive a pension of NIS 4 million? NIS 8 million? And all just for serving her boss a large glass of Turkish coffee?
Gantz is the kind of figure who inspires nostalgia for the Israel of the Mad Men era: a secular, unified nation that was dedicated to achieving its mission and which saw the IDF as a sacrosanct organization. His conservative, cautious nature is what brought him to the apex of the IDF pyramid, and his record since assuming the post of chief of staff more than two years ago has proven those expectations correct.
In Gantz’s army there are no operational failures, no plots concocted by the top brass and no dramatic dismissals of senior personnel, as there were in the era of his predecessor, Gabi Ashkenazi. Gantz conducted November’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza with relative self-restraint and carried it out successfully. His faux pas concerning matters of religion in the military – altering the wording of the “Israel will remember” passage recited for Israel’s fallen, and skipping the grave of a non-Jewish soldier – apparently stemmed from a lack of knowledge of Jewish religious law. In both instances, the chief of staff assumed full responsibility and repaired the blow to his image and to that of the IDF.
However, Israeli society has changed since the 1960s and the chief of staff finds it difficult to adjust. He pays lip service to slogans such as “sharing the burden,” repeated by “new politicians” like Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett in their discussions of military service. Although Gantz wants the students of ultra-Orthodox yeshivot to serve in the IDF, he is afraid that shortening the period of inducted service will result in fewer secular soldiers in the army.
The mainstream of Israeli society, which is represented by Lapid’s fictional “Riki Cohen from Hadera” and which sends its sons and daughters to the IDF, is fearful for its economic future, and it envies career military personnel with their fat pensions. And here is where Gantz can stabilize himself and emerge from his position of tactical inferiority as he sets off for his battle against cuts to the defense budget.
Col. (res.) Doron Meinart and Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel both infuriated Gantz when they spoke to Calcalist, the business newspaper published by the Yedioth Ahronoth group, about their overly high pensions and about waste in the military. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who described the expensive preparations for a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities as an absurd waste of money and attacked the IDF’s demand for new armored personnel carriers, simply drove the chief of staff up the wall.
Gantz has promised reforms in the army, but what he really is saying is: “Come on, everybody, just let us do our job, let us continue the way we always have. If you want to cut budgets, why not look elsewhere?” And the warnings he issues are the usual bill of fare: Any deterioration in the soldiers’ conditions will keep the best candidates from entering combat units; and removing antiquated tanks and planes from active service will not amount to a significant budget cut.
Not all the warnings are unrealistic, of course. But the problem with the IDF lies with the various parts of the military that have become too fat. In the debate over the defense budget, the fighter pilot is traditionally placed on the frontline; everyone conveniently forgets the non-commissioned officer who is part of the career military personnel and who manages to score a parking spot in the lot reserved for senior Israel Air Force officers at the Defense Ministry’s Hakirya complex in Tel Aviv. When he retires, he will receive a pension of millions of shekels – for a job that a civilian is paid no more than minimum wage to do. This kind of thing is no less infuriating and no less exasperating than the female major who serves coffee to her boss.
If Gantz were to decide to trim the fat, if he declared and implemented the motto “If it doesn’t shoot, it should be slashed,” if he closed down superfluous military units such as the Army Radio station and the Beit Midrash Hilchati (Academy for the Study of Jewish Religious Law), he would emerge as the nation’s hero and effect significant change in the culture of the army. Unfortunately, he prefers to act like the chairman of the career military personnel and army pensioners committee.
Given the present mood in Israel, and at a time when even Israeli tycoon Nochi Dankner finds it hard to manage his overdraft, the current position of the chief of staff will make it difficult for him to persuade the Israeli public that the defense budget should not be touched.