Quietly and gradually, a military coup has been taking place in the general staff over recent weeks. Deputy Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi is fortifying his position as the army's administrator and the practically impassible candidate as next chief of staff. Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon has barely finished the first half of his first year, out of the three or four years he will serve, but has already suffered two major blows - the denial of the budget he demanded and the return of his predecessor, Shaul Mofaz, to the defense establishment, as minister. Together, those two events halted the momentum Ya'alon had begun to develop. With Ya'alon's support, and as would be expected from the deputy CoS, Ashkenazi is now at work dusting off the framework and cleaning off the rust.
Ya'alon's decision to name Dan Harel as Southern Command commander means competition for the next CoS, which requires participants to have at least one regional command under their belt, will include at least one regional commander (Harel, an artillery man, doesn't have a chance) and the current head of planning and former operations chief Giora Eiland. Commander of the ground forces, Yiftah Ron-Tal is waiting for his turn at the Central Command in 2004, and therefore, won't be in the running.
All three regional current commanders - Moshe Kaplinski in Central, Benny Gantz in the North and Harel - were corps commanders under Ashkenazi when he was commander of the Northern Command and will have to compete for the heir to Ya'alon's heir. Ashkenazi will be further strengthened if the two outgoing generals of the Central and Southern Commands, Yitzhak Eitan and Doron Almog respectively, separately reach the wise conclusion that they don't have much of a chance during the second half of Ya'alon's term to be named deputy chief of staff and to run for CoS against Ashkenazi from within the CoS office. That conclusion will be dictated largely by the formation of the next government: Mofaz and Almog get along well, while there's no love lost between Mofaz and Eitan.
Whether it's a matter of worldview or private whim, there is a close correlation between the Knesset elections and the appointment of public servants, whether in uniform or not. In the summer of 1996, after Benjamin Netanyahu's victory over Shimon Peres and on the eve of handing over the defense portfolio to Yitzhak Mordechai, then-CoS Amnon Lipkin-Shahak hurried to establish facts and got Peres to sign on to grant Ashkenazi - whom Mordechai loathed - the rank of major general.
The Dov Tamari affair also is not forgotten when the 1981 decision to promote him to major general was canceled by the incoming defense minister, Ariel Sharon.
The identity of the next defense minister is important if the economic policy is determined primarily by Prime Minster Ariel Sharon, particularly so if the CoS regards the defense minister as authoritative. The defense minister's possible input is enormous - from limiting the assassinations policies, through the evacuation of settlements, all the way to the circumstances, method and intensity of military activity in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
The defense portfolio in Mofaz's hands would be different than the portfolio in the hands of Amram Mitzna, with Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Malka at his side as director-general of the ministry, or, if Mitzna sticks to his refusal to join a national unity government, in the hands of Matan Vilnai or Ephraim Sneh.
The army is attentive to its master and formulates its proposed alternatives for action when it's Sharon is not only above it. The Labor Party will have a terrific bargaining chip opposite Sharon because without it, Sharon can't put together a government that will be acceptable to U.S. President George W. Bush. Labor has the power to demand truly fateful portfolios - such as the defense, finance and justice ministries - rather than the personal whims of candidates like the Foreign Ministry to Shimon Peres or the Agriculture Ministry to Shalom Simhon.
In the balance hangs investigations into corruption within the Likud and the Sharon family, promoting judges to the Supreme Court, and the appointments of the attorney general and the state attorney. Next in line, if justice goes to Shinui, will be the Public Security Ministry with its influence over police investigations. In the outgoing government, both those portfolios were held by the Likud.
Mitzna's vow against any help to the moderate wing of Sharon's next government, no matter what, is driving away those voters who believe that the small assets of appointments - and perhaps withdrawal - are worth more than grand promises for change.
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