Saturday 19 February 2011

The Challenges Facing Benny Gantz

Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz has now taken over as Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) after a very forgettable period in the upper echelons of the high command. He has major challenges ahead of him, both in terms of repairing damage caused over the past few month as well as confronting threats that Israel faces and will continue to face in the foreseeable future.

The very public falling-out between Minister of Defence Barak and former Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi did no favours to either of man. Although Ashkenazi was the one whose tenure was not extended by the minister of defence and he paid the price by losing his job, Ehud Barak has not come out of the incident with his reputation intact. The public holds the view that his decision to terminate Ashkenazi's term was purely personal, and did not consider the best interests of the State of Israel. In addition, the manner of doing so was unprofessional and has left a bitter taste in the mouths of the general public. Barak chose to fight his case in the public domain by using the national press to express his criticism of Ashkenazi. Despite this fact, I remain unsure exactly why Barak decided not to extend Ashkenazi's time in office. I am not alone in my confusion. It is the defence minister's right and responsibility to nominate the IDF chief of general staff, and the ultimate decision is taken together with the prime minister, and with the approval of the cabinet. This process need not take place in the eye of the general public, particularly when there seems to be a personal vendetta tied into the subject. Barak's tactics seem to me to have been flawed.

Having decided to terminate Ashkenazi, Barak then proposed Yoav Galant to be his replacement. It appears as though Barak was aware of the furore surrounding Galant's "land grab" at the time of his appointment, and this surely reflects negatively on Barak's choice. The dirty issue in question involves a dispute between Galant and the Israel Lands Authority about hundreds of square metres of land surrounding Galant's personal residence, which Galant is accused of grabbing for his own personal use when they don't belong to him. If Galant had any sense, he would have ensured that this issue was taken care of long before his appointment to succeed Ashkenazi as the head of the IDF. Instead, he allowed the problem to fester and, when it finally came out into the public domain, it prevented him from taking office. The government's attorney general and the government's comptroller both produced independent reports on the matter ruling that Galant has a case to answer for the land grab. Quite rightly, the cabinet decided to terminate Galant's appointment even before he took office. Barak is again the guy presented as having taken the incorrect option and Galant's promising career has been summarily terminated.

So now, the task of restoring the reputation of the office of the chief of general staff falls to the new man Benny Gantz who was hastily appointed after Galant was prevented from taking office. Although their names are similar, that appears to be where the similarities end. Not only does Gantz now have the enormous task of keeping Israel battle-ready in a changing world, he is also required to undertake substantial political repair work to restore reputations and working relationships. Gantz seems, for now, to be the right man for a most difficult job. He has started off on the right leg by maintaining a low profile while simply getting on with his job. He has not made any major political statements or public appearances. Instead, he has done exactly what is required of him at this time. He made his appearance at the prime minister's office to be awarded with his promotion in rank to that of Lt. General, after which he was sworn into office at a parade at the IDF high command in which he was inducted as the Israel's 20th chief of general staff. He immediately got to work without public fanfare or media interviews. He is, of course, a public figure and will inevitably appear in the media in the future. For now, however, he needs to keep his profile low and the level of his achievements high. He seems to understand this.

Gantz has taken over the command at one of the most interesting periods in Middle Eastern history. The flames of revolution are sweeping through the region at a pace that could not have been previously predicted. After uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt which have already succeeded in forcing the resignation of the rulers in those countries, protests are taking place in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Iran. Opposition forces in these countries have been encouraged by the successes witnessed, particularly in Egypt, and this is likely to begin to take hold in other countries too. It would not surprise me if this spreads to Syria, Jordan, other countries in the Emirates and even Saudi Arabia. All we can do is sit back in wonderment at the speed with which this change is taking place.

In his previous position as deputy chief of general staff, Benny Gantz was responsible for putting together the IDF's plans for 2011. With only 6 weeks of 2011 behind us, and less than a week into his new job, I wonder how relevant these plans are given the changes that are being experienced. While the successes achieved by the protestors seem good for democracy and freedom of speech, it is difficult to know exactly what types of government will replace the ones that are currently being dismantled. It is not inevitable that the new governments will be better, or more democratic, than the old ones. In the case of Egypt, the tearing down of Mubarak's government has left a dangerous vacuum that may spell more trouble than progress. The same may be the result in other countries where protests are taking place. Succession planning has not been big in the Middle East, and this creates its own set of dangers.

As Gantz gets his feet under his new desk and begins to take control of the situation, I wonder whether he might not have preferred the 2010 situation to the one that he finds in 2011. It is true that 2010 saw many hostile nations surrounding Israel with the threats that such a situation brings. But this hostility was not a moving feast. He will need to prepare himself for changing situations in many of these hostile nations, bringing the threat of more active hostility and threats to Israel rather than the simple lack of recognition, lack of diplomatic relations and public posturing and rhetoric that has characterised Israel's relations with many of these countries in the past. The hostility now runs the risk of being much more active and threatening to Israel's continued safety and survival. This is particularly true of the situation in Iran which continues with its program of constructing nuclear weapons. In the wrong hands, these could have devastating consequences for safety in the Middle East, and around the world.

Benny Gantz has a huge job on his hands. Taking over as the IDF's chief comes with massive responsibilities and challenges, even under "normal" circumstances. The particular situation which confronts Gantz comes with even greater challenges and pitfalls. It is our wish that he will succeed in carrying out his new job with much success and by bringing greater security to the State of Israel and her citizens. It is my hope that he will also be able to restore some sorely-needed pride and credibility to the political hierarchy of Israel's security establishment.

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