This week I reread the defense minister and the chief of staff's testimony to the Turkel Committee, which is examining the Israeli operation to intercept the Gaza flotilla. I was impressed by what they described as the harmonious cooperation in preparing for the May 31 operation. It all sounds professional and businesslike: They held discussions, exchanged letters, agreed on the general policy and an operational plan. Defense Minister Ehud Barak praised the "excellent chief of staff" and Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi backed up Barak's account. There are no hints of friction or disagreement.
Now we know that while the political echelon and the Israel Defense Forces were preparing for the flotilla, the so-called Galant document was burning a hole in the chief of staff's pocket. Ashkenazi received the document in April, around the same time the first reports came in that a flotilla to Gaza was being organized in Turkey. Ashkenazi and his associates consider the appointment of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant as the next chief of staff to be a clear and present danger to the country, and this document seemed to offer incontrovertible proof that Barak was conducting a campaign of intrigue to do just that.
While meeting with Barak about the flotilla, Ashkenazi asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for help in thwarting Barak's plan to announce the identity of the next chief of staff very soon. The appointment was postponed by a few critical weeks. At the moment of truth, when Barak indicated he was about to conduct a round of interviews with candidates, the document was leaked to Channel 2.
Barak's version of the infighting at the top has not yet been made public. He returned from his political exile to the Defense Ministry in 2007 on the assumption that it would be a springboard for a second shot at the premiership, as had been the case with Yitzhak Rabin. But he has been largely disappointed in his three years on the job. Others took the glory for his successes: Ashkenazi got the credit for "rehabilitating the army"; Ehud Olmert for bombing the Syrian reactor and for Operation Cast Lead; Mossad chief Meir Dagan for the daring assassinations abroad; and Netanyahu for the preparations to attack Iran. Only the failures, such as the flotilla affair and the chief of staff intrigues, and recurring stories about hedonism and profligacy, clung to the defense minister. His authority was ground into dust by the prime minister from above and Ashkenazi from below.
The chief of staff appointment gave Barak a unique opportunity to influence the face of the senior command. This decision would be remembered as his. Perhaps because of this, he displayed such eagerness to move the decision forward, before the political circumstances changed. When the chief of staff objected to having a successor anointed well before his term was over, Barak's associates said Ashkenazi was hungry for honor and striving for a fifth year, or, alternatively, was looking to ensure that his own protege, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, would be his successor.
The flotilla episode forced Barak and Ashkenazi to work together. The operation's failure - nine Turkish citizens were killed, bringing Israel severe international condemnation - had the potential to further fuel the flames of acrimony between the men. Surprisingly, despite the personal quarrel, their testimonies to the Turkel Committee suggest the same conclusion: The operation went wrong because of the military's mistakes in planning and execution. But the chief of staff did not claim that the political echelon forced an impossible mission on him and the minister did not accuse the army of floating promises and illusions.
That agreement is astonishing given that immediately after giving testimony to the Turkel Committee, Ashkenazi went to testify to the police and to give investigators the document that had pierced his soul the whole time he was worrying about the flotilla. Ashkenazi displayed extraordinary self-control and sangfroid - and then we realize what's missing from the Turkel Committee testimony. Everything looks so smooth and proper, but one thing was not mentioned: a personal consultation, a chance discussion in the hallway, even a phone call between the defense minister and the chief of staff. Barak and Ashkenazi worked by the book but avoided personal dialogue.
Now Turkel will have to call them back and clarify whether the personal rift influenced the working processes and the decision-making in the flotilla episode, and also what the prime minister knew. It is impossible to understand fully what went wrong on the operational side without factoring in the personal relations between those in charge.
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