Syria's Assad - Reuters - August 1, 2010.
Syria's President Bashar Assad with Syrian Defense Minister General Ali Habib and Chief of Staff General Daoud Rajha, August 1, 2010. Photo by Reuters
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While the Israeli public is focused on the tent protests, the Israel Defense Forces is worriedly keeping track of the growing tension between the military transition government in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, counting the number of casualties in Syrian President Bashar Assad's ongoing massacre of his people, and preparing for the possibility of mass Palestinian demonstrations in September.

From the Israeli point of view, Sinai is now a no-man's-land that has been thrown into total anarchy, and the authorities in Cairo don't dare to confront the three main Bedouin tribes there. The IDF and the Shin Bet security services no longer talk in terms weapons being smuggled from Sinai to the Gaza Strip, but rather about orderly arms shipments. Hamas has begun to operate assembly lines for weapons in the heart of Sinai, figuring that they will be more secure there than in the Strip, because Israel will be afraid to bomb Egyptian territory.

After 30 years, during which Israel barely deployed units on the southern border and left operative plans related to it on the shelf, there is a need to address them again. One of the ideas likely to be considered is the establishment of a new military headquarters for that front.

In Syria, all signs point to a collapse of Assad's regime, which this week parted from its defense minister. Israeli Military Intelligence is saying that in spite of the excellent reconnaissance in the Syrian arena, it is unable to predict the precise date of the collapse, but developments are leading in only one direction. The recall of Arab ambassadors from Damascus, like Turkey's tough policy toward its southern neighbor, indicate that Assad is continuing his downhill slide. The fact that Egypt and Syria are preoccupied with their own problems ostensibly reduces the immediate security risk to Israel, but the instability increases uncertainty in the area, and is also liable to affect the situation in Lebanon.

In the line of fire

Although the Palestinian Authority has informed Israel that it intends to control the demonstrations likely to accompany a declaration of statehood at the United Nations in late September, the army is aware that nonviolent processions could quickly deteriorate into clashes at checkpoints and around the fences of the settlements. Nobody can predict how such a crisis will end.

The tent protest necessitates changes in the government's order of financial priorities, and the defense budget, more than ever before, is in the line of fire this time. One simple solution to the problem (sending the ultra-Orthodox to work ) is politically unfeasible. A second possible solution (less money for the settlements ) will not pass muster with the ideological right. It's no wonder that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who only two months ago spoke publicly about increasing the defense budget because of the upheavals in the Arab world, is now interested in freezing it.

In the past, the IDF knew how to bypass planned cutbacks with indirect arrangements. If even Shaul Mofaz, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a man at the very heart of the defense consensus, put a stop to such a maneuver this week - apparently that era is over. The series of budget cuts presented this week by the Defense Ministry included a number of old solutions, most of which have been floating in the pipeline for almost a decade. "It's clear to all of us that we're going to get clobbered," says a member of the General Staff.

In the background, there may be a decline in motivation to serve on the part of reservists, if the tent protest ends in nothing. This danger will become more acute if the reservists suspect that Netanyahu is deliberately igniting a clash with the Palestinians next month. But the prime minister, as opposed to his foreign minister, who is enthusiastically playing with fire, remains cautious when it comes to exercising military power. It is doubtful whether Netanyahu will choose to initiate a deliberate flare-up when he doesn't know how it will end.

A medal of honor

The kidnapping of reservists Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in July 2006 not only caused Israel to become mired in a highly unsuccessful war with Hezbollah; it also eliminated the most recent attempt to introduce significant structural reform in the ranks of the IDF. Dan Halutz, chief of staff during the Second Lebanon War, was forced to resign a few months after it ended. His departure brought the revolutionary changes he had planned to an end. Whatever he managed to do during his year and a half as chief of staff was rescinded for the most part by his successor, Gabi Ashkenazi.

Ashkenazi received the equivalent of a medal of honor from the public for rehabilitating the army after the trauma of Lebanon, but the momentum of improving fitness and preparedness also served to justify huge expenditures, and further weakened the external supervision over the army. In effect, the political leadership stopped demanding that the IDF become more efficient, in spite of the fact that this subject was extensively discussed in the Brodet Commission report on the defense budget, published about a year after the war. The plan for shortening compulsory army service has also been placed in deep freeze.

The tent protest erupted on the eve of the presentation of the IDF's ambitious multi-year plan for cabinet approval. The army was counting on the additional funds promised by Netanyahu, and drew up a five-year plan containing a great deal of everything: reinforcement of attack components and ground maneuvers, massive acquisition of missile-interception systems, and a large allocation of resources to intelligence and cyber warfare. Now, when Netanyahu wants to freeze the addition (without cutting defense, for now ), Defense Minister Ehud Barak is suggesting a temporary solution: "a situation assessment" for a year, and renewed discussion about the multi-year plan in the summer of 2012. The investment in critical areas, such as training and interception systems, will continue as planned. The chief of staff will apparently accept the plan, for lack of choice.

Lost generation

Thanks to the attention demanded by the social protest, Benny Gantz's first round of appointments as chief of staff, a week ago, passed almost unnoticed. The focus was on the controversial appointment of Rear Adm. (soon to be major general ) Ram Rothberg as commander of the Israel Navy. Rothberg led the navy commandos in a series of successful operations, most famous of which was the capture of the Karine A weapons ship. But when an Iranian missile hit the INS Hanit, a missile boat, on the third day of the war in Lebanon, Rothberg was serving as the chief of naval intelligence. An investigation of the incident indicated that he did not heed the warning of one of the branch heads at headquarters, several hours before the attack, to the effect that the navy needed to take into account the possibility that Iran had sent surface-to-sea missiles to Hezbollah. Rothberg was reprimanded, but his promotion was not delayed. The navy's main mistake in the affair was operational - in the way the missile boats were operating opposite the coast of Beirut as though they were in no danger.

Rothberg is an impressive officer, who has often been critical of the corps in recent years, a fact that probably contributed to the strong opposition of the outgoing commander, Adm. Eliezer Marom, to his appointment. His promotion will probably herald changes, perhaps even in his "home" unit, the elite Shayetet 13, which is still experiencing a certain leadership crisis as a result of last year's Mavi Marmara flotilla affair. He brings with him proven leadership ability and extensive operational experience - two things that the present General Staff does not have in abundance.

With the exception of an outstanding group in the top echelons - which includes, among others, Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Naveh; his designated replacement, Gadi Eisenkot; the GOC Northern Command, Yair Golan; and the head of Military Intelligence Aviv Kokhavi - Gantz is now heading a General Staff with relatively little combat experience. Only one major general remains in the IDF who participated in the Yom Kippur War, but the main point here is that, when it comes to the principal type of warfare encountered by the IDF after 1973 - anti-terror activity and operations that do not reach the level of all-out war - only some of today's generals have participated directly when above the rank of company commander.

On the way the IDF has lost the intermediate generation, a group of brigade and division commanders in the infantry and the special units, most of whom should have been sitting around the General Staff table today. In the coming rounds of appointment, within a few months, Gantz may consider skipping ahead to bring in a younger generation, and even bringing back one or two of the exiled major generals.

Gantz's General Staff is meanwhile conducting itself in a positive, professional atmosphere. His choice of a "truth-speaking spokesmanship" administration is worthy of admiration (there's always a first time ), as is his refraining from manipulative behavior. But the combination of the current security calm, this summer's social agenda and the high profile the chief of staff has is creating difficulties of another kind for him.

A sampling from the press: The past months include photographs of the chief of staff buying his wife a gift at the Azrieli Mall, on vacation with the family in the Galilee and Eilat, giving a flower to a Holocaust survivor, and "wiping away a tear" at a meeting with students at a boarding school where he studied as a teenager. In none of these cases did the army initiate the publicity. It is difficult to hide a chief of staff who is over 1.90 meters tall. Sometimes the publication of the photos is a way for public relations people to exploit Gantz's presence in public places. In any event, apparently a chief of staff not only has to instill confidence in the soldiers' parents (and Gantz does that well ), but to scare the neighbors a little as well.

Two days ago the daily Maariv reported that Gantz is planning an evening of bonding for generals and their wives, including a contest based on the reality TV cooking program "Master Chef." The General Staff claims that this has yet to be decided - and yet we apparently have to hope that while the generals are brandishing kitchen knives at each other, nobody will start a real war in the area.