Protests in Tahrir Square - Reuters - Feb. 4, 2011
Anti-government protesters take part in Friday prayers at Tahrir Square in Cairo February 4, 2011. Photo by Reuters
Text size

In Egypt, millions of people are fighting for their basic rights, while their leader wages a rearguard battle over how history will remember him. While the world was mesmerized by events there, in Tel Aviv a fiendish battle erupted involving very few lofty principles, despite lectures delivered on the importance of the rule of law. It is hard to say where there was more hatred: in the violent conflict in Tahrir Square - or in the eyes of Defense Minister Ehud Barak when asked what he thought of outgoing Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

Israel Defense Forces officers say morale has been gravely damaged. A week ago they complained the atmosphere among the General Staff reminded them of the tough days after the Second Lebanon War in 2006. This week they changed their tune: Now it's worse.

The image of the Arab world was built over years: dictatorial regimes, most of them secular U.S. clients; eye-popping wealth versus abject poverty; unemployed university graduates; corruption and severely limited freedom of speech. The protests in (Muslim Persian ) Iran in June 2009 were the harbinger of the events in Tunisia and now Egypt. It's beginning to look like the Springtime of the Arab Nations.

Processes that lasted 30 years in 19th-century Europe might well occur today in the Middle East within a few months, because technology is speeding things up. The Internet may be partially blocked, but the revolution is being broadcast on Al Jazeera, and when those broadcasts are halted, we will always have Twitter.

In Algeria, more demonstrators self-immolated this week, shortly after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he was replacing his government. In Yemen, the weakest state in the Arab world, President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced optimistically on Wednesday that he would be completing his tenure in 2013, after about 30 years in power. In Syria, demonstrations against Bashar Assad's regime are planned for this weekend. In an attempt to block them, Assad has announced reforms and lowered prices of basic commodities. In Jordan, King Abdullah II dismissed Samir Rifai's government and replaced it with a government headed by another close associate, Marouf al-Bakhit.

In Israel there is fear that Egypt may be Islamicized if President Hosni Mubarak's regime is toppled, but the Islamic regimes are also shaking in their boots, from Iran to the Gaza Strip. In Gaza, under a dark dictatorship of its own, Hamas secret police broke up solidarity demonstrations with the Egyptian revolt. If in Egypt 20 percent of the population is living below the poverty line, in Gaza it's 70 percent, with strict religious coercion thrown in for dessert. In the West Bank the economic situation is immeasurably better, but the Palestinian Authority is not allowing elections and continues its close security coordination with the Israeli occupation.

For many years the various Arab rulers have crudely and totally ignored their public while systematically violating human rights. Now they have to face the masses' rage, never mind the Judgment Day weapon: Facebook. It is hard to remain indifferent to the demonstrators' cry for help in Cairo, but there is no guarantee the changes will bring prosperity and democracy.

Is there a contradiction between Islam and democracy? Prof. Ephraim Yaar, head of the Tel Aviv University mediation and conflict resolution program, studied the public's attitude toward various values in the West and in Arab countries. He found that in both regions, the respondents felt democracy was the best form of government and that the regime should be popularly elected. However, the Muslim public largely rejected key democratic values such as equality between women and men, and between religious and secular people. Most of the Muslim respondents also believe only religious people should be allowed to rule. Yaar says there is not much of a chance that a democratic-liberal regime will arise in Egypt. Democracy is more than just elections.

The late Prof. Edward Said argued that the apparent contradiction between Islam and democracy is based in orientalism and the West's distorted perception of the East. In Egypt there are enough secular opposition groups to lead a major change; it is far from certain that the Muslim Brotherhood could win at the polls. The problem is that none of the secular groups have the organizational ability and public support of the Brotherhood, which was founded in 1928.

Obama's behavior

Former Military Intelligence head Maj. Gen. (res. ) Aharon Ze'evi Farkash, who is frequently invited to Washington to share his assessments, says he can't understand the Obama administration's behavior. "The Americans have an experienced and professional system that is supposed to be familiar with the Middle East. On Tuesday night Hosni Mubarak made a speech, under pressure from the masses, promising he would retire in September. And what did President Barack Obama do? A few hours later he announced that he expects it to happen now, at once, not in September. Is this confirming the kill? I can't understand it," he says.

This is the same American president, Farkash adds, who hesitated to express support for the moderates in Iran when they tried to get the green revolution going and did not know how to deal with South Korea: "What is [Obama] signaling to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the other pro-Western regimes? I feel sorry for Mubarak. He is a patriot who did quite a lot for Egypt. All he wanted was to finish with dignity and even this Obama is not allowing him to do so."

Obama's statement early Wednesday morning (Israel time ) raised suspicions that Washington had some advance knowledge of the Egyptian opposition's plans. Obama is taking a considerable gamble here. Despite his declarations, for the past two days Mubarak apparently has been trying to fight back. The democratic carnival of demonstrators embracing soldiers has been replaced by mass melees, and yesterday morning there were shootings and many casualties.

At the same time, there is increasing evidence of involvement by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose bearded members are now prominent among the demonstrators. The coming days in the square might well also affect what happens in neighboring countries.

Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv

Less than 12 hours before Obama pulled the rug out from under Mubarak, chief of staff-designate Yoav Galant got the same treatment from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After a marathon of discussions with Galant, Barak and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, Netanyahu came to the obvious conclusion: If the attorney general refuses to defend Galant before the High Court of Justice, then there is no alternative but to revoke the appointment.

Netanyahu has emerged as the weakest link in the chain. Galant was determined not to let go of the chief of staff post. Barak believes with all his heart that there is a putsch against him, and that Galant is only a secondary victim. And in recent months the prime minister was swept along behind them.

The prime minister, who knows he has been criticized for dragging his feet, stressed the extent to which he has "decided" the affair. This has happened, if belatedly (anyone who read the comptroller's report on January 27 should have known how the affair would end ), and only after a deal was struck with the defense minister. Barak surrendered to Netanyahu's pressure on Tuesday evening in return for a promise that Ashkenazi would leave as planned on February 14, and that Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh would be appointed acting chief of staff for two months.

"Those two are no longer able to work together," the prime minister told his people, adding, of course: "I had to give a verdict."

Barak began publicly campaigning for Galant back on August 4, six months before Ashkenazi's term was scheduled to end. The greens' petition to the High Court of Justice against the appointment was delayed by the prosecutors' strike. Netanyahu and Barak arrived at the last, crucial, predictable juncture this week without an alternative plan. The haste and improvisation that characterized the proceedings all along was also reflected in the request that deputy chief of staff-designate Yair Naveh become acting chief of staff.

All this notwithstanding, on Wednesday Barak still sounded impervious to the criticism. In television interviews he explained that "the Naveh fellow" is fit to fill the position, and that in fact Naveh filled in for Ashkenazi on 12 of the past 75 days, while the outgoing chief of staff was on farewell visits abroad.

However, Naveh's appointment also met resistance. Part of it is due to the huge anger at Barak, and the other part has to do with the substance - reservations that the job of "acting chief of staff" is not anchored in law. The opposition to this appointment is led by two members of the inner septet, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor. This week Ya'alon publicly accused Barak of putting the IDF into a mad spin and called upon him to "face judgment." On Wednesday night the two succeeded in postponing cabinet discussion of Naveh's appointment until Sunday.

In the meantime, Barak has accused Ashkenazi of "ethical and professional deviations." Ashkenazi has maintained silence. His friends have told him that if he doesn't respond, the public may then interpret this as confirming the accusations. The defense minister's innuendoes relate to the comptroller's report on the Harpaz document, which will be distributed later this month to the relevant bureaus. Barak is convinced the comptroller will adopt the putsch theory and name Ashkenazi as the main guilty party.

On February 13, a formal farewell event for Ashkenazi is planned at the General Staff, which could become a show of defiance against the defense minister. The following day the chief of staff will end his tour of duty, in an exceptional ceremony, at which a permanent replacement for him will not be present. The moment Ashkenazi leaves General Staff headquarters in the Kirya in Tel Aviv, Barak is planning a "commander's parade" for the generals. There, in the General Staff forum, he intends to set forth his claims against Ashkenazi in detail.

The longest day

The final act in this drama was played out Tuesday in the media. Though Yoav Galant did garner public support, it did not bring him closer to becoming chief of staff.

He came to the interview on Channel 2 after a meeting with Netanyahu and Barak, who told him Weinstein objected to his appointment but did not show him the door. Toward the end of the interview, he received a phone call informing him the appointment had actually been overturned, and the end of the interview was recorded afterward. This happened a bit before 8 P.M., but the full interview was broadcast only at 9, when viewers already knew the appointment had been revoked.

In the broadcast Galant, through no fault of his own, came across as the last person to be told what is happening behind his back. The emphatic questions from Gadi Sukenik, his friend from the navy commando unit, did not save him either. Over the past years his rivals accused him of conducting a campaign with the help of public relations people. At the moment of truth, either Galant did not have any press advisors or he didn't listen to them. He would have been better off not giving interviews, or at least shelving the recorded portion, moving to the live broadcast and taking off the kid gloves completely, the way Barak did against Ashkenazi the following day.

Galant's aspirations were destroyed in three stages: the comptroller's report, the attorney general's opinion and the prime minister's decision. But he lost the public battle before then. The high threshold Ashkenazi set in two relatively minor affairs, the vehicle accidents of Brig. Gens. Chico Tamir and Imad Fares, set expectations. The aerial photograph of Villa Galant on Haaretz's front page firmly implanted this negative image. From that point there was no way back.

Galant, who was rightfully exonerated in the affair of the Harpaz document, which turned out to have been forged, fell because of what he probably considers a trivial matter in comparison, the minute details of the acreage in Amikam. Had he known that the house and the olive grove would have halted his plans at the last minute, would he have acted differently?

Over the past decade Galant was present at important junctures and he accumulated information and insights regarding the behavior of generals and politicians. Soon it will become clear whether other candidates also have dangerous skeletons in their closets.

Last week The New Yorker published a profile of Republican Congressman Darrel Issa of California. The reporter bombarded Issa with innumerable questions concerning forgotten incidents from his past: a business that mysteriously went up in flames, a car that disappeared, an unnecessary quarrel. Issa fended them all off and finally sighed: "Everyone has a past."

A used chief of staff

The Amikam affair will bring the usual suspects back into the running: Maj. Gen. Benny Ganz and Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, Maj. Gen. (res. ) Moshe Kaplinski and Maj. Gen. (res. ) Shlomo Yanai. Barak will no doubt take an interest in their opinions on the question of the Iranian bomb.

In the meantime the all-out war at the top will continue: Barak versus Ashkenazi versus Galant. Even Ashkenazi, our most popular chief of staff in several decades, is leaving frustrated and angry. This happens to most of them. The last chief of staff who finished his tour of duty with a smile was Shaul Mofaz in 2002.

While Barak is going backward and looking for a clean general in civvies, a responsible adult in good condition, the General Staff wags have suggested taking a look westward. There, as it happens, an experienced, if somewhat elderly, general is becoming available. It might even be possible to overcome the fact that Hosni Mubarak happens to be an Arab. On second thought, on the minus side, he was commander of the Egyptian air force. After Dan Halutz and the second Lebanon War, the president probably won't make the cut.