The chairman of the Knesset State Control Committee, Roni Bar-On, will open a discussion this morning on a problem that refuses to go away: how to appoint the IDF top brass. On hand will be the defense minister, the IDF chief of staff and the prime minister's military secretary, Yohanan Locker, whose promotion to major general the state comptroller opposed as too high a rank for that position. Locker has said he won't be able to attend because he has to be with the prime minister. Bar-On, one of the very few members of the fighting opposition to Netanyahu and his government, will be relentless.
The state comptroller's report 18 months ago painted a dark picture of the deal-making and bargaining surrounding generals' appointments. This, with the exception of a handful of appointees, is the exclusive domain of the chief of staff and the defense minister. Most of the time the sole question is whether the two will clash before reaching a compromise, or forge a major deal that divides the spoils between them. To understand the issue's importance, we have to go back 40 years to the start of Chief of Staff David Elazar's tenure.
One issue back then was the appointment of the GOC Southern Command to succeed Ariel Sharon, who was due to step down in early 1974. Elazar thought the natural candidate for the job was his assistant at the General Staff, Brig. Gen. Herzl Shafir. In preparation for receiving that job, Elazar promoted Shafir to his first posting as a major general: the head of the manpower department. Meanwhile, Elazar had planned for Brig. Gen. Shmuel "Gorodish" Gonen, commander of Northern Division 36, to become GOC Northern Command, and appointed him to his first posting as a major general: head of training.
Shafir was our most experienced officer in mobile warfare in the Sinai; he had served as chief of operations in Haim Laskov's division during the Sinai Campaign in 1956, and deputy divisional commander under Israel Tal during the Six-Day War. As deputy chief of operations, someone who coordinated the staff work for building the Bar Lev Line and visited the area often, Shafir expressed his reservations about what he considered the dereliction of defense planning. Shafir once said Sharon had 10 plans for an attack if the Egyptians resumed fighting, but not a single plan for defense. Shafir was planning to change Israel's preparedness for war on the Sinai front once he took over Southern Command.
But in the summer of 1973, when Sharon suddenly retired early to run for the Knesset, everyone believed that the notion of war in the south was far-fetched. Elazar asked Shafir, an excellent organizer, to stay in his post and manage the shortening of the conscription period, which had been extended to three years following the Six-Day War. The move toward shortening army service was to serve Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and his party, headed by Golda Meir, in the elections, making it more appealing to young people while still deterring Arab aggression. The plan for appointing generals was changed, and Gorodish, who fought in the Sinai during the Six-Day War as commander of Brigade 7 but was not well-versed in the lay of the land, was made GOC Southern Command. The cost of this was paid by Israel on October 6.
The appointment of generals cannot remain the private affair of the defense minister and the chief of staff. Defense Minister Ehud Barak in particular delays appointments based on considerations that are difficult to comprehend. For example, when Gabi Ashkenazi was chief of staff, Barak refused for more than a year to approve the appointment of the coordinator of government activities in the territories, hoping that Ashkenazi would give in and agree to the promotion to major general two - not just one - brigadier generals in Barak's office.
To appoint the CEO of Israel Aerospace Industries, the defense minister needs the support of the finance minister and the approval of the workers' chief at the company, MK Haim Katz. The president of the Military Court of Appeals is elected by a committee in which legal experts, not the defense minister and chief of staff, hold a majority, but the commander of the various military branches and the GOCs are appointed in a secret process that lacks transparency and oversight.
This situation begs to be changed despite the warning against politicizing the army - as if the defense minister weren't a politician. The considerations and arguments made in appointing the top brass, the group of major generals from which the next chief of staff will emerge, must be brought before the Ministerial Committee on Defense, the Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs and Defense, the state comptroller and the public. And we shouldn't put blind and nonchalant faith in prime ministers and defense officials.
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