Ehud Barak AP 9.2010
Ehud Barak meeting Labor Party members in Tel Aviv. Photo by AP
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Clause 59 in the coalition agreement signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in March 2009 declares that "when appointing senior defense officials such as the head of the Mossad intelligence agency and the Shin Bet security service, the prime minister will with consult the defense minister." In retrospect, in the eyes of Barak's opponents, this is early proof of the Labor leader's big plans to conduct peace and defense policy as he sees fit, while placing his own people in top security positions.

But it appears that the origin of Barak's broad influence lies in Netanyahu's mistakes rather than in the plotting of the defense minister. These began with the complicated coalition the prime minister put together. A source close to Netanyahu was asked recently whether he thought Netanyahu had crossed a personal Rubicon when he gave the speech he did about a two-state solution at Bar-Ilan University in June 2009. After some hesitation, the source responded, yes. But he immediately added a reservation: "On the other hand, if that was the case, I don't know why Bibi built this coalition."

The idea of appointing Yoav Galant as the next army chief of staff originated and was led by Barak with the prime minister's silent assent. Recently, in a rare moment of accord between Barak, Galant and the current chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, it was agreed to appoint Aviv Kochavi as the head of the army's intelligence branch. Barak and Galant, who will turn over his current position as head of the Southern Command to Maj. Gen. Tal Russo in about two weeks, have yet to agree on a deputy chief of staff and, perhaps, a new air force commander. Later, Netanyahu is expected to decide, in consultation with Barak, on the respective successors to Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who will complete his term of office at the end of this year, and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, who is to retire in May 2011.

The army appointments are likely to affect the appointments to the Shin Bet and Mossad, much to the dissatisfaction of the heads of those organizations. The appointments are even more crucial in the context of Israel's response to the growing threat posed by Iran's nuclear program, which is expected to be a central consideration when choosing among the various candidates.

Steps taken by the international community, even the harsh sanctions against Iran instituted at the beginning of this past summer, do not seem to have diverted the regime in Teheran from its nuclear goals. The United States has been giving Israel clear messages, up to the present time as well, that it will not be allowed to attack Iran on its own. If estimates of Iranian nuclear advances are to be believed, an Israeli decision will be made sometime in the coming year. Both Netanyahu (who in the past likened the Iranian nuclear threat to that of a second Holocaust ) and Barak see Iran as a profound strategic threat. Ashkenazi and Dagan, who are to leave their positions in the coming months, are considered more moderate on this question.

Naveh as deputy chief?

The first link in the chain of new security-related appointments will take place in the army. After generals Gadi Eizenkot and Avi Mizrahi refused the position, the current leading candidate to become IDF deputy chief of staff is Maj. Gen. (ret. ) Yair Naveh. Naveh, who commanded two sectors (the home front and the central command ), retired three years ago. It is reasonable to assume that he would agree in order to have a real chance at moving up to chief of staff after Galant's tenure, which begins this coming February, and will be limited by a government decision to three years.

Although he is himself religiously observant, Naveh was responsible for the violent removal of settlers from the outpost of Amona in 2006, which has made him a target for settlers, including weekly demonstrations in front of his home. Another candidate mentioned for the deputy job is air force commander Maj. Gen. Ido Nechushtan. In his case, the question is whether he would want the position at all. For pilots, the position of air force commander is more meaningful than that of deputy chief of staff, especially after Dan Halutz's short term of office blocked the path from cockpit to chief of staff, at least for the coming decades.

The appointment processes in both the Mossad and the Shin Bet is mainly characterized by the opposition of the current chiefs to successors from the outside. In a lecture last month, Shabtai Shavit, a former Mossad head, sharply criticized the possibility that an army general, a loser in the race for chief of staff, would be appointed head of the espionage agency. In the Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin has expressed himself much the same way. In his eyes, there are three appropriate candidates within the organization, three senior figures who served as his deputy in the past, and there is no need to look for successors on the outside.

While no one is saying so explicitly, Diskin's preference is the official who can only be identified by the initial Y. Y. is Diskin's current deputy, a previous head of the counter-espionage department (also known as the "non-Arab division" ), and formerly head of the service's investigations unit. To head the Mossad, the names of outgoing military intelligence head Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, and T., Yadlin's former second in command, have been mentioned, along with those of other generals too, on active duty and retired. It appears that in addition to Barak, other government ministers will try to influence the decision.

Conclusions forthcoming

The Galant document affair, with its suspected forger, Boaz Harpaz, still hovers overhead. The police and the attorney general, working under heavy political pressure, hurried to make announcements that cleared Ehud Barak and senior army officers, and in return received rare and even hard-to-believe public compliments from Barak. A summary of the case, its presentation to the attorney general and decisions about further legal steps were delayed until after the holidays. Now that the holidays are over, conclusions are expected to be forthcoming.

The police strongly assume that Harpaz worked alone and forged the document (which purported to be a strategic advisor's suggestions for how Galant could advance his own candidacy for the chief of staff's position ), in order to ensure Ashkenazi's fifth year as army chief without his knowledge. Despite the suspicions of Ashkenazi and some generals, the investigation did not unearth evidence of other irregularities, and certainly no criminal activity on the part of Barak with regard to Galant's appointment. What they did uncover was an ugly record of meddling by the bureaus of both the defense minister and the COS, among others, in appointments within the army.

Harpaz himself makes for an especially interesting figure. His so-called findings and the document itself made a profound impression on the chief of staff and those around him. Investigators tend to see his method as self-reinforcing. The document itself appears to be a classic example of disinformation. The forger builds on a familiar, prior knowledge of the beliefs and positions of the same people he wishes to mislead. In this way, his findings fall on especially fertile ground and the work of deception becomes easier.

According to a report several weeks ago in Yedioth Ahronoth, Harpaz managed to enter a sensitive military intelligence base - even as his actions were under investigation - and erase a hard disk on his computer, so as to make the investigators' work more difficult. This was a grave security breach, even considering that the culprit was a reserve duty officer who had worked on special projects in Military Intelligence.

In two weeks the Supreme Court will rule on the Green Movement's petition against Galant's appointment to chief of staff, based on allegations of his misuse of land in the farm community, Moshav Amikam, where he lives. Following that, the defense minister will have to decide whether or not to revive the work of the investigatory committee he appointed in the wake of the Galant affair, headed by Maj. Gen. (ret. ) Yitzhak Brik. State comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss has received many requests that he intervene in the affair and the appointment, but has not yet announced his position. It remains to be seen whether he will take up the gauntlet.