Benny Gantz served as IDF Chief of the General Staff until his retirement in 2015. As Commander of the Shaldag commando unit, he participated in the operation to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel. His senior positions have been as Commander of the Judea and Samaria Division, Commander of Israel’s Northern Command, Chief of the ground forces, Military Attaché in the United States, and Deputy Chief of the General Staff before being named Chief of Staff in 2011. inFOCUS Editor Shoshana Bryen spoke with him in March.
inFOCUS: Thank you for joining us. Military relations between the U.S. and Israel are often considered better – and deeper – than political relations. It was upsetting, therefore, to see the story about long-term U.S. and UK spying on Israeli military activities. What does that do to how you feel about working together?
LTG Benny Gantz: First and foremost, security relations between the two – actually the three – countries, but mainly the U.S. and Israel, are very dear and very important to both sides. Don’t get me wrong. I understand the size of the States and the size of Israel, but I think there are a lot of common interests and ethics between the two organizations, and both prize bilateral cooperation. I don’t think the relationship has been damaged.
But regardless of the fact, which I don’t think is as much as the headline makes it out to be (but that is a different issue) obviously, it makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable. I was candid enough with my colleagues that I don’t think that there is a need to see everything that they were doing. On the other hand, I’m not naive. The United States has interests all over the world, I guess they can see many things.
iF: Do you worry about the security of Israeli information that might be transferred to third parties by design or lost to hackers and cyber criminals?
BG: Everyone who handles intelligence worries about where it will end up. But I don’t know that we lost anything; maybe this is just a good story with not much actually in play.
In general? It is inevitable – every organization is concerned that whatever it shares with others will not stay with them. So there has to be a certain level of confidence. I think the level of confidence between U.S. forces and Israeli forces to the best of my knowledge – which was a year ago – was excellent. The information I have been getting since then is that they are excellent now as well; I’ve met friends here and there. The first visit of [Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff] Gen. Joseph Dunford outside the United States was to Israel. No one should take it for granted – it was not the obvious choice. The relations I had with [former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs] Martin Dempsey were magnificent. Magnificent. Efficient. I don’t think this quality of trust and warmth has changed.
iF: Now, moving to Russia. How do you see Moscow’s goals in Syria?
BG: It is a fact – and it has been the case almost forever, but definitely in the last two years – that the Russians are seeking stability in Syria that will enable them to secure their interests. Those interests are mainly – but not only – Tartus, Latakia, and the northeastern part of the Mediterranean. At the same time, they are facilitating what is going on between Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. At the same time, they can control what is going on in their southern flank because Syria influences the Kurds, Iraq, etc., and there have been huge issues in terms of foreign targets and countries. They are a major player and so I am not surprised by their action in terms of their interests.
Is there more to it? Does it relate to what is happening in Ukraine, etc.? That’s a possibility. Is there more to it in terms of the Americans or the Europeans? Or the Americans and the Russians over these issues? That’s a possibility. Is there a possibility that they’re showing terrorist organizations on the ground – ISIS especially, from their perspective – what will happen if they try to play around with Russia in the future? That’s a possibility. And “all of the above,” is also a possibility.
I think the United States understands that it must maintain its involvement in the right way – that the United States thinks of it not necessarily in the same way the Russians do, but I don’t think the United States can escape international leadership.
iF: Consider the battlefield of Syria, which is Iraq and Syria. When you look north, can you live comfortably with Russian goals in the region? When you see what they’re doing, does that make you want to run for the United States? Does it worry you or can you live with the Russians?
BG: What does that mean, “live with the Russians”? I don’t see Russian divisions in the Golan Heights, etc. But the [Israeli] Prime Minister and Chief of Staff flew to Russia and had some important discussions of intentions, deconfliction, and so on, and we expressed our interests. I think that we primarily need to concern ourselves with stability, preventing terrorist activity against us, preventing armament that will go from Iran through Syria to Hezbollah, or from Russia to Syria and then to Hezbollah – those are our interests. I think we have expressed them most cleverly and practically in some cases.
iF: Do you sense that the Russians respect your red lines?
BG: I don’t know about red lines. I don’t know what they were told. But I think people can see what it is that Israel does once in a while when it has to protect itself. I think they can respect it.
iF: When you were visiting Washington over the summer, everyone was interested in your view of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. Do you think the Iranians will live up to the deal?
BG: I think they will have to live up to the deal; but my operating assumption is that they will not live up to the deal. So its dual track.
On the one hand there is an agreement, there is an inspection program. I do believe at least in the short run the Iranians will live up to the deal because they need it. But at the very same time, just like we said, all options are on the table. For us that wasn’t just a phrase, we had to work on it and make inspections a real operational option. Now there is an agreement, that’s fine, but I seek intelligence. I seek inspections. I seek to secure the content of the agreement. And if you go back to the meeting in Washington, I didn’t say it was a good deal or a bad deal. I said it was a “done deal” and this is what I think of it. I think the Western community could have gotten a better deal, but now it is best referred to as a done deal. I see the upside of it just like I see the downside of it. It is threatening – we have to have increased intelligence activity, increased intelligence cooperation. We have to make sure that we don’t rely on Iranian obedience. But let’s make sure that we know what’s happening.
By the way, I’m not only talking about those two places [Ed., Fordow and Parchin], but anywhere we suspect any improper activity, we should check and look. The Iranians are very smart. I don’t think you will see new activity in Isfahan or in other places. We need to be able to monitor uranium as much as we can. And if something goes wrong then we should be serious.
iF: Are you comfortable with the level of inspection and intelligence?
BG: Intelligence is the most important thing in security activity, especially now. So I suggest seriously that we should never be satisfied with it. I mean every word I’m saying – it’s very complicated. There is rumor that in the terrorist attacks that happened in Paris [Ed., 9 December 2015] some of the connection lines were from PlayStation lines. I don’t know if it’s true. But surely it is true that terrorists are currently operating against civilian populations and protecting themselves with civilian populations and civilian infrastructure – including civilian cybernetic surroundings. So intelligence becomes equally crucial but much more complicated. It is not a military target or a missile base – those romantic days are almost over. So every day you need to “fertilize” your intelligence. You need to develop it. You need to take a different approach and recheck your assumptions. This is very, very serious. So without knowing the level right now, I hope and believe organizations have continued to develop their capabilities.
Whatever they are doing, I think they should do more.
iF: You said Iranians were rational people. What does it mean to be rational? Is it rational to want nuclear capabilities?
BG: From the Iranian perspective they were thinking that nuclear capabilities would secure the regime and its power. It is a scientific achievement; it is a point of pride and a powerful tool in their aspirations for regional hegemony. So I guess for them it was rational to try to achieve it. At the same time, I think it was rational for them to realize that trying to pursue nuclear weapons now would risk more for them than it would secure for them. So to accept the JCPOA is another rational decision that they made.
Of course, I’m not sitting in their meeting rooms, but I think they are discussing what they can do, what the situation is, how things have developed in the Middle East over the last five years that brought them to this position. Now they have to recalculate their GPS. They have to calculate a new route.
Do I think this is something they will really use against us because that’s the end game on the ground? I refuse to be hysterical on this issue. I know Israel’s strength. I know Israel’s defensive capabilities. I know Israel’s offensive capabilities. I know Israel’s capabilities and I am absolutely confident in our security.
iF: The issue of Iran is not only nuclear – it is also conventional and financial – how can the world deal with an aggressive and newly wealthy Iran?
BG: A strong and destructive Iran is not only Israel’s problem. It’s a challenge to the world. I think the world needs to curb all negative activity of Iran – arms shipments, the spread of terrorism, etc. These are things that can disturb relations between Iran and the rest of the world. I am aware that you are not beloved if you stress the importance of the Western world’s pushback against Iran’s activities in different places. For now, I’m sure this deal will give a boost to the Iranian economy, one the Iranians might not be willing to give up so quickly to go back to nuclear activity. I doubt they will do it.
It takes international cooperation on the entire spectrum of operations in order to counter the spectrum of Iran’s negative activities, including counter terrorism efforts, the prevention of military shipments, economic support to terrorism etc…
iF: So conceivably it will work – an improved economy will keep them inside the civilized world. Nukes would be less attractive?
BG: I cannot exclude a positive development. I hope for the Iranian people that this will be the case. I have nothing against the Iranian people as such. It’s a possibility. But once again, go back to what I said before: this doesn’t exclude the need for intelligence inspection and interception of all negative activities that the Iranians are involved with.
iF: Is the presence of Iranians near the Israeli border a red flag? Not a “red line” that has to be expressed, but a source of worry?
BG: The entire spectrum of the radicals always presents a dilemma. We have a bunch of terrorists – ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and others – and Iran near our borders. So obviously we are worried. Obviously we have seen them on patrol, but I am not aware of any permanent, serious presence of Iranians on our borders. It would bother us if one emerges, but we are capable of defending ourselves. We are the strongest country in this region.
iF: All my questions start with that assumption, including this next one.
BG: That is the right assumption.
iF: Is there an existential threat to Israel out there?
BG: There are high level challenges, potential high level challenges and risks. You know we see the strategic capabilities of Iran, which could have been nuclear, which is not the case right now, or the strategic trajectory that they are trying to develop now, etc. We see the support they give to Hezbollah, or Hamas, or other Palestinian groups. Obviously you have cyber activities and those issues. So, there are risks and challenges that we should take very seriously and I believe this is what Israel is doing. But I don’t see them currently rising to the level of an existential threat.
iF: You once told a group I had in Israel that Israel should either kill Gaza or set it free. Can you talk about Gaza?
BG: Gaza is strange place, unfortunately, because of the Hamas regime. It could become Hong Kong rather than old Hanoi, but that is in their hands. We should contain Gaza in the security sense – there will be campaigns in future times – but whether we take Gaza or have several rounds of fighting with is also in their hands. We do discuss some of these issues with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. I favor the best economic prospects possible for the people under the current security circumstances, but at the same time, we must continue to ensure security. It is tragic for the people of Gaza, but I would remind you, the sole responsibility lies with Hamas.
iF: Does the same apply to the West Bank – you have to help them have a life and economic means but within the security parameters? Is there still security cooperation with the PA?
BG: I only look at it as coordination, not really cooperation. It is the sort of coordination that is in their interest. They are not doing us any favors here; they are doing it for themselves. If Palestinians want to lose control of the West Bank, good luck to them. I think it’s in their interest to coordinate with us, so I don’t really buy those declarations [Ed., about stopping] too much. But once again, I think the coordination is very important, it serves the interest of both sides. It’s a core issue. If people in the region seriously want to promote some kind of arrangement and agreement at the end of the day, coordination is something that cannot be used as a potential threat. There should instead be a continuous thread.
iF: Do they do as much as they can do?
BG: Once again, I’ve seen their good efforts before and I’ve seen them step back before. On the other side, much of what we see on the streets is a direct result of incitement by the PA, without direct involvement in operations. People are consuming this incitement, taking a screwdriver and turning it into a lethal weapon.
iF: Is this the “new normal” for Israelis?
BG: No. I don’t think we should accept this as the future. We should never stop hoping and acting for a better future, but we have to be very realistic about what we are facing. We need to stay strong and united and never flirt with history. We need to maintain and increase intelligence capacities, constantly assess what is happening, and adapt or create new tactics. We have to look at the legal aspects, and obviously work toward a strategic approach that may change the goals back on the Palestinian side.
iF: Talk about Egypt. After almost 40 years, they are putting the Camp David Accords in their textbooks as a good thing.
BG: Well, it took the biblical Israeli generation 40 years to get from Egypt to here; if the Egyptians are putting the peace accords in their books, that’s a good sign. We are here after so many thousands of years and they’re here too. Coordination between us is very high and very important because we have identical interests. Period. And I think the way to achieve them might look different, but Egypt is a very important country. It is crucial to the world to ensure its stability – progress in the fight against ISIS that is present in Sinai, and protecting the Suez Canal, and other things are all good reasons to support Egypt. They are all good reasons for Egypt to take these responsibilities seriously and do something about the threats. I’m very happy to see what they’re doing. It is a good track.
iF: About Lebanon – the U.S. government sees Hezbollah as a terror group, but the government of Lebanon as a friendly one. France, the UK, and Germany also support the Lebanese government despite the role of Hezbollah.
BG: You’re right, but Lebanon was always a very complex place. If we’re looking for simplicity, the Middle East is not the place to look. Where is it simple? Lebanon is a country with huge challenges both in population and security. Hezbollah and the Shiite population is a challenge inside.
Hezbollah is more worried about jihad than it is worried about us, not because we are weaker, but because they understand realities. That’s good for Israel. They are concentrating on what is happening in the northeastern part of Lebanon and on the border with Syria – and obviously inside Syria itself. They are very occupied with these issues but their missile capabilities haven’t been used dramatically in Syria, so we must keep our eyes open. It has been 10 years since the second Lebanon war. We were very critical of ourselves after that war, but look at the achievement. We criticized ourselves terribly, but these have been the ten quietest years in the North. I think Hezbollah rightly understands what will happen to itself and to Lebanon if there is another war with Israel. Deterrence is – rightly – very much in place.
But of course, this is the Middle East: you throw a chair at someone and he throws a table at you and it starts. That means readiness. I think if a country supports the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), one should consider the needs of the armed forces – it goes back to QME issues; whether the LAF receives weapons appropriate for the situation. We have to strengthen the moderate powers – whatever that means – but we always have to remember the basic current phenomenon that indicates the lack of stability or the danger that is there and look at it from that perspective. But I think we have good mechanism for discussion.
iF: Last question. You once said that as Israel’s Chief of Staff, you had a responsibility to the Jewish people, past, present, and future. Can you discuss that responsibility?
BG: Being here for them when they need us.
Look what’s happening in France. Whoever wants to stay in France can stay in France; those who want to come here can come. Naomi Shemer said in her beautiful song, Ha’ir Be’afor [The City in Gray], “I’ll return you on eagles’ wings, or astride clouds.” Now, across the history of the Jewish people, people came to Israel by choice – meaning eagles’ wings. They decided to come. Or sometimes they came on clouds – like my parents. The clouds of the Second World War brought them here. In both cases, Israel was here for them – although at the time it wasn’t really Israel, yet. But luckily, today we have a secure place for the Jewish people.
I don’t think we should look at it only through the security perspective, though. It has to be a just and moral society. It has to be a very fair society. On the one hand a high tech power house and at the same time a guardian for its people, not just in security terms, but in terms of welfare and social equality. I think we should be part of the world as much as we can; we have a lot to contribute to the world. But the essence is that we are here, first and foremost, for our people. We are here for those who choose to come and for those who choose to stay in the Diaspora. I hope no one will be in a difficult situation and have to make a decision that he doesn’t want to make. But we are here for those people as well.
So if you ask me, the Prime Minister of Israel has the biggest challenge in the Jewish world, and the Chief of Staff of the IDF shares some of that responsibility.
iF: Benny Gantz, on behalf of the readers of inFOCUS, I want to thank you for a most enlightening conversation.