Sunday, March 31, 2013

Next commander of Sayeret Matkal - Quiet, shy and a born leader

Uri Shabtai/Roi Amos..
Yisrael Hayom..
31 March '13..

Last month Lt. Col. S. celebrated his 38th birthday at his picturesque home in the Golan Heights. It was an intimate evening spent with his close family — his wife and three little boys. The modest celebration didn't disclose the big excitement in the family: S. and his wife had just learned that very soon, S. would be starting the most significant job of his career — he had been appointed the next commander of Sayeret Matkal (the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit), one of the most elite units in the IDF.

S. knows that the coming years will be more and more challenging for the elite IDF unit, considering the recent and ongoing changes in the Arab world, the threats emanating from neighboring countries and ones located further away, as well as the shifting battlefield of the future. S.'s mission will be to lead one of the most important military units in the IDF.

When the blue-eyed officer, named after his maternal grandfather, learned that he had been selected to head Sayeret Matkal, he didn't go out and celebrate. On the contrary — he preferred to meditate on the meaning of the position and the immense responsibility that it would entail. "His reaction was exactly proportional," recounts one of S.'s childhood friends, who has known him since kindergarten. "He knew that he was up against very high quality candidates for the position and said that it was not a given that he would be chosen."

"He was even a little surprised that he was selected for the job, and he didn't tell anyone about it," says one of his neighbors.

S.'s path to the top of the pyramid may have been relatively short, but it certainly wasn't simple or easy. It was a complex journey that required quite a bit of sacrifice. The journey began the day he donned his IDF uniform. S. grew up in the French Carmel neighborhood of Haifa. He was the youngest son to parents who will be turning 75 this year. When he turned 18, he decided not to enlist in the army right away. Guided by the spirit of volunteerism that had dominated his life since childhood, he began a year of national service. He left the big city in favor of a nature reserve in the Golan Heights, where he served as a counselor to groups of teens for a year. His love of trees, the earth and nature burned in him even then.

"It brings me great pride to hear that he will command this unit," says S.'s high school principal, who personally taught him in the 11th and 12th grades. "It was an experience to have known him — a value-driven young man of the highest order. From a very young age it was already apparent that he was born to lead. Even when he got mad, he was always patient and considerate. He also had an excellent sense of humor. I don't remember him as a brilliant and exceptional student, but he was definitely a good student, smart, one who makes sharp comments."

The military lifestyle occupied a big part of S.'s and his friends' daily lives. Most of them knew that they would join combat units. It wasn't just a product of youthful ambition — a tragedy had occurred in their town: Nahshon Leibowitz and his soldier brother Ophir had died of dehydration during a trip to the Judean Desert. The sole purpose of the brothers' trip was for Ophir, who was about to complete his military service, to prepare his younger brother Nahshon for service in an elite IDF unit. S. and his friends all took part in the search party that was set up when Ophir and Nahshon went missing. Ophir's body was found after several days. Four days later, Nahshon's body was also found. Even though almost 20 years have passed, S. still keeps in close touch with the bereaved parents, who lost all of their children to that trip.

Rising to the challenge

S. joined Sayeret Matkal and was placed in a team under the command of H., whom he later beat out in the race for the command of the entire unit. According to his friends, S. always wanted to be a combat soldier. "Because he was always so discreet, the mystery that surrounds Sayeret Matkal suited him," says one friend. "The whole gang that he hung out with in high school, and his friends from the youth movement in Haifa, all went to serve in elite combat units."

S. moved up the ranks until he himself became a team commander. Then, just when he was in peak shape, his career was almost cut short. In 1999, during an exercise at a training facility, an explosive planted in one of the facilities went off. The accident occurred in close proximity to S. and he was badly wounded in his lower body. Another soldier was also wounded in the incident.

S. suffered a tear in his thigh nerve. He underwent very delicate surgery and was paralyzed from the knee down for six months. To this day, S. has a bit of a disability in his leg. After his accident, the pedals in his car had to be flipped just so he could drive.

There were people who thought that the accident had ended S.'s career in the unit, and perhaps even in the military. But for him it was just a little obstacle. "It is amazing that he went back to normal in the way that he did," says another childhood friend. "He was a fighter and he didn't give up for a minute because he always knew that he would walk normally again."

After his rehabilitation, S. returned to the unit and continued to move up the ranks. One of the highlights during that difficult time was when he met Y., a female officer in Sayeret Matkal whom he would later marry.

S. rose to the position of deputy commander, and he was already marked as a possible candidate to one day command the unit, some say. Perhaps in efforts to prepare him for the future appointment, it was decided to remove him from the unit and appoint him the commander of another elite unit.

There are those who claim that manning a challenging position in another unit is extremely important to becoming a good commander. "S. is a very nice guy, and commanding an elite unit prepared him, because he certainly was trained well," says Kfir Adam, a former Sayeret Matkal officer and the author of a book chronicling the unit and its operations.

"This is an extremely difficult and demanding position that is unlike anything else. It is a directorial leap that cannot be explained in words. It is a multidisciplinary job; it is politics and personnel management. You need creative thinking and innovation," says Adam.

Values and upbringing

Former MK Doron Avital, who commanded Sayeret Matkal between 1992 and 1994, thinks that the Arab Spring is posing new challenges to the unit, whose objective is to collect intelligence beyond enemy lines. "The entire intelligence system needs to be overhauled," says Avital. "At the primary level, it is the need to understand what the desired intelligence is, and at the secondary level it is the need to figure out when action can be taken. There are constraints that dictate the maneuverability."

Q: As the former commander, what advice would you give the incoming commander?

Avital: "Think together with the entire [intelligence] community what kind of intelligence is required for the State of Israel, and where the unit can make a unique contribution. After all, it is not just any elite unit. It has a relative advantage in a very specific field. In other words, he needs to make sure that Sayeret Matkal retains a unique role in intelligence gathering that no one can compete with.

Q: You knew Col. G., the outgoing commander of Sayeret Matkal. Do you think S. has big shoes to fill?

Avital: "G. is indeed a model commander, both in the operational aspect and in the right combination of field work and grasp of theory. In the past we held people of action in exaggerated regard over people of words, and vice versa."

S. got his values and love of Israel mainly from his parents Avi and Chava, both Holocaust survivors. Avi served in the armored corps and participated in all the big wars. He was even wounded during the 1967 Six-Day War. Chava was a teacher who now volunteers at Yad Sarah. S.'s friends say that he got his unique character thanks to the upbringing he received and the atmosphere at home.

Despite his injury, his colleagues say, S. makes sure to serve as an example in the physical sense. "He always comes in first on long runs and sprints," says one of his former soldiers. "He doesn't care about appearance or other such nonsense. Only that his soldiers feel comfortable. Sometimes he would be late to meetings and would sleep only three hours a night just to make sure that our service conditions are the best they can be. He was a father figure, one that you would want to run into. He was someone you wanted to see smile at you."

A former colleague describes S. as "a quiet man, even shy, but that is exactly the secret of his charisma. It doesn't come from shouting. His is a quiet leadership, by someone you know you can count on and know that in the moment of truth he will protect you. I have never heard him say anything condescending. Whenever he talks to you, it is always on equal terms."


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