IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi
IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi Photo by Moti Milrod
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Since its establishment, the Israel Police has struggled against its image as the less-loved stepsister of the country's security family, especially when compared to the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service. In testimony to investigation committees, police officials have frequently denounced a culture of lying and the disregard of orders from the command echelon as the force's Achilles' heel. The issues continue to cast a shadow on many areas of law enforcement, but the consistency and determination demonstrated in investigations of senior figures in the police have altered the balance.

In past efforts to improve the police force, army officers were brought in to reinforce the top - once even as national police commissioner. Political strategist Eyal Arad, who is in the media spotlight over the "Galant document" affair, is the son of the late journalist Aryeh Arad, who was police spokesman during the very brief reign of Maj. Gen. (res. ) Herzl Shafir as commissioner. On two different occasions the minister in charge of the police at the time tried to persuade the serving GOC Northern Command to become police commissioner: Moshe Shahal and Shlomo Ben-Ami lobbied Yitzhak Mordechai and Gabi Ashkenazi, respectively. Ben-Ami also tried his luck with Ami Ayalon, a former commander of the Israel Navy and Shin Bet head. The view in those days was that the army could save the police. Now it's the other way around.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is reviewing the evidence against Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman ahead of any decision on filing charges. Weinstein would do well to prohibit Public Security Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu MK Yitzhak Aharonovitch, his strong director general, Hagai Peleg, and their colleagues from discussing any police matters with Lieberman. That would decrease the possibility of an Israel Police remake of the current drama over the appointment of the next IDF chief of staff. The next police commissioner will appoint - pending the approval of the public security minister - the head of the investigations and intelligence branch and senior figures in the investigation departments.

In the meantime, Cinderella is having her day. Commissioner David Cohen, whose relations with Maj. Gen. Uri Bar-Lev, senior Israel Police and public security attache for North America and former Southern District commander, are even worse than those of IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi with Yoav Galant, has cast a protective "iron dome" over the heads of the police officers who are investigating the Galant affair. On Saturday, Cohen and the head of the investigations and intelligence branch, Yoav Segalovich, spent long hours at the headquarters of the international and serious crimes division. On Sunday, Cohen assumed the task of reporting to Weinstein on the Galant investigation, while Segalovich began to oversee the proceedings themselves.

Barak's cronies

According to a number of knowledgeable retired generals, for the past year the entire Defense Ministry, military and civilian elements alike, has been the subject of a hostile takeover by confidants of Defense Minister Ehud Barak. They say these figures seek to appoint not only the next chief of staff but also senior ministry officials who will have the authority to benefit Barak's cronies when it comes to handing out supply and export contracts.

Figures in Ashkenazi's circle suspected that Barak's close aides were motivated by greed. There was also ancient bad blood, real or imagined, between Ashkenazi and Yoni Koren, Barak's chief of staff in the Defense Ministry. Koren and Galant have been friends since childhood. Koren and Ashkenazi have maintained a correct relationship over the years. Koren even suggested, during Ashkenazi's civilian period, that the Kfar Sava resident run for mayor of nearby Ra'anana. Had it not been for the strained relations between the two bureaus, further aggravated by Barak's bureau dictating to Ashkenazi joint ministry-military appointments that ignored the traditional need for coordination with the chief of staff, such as those of defense establishment comptroller and the head of R&D, the tensions between Barak and Ashkenazi would have been quite routine.

The tensions are based partly on both men's personalities and partly on the structure of the relationship between the Defense Ministry and IDF General Staff.

Dan Shomron, who was a softer chief of staff than Ashkenazi, preferred not to clash with defense minister Yitzhak Rabin over appointments. When Amram Mitzna suddenly resigned as GOC Central Command, in 1989, the main arena of the first intifada, Shomron announced his intention to appoint Matan Vilnai as his replacement. Prime minister Yitzhak Shamir told Rabin that Likud wanted Moshe Bar-Kochva, a former member of the Irgun pre-state underground militia, but would settle for Mordechai, at the time GOC Southern Command. Shomron gave in. He replaced Mordechai with Vilnai and made Mordechai GOC Central Command.

It's natural for there to be friction between a pro-centralization chief of staff and a GOC (or, in wartime, a frontline commander ) who seeks maximum control of his sector. One point of contention is the degree of openness to the media. During Israel's 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, Ashkenazi, as GOC Northern Command, insisted to chief of staff Shaul Mofaz on the need for a ban on media presence, citing operational exigencies. Galant, in his conduct of operations against Gaza, shifted the center of gravity of media interest from army headquarters in Tel Aviv to the Southern Command in Be'er Sheva. As IDF chief of staff, he would be unlikely to maintain that approach. Tal Russo, Galant's pick to succeed him as GOC Southern Command, shouldn't count on being able to follow him in this regard.

Another factor contributing to the friction is the desire of officers to ascend the ranks. The competition among people with shared experience, such as officers who came up through the Golani Brigade or the Paratroops, becomes even more intense when a new threat from the reserves is added to an already dense field of competitors. Past examples include the opposition of two chiefs of staff, Rafael Eitan and Motta Gur, and of a major general, Avigdor (Yanush) Ben Gal, to bringing Israel Tal back into active service to establish the ground forces command, lest he be promoted to chief of staff, and Moshe Kaplinsky's opposition to Ashkenazi's appointment as chief of staff. Today there is the alliance of infantry comrades in arms against Galant, a navy man.

Dan Halutz, and Ashkenazi after him, erred gravely in ignoring infighting among the top brass. This reached a nadir when, in the midst of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, brigadier generals who had been disappointed when former chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon passed them over and appointed Gal Hirsch as commander of the 91st Division, suggested that Hirsch be removed and volunteered to replace him. The journalists who were those generals' mouthpieces at the time are among those who are now shocked by the Galant story.

The responsibility of Barak and Ashkenazi for the depressing situation at the top of the defense establishment is obvious by virtue of their authority. The same goes for the person who purports to be the country's supreme authority, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. None of them saw fit to convene the General Staff command, from the rank of brigadier general and up, to get everyone to toe the line. Maybe they didn't dare do so because they themselves are not beyond reproach.

After the investigation ends, and Barak renews the interviews of candidates for chief of staff, large water hoses will be needed to wash away the bad blood between the generals. In most cases, those generals who lose opt to leave the IDF and not serve under the winner, unless they have been promised compensation in the next round. The latter was the course followed by Barak upon the appointment of Shomron (who wanted Amir Drori to stay on as deputy chief of staff but encountered Drori's refusal and Rabin's promise to Barak ). In some cases the winner presses the losers to leave: Ya'alon was angry that Halutz did not leave the IDF after finishing his term as air force commander, but stayed on as his deputy and as a candidate to succeed him. It is wrong to appoint the chief of staff as a consolation prize or as compensation for a feeling of affront.

Balance unchanged

Two weeks into the current affair have not changed the basic balance between the candidates. None of them had, or has, a significant advantage over the others. Galant is the first potential chief of staff since Gur who did not serve as the head of a General Staff branch, though Gur was head of the operations department under Rabin, a key post for a colonel. On the other hand, Galant's supporters will argue that although Gadi Eizenkot and Benny Gantz held central positions - head of Operations Directorate and commander of Army Headquarters, respectively - they did not succeed in those posts in the 2006 Lebanon war.

Commissioner Cohen is about the same age as Ashkenazi. When the young captain from the Golani Brigade, Ashkenazi, was persuaded to remain in the career army, in part by the chief infantry and paratroops officer at the time, Matan Vilnai, Capt. Cohen moved from the Paratroops to the Israel Police. Investigations chief Segalovich was a contemporary of Gantz and Gadi Shamni (currently Israel's military attache in Washington, D.C. ) in the Paratroops, where he served as the intelligence officer of the reconnaissance unit. While the latter two remained in the army, Segalovich studied law and then entered the police prosecuting attorneys unit. None of them could have imagined that 30 years down the line, police officers and not the army would likely decide the fate of the chief of staff - present and to come.