Former Israeli military chief of staff Benny Gantz, in his first major policy address since retiring last February, recently presented a Washington audience with what amounted to an alternative vision of Israeli security.
Though his tone was understated and at times lighthearted, there was no mistaking his sharp disagreements with his former boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Gantz appeared September 25 at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, to deliver the annual Zeev Schiff Memorial Lecture in memory of the onetime Haaretz military correspondent. The speech (video here) was an episodic, wide-ranging survey of Israel’s key security “challenges.” Specific topics ranged from the urgent but noncontroversial to what he called “hot potatoes.” The first category included the unraveling of the Middle East nation-state system, the rise of the Islamic State group and the increasingly critical role of intelligence. Hot potatoes included the upside of the Iran nuclear deal and the importance of a two-state solution with the Palestinians as an Israeli security interest.
Beyond the specifics, two overarching themes emerged repeatedly in the speech. One was the importance of flexibility and creative thinking in a Middle East newly dominated by uncertainty and unpredictability. The breakdown of the regional nation-state system and the chaotic rise of non-state actors, he said, have vastly complicated the task of identifying threats. In the past, anticipating events required observing neighboring governments and assessing their intentions. Today the players are so numerous, and their motives so fluid, that “you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“It takes a huge amount of a new kind of leadership,” Gantz said, “because we need to look again at our processes of how we learn things.”
The other overarching theme was the importance of self-confidence as a component in national security. Despite regional changes, Israeli strategists still manage to stay several steps ahead of opponents, Gantz said. It’s important to recognize that strength, he suggested. Readiness requires knowing not just the enemy’s capabilities but also your own. The less you know about the enemy, the more you must understand about yourself.
“I’m not worried about Israel’s security situation,” Gantz said at one point. “We are the strongest country in the region. We know how to take care of ourselves.”
Those overarching themes, uncertainty and confidence, seemed to pose an almost deliberate counterpoint to Netanyahu. The prime minister is often criticized — by foreign leaders and the media, as well as by Israel’s security establishment — for continually voicing alarm over Israeli vulnerability, and certainty over its enemies’ intentions. Both alarm and certainty violate Gantz’s security doctrine.
Gantz, however, never criticized Netanyahu directly. Indeed, in a speech that freely quoted Shimon Peres, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey and others, Netanyahu wasn’t even mentioned until an audience member brought him up.
Gantz became chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces in February 2011, after a bruising contest between two other candidates ended in a deadlock. The contest had become the latest round in an ongoing feud between then chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and then defense minister Ehud Barak. It exploded when Barak vetoed Ashkenazi’s candidate, only to see his own choice snared by scandal. Gantz emerged as an inoffensive compromise.
The substance of the feud was a mystery at the time, but recent events have shed some light. In 2010, Barak and Netanyahu decided to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities; but they were foiled then by unanimous opposition from the chiefs of the three security services, the IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet.
The attack fell through when the security chiefs, summoned to brief the Cabinet, persuaded a majority of ministers that attacking would be reckless and ineffective. Barak, as he recently told an interviewer, blamed Ashkenazi for blocking his plan. Shortly afterward, Barak blocked Ashkenazi’s chosen successor, Gadi Eizenkot.
Netanyahu may have had his own reasons for opposing Eizenkot. A series of senior security appointments since then suggest that the prime minister aims to uproot what rightists call the leftist culture within the security establishment. The generals themselves consider it a culture that values pragmatism over nationalist ideology. Either way, Eizenkot was seen as championing that culture. Gantz, by contrast, was expected to bring, if not a more hard-line approach, then at least greater tractability.
Once appointed, Gantz restored discipline and ended the military-civilian feuding. But he continued to champion pragmatism. He maintained IDF opposition to attacking Iran, and pursued close working ties with the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, he made Eizenkot his deputy and successor.
Against that background, Gantz’s Washington speech can be seen a reassertion of traditional IDF doctrine in the face of rising political pushback. On U.S.-Israel relations, for example, he emphasized the critical importance of preserving the close partnership, but noted via anecdotes that Israel, though sovereign, is the junior partner.
On Iran, he said that while the deal may pose a “challenge” by giving Iran “theoretical enrichment rights,” he could “also see the half-full part of the glass,” namely “keeping the Iranians away for 10 to 15 years” from nuclear weapons capability. This buys time for Israel and other powers to develop new strategies for containing Iran. Gantz’s bottom line: “I refuse to get hysterical on this.”
Responding to an audience member’s question about the security value of West Bank settlements, Gantz said that “some of them” contribute to Israel’s security, but others are the focus of a “political dispute, which I’m not going to get into.” Asked about prospects for future conflict in Gaza, he said Israel could gain an “operational advantage” by recapturing and holding the area, but the “strategic cost” of ruling nearly 2 million people outweighed any advantage.
Strikingly, Gantz concluded his cataloging of Israel’s security challenges by declaring that the “biggest and most serious challenge” is internal divisiveness and growing intolerance of dissent. Here, too, the barb seemed aimed at the Netanyahu government, which has advanced legislation to muzzle left-wing dissent.
“Jewish tradition developed over the years not by agreeing with someone but by disagreeing,” Gantz said. He recalled the talmudic practice of argumentation as a way to deepen understanding, adding that this tradition had helped build Israel. “This is not a weakness,” he said. “This is a point of strength, as long as you know how to keep it in a unified framework of a state and a nation with its Jewish citizens and its non-Jewish citizens.”
“This is a huge challenge that the government of Israel needs to deal with,” Gantz concluded. “And the society in Israel needs to deal with it.”
Inevitably, perhaps, Gantz’s challenges to government policy prompted an audience member to ask if he was considering entering politics. It’s a common assumption about Israeli ex-generals who speak out. It’s nonsensical, though; of those few who do take the plunge, nearly all join left-wing parties and end up languishing in the opposition. The move is hardly a sign of ambition.
Gantz promptly dismissed the idea as “currently not on the agenda.” Not “currently”? Stay tuned.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).