Is Ashkenazi really so great?
The chief of the General Staff in Israel is second only to the prime minister in importance, so it is crucial not just to assess the quality of his actions, but also to understand his worldview on strategic matters.
Gabi Ashkenazi is an excellent Israel Defense Forces chief of staff. That is the consensus among politicians and most of the military correspondents and analysts. And that may indeed be the case. But the question is how to figure out who is a good chief of staff. The chief of the General Staff in Israel is second only to the prime minister in importance, so it is crucial not just to assess the quality of his actions, but also to understand his worldview on strategic matters.
Since the army is the only planning body that is at the cabinet's service, the ministers are compelled to repeatedly approve the military recommendations. And since the army is hierarchical, the chief of staff is the one who ultimately decides what will be brought before the cabinet.
It makes sense that a chief of staff's worldview can influence the recommendations he makes to the ministers. It's virtually certain that a chief of staff who thinks there is a slim chance of reaching a political agreement with our enemies will not recommend that the cabinet engage in peace talks, but will prefer to present an alternative intended to resolve the problem through military force. That's what Rafael Eitan did when he served as chief of staff in 1982 (the first Lebanon war ), what Shaul Mofaz did in September 2000 (the second intifada ) and Dan Halutz did in July 2006 (the Second Lebanon War ).
What is Ashkenazi's worldview? We don't know. Not because he doesn't have one but because he has never agreed to be interviewed in all his years as chief of staff. His supporters boast about his silence, saying a chief of staff needs to get things done, not sit for interviews. That is a mistake. The commander of an army has an obligation to present his strategic outlook to the public.
What's at issue here isn't a purely political matter like whether there should be a Palestinian state, but matters like the strategic balance in the Middle East and what the IDF's image should be (for instance, it is important to know what the chief of staff thinks about drafting yeshiva students ). The chief of staff is a public figure, and his opinions are supposed to influence the public discourse. The commander of the army must make his views heard when settlers attack soldiers in the territories; he is essentially the sovereign power there, since the settlers live under military rule. But Ashkenazi chose to keep silent. The media, unfortunately, was forgiving, and even supportive, of his reticence.
Ashkenazi is an excellent chief of staff, everyone says, since he rehabilitated the army after the Second Lebanon War. And how do we know that? By looking at the way the IDF functioned in Operation Cast Lead. Indeed, since Ashkenazi became chief of staff, the emergency reserves have gotten filled with combat gear and reservists have been called up for training, something that had been neglected for years. But in contrast to the Israeli media reports saying that the IDF performed nearly perfectly in Operation Cast Lead, putting into practice the lessons of the Second Lebanon War, in practice the army did not fight even a single battle in the 22 days of war; Hamas militants did not even try to stop the Israeli soldiers, withdrawing without a fight instead. So it could be that the IDF was rehabilitated, but its actions in Operation Cast Lead cannot be used to prove that.
What's left is an examination of the chief of staff's performance as a commander in crunch time. He didn't rack up much in the way of success during the two instances during his term in which he was tested. The military operation that was aimed at stopping the Gaza-bound flotilla that left nine protesters dead failed, and there is no choice but to pinpoint the chief of staff as the person who is ultimately responsible for the failure. And Ashkenazi's conduct on the matter of the forged document purporting to show that Yoav Galant was using a media consultant to help him become the next chief of staff can be described as problematic at best.
So before joining the choir singing the praises of Gabi Ashkenazi, it's worth stopping to ask how exactly he is being assessed. It's not so clear that an in-depth examination of his conduct would bestow on him the description of "excellent chief of staff."