By Shlomo Cesna, Israel Hayom—
Yom Kippur, 1973. Yoav Gallant, a 10th grader from Ramat Gan, is sitting in the synagogue.
“I remember the moment,” he tells Israel Hayom. “The adults got up and left. Later, we heard that the war had started.”
The high schooler, who would eventually command the elite Shayetet 13 naval commando unit and go on to serve as a major general in the General Staff, and who is currently housing and construction minister and sits on the Diplomatic-Security Cabinet, belongs to the generation of leaders that did not fight in that war, but lived through it and was affected by it.
“I was a kid during the Six-Day War. I remember the look my parents exchanged during that war — it was a look of fear. In the Yom Kippur War, I saw a different look on their faces, one of astonishment.
“The 12th graders handled the emergency economy headquarters that operated between Jabotinsky and Bialik streets, across from the Rama movie theater. The 10th and 11th graders, including me, were their assistants. We got up in the morning, went to work at the Tana Noga , distributed eggs in the afternoon, and in the evening we’d go to Tel Hashomer to help load ammunition onto trucks. We felt like we were part of the war effort and very important. Bit by bit, after a week or two, we started to hear rumors of casualties. Names we knew, people who’d been ahead of us in the youth movements, in the Scouts. That’s how I learned that my good friend Shimon’s brother had been killed. That’s what I remember from the Yom Kippur War.
“In my generation of new army recruits, all our commanders were veterans of that same war. My company commander in basic training fought in the Battle of the Chinese Farm. All the Shayetet commanders when I was a soldier — Shaike Brosh, Yedidiya Yaari, Ami Ayalon — were brave fighters, so the war was with us during our own service. Looking back, the lesson was very important: Israel defeated three armies in six days. Six years later, two of those same armies brought Israel to a totally different situation in a short time. Yes, we defeated them, but the situation that had been created gave us all strategic understanding that even if Israel beats its enemies in battle, if it had no intention of annihilating the enemy and it remains, we need to normalize relations, and that has to be done from a position of strength.”
The Axis of Evil is still here
Gallat, 58, a married father of five, believes that even more than the experience of the Yom Kippur War was etched into people’s consciousness, the war reframed Israel’s strategy.
“Like Clausewitz says, war is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will and prevent him from doing the same to us. The Yom Kippur War brought 25 years of conventional wars, in which Israel beat its enemies over and over, to an end. The result was that the war that began as a surprise ended 101 kilometers (63 miles) from Cairo, and not 101 km from Tel Aviv. Our enemies — in this case, Egypt — internalized that if they had fought wars with Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967, and launched a surprise war in 1973 and were also beaten, the time had come to make peace. That’s the lesson they learned. This is what led to the peace treaty with Egypt.
“After the war, it was clear that anyone who had fought against Israel knew that it could not be beaten through force, which led to the peace treaties. Moreover, there were those who because of that war refused to accept Israel as a permanent entity in the Middle East and refused to recognize it. So then two axes of operation against us opened up: first, terrorism, which is a method that ultimately evades the conflict of a full-on war. Second, missile capability.”
Q: What is the biggest threat facing Israel today?
“Iran. Looking at the big map, there’s no doubt — Iran is the enemy. It’s the source of ideological and terrorist authority. It’s the main actors working against us all the time, in every arena. Iran is working against us in five areas: in Gaza, by supporting Hamas and terrorist organizations, mainly the Islamic Jihad; through Hezbollah and building Hezbollah up; in Judea and Samaria, by attempts to operate terrorist cells; through ongoing attempts to enlist Israeli Arabs who will take action against the nation; and through terrorist attacks abroad, which are carried out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah against Israeli and Jewish targets.
“These are all methods of ongoing warfare, of a mechanism of attrition designed to keep Israel busy, waste its time and spill its blood, so that in the meantime they can continue working toward nuclear arms. Their desire for remains, even if there are ups and downs and breaks on their way to their goal. They have already made declarations about how they intend to use .
“ President George W. Bush characterized these regional threats as ‘the axis of evil’ — Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. This axis is very dangerous to Israel. Thanks to various processes, the Iranian-Shiite majority is slowing taking control of Iraq. Now there’s a battle raging over Syria, where there are attempts to reach Iranian-Shiite hegemony under Hezbollah, and that’s a process that should worry us. We will not allow a reality in which Iran operates against us on expanded borders, through other players. The other threats, which the world is battling, are in my eyes temporary. In the end, the world will defeat the Islamic State.”
Q: The current situation has weakened the enemies around us. Hezbollah is busy in Syria, and the nuclear deal has put off the Iranian threat for a few years. Other countries are busy with internal problems, dealing with refugees. Some analysts say that Israel’s situation in the region has never been better. What about taking advantage of the opportunity for new alliances, agreements and a peace deal with the Palestinians?
“Let’s talk about the opportunities. We’ll look at them in a multi-dimensional context. From a security and defense perspective, since this is a quiet period, and even though as far as our enemies are concerned there is no recognition of Israel’s right to exist, we need to assume that there will be other conflicts and therefore, we need to prepare. From a diplomatic perspective, the reality is that we need to form alliances with anyone we can. The reason is simple: Most of the Muslim world, 90% of it, is Sunni. Of those, 90% are moderate. Their enemies are our enemies: the extremist Shiites, led by Iran, or the Sunni Salafists and jihadis — al-Qaida, Islamic State and the like. The extremists threaten the moderate regimes.
“That’s why I’ve always worked to normalize relations with Turkey. Because if we’re ‘playing’ with them, it’s harder for Hezbollah and Iran. We and Turkey have mutual interests. For example, in the war on terrorism or a deal on the future of Syria, which borders both Israel and Turkey. Turkey is also one of the four biggest Muslim countries in this region, along with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. So out of four major nations, it’s good to form ties and regional alliances with the ones we have common interests with. We’ll only fight the we have to, and live in peace with the rest.”
We need to know how to make concessions
When Gallant talks about approaching moderate Muslim countries, he is asked to tie that in with a solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinian Authority. He says that Israel “has an interest in solving things eventually, if it’s possible, but the process must come out of agreement and with the Palestinians’ involvement.”
Q: So what is the solution?
“Israel has agreed to talk for years. From the 1930s up through today, Israel has agreed to significant compromises. We have to formalize relations with the Palestinians. It’s in Israel’s interest, and obviously the Palestinians’. We need to ensure that any agreement would bring the conflict to an end, and that to the west of the Jordan River there is no military force that can put us in danger. No armed forces that can be any kind of threat. We are the only ones in charge. In the end, we need to reach a series of agreements on the same old issues, but security is not something that can be sacrificed.”
Q: What is Israel’s opening position?
“The basic situation, I think, that was laid out clearly in a letter by Bush and passed in a 2004 government decision: We’ll end the conflict and have to acknowledge the facts on the ground — for example, Israeli settlement and everything that pertains to it . Anyone who thinks we’ll withdraw to the 1967 borders is deluded. There’s no chance of that happening. In my opinion, the Palestinians understand that already, and we certainly do. On the other hand, there must be compromise, and it will serve both the Palestinians and us. This means that the Palestinians will have contiguous, autonomous territory. That will lead to two states for two peoples.”
Q: But neither side wants to concede. Let’s touch on the most sensitive core issue, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
“If there’s one thing that’s not up for negotiation, it’s Jerusalem. I believe that eventually, the Palestinians will be more flexible than what they are saying today.”
Gallant recalls a conversation that he held when he was commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division with Mohammed Dahlan, then head of the security establishment in Gaza.
“Dahlan told me, ‘From here, I’m going to Arafat — do you want to send him a message?’ I said, ‘Ask him why he lies to us all the time.’ A month later, we met again, and he had an answer. Arafat had replied — ‘I killed for Palestine, so I won’t lie for Palestine?’ So everyone comes with his own perspective. There are serious difficulties, but we need to be willing to make concessions on some things. If you ask me, I’m not willing to give up anything. When I touch the stones of the Patriarchs’ Graves in Hebron, I ask, why should we give this up? And in the Judean Hills, I say, King David walked here! It’s clearly ours. On the other hand, there is a public with a different narrative here, and now we need to compromise. Facts have been established on the ground. On both sides. We need to need to see how we can arrange them for the generations to come, and not just live off of history. Both sides need to internalize that we’re here, and we’re staying here. Both sides. The Palestinians need to take in that the fact that the State of Israel exists ultimately benefitted them.”
Q: If we don’t reach a peace agreement and nothing changes, how long can the current situation in Judea and Samaria continue?
“In the historical context, years and decades are a small matter. In the end, we realize that a reality with no deal leads to flare-ups. We see that everywhere there are different people with different religious, cultural ideologies, including places that were quiet for decades, like the Balkans. So if we want a reality in which clashes become less frequent, and not the opposite, we need to reach an agreement. When I look at things, I see an expression of the people’s wishes. When everyone refuses to budge, everyone pays a heavy price. … I believe that a peace deal is the way to go, and that depends on Israel being powerful.”
The Hebron shooting: More than one angle
Gallant served in a series of key roles in the upper IDF echelon and saw things from up close. Now, as a member of the Diplomatic-Security Cabinet, he can still offer a relevant perspective on Israel’s military situation.
“You need to remember where we were 70 years ago: We brought in a few weapons from Czechoslovakia, and with augmented forces beat our enemies. … The desire to improve always exists. We understand that the enemy changes, and we stay flexible. That’s the true source of the IDF’s might.”
Q: What about the IDF ethics?
“The IDF’s ethics are a vital component. The IDF is more moral than any other army, both when we look back at history and in terms of current events. I don’t know any other army that conducts in-depth probes like we do. For example, our desire to create selectivity and hit only who we need to. In Operation Cast Lead alone, we launched about 5,000 airstrikes, all of which were intended to hit only the people we needed to and not innocent civilians. We developed methods that ranged from advance warnings to the use of targeted killings. Those are the instructions we give soldiers.”
Q: Does the morality come from the education that the soldiers received all their lives, at school, in their communities, at home, or does the army take the soldiers who arrive and try to instill in them the morality it determines?
“Here, the military system includes universal values, liberal and democratic values. There is Judaism, which is an important component along with the moral one and which has given the world the Ten Commandments and the Bible. It’s the ethical foundation of all the monotheistic religions. It ultimately includes the laws of the state and military orders. Obviously, the officers receive people who until age 18 lived in a certain atmosphere that was influenced by a variety of factors, including the internet, school and the home. In the army, you turn them from a collection of individuals into an operational unit. In that context, the commander has tools that no one else does: enforcing discipline, order, punishments. We want to send these people on missions of life or death and sometimes lead them into the fire. It’s not easy. I think that what I would expect of every IDF commander is to understand the raw material that he is given and understand that it changes. These are the circumstances. The commanders do excellent work. They lead the way.”
Q: And on the subject of morality, what about Sgt. Elor Azaria ?
“When you lead people into battle, you sometimes come up against the true reality and unintended things happen. Sometimes people are wounded or killed. All along the way, there are people who do not act in a way that matches the principles we aspire to. We need to take care of them, but addressing stems from the assumption that they’re our soldiers, too. Someone that we sent and someone we aren’t casting off. Is there a problem? Let’s learn the facts.
“I was in a lot of operations and actions. Even today, when I’m sitting with comrades from those same operations in which I was a soldier and an officer, with people who were with me in an incident and we talk about it, they describe something different than what I know, because that’s how they saw things. … When we analyze Azaria’s situation, there’s the picture we see from up close and the picture we see from farther away. And there is a picture that is subjective that is created in a soldier or a commander’s mind, and not everything can be seen in real time. From the little we see, I think is something that goes against IDF orders. … And it needs to be addressed. one thing has to be clear: Even if he made a mistake, he is a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces.”
Q: That’s the question, when there is film footage, can it be misleading?
“Listen, I want to hear what the operational investigation says and what the police investigation says and then take a stance. … I’ll say this: If the soldier made a mistake, not 100% of the mistake was his. Maybe 80%, maybe 20%, have to do with the general orders, with the level of the unit and the local command. In such cases, a person operates against a certain background. In a certain atmosphere, situation and unit. Does it look right? Not at first glance. Should we address it by turning the matter into a process of national diagnosis on one soldier’s back? That doesn’t look right to me, either.”
Q: Let’s take a wider view. If I ask you to focus on one central problem in Israel today, what do you think it is?
“Unity. I’d like to see a higher level of mutual responsibility among the people of Israel. Praise, consideration of other, even if he maintains a different lifestyle — no matter if he’s secular, religious, haredi, Arab. The growing alienation, the sectorialization, in which an individual puts himself at the center, is a problem. All my life, I’ve put the public and helping front and center. In the Scouts, from age 19 in the army, the goal was to assist in the defense of the State of Israel. During Operation Protective Edge I thought that we could do better, so I decided to enter politics to influence things.
“My father came to Israel at age 17 and volunteered to fight in the toughest battles, in al-Faluja and at Negba. My mother was a refugee from the Holocaust who arrived on the Exodus. My children all served or are serving as combat soldiers. My wife was a lieutenant colonel in the army. So I’m calm about what I’ve done. I expect good people to take part in public activity that unites the people. I expect politicians to spread the message of unity and not schism. They shouldn’t say, ‘Vote for me because I’m against something else.’ That’s unacceptable. It doesn’t matter if they’re against the haredim, the Arabs or the settlers, or any other group. Just as we are allowed to choose how we live, we demand that the others be respected. This is our greatest challenge.”
Lessons from naval commando missions
When Gallant talks about contributing to the country’s security, he has the papers to prove it. Gallant received two battlefield promotions while in the Shayetet 13. In the first case, while he was serving as a unit commander in 1980, he headed a force at short notice in an operation that had previously been planned and cancelled. The mission called on them to take action against a terrorist cell that was aiming at IDF helicopters in the area, on the route between Tyre and Sidon in Lebanon.
“I was commander of the first platoon in. At the target, there were 18 terrorists inside a house and in guard posts around it. After we surprised them with a blast of fire, I threw grenades into the house and we placed bombs, and in the fighting the company commander was wounded. Shayetet commander Ami Ayalon charged me with evacuating him and taking his place. We left there at first light under heavy fire, with two wounded, my friends Doron and Rani. The Shayetet was awarded a unit commendation for that operation, which represented the fighting by all the soldiers. I went from a platoon commander to a company commander during the mission.
“The second time, in 1987, I was a major in the Shayetet. We set out on a mission in Lebanon. We landed on the beach, attacked, hit vehicles, killed the terrorists and returned. I commanded people who are well-known today — Rami Rotberg, who would become commander of the Israeli Navy, Erez Zuckerman, who was commander of the Golani Brigade and Yossi Korakin, who was killed in the Ansariya ambush . Besides fighting the enemy, I had to keep control of those lions. … We went back, and that same week, the commander of the Israeli Navy and the IDF Chief of Staff promoted me to colonel, which expressed their appreciation for the direction of a successful operation and an attempt to signal the way for a unit after the death of commander Col. Uri Taitz.”
Q: And what did you take away from those events?
“The understanding that victory requires advance preparation. Physical, mental, spiritual, as a unit. That doesn’t mean that you prepare for this specific thing. You need to be trained and ready. The strength of a combat unit depends on its parts, in the special connection. Even if you’ve prepared, something happens, and its always harder and more complicated than you can bear, and this is where you step in and function, and also the realization that when I do courageous things for the State of Israel, I’m allowed to be proud.”