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Israel’s Benny Gantz, a defense minister with expiration date

New Defense Minister Benny Gantz has a year and a half in front of him to prepare for the role of prime minister.
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz wears a protective face mask on his way to the swearing-in ceremony of a new unity government in the Knesset (Israel's parliament) in Jerusalem May 17, 2020. Alex Kolomoisky/Pool via REUTERS - RC2DQG90APEQ

Israel has never had a defense minister whose expiry date, stamped on his forehead, was unrelated to the democratic process or elections. Lt. Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz took over as defense minister May 18. He will step down Nov. 17, 2021, to become prime minister under his rotation agreement with the incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu. This abbreviated tenure will force Gantz to move quickly, adopt decisive measures and reshape events before his deadline expires. In other words, this challenging timetable will demand of him personality traits that he has yet to display.

As the 20th chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gantz was known for his rather easygoing and calm demeanor, for being a team player reluctant to engage in conflicts and unnecessary adventures and for trying to avoid involvement in major upheavals. However, in order to stabilize his position and build up his stature to assume the premiership 18 months from now, Gantz will have to change. Gantz will have to display leadership of the kind he appears to lack: Tough, confrontational, determined. Gantz must learn to be Netanyahu, minus the criminal charges and political views. He will not get a second chance to leave a first impression.

At the May 18 ceremony at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv marking his entry into office, Gantz met with the IDF chief, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the General Staff of the IDF, senior Defense Ministry officials and many others. Gantz looked like a fish thrown back into the water, relieved of his suffering after desperately flopping about on land. The Defense Ministry compound in the heart of Tel Aviv is familiar ground where he spent 40 years of his life as a career soldier. His beaming smile was genuine, unlike those he displayed throughout much of his three election campaigns of the past 18 months, which fooled no one.

Despite his formal title as defense minister, Gantz will try to distinguish himself from Netanyahu in the diplomatic arena. No one should be overly surprised to learn of a clandestine call on Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman or even a hush-hush meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Sharm el-Sheikh.

At Monday’s handover ceremony, Gantz pledged “implementation of President [Donald] Trump’s plan with everything it includes.” Each carefully chosen word in this phrasing signaled the direction he and his Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi plan to adopt in favor of the Trump plan and every one of its components. Ashkenazi even provided additional details. “The [Trump] plan will be advanced responsibly, in full coordination with the United States and maintaining all of the State of Israel’s peace agreements and strategic interests," he said at the May 18 Foreign Ministry ceremony marking his own entry into office. Ashkenazi, also a former IDF chief of staff, added, “I see great importance in strengthening our strategic ties with the countries with which we already have peace, Egypt and Jordan.”

Reading between the lines, what emerges is an almost unprecedented state of affairs: While Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, is engaged in feverish campaigning for Israel’s annexation plan (according to Channel 13 news), the Gantz-Ashkenazi axis will push in the opposite direction, albeit cautiously. They will embrace Trump’s plan while making every effort to freeze, delay or minimize the scope of the annexation to any extent possible. Dermer is said to be lobbying senior administration officials, senators, members of the House and journalists to convince them that Israel must annex the Jordan Valley and Israeli settlements in the West Bank as soon as possible because this could be its last chance to do so. Democrat Joe Biden may win in November, the envoy warned. Gantz and Ashkenazi will try to place intelligent, calculated obstacles in the way of Israel’s rush toward annexation, insisting that any move requires coordination with the “countries of peace” (Abdullah has already threatened to abrogate Jordan's peace agreement with Israel if it annexes the Jordan Valley), while “maintaining Israel’s interests.”

As noted in a previous article here, Washington will have to get used to this new constellation. From now on, it will have to deal with two Israels — the Israel of Dermer and Netanyahu that is pushing with everything it has for annexation this year, and the Israel of Gantz and Ashkenazi cautiously blocking such a move and trying to buy time. Both Gantz and Ashkenazi are scheduled to visit Washington soon. Ashkenazi will meet his friend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Gantz his Pentagon counterpart Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and other top administration officials. Will Gantz also be accorded some quality time at the White House? That would signal the administration’s dilemma over Israel’s two clashing approaches to the matter. Not everyone in Washington is keen on Israel’s rush to impose sovereignty over disputed territory. Dire warnings by Abdullah and other Middle Eastern leaders of the repercussions, along with the skepticism of two decorated generals at the helm of Israel’s defense and foreign ministries, are moving the needle. All bets are off in this looming battle.

Then there is the internal arena. One of the more interesting domestic fronts could pit Gantz against Kochavi. On the face of it, they are brothers in arms, graduates of the prestigious Paratroopers Division. Kochavi was a protege of Gantz’s for years and the two speak the same language, share the same experiences and are true friends. Now, however, Gantz has different needs. In order to build himself up in the public eye and shake off his image as a hesitant weakling, he will have to engineer a few crises vis-a-vis Kochavi, crises from which he must emerge the victor after overturning decisions and dictating measures in defiance of the military chief. Kochavi is unlikely to enjoy such treatment, but the two might find a way to create for Gantz the required image of leadership with Kochavi’s tacit cooperation. The IDF leader is one of the wisest ever to serve in the job and he understands his boss’s political needs. Gantz will now have to approve the multiyear IDF plan drawn up by Kochavi, and he may well introduce a change or two. If he ends up being Kochavi’s rubber stamp, his abridged term will not leave a mark.

One of Gantz’s first moves appears to signal the direction described here: He has decided to appoint a former air force commander, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel, as director general of the Defense Ministry. Eshel enjoys broad consensus as one of the most talented, effective and impressive officers to come out of the IDF in recent decades. More recently he has served as Gantz’s adviser on the Trump peace plan, taking part in his late January White House meeting with the president. Eshel, however, is also somewhat of a maverick vis-a-vis the military, in general, and the chief of staff and the General Staff, in particular. As leader of the air force — perceived as an elitist outlier of the IDF — Eshel was critical of the system. Eschel was brought in so that Gantz could draw a distinct line between himself and Kochavi, cast himself as an independent figure and create levers of leadership for himself. Kochavi knows this. This trio will set the tone in the coming 18 months.

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