Boaz Harpaz (Alon Ron)
Boaz Harpaz Photo by Alon Ron
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The war between the former kibbutznik and former moshavnik has heated up in recent weeks to scalding temperatures, after simmering for more than a year. These are two aggressive men who can be quite hostile to signs of opposition. In the IDF, there's a tradition whereby senior officers tend to praise qualities of openness and attentive listening while denouncing tyrannical thought-control. At the same time, officers who do not get coveted promotions perceive their peers as tyrants and killers of creative thinking. This internal criticism is typically repressed at first, but it surfaces over time. When people are run over in the army, this triggers land mines that have delayed detonation switches but explode later.

The document forged by Boaz Harpaz did not start a war; it is not the bullet that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and precipitated World War I. The Harpaz document did not instigate acts of malice; instead, it appeared as such acts were playing out in full force. The real background to this war is politics, and the person responsible for it is Ehud Barak.

Barak and Gabi Ashkenazi were forced out of top positions in the defense establishment, and, surprisingly, were able to rehabilitate themselves and resume power in 2007. Ashkenazi's comeback came two years after he lost his bid for the chief of staff position. With Barak, the comeback came six years after he lost his posts as prime minister and defense minister. The bad blood between him and Ehud Olmert, whose government appointed Ashkenazi chief of staff, stifled Barak, and during the first half of his three years (to date ) in office as defense minister, forced him to maintain good relations with the chief of staff. The rift between them erupted during the second half of this three-year period, when Barak was able to hold on to his position as defense minister despite his dismal performance in the election. Netanyahu made it clear that he needed Barak, and Avigdor Lieberman consented, after four days of refusing, to allow Barak to keep the defense portfolio.

Once his status stabilized, Barak surrounded himself with advisers who shared his aggressive character and went out to assert himself in dealings with the IDF. He became entangled in three collisions with Ashkenazi: the first, over the chief of staff's objections to the appointment of Yoav Galant as his deputy; the second, over Ashkenazi's opposition to what he perceived to be Barak's concessions to the treasury and Netanyahu on the defense budget (concessions Barak contends were never made ); and the third, over assigning blame in the Turkish flotilla affair.

The two are also divided over strategic issues, but Ashkenazi, a risk-averse military man, makes a point of distinguishing between his professional obligation to maintain the army's level of readiness and his authority to make recommendations to the prime minister regarding the use of force. Ashkenazi is determined to keep the Israel Air Force, intelligence and other military units prepared for certain operations, but these are operations he believes should be undertaken only at times of emergency and not as a matter of choice.

As Barak's camp stepped up attacks on Ashkenazi, public sympathy has grown for the IDF chief, evidenced by polls and public statements. His popularity now threatens not only Barak but also the leaders of the major parties, and is being felt abroad as well. Florida's newly elected senator, Marco Rubio, a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2012, requested and received a meeting with Ashkenazi during his visit to Israel last week. Along with American politicians, donors and admirers are certain to step in line when the election approaches.

The question is whether there's something particular about Ashkenazi that's creating all this buzz, or is it just that he's the outgoing chief of staff? People need to jump into the political pool barefoot, without their army boots on. In politics, military men need to step on ordinary public scales without donning their medals, ranks and wings. It's a good thing when a new citizen is forced to shake off his military habits, and it's a good thing for the IDF that its top officer is not motivated by considerations other than military ones as he nears the end of his term. And all this, needless to say, is good for Israeli democracy.