The IDF Chief Who Reinforced Israeli Democracy

Benny Gantz’s most important contribution during the four years he served as chief of general staff was his reinforcement of Israeli democracy. Gantz consecrated the subordination of the military to the civilian government, and respected the authority of defense ministers under whom he served, Ehud Barak and Moshe Ya’alon. He thus healed the army from the intrigues and decay it had suffered under his predecessor, Gabi Ashkenazi, and his court.

Gantz didn’t always agree with his superiors. He disagreed on a central strategic question – whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities or rely on the United States to deal with the threat using diplomatic means. Gantz believed Iran was primarily an international and regional problem, and only afterward an Israeli problem, meaning that relying on America was preferable. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak toyed with plans to bomb Natanz, Fordo and Arak, they encountered the objections of the chief of general staff.

Gantz’s position was no secret and the media reported it, but he did not undermine the politicians who appointed him, didn’t leak information that embarrassed them, and didn’t use nongovernmental personalities like former President Shimon Peres to weave schemes to trip them up. The Israel Defense Forces spokesmen who served under him worked as spokesmen, not to prepare the chief of staff for his future political or business career. Gantz kept his fights private, and was perceived by the public as a professional officer who represented the IDF, not as a politician in uniform or a prime ministerial-wannabe.

Gantz was disappointed by the low opinion of the IDF, particularly of the NCOs and mid-level officers, among the public and the media. The sketch on the “Eretz Nehederet” satirical program about waste in the army, aired around a year-and-a-half ago, was etched into his consciousness as the low point of his tenure. Here Gantz erred in the distinction between cause and effect: The public criticism stemmed from the increasing recognition that the IDF had lost control of its expenses, and the perception that mismanagement of the defense budget was undermining social services.

This was grounded in the public’s disappointment with the IDF’s performance. A public that grew up with stories of the Six-Day War and Operation Entebbe refuses to accept less, and no public relations will help. The rather exaggerated focus on the awarding of citations to the fighters in Operation Protective Edge looked like an antidepressant being doled out to the commanders and soldiers who failed to defeat Hamas in more than seven weeks of fighting.

Netanyahu liked Gantz, who posed no political threat to him, and parted from him with an emotional speech. “You have a sensitive soul, the soul of a poet,” Netanyahu said to him. “On the eve of your assuming the post of chief of general staff, you recalled your service as commander of a paratroopers battalion and said simply, ‘The field is my entire record.’ Now Benny, perhaps even today you think that your role as a young battalion commander in the paratroopers was the most significant part of your military service, but still, I’m sure you’ll agree with me, with all of us, that in the four years in your role as the IDF’s chief of general staff, you faced tasks no less difficult, to say the least.”

Netanyahu did not hide the differences he had with Gantz over offensive operations. But on one important issue they agreed: Both recoiled from losses and funerals, and as a result their joint tenure was one of the quietest periods Israel has known.

“I must share with you something that my late brother said when we were young officers,” the prime minister said. “He was already experienced, he had been in battle, was wounded, returned. He said to me, ‘Bibi, the difference between a good commander and a mediocre commander is that when a mission is assigned, the mediocre commander will achieve it with great sacrifice of human life, while the excellent commander will achieve it at minimal cost.’ I’ve never forgotten that remark, Benny, and you never forgot it either, and always operated accordingly.”

Conservative chiefs of staff like Gantz, who fought no major wars and refrained from implementing reforms, tend to be forgotten. His tenure will not be studied in combat legacy and strategy classes, but ought to be remembered in political science courses.

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