Newly appointed Defense Minister Benny Gantz officially took up his position on Monday, delivering a speech at a modest ceremony at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.
In his remarks, Gantz recalled the hundreds of times he, as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, previously walked into the defense minister’s bureau, straddling the bridge that connects the IDF’s headquarters building to the Defense Ministry building at the Kirya complex in Tel Aviv.
Gantz complimented his predecessor, Naftali Bennett, saying, “I could not but be impressed by your decision to think outside of the box and to challenge the system out of a desire to improve it.”
He also sounded a word of caution about the dangers of inflexible thinking, saying, “These days, we mark 20 years since Israel’s departure from the security zone in Lebanon … we drowned there to a certain extent in rigid thinking, which left us stuck in the same place for tens of years. Today, we must also look at the wide picture and always examine ourselves.”
Gantz’s comments addressed many of the issues set to dominate his agenda and hinted at the kind of policies he will promote as defense minister.
Setting the ‘Momentum’ plan into motion
Gantz’s first priority will undoubtedly be securing a suitable defense budget and making it a set one for the next five years, so that it can enable, at least to some extent, the implementation of the IDF’s multi-year program.
Gantz alluded to this objective when he described the need to promote the program, which is dubbed “Momentum” and is a flagship project of the IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi. Kochavi’s plan is designed to enable the IDF to “deal with present threats, as well as with future threats,” noted Gantz.
With Israel entering a period of major budgetary deficit due to the coronavirus crisis and competition over state funds from other ministries expected to be fierce, Gantz will try to salvage as much of the “Momentum” plan as he can.
According to a report by Ynet, Kochavi recently told associates of the need to save “at least 70 percent of ‘Momentum,’ ” describing it as “the insurance policy for our children and grandchildren, our vaccine against the existing [and future] security threats.”
The plan envisions the creation of a sharper, more lethal and network-based IDF, which could destroy unprecedented quantities of enemy capabilities in record time.
It would create field units that receive a wealth of new capabilities. This would mean that a battalion is digitally connected to all the relevant forces in its sector and to the Intelligence Directorate. A company commander would be able to activate his own drones and use the IDF’s digital command network to activate tanks, helicopters or electronic-warfare units immediately upon the detection of time-sensitive targets.
A ‘stormy sea’ rages around Israel’s borders
Gantz’s speech also included references to defense policies that he will likely promote during his term.
As far as his powers go, Gantz, like all defense ministers before him, cannot alone decide to launch large-scale operations or go to war. Those decisions must be set by the prime minister and receive cabinet approval in a vote before they can proceed.
But Gantz, who is also serving as vice premier in a unity government, can significantly influence the cabinet decision-making process by making recommendations, as well as representing the defense establishment’s positions to the government.
He can also recommend that smaller, covert operations be conducted against developing threats, particularly against those that are designated as “ticking time bombs.”
In his speech, Gantz warned that Israel’s borders are not stable, stating that a “stormy sea” rages around them. He described near and distant threats, saying the defense establishment must be prepared to tackle them all. “We will locate them, cut them off and destroy them,” he said.
Lebanon, where Hezbollah—Israel’s foremost military adversary—is based is host to a massive arsenal of surface-to-surface projectiles that places the whole of Israel in range. The Shi’ite Lebanese terror force is working with its Iranian patron to try and get its hands-on precision guided missiles as well, which would enable it to threaten strategic civilian and military targets deep in Israel.
In Syria, Hezbollah is trying to establish a foothold on the border with Israel. Meanwhile, Iran has attempted to create its own military front against Israel in Syria, including the construction of missile and drone bases, and the building an army of tens of thousands of militia members recruited from across the region. Those efforts have largely been repressed by a series of low-profile Israeli preventative airstrikes, but Iran remains determined.
Gantz will receive in-depth briefings to bring him up to scratch on the latest events in the “campaign between the wars”—the Israeli campaign to roll back the Shi’ite axis in Syria.
In Iran itself, the Islamic Republic is making alarming progress on its nuclear program, enriching uranium and developing new centrifuges types. Iran is edging ever closer to a break-out capability; this means that developing the IDF’s long-range strike capabilities must be a priority.
In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, Hamas continues to build up its terrorist army at the expense of the needs of civilians. Gantz will be reviewing the IDF’s latest operational contingency plans for Gaza, while also likely exploring policies that are designed to make the coastal enclave less explosive and more stable.
A cautious approach to Trump’s peace plan
One of Gantz’s first major policy junctions will be recommending an approach for navigating the Trump Mideast peace plan, and a position regarding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call to extend sovereignty in part of Judea and Samaria.
Gantz hinted in his remarks that he would take a more cautious approach on this front.
He stated on Monday, “We will promote the [Trump] plan with everything that it includes. Responsible and important political steps require a strong security establishment, which knows how to prepare for the strategic reality that faces the State of Israel, and which has the attentive ear of decision-makers.”
He also stressed his dedication to promoting [diplomatic] arrangements and striving for peace, describing this as an important and longstanding Zionist ambition. This could be a reference to a desire to avoid steps that might destabilize neighboring Jordan, which is seen as a strategic asset due to its security coordination with Israel along the Israeli-Jordanian border, and its bulwark position against Iranian efforts to infiltrate the West Bank from the east.
Gantz will also supervise and make recommendations on the IDF’s force accumulation. This includes the acquisitions of capabilities, such as next-generation Israeli transport helicopters; further purchases of fighter jets; and producing new, advanced armored vehicles that can autonomously detect and engage enemies.
He will oversee his ministry’s programs to shape national security objectives, and complete military force build-up at the industry, technology, weapons development and foreign-defense relations levels.
One of his first moves on Monday was appointing the former Israeli Air Force commander, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel, as director-general of the Defense Ministry to replace the outgoing director-general.
Gantz paid tribute to defense establishment’s critical role in dealing with the pandemic. That included a global emergency acquisition campaign that brought it planeloads of medical equipment, and kick-starting a local medical-equipment mass-production program via Israeli defense companies.
He underlined the presence of IDF soldiers on the ground to assist communities in need, including Arab and ultra-Orthodox areas. Gantz can be expected to oversee preparations for further assistance programs to the civilian sector in the event of future outbreaks.