By Amotz Asa-El
Every year during the high holidays, as they consider the previous year’s failures and the next one’s challenges, Jews are also reminded of their nation’s unique relationship with the high seas.
First, on the eve of new Jewish year they flock to beachfronts, riverbanks, and lakesides in order to symbolically shed their sins, recalling the Prophet Micah’s promise that God will cast their sins into the depths of the sea. Then, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, they read the Book of Jonah, about the prophet who took to the sea in order to flee God only to have his ship, together with its innocent sailors, nearly swallowed by the wrathful Mediterranean.
Ironically, sailor, tempest, and sin were also actors in the country’s real life drama on the eve of the new Jewish year – as Maj.Gen. Yoav Galant was nominated as the 20th Chief-of-Staff of the Israel Defence Force (IDF).
The power wielded by the Israeli chief-of-staff (COS) is exceptional in the free world. In a setting where war is never unlikely, where military action is routine, and defense budgets are astronomical, the Israeli COS decides daily on matters of life and death. He is far better known to the average citizen than most cabinet ministers. Moreover, the spotlight in which Israel’s Number One Soldier spends his many eventful days and sleepless nights offers a springboard to a political afterlife. In fact, over the past half century more than half of the IDF’s chiefs-of-staff ultimately entered politics – providing two prime ministers, two foreign ministers, and four defence ministers.
Militarily, Israel’s COSs came from various, and sometimes antagonistic backgrounds. David Ben-Gurion had the most respect for veterans of the British army, and only after his retirement was a product of the homegrown Palmach crack units – Yitzhak Rabin – appointed chief-of-staff. Meanwhile, a rivalry of sorts emerged between the infantry and the armoured corps generals, with the latter failing to recover from the traumatic dismissal of “their” chief-of-staff, David Elazar, following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The next seven chiefs-of-staff, all infantry men, were divided between paratroopers and graduates of the Sayeret Matkal, the special elite commando unit that reports directly to the General Staff.
When this pattern was broken in 2005 with the unorthodox appointment of former Air Force commander and celebrated combat pilot Dan Halutz, a professional controversy emerged. One school of thought argued that the Israeli military could only be led by a solider with two feet solidly on the ground, while another school believed Israel’s highly accomplished pilots could teach the ground forces a thing or two about planning, accuracy, and discipline. As it turned out, the ‘06 war in Lebanon left most Israelis with the impression that their military leadership had operated unimaginatively. Gen. Halutz soon resigned and the concept of a COS from outside the ground forces seemed to have been shelved indefinitely.
Understandably, then, the appointment of Galant, the first IDF commander to emerge from the Navy, has raised eyebrows.
Of course, direct analogies between Galant the sailor and Halutz the pilot don’t hold water, so to speak.
True, Galant’s attachment to the sea harks back to his childhood in Jaffa, the port city where the biblical Jonah boarded the vessel from which he nearly drowned. Moreover, the story of Galant’s Polish-born mother Fruma surely lent Galant a sense of poetic justice as he joined the Naval Commando’s backbreaking training sessions in 1976. Fruma, a Holocaust survivor was forcefully shipped back to Europe from British Palestine’s shores along with the rest of the 4,500 passengers on the famous immigrant boat Exodus.
Galant spent the first half of his military career on the sea, where he climbed diligently from junior commando to officer and from missile boat deputy commander to overall commander of the naval commandos, known in the IDF as Flotilla 13. Yet unlike Halutz, whose first position outside the Air Force was as a 50-year-old general, Galant quietly returned to the shore as a 35-year-old colonel. Moreover, the demands of the role he assumed at the time, commander of an infantry division in the West Bank, were not much of a challenge to a member of the naval commando, whose training and battle experience, unlike those of combat pilots, were split more or less equally between sea and shore.
Galant’s subsequent positions in the ground forces, which included command of an infantry division and an armoured division as well as deputy command of all Ground Forces, gave him much of what Halutz lacked when he assumed the IDF’s leadership. Galant’s most recent experience as the major-general in charge of the Southern Command included direct command of the fighting in Gaza between December ’08 and January ’09, where he oversaw the simultaneous deployment of infantry, artillery, armored, naval, and air force units.
And yet, Galant remained an outsider among the “greens,” the ground force generals used to dealing with enemies who are mostly on the ground, fielding navies at best small and poorly equipped. For these army veterans, the sea and its farers are seen as something of an exotic curiosity. The way many of them see it, the IDF’s commander must be a lifelong creature of the ground-forces at every step on the entire ladder of promotion – from foot-solider through company commander to battalion commander and upwards to the senior ranks.
So high did emotions surrounding Galant’s impending appointment run that one retired infantry Lieutenant Colonel allegedly tried – pardon the expression – to torpedo the appointment. The officer, one Boaz Harpaz, allegedly forged and leaked a document written to seem like a PR firm’s strategic game-plan for Galant as he supposedly campaigned for his anointment as COS. Police have since established that the document was forged and placed Harpaz under house arrest. They say he apparently worked on his own.
Even so, it is clear that Galant and outgoing Chief-of-Staff Lt.Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi did not get on. Further, two candidates who lost out to Galant on the top job, one a paratrooper, the other from the elite Golani infantry brigade, will be leaving the IDF. Galant, who takes over early next year, will therefore have to build much of the General Staff from scratch, and all bets are off in terms of his choices for key positions like chief of military intelligence, deputy chief-of-staff and the commanders of the Northern and Southern Commands, who respectively oversee the sensitive fronts with Hezbollah and Hamas.
Strategically, Galant has earned a reputation as a daring and charismatic warrior, one who over the years took part in numerous raids beyond enemy lines. As such, it is assumed that, to the extent that it is up to him, he will be hawkish on Iran. It is less clear just what kind of vision he may have for the IDF’s long-term planning. One possibility is that he will strike an alliance with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, a former chairman of the Knesset Defence Committee, who believes the IDF should spend more on the Navy in order to create in the sea the kind of strategic depth Israel will always lack on the ground.
For that to materialise, Galant would have to prove that, deep inside, he is indeed the stalking horse for the Navy his rivals from the infantry have seen in him all along. Chances of that appear low. Instead, Galant will have to make the most of what he learned daily while serving earlier this decade as military adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. That experience may come in handy when he starts working opposite the man to whom he owes his new job: Ehud Barak. Himself a former chief-of-staff, Barak is now a domineering defence minister and a frustrated politician, a former prime minister hardly in command of his own declining party. The chances that Barak will make Galant’s life difficult by micromanaging defence decision-making do not appear slim.
And so, Galant prepares to assume the IDF’s leadership while wedged between suspicious colleagues and overbearing superiors. He will perhaps be praying that what ill will any of them might still harbour will be shed into the depths of the sea like last year’s sins, and that unlike Jonah’s ship, the vessel he is about to board will sail on an even keel.