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Benny Gantz may be just what Israel needs

It's important to know what he thinks about the issues, but it's much more important to know what kind of a leader he is
Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz speaks at the annual World Zionist Conference, in Jerusalem on November 2, 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90, via The Times of Israel)
Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz speaks at the annual World Zionist Conference, in Jerusalem on November 2, 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90, via The Times of Israel)

In the blazing summer of 1981, my fellow soldiers and I were just making the transition into the Nachal Paratrooper Battalion. Suddenly, poor judgement in the heat of a training exercise led to an accident, casualties and the immediate dismissal of our company commander. It left the troops divided, confused and demoralized. Within a day, a new officer was sent over to pick up the pieces and get us back on track. At age 22, he seemed to be too young for the job —  almost the same age of some of the soldiers he was overseeing. It was his first posting as a company commander. But within two months, Benny Gantz had turned things around.

Under his leadership, we quickly became a high-spirited, highly motivated, focused team, winning competitions as the army’s most competent paratrooper company. We came from all sorts of backgrounds, but soon we all agreed on one thing: Benny Gantz was destined to become a chief of staff of the Israeli army. In a storied military career, the same stellar qualities of the young lieutenant catapulted him to this milestone — and now beyond.

Today, Benny Gantz has moved on and formed a new political party. Only this time, it is our political system that is divided, confused and demoralized. Many questions are being asked about the policies he will be promoting. This is legitimate. It is also true that there are times  when the Talmud equates “silence” with “wisdom.” Gantz will surely present his vision after conferring with the many experts who need to inform a strategy to transform the nation. (In areas like environmental policy or empowering the courts and law enforcement, no policies can be much worse that what we’ve had for the past four years.) I’m confident that, just as Gantz spoke clearly and ethically this week about addressing the displacement created by the nation-state law, we’ll soon know where he stands on most key issues.

But the truth is, in Israel, even more than a “policy crisis,” today, Israel faces a crisis of leadership. Too many politicians rely on a cowardly strategy of superficiality and fake news, mean-spirited vitriol, divisive rhetoric, and preference for sectoral over national interests.  Yes, it is important to know what Benny Gantz thinks about improving educational performance or climate change. But it is much more important to know what kind of a leader he is. Because more than anything else, our country needs leadership that can unify it.

Gantz’s candidacy has made me a bit nostalgic as of late. A group of us in the company were lone soldiers who had come from all over the world to serve the homeland. Every one of us finished a fairly punishing track. The “spirit of the commander” had a lot to do with it.  Benny Gantz always seemed to care. Whether it was finding a oleh who was unexpectedly homeless a place to live — or in my case, finding a way for me to take a few days off of maneuvers and attend my sister’s wedding in the States — for those of us on our own, Gedud 50 — the Nahal paratroopers — became our family.

I also remember being dressed down by Benny many times. These were times when tough love was required to push us beyond what we believed our physical capacities were, or to get us to jump out of an airplane at night, when howling winds made you wonder whether you’d land unscathed. Usually though, the classic IDF ideal of leading through “personal example” was enough. It could be manifested in a respectful way to negotiate tense situations and get the job done when patrolling the West Bank. Or there was dealing with the freezing cold winter in missions in and around Lebanon. We tried harder because our company commander led the way.

Looking back, Benny never needed the tired game of playing the aloof commander, or, as they say in Hebrew, creating “distance.” Rather, he spoke straight to all the soldiers, sharing from his personal  experience — even bringing his high school-aged sister with her accordion to the base one night, to get us all singing. Gantz brought us together and showed us what we could do when we worked together.

For over two decades, I did compulsory and military reserves. I cannot remember any officer who was more interested in knowing how his soldiers were actually faring. This wasn’t just a tactical leadership device. It was just Benny’s inherent decency. When you feel you are being heard, it is much easier to accept decisions, even if it isn’t exactly what you wanted.

We need national leadership with this ability to engage. After so many years of imperious arrogance and mean-spirited demonization of rival positions, it is critical to have a leader with a proven ability to listen. We need someone who can hear all sides, who is inclusive and tries to find common ground before making the call and taking action.

And after the jailing of a president, finance and prime minister, and now police recommendations for three indictments of Prime Minister Netanyahu, I’ve had enough.  Character matters.

Years have gone by, but like all of us in the company, I have followed Benny Gantz’s career. At every stage, it has always been the same story. He brings the same decency, optimism, dignity, courage and, yes, lanky, tall frame and good looks to daunting challenges — and he does an exceptional job.

We are lucky to have a veteran leader like Benny Gantz who is willing to leap into the quagmire of national politics, notwithstanding the many associated indignities. For those of us still uncertain about who we should be voting for, I suggest taking a step back from the usual, narrow, tribal concerns and considering Gantz’s new party. It’s about time that Israel had leadership that intuitively knows that what unites us is far more dominant than what divides us — a leader who has the ability to inspire us all to work together for a better Israel.

About the Author
Professor Alon Tal, is the chair of the Tel Aviv University Department of Public Policy and a veteran environmental activist.
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