Yoav Galant
Yoav Galant. Photo by Alberto Denkberg
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"It's going to be a ball," promised Gabi Siboni in the invitation he sent to the mailing list of the Institute for National Security Studies, where he directs the program on military and strategic affairs. The ball, scheduled for tomorrow at 5 P.M. at the Shablul Jazz Club at Tel Aviv port, has nothing to do with the document that Col. (res. ) Siboni leaked to Channel 2 three weeks ago - a decision that brought him, to his detriment, from relative anonymity into the public spotlight. Rather, the event will feature guitarist Siboni and his band, the Jukebox, who will play Santana, Clapton, the Beatles and James Brown. Yoav Galant presumably won't be there, even though in past years he has donned jeans and attended the annual jazz festival in Eilat, which is within the boundaries of his jurisdiction as the GOC Southern Command.

Exactly 10 years ago, Col. Erez Weiner, who is now an aide to the chief of staff and is the person who gave the document to Siboni, commanded the Duchifat Battalion in the Ramallah area (when the Palestinians opened fire in the territories, contrary to the commitment they made in the Oslo Accords ). He achieved a certain notoriety when, in June 2007, he won the chief of staff's competition for writing on military and security affairs, a contest that encourages officers to submit articles particularly to the periodical Ma'arachot. Subsequently, Weiner, who served as Gabi Ashkenazi's bureau chief when the latter was a major general, returned to work with him when he became chief of staff.

The publication of the so-called Galant document that Weiner gave Siboni appears to have led to the opposite result from what the person who publicized it wanted. To avoid all the furor, Ashkenazi could have, for example, gone the official route and turned the document over to the State Comptroller's Office for examination by the head of its security unit. It is less likely that Ashkenazi would have submitted the document to the defense establishment comptroller, Haggai Erez, who was appointed to his position without consideration for Ashkenazi's opinion, possibly as a reprisal for the way Ashkenazi behaved in the Mike Herzog affair.

Brig. Gen. Herzog, brother of Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog of the Labor Party, was in possession of a 2006 promise from Amir Peretz - one reaffirmed by Ehud Barak, who succeeded Peretz as defense minister, also from Labor - that he would be promoted to major general no later than the fall of 2008. Officially, the appointment of major generals is within the purview of the chief of staff, with the minister's approval. In practice, when the sides each want something very much, some sort of deal is struck. But for the most part, as in the case of Herzog, Ashkenazi blocked appointments. The timing of the Galant document's publication was obviously intended as a response to the start of Barak's series of interviews with the candidates for chief of staff.

After a period of less than two weeks since the existence of the document was publicized, and during which the interviewing process was frozen, Barak renewed it with vigorous determination. He quickly chose Galant, contrary to the wishes of Ashkenazi, who lost much of his prestige because of his involvement in the affair. But, in any event, without the document's publication, Barak would have made his announcement two weeks earlier. Furthermore, the affair has not yet ended.

The final and verified version of events by Boaz Harpaz, who is suspected of forging the document - when it is finally provided, presumably in a mitigating plea bargain with the police and the state prosecution - might still lead investigators back to one of the two battling bureaus (the chief of staff's or the defense minister's ). Or to a third possibility, which will absolve all the senior figures: that whoever disseminated the document did so simply out of a desire to toady to Ashkenazi, without the chief of staff even knowing that the document would end up being publicized and criticized.

In the committee investigating the flotilla episode in May, chairman Jacob Turkel and his colleagues were apparently far more impressed by the appearance of Ashkenazi than by Barak or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Judge Turkel is also the head of the senior appointments committee that examines candidates for positions such as chief of staff and their personal, political and business associations with the relevant minister.

At the beginning of this week, Barak assumed, without any foundation, that the process of Galant's approval by the Turkel committee would be simple, short and quick, so that he would be able to place the appointment on the cabinet agenda already this Sunday. Galant should certainly breeze through the requisite questionnaire and personal interview. But what if, in the wake of information from Harpaz, the police investigation leads to Barak's aides, and generates a public outcry sparking the ouster of the defense minister, and his successor then decides to appoint a different person as chief of staff? Turkel apparently intends to wait, before passing judgment on Galant. The verdict, he knows as a judge, must precede the sentencing.

The upshot is that after ostensibly coming to their conclusion, the two dramas - between Barak and Ashkenazi, and between the generals who wanted to succeed Ashkenazi - are still unfolding. The generals who competed against Galant for the army's top spot will lose their credibility if now, after the appointment has been announced, they remain silent and do not explain what, in their view, is so terrible about Galant.

One of Galant's talents is the ability to integrate into a new environment, adjust to its constraints and take control of it. That was his way as a child on the tough streets of Jaffa, as a teenager in clean-cut Givatayim, as a rare "city slicker" among the kibbutzniks of the naval commando unit (although these days many of them are of Ethiopian origin, and wear skullcaps ), and as a maritime officer on land. It also served him well as an outsider who strove to penetrate Ariel Sharon's entourage and was accepted into it, as a GOC who high-handedly, but openly, managed his group of subordinate commanders and staff officers - and who also handled well, with the aid of the Shin Bet security service and the air force, the division-based Operation Cast Lead.

The interface between the government and the General Staff, the media and society (i.e., issues such as evacuation of settlers, recruitment of Haredim, shortening compulsory military service, etc. ) is a killing field; a special talent is required to emerge from it unscathed after three years - if you haven't simply dug in without lifting your head. It's worth Galant's while to forgo in advance his fourth and last year as chief of staff: The horizon after him will appear closer to the generals who have competed against him, and are still considering their moves after the formal announcement of his appointment.

Moderate approach

To Ashkenazi's credit are his moderate approach to the Palestinian Authority and his tough approach to initiatives for creating unauthorized settler outposts. He does not customarily meet with Palestinian leaders - he is represented in this by the head of the West Bank Civil Administration, Brig. Gen. Yoav "Poli" Mordechai, whom the army hopes will take part in the Israel-PA negotiations slated to be resumed next week. But with the aid of the GOC Central Command, Avi Mizrahi, Brig. Gen. Mordechai and the division commander Brig. Gen. Nitzan Alon, Ashkenazi found the proper balance, at least until the next terrorist attack, between encouraging the administration and the economy in the West Bank, and taking security risks.

When Galant was a young officer, eager for missions in the navy commandos, he was said to have hung up a placard, at the end of his period in the unit, declaring "20 killed." In any event, as commander of the Menashe Brigade and of the Gaza Division, and as GOC Southern Command, he was able to distinguish well between fighting extremists and assisting moderates. After all, he was in Sharon's close circle (as his military secretary ) during the period of president George W. Bush's road map plan and the evacuation of Gaza. He was also the first to support a general arrangement of Israel's relations with the Hamas government: After Gilad Shalit was abducted, Galant was the first senior Israeli to support the idea of arriving at a modus vivendi vis-a-vis Hamas - a ceasefire, cessation of tunneling and Qassam-rocket production and de facto Israeli acquiescence to the Hamas rule of Gaza.

Those who assail Galant for Operation Cast Lead ignore the divisions of responsibility between the different political and military echelons, and also the supreme obligation of the commanding general of operations on this scale to fulfill the mission at a minimum cost in life to the soldiers and to civilians on the home front who are shelled.

A week ago, when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the planned launch of direct talks, her Mideast envoy George Mitchell drew an astonishing comparison between Hamas and the Democratic Party during the Bush administration. Hamas controls the Palestinian Legislative Assembly (parliament ), but Mahmoud Abbas is the president - which is similar to the situation where there was a Democratic majority in Congress but it did not undercut President Bush's operative authority, said Mitchell, a Democrat, who was formerly the Senate majority leader.

The Americans are describing the format of the upcoming Netanyahu-Abbas talks, in the presence of Clinton and accompanied by Arab leaders, as "face-to-face." In other words, a chaperoned date. But what if the talks break down, out of anger, or alternatively, progress so smoothly that Israel commits to some sort of withdrawal, and this in turn leads to a clash between Israelis and new intelligence and operational modes of behavior? The Israel Defense Forces, as is its obligation, has been preparing for such scenarios, in a plan currently called "Different Face," during Ashkenazi's tenure. But a new chief of staff could come along and reshuffle the whole deck.