Whenever a chief of staff is appointed, the media bubbles over with advice, and more so when the appointment comes on the heels of a crisis or a military fiasco. Basically, Gabi Ashkenazi is where Motta Gur was in his day. Both got the job after the army messed up. After the Yom Kippur War, the Agranat Commission sent the chief of staff packing. After the war in Lebanon, the chief of staff didn't wait for the findings to come in. He showed responsibility and put down the keys on the table.
The conclusions of the Winograd panel are not yet known, but we can only hope that Ashkenazi will study the report carefully and implement its recommendations. It will be up to him, as the new chief of staff, to fix what went wrong and insure that what happened in Lebanon doesn't happen again.
But Ashkenazi's real challenge is sitting in the White House, and his name is George Bush. From the way things look, and the way the president and those around him are talking, Bush might very well attack Iran before the end of his term. It is no coincidence that another aircraft carrier has reached the Gulf, and another is on the way.
Vice President Dick Cheney told Newsweek magazine that many countries in the region are feeling threatened. We are "working to resolve these issues diplomatically, through the United Nations," he said, "but we've also made it clear that we haven't taken any options off the table." If that isn't a hint that the military option still exists, I don't know what is.
The custom is that two years before the end of their second term, American presidents rein in their activity and become "lame ducks." In other words, they avoid doing anything that might endanger the reelection chances of their party and its candidate. Naturally cautious presidents will follow these rules.
In practice, however, until the parties hold their conventions and choose their candidates for president in the second half of 2008, Bush is free to act. Those who know the score in Washington say that in Bush's current political situation, faced with a contentious Congress, he doesn't actually need approval. This lame duck can get ready for takeoff, fly and even go on a bombing spree.
Bush will see his presidency as a failure if he doesn't put an end to the Iranian nuclear threat. According to Dan Halperin, who knows a thing or two about Washington's political games, if Bush were asked what kind of legacy he would rather leave behind - a balanced federal budget or the destruction of Iran's nuclear facilities - he would choose knocking out the nukes. He is also the only one capable of doing it.
Bush is not bothered by his poll ratings, which are nearing rock bottom. He sees himself as a messenger of God, as the guardian of the free world. Fired by deep religious faith, he believes it is his duty to save humanity from a crazy leader who is threatening the entire region, and not just Israel.
Bush is a stubborn and determined man, and he believes in his mission. The Gulf states, and every country in this neck of the woods, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, are seeking his protection, but to Bush, Israel is the fulfillment of a prophecy, and Ahmadinejad's Iran is a threat to the Holy Bible and the New Testament.
Bush accuses Iran of directly aiding and abetting the killing of Americans in Iraq. "I haven't found one person in Washington who will swear the president won't attack Iran," says Zvi Rafiah, an expert in U.S. affairs. "His rhetoric reminds many people of the days before the invasion of Iraq."
The Jewish lobby is not very happy about the idea of Bush's shifting gears from talk to action, for fear that an attack on Iran could endanger Israel. But from Israel's perspective, the idea of America taking on Iran at this early stage is preferable to Israel's being saddled with the job later.
It is critically important for Israel to avoid any kind of overt involvement in a U.S. offensive. At the same time, Israel must defend itself, whether that means preparing the home front for bigger missil es, or sitting with the Americans and quietly coordinating the building of a sophisticated defense system that can intercept Iranian missiles on their way to Israel.
Paradoxically, of all the many challenges that await Lieutenant General Ashkenazi, it is Israel's greatest friend - George W. Bush - who will present the greatest challenge of them all.
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