Calm and Collected: Washington insiders reflect on Benny Gantz’s tenure in D.C.

By Laura Kelly and Jacob Kornbluh

Before Benny Gantz entered the tumultuous waters of Israeli politics, he arrived in Washington D.C., to serve as Israel’s military attache from 2007 to 2009, years bookended by two defining military operations and an increase in U.S. financial support for Israel.

His time in the capital was brief yet active. Israel was recovering from the second Lebanon war and the country was weary that it was unprepared for the threats it faced in the north, from Hezbollah.

In Washington, Gantz was involved in the preparation of a $30 billion, 10-year, memorandum of understanding (MOU) — the second time such a deal had been struck between the U.S. and Israel — and the effort to secure Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME).

Meanwhile, rising tensions between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip culminated in one of the most contentious conflicts, Operation Cast Lead, which lasted for three weeks into the first month of 2009.

Today, his challenge is to lead the newly-formed Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) to victory in Israel’s upcoming elections, and to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after over a decade in power. The center-left party is buoyed by the popularity of Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid in the number two spot, and carries the credential of having two more former generals – Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi – who were Gantz’s superiors.

“That’s no small thing I have to say,” Dan Arbell, former deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., said of the two senior military officials, deferring to Gantz. “He’s a good guy in a sense that he makes everybody around him feel good. He is very pleasant in his demeanor and very easy going. If necessary, he can bang on a table and call somebody to order. But things around him are very pleasant and make teamwork very smooth and very professional.”  

Most who’ve worked Gantz respect him for his ability to disagree. “I have seen him angry, but I have never seen him sacrifice good decision making for frustration or anger,” said Mary Beth Long, former assistant secretary of Defense during the Bush and Obama administrations. Long still holds a close, personal friendship with Gantz, notwithstanding differences of opinion they had when they were official counterparts.

In one instance, Long recounts how she withheld funding for the Iron Dome Missile Defense system because she didn’t believe it was yet out of its research and development phase. “There were a lot of very, very unhappy Israelis and Americans who thought I was making a bad decision and through all of that, this is where Benny is really different in my sense,” she said. “He’s able to separate out disappointments… and not sacrifice and use emotion to blow up the relationship or to impact other aspects of the relationship, which is a little bit rare.”

Preserving those relationships were key in other time of crisis, Long said, of knowing when an ally was truly in need. Long reflects on the time when the Israelis were running low on ammunition and a delivery by the Department of Defense was delayed by an approval process on Capitol Hill. With U.S. troops still fighting in the Middle East, the decision had to be made if there was artillery that could be spared to send to the Israelis. “I made the unprecedented request that we dip into our U.S. stores, which had never been done before,” Long said.

“There was a firm relationship between the military and the civilians, not only of confidence, as in ‘I trust you,’… but, truly getting to the heart of the matter and cutting through the BS to try to figure out what was best for both countries.” Gantz’s leadership and personality was a key factor in building and preserving that trust, she said. “Even when he was at his most battle involved, he had an amazing ability to back up and look at a situation and problem solve, which is really remarkable.”

In conversations with people who worked with Gantz at the highest levels of military and diplomacy, there’s consensus that Gantz is a focused and responsible figure who operates with a sense of humility.

“First of all he’s a tough soldier, and he’s got a brilliant military mind, but he also has a heart,” said Lt.-Gen. (R) H. Steven Blum, Chief of the National Guard Bureau between 2003-2008, and who worked with Gantz when he was in a number of different official positions, including as military attache. Blum recalled how, in a visit to the Israeli communities bordering the Gaza Strip, he was struck by the emotion he saw from Gantz when talking with families living under rocket fire. “To watch the human reaction it had on a tough warrior like Gen. Gantz was — you could feel that he could feel the pain of that mother, for what her children were going through,” Blum  said. “The weight of the responsibility that he had to take care of not only her sons and daughters, but all the future of Israel, the children of Israel – was palpable. The man really has an empathy and an understanding of the importance of the IDF for the survival and future of Israel.”

Colin Kahl, who was national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, and who worked with Gantz during his time in Washington, also offered a positive reflection of his time spent with three-star general-turned-politician. “I worked with Gantz closely when he was the military attaché in DC,” Mr. Kahl wrote in an email to JI. “He always struck me as a man of great integrity and he was very committed to the US-Israel relationship.”

Dov Zakheim, former undersecretary of defense during the Bush administration, told Jewish Insider that Gantz comes across as “a very balanced guy. I don’t get the sense that he’s an ideologue at all.” The general brings pragmatism to his leadership style, Mr. Zakheim said, “as opposed to stirring up emotions in Israel which Netanyahu would do, especially about Iran.” This might help him “steer Israel through some very difficult times,” dealing with the existential threats of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinians, thinks Zakheim.

“He’s a practical guy. I’ve watched him. I’ve watched him in Washington and I’ve watched him in Israel. And frankly, I think that the reason he’s doing as well as he’s doing, again, is because the Israeli public looks at him that way. Now, of course, these are just polls and Israelis love to use the polls as a kind of joke, but I think there’s something there.”

When Gantz was Chief of General Staff of the IDF,  Martin Indyk says he met with him “a couple of times.” Indyk told JI in an email that he found Gantz “to be [a] highly intelligent, strategic thinker, and a moderate person with great integrity and good judgment.”

Zakheim also predicted that a Gantz win would not only maintain strong U.S.-Israel relations, but also improve attitudes towards Israel in the Democratic Party. “It’ll be much more difficult to go after Israel or be less sympathetic to Israel if there’s a prime minister who’s willing to try to do something with the Palestinians, who doesn’t say explosive things, and is not under investigation,” he explained. “Right now, it’s very easy for Democrats to bash Israel. They don’t feel as though Israel cares about them.”

Gantz, who is currently leading in the polls ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, is also seen as a natural partner to pursue a Trump-led Mideast peace plan, assuming the administration rolls it out immediately after the April 9th election. But according to Nimrod Novik, a fellow at Israel Policy Forum and former advisor to Shimon Peres, while a center-left government would “go some steps forward towards the administration’s approach,” it would be constrained.

“When I look at the different scenarios, which government is likely to be formed — a right-wing government, a national unity government between Likud and the center-left, and a center-left government headed by Benny Gantz or Yair Lapid — I don’t see any that has what it takes for an ultimate deal. I don’t see the numbers and public support for the plan on year one. It will take time to build it.”

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