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The sky did not fall on Tuesday afternoon. Israel's security situation will apparently survive even the latest petty scrap between the defense minister and the army chief of staff. Indeed, it is not at all certain that Ashkenazi's term needed to be extended by another year. As is quite usual with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the problem was not with the content, but with the style and the timing of his announcement that the chief of staff's term would be over as planned, after four years, in February 2011.

The sympathies of both the public and the media are with Ashkenazi, as they were during previous tiffs. This is the inbuilt advantage a general has over a politician, especially when it's a well-liked chief of staff versus a defense minister who is having trouble explaining his decision to remain a junior partner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government. On the other hand, even though he did not actually request to serve a fifth year, Ashkenazi was certainly aware of initial moves in that direction by other people and did not go to great lengths to thwart them.

People who have spoken with the chief of staff about his recent decision to fire Brig.-Gen. Moshe (Chico) Tamir, and who have heard his moderate positions on several strategic issues, could have concluded that he had already begun to wrap up his tenure and was trying to craft his legacy for the army.

Given that Ashkenazi apparently believed he could not continue for another year, the conduct of the Defense Minister's Bureau is surprising and outrageous. The timetable is not as pressing as Barak's associates made it seem: It is true that discussions of division commander appointments will begin in June, but since when has the Israel Defense Forces been so strict about making appointments, especially since these positions will be vacated in the summer of 2011? By the same token, Barak could have announced his decision three or four months from now, having quietly told Ashkenazi in the meantime that his term would not be extended.

This, however, is not how Barak's bureau works. In the announcement, along with the little kick at the chief of staff, the defense minister sent the message: "I will navigate" (as Yitzhak Rabin declared after his election in 1992). For his part, Netanyahu does not intend to intervene in the appointment of the next chief of staff any more than he did in 1998, when he left the matter to then-defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai. The decision concerning Ashkenazi is part of a series of moves aimed at purging the top ranks of the security establishment and appointing people more beholden to Barak and his bureau chief Yoni Koren.

During the coming weeks the battle over the identity of the 20th chief of staff will heat up. At the moment GOC Southern Command Yoav Gallant enjoys a slight edge over the other three contenders: Maj.-Gens. Benny Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot, and Maj.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Kaplinsky. If it were up to Ashkenazi, he would block Gallant's appointment by any possible means.

Ashkenazi can take comfort in the fact that he has been one of the best chiefs of staff in recent decades. He has to his credit the rehabilitation of morale in the IDF after the crisis of the Second Lebanon War, the restoration of professionalism among the ground forces, and a sober and responsible approach to the major security issues.

On the negative side, he will be remembered for an aggressive personal style that has not encouraged freedom of thought and speech in the ranks. Another point against him, especially if he is indeed planning a political career, will be his attitude toward the media. The manhunts during his tenure for leaks among officers were excessive. Also not clear is the chief of staff's aversion to interviews (and no, responding to questions from soldiers and their families on the "Mother's Voice" radio program is not considered an interview).

Will Ashkenazi's high level of authority be maintained when the contenders to succeed him are making a pilgrimage to the defense minister's bureau at the other end of the 14th-floor corridor? Not certain. Senior officers who have gotten so close to the top of the pyramid tend to evince special alertness to the power relations in the rank above them. At the General Staff, at least, social Darwinism works. The generals' attention moves, almost automatically, from the current top man to the future top man.

The Obama crisis

Once they turn their attention from the tempest over the chief of staff, Barak and Netanyahu will return to dealing with a different set of concerns. The most complex security challenge Israel has faced for years, the Iranian nuclear program, is now intersecting with another major security crisis: the open rift with the Obama administration. A prolonged disagreement with the United States is liable to push Israel, in the longer term, into initiating dangerous moves vis-a-vis Iran.

The Iranian threat is palpable, but it also provides the two men with an excellent fig leaf. It allows Netanyahu to focus on is focusing on sounding the alarm about the danger from Tehran at a time when he suffers from paralysis regarding everything related to the diplomatic tracks vis-a-vis the Palestinians and Syria. And to Barak it offers a basis for remaining in the government despite the increasing loathing for Netanyahu's policies among the Labor leader's few remaining supporters.

The focus on Israel's general security context also has enabled Ashkenazi to set out goals for augmenting the army's preparedness for battle. He also beat out the Mossad for the bulk of the extra NIS 2 billion the government approved for the defense budget. Now, however, despite considerable personal animosity, Ashkenazi and Mossad chief Meir Dagan are both at the cautious and responsible end of the Israeli spectrum regarding Iran. Along with the blunt American opposition to an Israeli attack, expressed at every opportunity, this is an important variable in the equation.

In the long run, the deepening crisis with the American administration is threatening Israel's security as much as Tehran's efforts are. In the offices of the prime minister and the defense minister - despite their soothing public statements - the bosses understand the gravity of the threat.

United States has hinted, in noncommittal leaks, that it may consider ceasing to veto anti-Israeli resolutions at the United Nations General Assembly. The Bush administration already imposed considerable sanctions following the second part of the Phalcon aircraft crisis in 2005. This time there may be even more drastic measures: What, heaven forbid, would happen if there were a leak about an intention to reconsider the extent of U.S. military aid? Israel has been boasting of its economic successes in recent months despite the global crisis. Those achievements could collapse, affecting the credit rating so dear to the hearts of economists.

Israel's security dependence on the United States is tremendous. Of course, Interior Minister Eli Yishai couldn't care less, because the only strategic threat really worrying him is Aryeh Deri. Yishai sees the direct condemnation he suffered from President Barack Obama as a point to his credit, but Netanyahu and Barak should know better. Indeed, Obama's remarks at the White House seder in praise of freedom can definitely be interpreted as identification with the Palestinians - not only as an obligation to the Jews.

Washington's cold-shoulder attitude has not emerged out of a vacuum: Europe is more critical today of Israel than ever, and the most pointed anti-Israeli speech at the recent Arab League conference was delivered by the prime minister of Turkey, a non-Arab Muslim. Regarding the Syrian diplomatic channel, the opportunity for progress quite possibly has been missed.

Obama, strengthened by his victories in the domestic arena (health insurance) and abroad (the agreement with Russia to reduce nuclear weaponry), has his eye on a weak Israeli prime minister, who is almost devoid of power to resist. This is a significant incentive for the president to demand that Netanyahu offer the Palestinians extensive good-will gestures.

However, a breakthrough in the Palestinian track looks hard to achieve. The Palestinian Authority leadership has noticed the tailwind from America and is preparing accordingly to toughen its positions in negotiations. And even if Netanyahu is capable of overcoming the ideological obstacles and initiating another withdrawal in the West Bank, it appears the lesson drawn by most Israelis from the Gaza disengagement would counsel exactly the opposite behavior: Any territory the IDF leaves provides a new expanse for the Palestinians to launch rockets.

The IDF of today is, to a large degree, symbolized by the Peretz family, which lost two of its sons in battle and whose members reside in towns ranging from Pisgat Ze'ev to Gush Katif, to Kiryat Arba and the Hayovel outpost near the West Bank settlement of Eli.

There is no difficulty in discerning the date the prime minister is fearing: the end of the moratorium on building in the territories in September. This is ominous, even if Netanyahu tries to postpone the crisis in the hope of a Republican victory in the November congressional elections in the U.S., which would relieve some of the pressure on him from Obama.

During the two years prior to his election, the prime minister was imbued with an almost megalomaniac sense of historical mission regarding his ability to remove the Iranian threat. Thirteen month into his second government, it looks as if Netanyahu has, regrettably, missed his mark.

Posted by Amos Harel on April 9, 2010

Previous MESS Report posts:

  • Snubbed IDF chief won't fight to stick around
  • The race is on for next IDF chief
  • Four Gaza factions halt rocket fire, in bow to Hamas
  • Is Gaza now Netanyahu's biggest problem?
  • Despite U.S. anger over settlements, defense ties are flourishing
  • Netanyahu faces a U.S. adamant about East Jerusalem
  • Is Obama's problem that Netanyahu is a Republican at heart?