Pilot at the controls
Whether it takes place as planned, is cancelled or torpedoed, the disengagement must not be seen as the be-all and end-all for the new chief of staff
"A single authority, a united army, common weapons." Who coined this slogan, long before Mahmoud Abbas? David Ben-Gurion himself, in June 1948, in an argument over the clash between the Israel Defense Forces and the Etzel (National Military Organization), with the impending breakup of the Palmach hovering in the background.
Dan Halutz, born in those eventful days, found himself compelled to reemphasize on Wednesday, during his first few minutes as army chief of staff, that there is only one chain of military command, and it answers to the government. Halutz can look forward to the most difficult period of domestic discord since those early, formative weeks and months in Israel's history.
Ten short weeks away from the opening whistle of the withdrawal of settlements from Gaza, there may not be any signs of wholesale desertion by entire companies, with their weapons, and the turning of those weapons against the military command and the government, but the absence of any such signs may only indicate a malfunction of the seismograph - not the impossibility of an imminent earthquake.
If Halutz were about 40 years younger, he might have camouflaged himself in infantry fatigues and "gone native," a la Haroun al-Rashid of the Abbasid dynasty, among the regular army soldiers in the IDF's infantry units and training bases, where he could gauge the mood from up close. But a lieutenant general talks with generals, who listen to lieutenant colonels. The "strategic corporal," a concept the IDF borrowed from the Marines, to drive home to the squad leader just how easily one reckless squeeze of his trigger could end up putting the White House on alert, speaks differently with his buddies than when directly responding to questions from his officers.
It's nice that the new chief of staff quickly convened the General Staff for a first conversation, after which he will explain his doctrine to the hundreds of colonels and brigadier generals from all branches; after this he will do the same before the press and the public. But in order to obtain a truly realistic picture, he ought to meet with the trainees in the noncommissioned officers' courses and with the cadets in officer training school, without the intimidating presence of their own superior officers. If the latter are present, they might discover what many of these soldiers are intending not to do when the order to withdraw is given.
Earlier this week, while his predecessor Moshe Ya'alon was still bidding the IDF farewell - flying, parachuting and sailing, as if he were in some Olympic pentathlon - hundreds of cadets filled the rooms of a youth hostel in Jerusalem's Bayit Vegan neighborhood, across the street from the Netiv Meir yeshiva. The cadets, who are to have the honor of spending this August in the first circle of the withdrawal, were there for an education seminar. They did indeed receive a heavy dose of "education," from uninvited guests who arrived at the hostel and made themselves at home lobbying the cadets - in conversations and through printed literature - to oppose the Gaza disengagement. It took two hours (according to one spectator; "a lot less," according to the instructors) for the commanders to shake off their apathy and eject the guests. This same IDF, incapable of blocking access to its future officers by the settlers' propaganda, will be able to prevail over their opposition in the field, in real time? If you believe that one, you'll believe anything.
However, whether it takes place as planned, is cancelled in advance, or torpedoed while under way, the disengagement operation must not be seen as the be-all and end-all for the new chief of staff. No chief of staff, from Yitzhak Rabin on down, foresaw when he first took command what would happen at the end of his tenure. Those who believed there would be no war found war; others who prepared for it were surprised when it never came. Since Rabin, except for David Elazar, there hasn't been a chief of staff who ended his term with the same senior political leaders - prime minister and defense minister - with whom he began. Halutz is beginning with Ariel Sharon and Shaul Mofaz and the withdrawal. Sharon promised he would still be around to speak at Halutz's sendoff in another three years, but it might be a matter of months before Halutz finds himself facing a new lineup and a different challenge. All eyes are on the western Negev.
The conventional wisdom of relating to Halutz's aviation background misses the mark. In a modern army, where one comes from is unimportant. What is important is the result, the effect you are trying to achieve. The old demarcation between ground forces and naval ones was conceived in island nations with navies; an aircraft carrier is naval and air power rolled into one. The vocation, if not avocation, of pilot is a dying profession. He is a flying coachman. Fighter pilots in the Israel Air Force are counting their years, saying it was a great privilege to have lived in the only century of manned aviation - since 1903 - because before long, all aircraft will be unmanned.
Operation of the aircraft from without will have greater results than from within, and will extend the advantage enjoyed by airborne weapons and weapons platforms over the limited range of the enemy's weapons and over ground-based arms that require soldiers in the field. The more distant and more unmanned the weaponry, the greater its ability to hit targets and the less vulnerable it is. This depends, of course, on intelligence data, target identification, communications, and command and control.
"We have a glorious defense industry and we have to maintain it at all costs," Halutz said last year, as deputy chief of staff. At the time, he stated that he would support the civilianization of heavy tank transportation and take production of the Merkava out of the army's hands: "The IDF does not have to be a tank manufacturer; it only uses them, in the same way that it only uses planes and does not manufacture them."
Air Force Brigadier General (res.) Uzi Rosen, a former Defense Ministry official in charge of special weapons, is now a vice president at Israel Aircraft Industries. He thinks almost exactly like Halutz: The organization must be adapted to the mission, not the opposite. It isn't about what some factory (or Southern Command or navy) is going to do; it is about how an economic or military mission is going to be executed, and how to achieve the objective.
As opposed to his predecessors from the Paratroops, Halutz is not committed to organizational structures that were fine once upon a time and now remain as monuments in the middle of the town square, disturbing the traffic. He will try to cut away at mid-level military management, especially the staff officers: In his opinion, the post of deputy division head (at colonel's rank) is unneeded, and is slated for elimination.
"Considering the amount of manpower in Israel, the IDF is too big," he has said. "We have a compulsory draft law, to draft everyone. Do we need everyone? That's a question mark, but the exclamation mark has to be given by someone else, not the army." Moreover: The core of the whole military is "brainpower, software, engineering, wits," and the most cherished and most wasted resource - the attention of commanders and management time.
As chief of staff, Mofaz interfered with the preparation of an intelligent defense budget: On the eve of the American war in Iraq, he insisted on additional funding of hundreds of millions of shekels to prepare for war with Syria, even as generals in his General Staff begged him to understand that there was a reverse correlation between the two developments. Halutz will know how to negotiate with the budget division of the Finance Ministry and will not give in until the Histadrut agrees to transfer activities from the army to the civilian economy - meaning the dismissal of civilian employees of the IDF.
Halutz is a persistent and patient fighter, well equipped for protracted battles. Life is long - as the oldest chief of staff ever, no one knows this better than he - and wars do not end with a single thrust and parry. This explains his predilection to cancel operations liable to end in costly mistakes that might harm support for Israel, in favor of waiting for more suitable opportunities. But when it comes to the domestic free-for-all that Israel now faces, Dan Halutz will not have the luxury of waiting for a different opportunity.