Yaakov Orr
Yaakov Orr Photo by Emil Salman
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The most influential (and intriguing ) official in the defense establishment these days doesn't even have an office in the famous 14th floor corridor that connects the General Staff and Defense Ministry buildings in Tel Aviv. The office of Maj. Gen. (ret. ) Yaakov (Mendi ) Orr, head of the division that oversees the Defense Ministry at the State Comptroller's Office, is situated 700 meters to the south, on the 21st floor of the comptroller's building, on Ha'arba'a Street.

Orr retired from the army nine-and-a-half years ago, but the position he has held since endows him with special status in the defense establishment. On the one hand, he's a civil servant, one of the senior officials at the State Comptroller's Office and no longer subordinate to the regular defense hierarchy. On the other hand, his seniority, knowledge and social network - along with the broad consensus regarding his integrity and decency - give him direct access to the top echelons of the Defense Ministry, the Israel Defense Forces and the intelligence community. In recent years, under the patronage of State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, Orr has gradually accumulated more clout and influence.

One person whose first days on the job will clearly be affected by what Orr has to say is Yoav Galant, the new army chief of staff, who assumes his position on February 14. Orr and his staff were asked by Lindenstrauss to prepare a report about the so-called Galant document, which outlined a plan to advance Galant's appointment as the next chief of staff by denigrating both the other candidates and the outgoing IDF chief, Gabi Ashkenazi. Lt. Col. (res. ) Boaz Harpaz has already confessed to forging the document.

When Orr publishes his findings, it will provide some definitive answers to questions that have thrown the defense establishment into a tizzy for almost a year: Who told the truth and who lied? Who is the criminal and who is the victim in this conflict, which has pitted the defense minister against the chief of staff, which climaxed in the appointment of Galant to replace him?

At the same time, Orr and his staff are also investigating aspects of the army's respone to the Turkish aid flotilla to Gaza, as well as the decision to make the F-35 the next fighter plane of the Israel Air Force. In addition to the host of other issues the comptroller's office is examining this year, it recently launched a preliminary investigation into the decision to acquire defensive systems against anti-tank missiles. It is still unclear whether Orr's division will be asked to investigate the Carmel fire, given its critical report on the firefighting services prepared several years ago, or whether this assignment will be handed to another department in the comptroller's office.

Shaped by the Yom Kippur War

Orr, 64, was born in Tel Aviv as Yaakov Mendelsohn, and he grew up in some of the poorer neighborhoods of that city and of Holon. In an interview with Haaretz in 2001, the last media interview he gave, he said that before being recruited to the IDF he had gained "an intimate familiarity with the Juvenile Court." He was drafted in 1965, the only volunteer for the Golani Brigade in his high school class. A few months before the Yom Kippur War erupted, he finished serving as commander of the elite Sayeret Golani commando force.

Orr himself, who by the time of the war had started studying at the Command and Staff College, served as a deputy battalion commander during the hostilities. For many years, a group picture of officers of the 1972 Golani Brigade hung on the wall of his army office.

"There are many people in that picture who were killed, most of them in the Yom Kippur War," he said in the 2001 Haaretz interview. "It's an entire group that was erased. The truth is that I'm quite embarrassed - I don't have a better word to describe it - that I stayed alive. I find myself having to justify that. I'm sitting here by chance. That's why I don't sit all day long telling stories of heroism."

Orr brought with him from the IDF to his current office a sign with a quote from Albert Einstein: "Blind faith in authority is the greatest enemy of truth." After the 1973 war, the experience that most shaped him was his service in the territories. He served as the commander of the brigade that was in charge of the entire West Bank in the mid-1980s. In December 1987, following the outbreak of the first intifada, he was appointed commander of the Gaza Division. "These are not jobs for which one gets medals," he said. "There are very few thanks in those places."

Orr was appointed a major general at the relatively late age of 50 and served for almost four years as coordinator of activities in the territories. That coincided with the first government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Orr's headquarters served at the time as a main channel of communication with the Palestinians. The last year of his term, under prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, was also the first year of the second intifada.

Brig. Gen. (res. ) Dov Tzedaka, who headed the Civil Administration in Gaza and later in the West Bank during that period, says that Orr was "the last coordinator of activities in the territories. He really understood the job and knew what he had to do. He worked to make things easier for the Palestinian population but also understood the security needs."

In his current position, Orr takes a very independent approach, fueled by his basic skepticism, and refuses to surrender to the tricks and chicanery of the defense establishment. He knows good and serious people there (he has been known to praise the heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet security services ), but he has also witnessed great neglect, superficiality and an aversion to criticism, both from outside and in.

When he was still a division commander, Orr made a point of arriving as soon as possible to the scene of a disaster, out of concern that delay would allow those in the chain of command under him to fudge the evidence.

For years, the state comptroller's reports had a reputation for finding their way to the bottom of the drawer once they had been published. That's all changed with the new comptroller, whose determination and well-honed media savvy are making it difficult for politicians and generals to ignore his reports. The division that oversees the Defense Ministry at the comptroller's office now enjoys considerable clout as a result.

Since moving to the comptroller's office, Orr has written a scathing report about the malfunctioning of the home front after the Second Lebanon War, he's exposed the excessive spending of Defense Minister Ehud Barak's entourage at the Paris Airshow and leveled harsh criticism against senior appointments in the IDF. A major general who's a member of the General Staff and has known him for years, says that "Mendi is a profound and serious man. He is very fair and clearly owes nothing to anyone. The question that preoccupies us now is whether he is capable of getting to the bottom of the Harpaz affair and reaching decisive conclusions about this story, which continues to taint the atmosphere at the top. A large part of what happened is not documented, so there is quite a big challenge ahead."

A draft of the report is expected within two or three months, but the final report will probably be published only next summer, long after Ashkenazi's retirement. The offices of Barak, Ashkenazi, Galant and the generals involved are waiting with gnashed teeth to read the findings of Lindenstrauss and Orr. The defense minister has accused those surrounding the chief of staff of an attempted putsch; the chief of staff is convinced that the defense minister's office has been plotting against him for months. Barak expects to be rehabilitated. Ashkenazi is afraid that the findings will make it difficult for him to move into politics. Assuming the Iranian and Lebanese fronts don't heat up soon, the Barak-Galant-Ashkenazi troika will remain the hot-button security issue of the coming year, and Orr will play a pivotal role in its eventual resolution.