The right appointment, but one born in sin
A veteran senior officer who has seen lieutenant generals come and go was asked on Wednesday to describe the three things that a new chief of staff does first. "On the first night," he said, "Ashkenazi will land in the Golan, for a visit with Brigadier General Eli Reiter, the commander of Division 36, he'll call out all his units for a check of their operational capacity and for dessert he'll send out two aircraft wings, F-15s from Tel Nof and combat helicopters from Palmahim. In the wake of the review, a colonel and lieutenant colonel in the division will be fired or at least reprimanded. After that," he continued, "he will close off bases for a week for routine checks, and send the military police off on a spit-and-polish 'dress' operation. Number three, he will man his bureau and the staff brigade, which influences the posting of officers, with his loyalists."
The officer was just warming up. "After that, Ashkenazi will turn to refreshing operational plans and a round of appointments. The generals who are close to him are Major General Dan Harel, who is now in Washington as the IDF attache in the United States, and the head of the Technological and Logistics Directorate, Avi Mizrahi. Maybe also Gadi Eisenkot, the GOC Northern Command," he said. "But don't be impressed by all those Golani stories. They're just folklore. At those levels, it doesn't matter what brigade you came from. He will want to promote brigadier generals, and he is also interested in seeing whether he can bring back into service on a promotion track two division commanders who were ejected unjustly, Brigadier General Zvika Gendelman, who took the rap for the abduction at Har Dov in October 2000, when Gabi was GOC Northern Command, and Brigadier General Shmuel Zakai, who was commander of the Gaza Division and quarreled with former chief of staff [Moshe] Boogie Ya'alon."
No one questions Ashkenazi's qualifications for commanding the land army, but his colleagues in the senior officer cadre have less faith in his ability in two areas: strategy and the Palestinians. He specialized in service in the North, in the Syria and Lebanon sector, but has had no close experience with the fighting in the West Bank and Gaza. At the General Staff, he is lacking an expert on the upper level of the diplomatic-security arena, someone like Brigadier General (res.) Eival Giladi. His acquaintances assess that he will be attentive to the military opinions of retired Major Generals Ilan Biran, Uri Saguy and Yossi Peled.
People who know him are convinced that Ashkenazi will be strict about details and severe about decorum, will stress good soldiering, will confirm that policies are carried out ("but also cut corners") and will demand respect from his subordinates - a lot of respect and deference, a bit like a veteran from the draft of August 2004, who demands a proper attitude from the youngsters of November 2006.
Perceived as a 'sheikh'
As a brigade and division commander, Ashkenazi faced off bravely with the chief of command, Yitzhak Mordechai, although they share very similar characters, including overweening suspicion to the point of a sense of persecution. This week, two different officers defined him with an identical term, "sheikh," meaning someone who must be listened to and whose dignity must be respected. "I haven't come here to be the commander of your company headquarters," he was heard to say in recent months to civil servants at the Defense Ministry, not all of whom fell in love with him.
With him, people will come only in dress uniform to General Staff headquarters. Officers below the rank of brigadier general will not be welcome at discussions. Insignia will be blazoned on uniforms in the right places. He will deal strictly with commanders who are lax and kindly with soldiers who are in personal and family distress.
All of this, of course, is contingent on his appointment indeed coming to fruition, that he will emerge from the Winograd and Turkel committees unscathed, and that no missiles will fly in from the sidelines in the form of letters, signed or anonymous, with claims and complaints, as is usual in nearly any senior appointment in the IDF. In a few weeks, those under review will be sent a draft of the State Comptroller's Report that deals with the IDF's preparedness and readiness in recent years (including 2002-2005, when Ashkenazi served as deputy chief of staff) in the areas of home-front defense and information.
Ashkenazi's appointment was born in sin, in the court of Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Ashkenazi himself was a candidate by right and not by favor. He stood out in three key roles - head of the Operations Division, GOC Northern Command and deputy chief of staff, and was "second in qualifications" to Dan Halutz in 2005. That time, Ashkenazi reached the finals, and was destined to be appointed chief of staff if the candidate who was selected, the first in qualifications, gave it up, either by his own free will or because he had to.
He is also not to be condemned for having left military service; he had wanted to remain as head of Military Intelligence under Halutz or as director general of the Defense Ministry under Shaul Mofaz, and was sent to get his demobilization papers because of the suspicions that both Halutz and Mofaz felt of the presence of a competing center of power in their environs. It is not his fault that he became a civilian, a protege of politicians like Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (now minister of national infrastructures) and Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, who together tried unsuccessfully to help him get appointed as head of the Israel Electric Corporation. It was only last summer that he arrived at the southern half of the 14th floor in the defense towers, the half that is assigned to the defense minister and the director general, as opposed to the half belonging to the chief of staff and his deputy.
Before Ben-Eliezer (who appointed Ashkenazi deputy chief of staff) and Sneh (the first and main pusher for his appointment as the ministry's director general), his champion was Shlomo Ben-Ami, when he was minister of public security in 2000. Upon the advice of his brother-in-law, Major General (res.) Uri Simhoni, who had been commander of the Golani Brigade when second lieutenant Ashkenazi was one of the most outstanding of the dozens of platoon commanders in the brigade, and who was impressed by his advancement, Ben-Ami considered appointing Ashkenazi as police commissioner. Ashkenazi leaned toward accepting the position, on the assumption that likelihood of becoming chief of staff was pretty minimal. In the end, Ben-Ami was deterred, for fear that appointing a young major general like Ashkenazi, not a deputy chief of staff or a branch commander, would cause rioting among the police commissioners.
Ashkenazi is not naive. The hands that have granted him the appointment are not clean. Already there is one criminal investigation under way against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and the investigations still to be announced, not all of which have received publicity, are even more serious. They include an inquiry dealing with Olmert's economic connections with Abraham Hirchson, now the minister of finance, in the late 1990s. On the other side, Peretz worked over a period of months to get rid of Halutz, and for the appointment of Ashkenazi in his stead.
If there were a serious procedure in place in Israel for hearings of candidates for senior positions, Ashkenazi would be asked what he has promised Peretz. For example, has he undertaken to promote the defense minister's military secretary, Brigadier General Eitan Dangot, to the rank of major general? And more important, was he asked and did he agree to cooperate on a certain diplomatic or security policy line? Peretz's agreements with Ashkenazi, if there were any, are classified.
A refusal to accept the gift of an appointment as chief of staff is contrary to human nature, and especially when the nature under question is that of an ambitious major general whose life's dream of being the chief of staff has been denied him. Yigal Allon and Ezer Weizman, Ariel Sharon and Yisrael Tal, Herzl Shafir and Yanush Ben-Gal, Matan Vilnai (now Labor MK) and Uzi Dayan - all of them were within reach and were blocked on the threshold of the bureau, each in his own set of circumstances - sometimes professional and for the most part political. It is inhuman to expect Ashkenazi to say "no, thank you," and refuse to sell his soul to a mustache.
A taboo broken
The appointment of Ashkenazi as chief of staff has broken the taboo on bringing back reserve generals for the purpose, just as the appointment of Halutz broke the taboo on the appointment of a chief of staff who came from the air force. Now, with everything open, Deputy Chief of Staff Moshe Kaplinsky may decide that it is better for him to wait for the next opportunity somewhere outside Ashkenazi's domain, for example on loan to the Mossad or to another security organization. Kaplinsky will be able to do to Ashkenazi what Halutz thought that Ashkenazi had done to him.
There have been difficult struggles in the past over the appointment of the chief of staff, but for the most part the struggle ended when the appointment was made, and was renewed only toward the end of the happy winner's term. But not always: In 1958, the group associated with outgoing chief of staff Moshe Dayan and Defense Ministry director general Shimon Peres (now Vice Premier), did not come to terms in with prime minister David Ben-Gurion's decision to appoint Haim Laskov as chief of staff, instead of someone referred by Dayan and Peres - Meir Amit or Zvi Tzur. Dayan decided, and the government announced, that he would be staying on in the IDF with the rank of major general; no doubt he wanted to help his successor. Laskov suffered from constant subversion on the part of Dayan-Peres loyalists, and didn't complete his three years.
That was the exception, though, and therefore Yitzhak Rabin was so astonished to discover, when he became prime minister, that in politics the battle never ends. The finish line of the previous race is just the starting line for the next one. In recent years, recognition of this has also penetrated the army. Ya'alon wanted to see all three of his competitors - Halutz, Uzi Dayan and Amos Malka - outside of the army, and was impotently angry that Halutz remained. Then came Halutz and pushed Ashkenazi out. Along comes Ashkenazi and he is destined to discover that the chain has not ended with that. He will be under constant media surveillance, along the lines of "The Truman Show." Every time he stumbles, it will be blown up to disaster proportions. If again he impatiently pushes aside the barrier of a slow sentry, he will find himself opening every broadcast satire slapping those present. Like Halutz, like the State of Israel in the transition from the monarchy of the Ben- Gurion years to the anarchy of the Olmert-Peretz twilight, Ashkenazi will discover that it is much easier to defeat three enemy armies accompanied by a single television channel than it is to defeat half the army with three networks at his back.
If Peretz is still around the neighborhood, he too can expect a discovery: The chief of staff's readiness to be grateful for his appointment is limited and transient. Ashkenazi, who can be a bully toward those below him, is also likely to get into confrontations with the echelon above him. The possibility of this will only increase if Peretz fades out and is replaced as defense minister by Ehud Barak or Labor MK Ami Ayalon.
And after the next elections, if they are held early, there could be an even more fascinating scenario: Halutz, a businessman who will have been publicly rehabilitated - he is certain that he will be able to bring the Winograd commission around to seeing things his way - and a beginning politician, as be chief of staff Ashkenazi's defense minister. This would be an even more thrilling and powerful sequel than the Western "Mofaz Versus Ya'alon."