New IDF chief Galant is 'a natural leader'

There has never been an IDF Chief of General Staff from the navy and that is no coincidence. The Israeli navy may be known as the Senior Service but, in the IDF, it has always been the poor and underfunded cousin.

But within the close-knit family of naval commandos, Yoav Galant was a legend, dating back to his days as a young officer on raids on the Lebanese coast in the late 1970s. His physical strength and natural leadership skills gained the respect of his soldiers but also of his commanders.

"If we were on an operation with Galant," says Boaz Sheffer, a former lieutenant colonel in Flotilla 13, "we knew that he would get whatever he wanted from his soldiers but also from the senior officers. They all respected his judgment."

But Galant was not content with the confined world of the navy. He realised 16 years ago that to reach the upper echelons, he would have to leave the navy. To the surprise of his friends, he went ashore and took command of the Jenin Regional Brigade. He returned to the navy to command the flotilla but was soon back on dry land as commander of the Gaza Brigade, then as head of an armoured brigade and finally as chief of staff of the ground forces.

His backers insist he is a team-player

His next step was just as unconventional. In 2002, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon selected him as his military adjutant, and for three years he was part of the circle of advisers around the PM. In the past, such a post was seen as the last station in an officer's career, as the IDF frowns upon its officers being too overtly involved in politics, but Galant wasn't for retiring. With Mr Sharon's backing, was appointed next to the key post of Southern Command in 2005, facing Hamas after the withdrawal from Gaza.

Major General Galant has spent an unprecedented five years in the south, during which he planned and executed Operation Cast Lead in Gaza a year-and-a-half ago. Despite gaining professional praise for attaining the operation's objectives with a low level of Israeli casualties, he was not a popular choice for the top job among his colleagues in the General Staff. The current Chief of General Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, saw him as too independent-minded and impetuous and never got along with him. He is not part of any of the main army cliques and rumours of his connections with politicians and businessmen were used against him.

On the professional side, his critics say that he may have a wealth of operational experience but has not filled senior staff officer positions and is not well acquainted with major parts of the army he is now supposed to command. His backers, though, insist that he is an instinctive team-player, a natural leader and a decisive fighter who has proved himself adept at learning about new fields.

With Israel close to the point at which it will have to decide whether to attack Iran, and with conflagration threatening on its northern and southern borders, the choice of Maj Gen Galant sends a clear signal to Israel's enemies, particularly following the cautious Gen Ashkenazi. The major decisions will be made by the political leaders, but Maj Gen Galant as their senior military adviser will be there to ensure that the IDF can carry out any mission. They will have to be careful, though, that the ambitious general does not prove over-confident.

    Last updated: 2:01pm, August 26 2010