For the first time in the country's history, Israel will see a police investigation launched into a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff. The issue to be probed is the one at the nexus of the work of Lt. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi as chief of staff – his relationship to the political officials in authority. That is the real significance of the statement by the Justice Ministry Thursday regarding the expansion of the investigation into the Harpaz document. Underneath the complex legalese hides a real bomb tossed at Ashkenazi’s doorstep.
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For many months, we were told by the best pundits that this affair was over: the public had had enough of the troublesome details; none of those involved were faultless; the truth in any case would never come out and it’s better to leave behind these boring stories of intrigues at the IDF headquarters, and move on. But now, on the instruction of Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, we can assume that, upon learning its details, it would turn out that the story is still a matter of public interest.
Weinstein did not make his decision lightly. Quite a bit of less-than-moderate pressure had to be brought to bear by the military advocate general, Maj. Gen. Dan Efroni, to get the attorney general to make a decision. This was finally obtained in the last of a series of meetings on Thursday. The unholy alliance between the two gatekeepers – the attorney general and the new state comptroller, Yosef Shapira, did its best so the investigation would not go back to the criminal realm. Weinstein and Shapira, who inherited the state comptroller’s report on the matter from his predecessor, Micha Lindenstrauss, treated the Harpaz case like leprosy, from which one should keep as far away as possible. If Weinstein was forced to return the case to the police, we may assume that the suspicions presented were substantial.
The attorney general’s statement suggests that the investigation has moved from the realm of the military code of justice to the penal code. There, the discussion will be about suspicions of alleged fraud and breach of trust. There may also be suspicions of obstruction of an investigation and of justice. At the heart of the affair, as the final state comptroller’s report revealed last January, is the question of the collection of the defamatory material by the chief of staff’s aide, Col. Erez Weiner, and the forger of the document, Boaz Harpaz - Ashkenazi’s close associate (the former chief of staff was not himself involved in the forgery or in leaking the document to the press).
The target of the new probe is Ashkenazi and not Weiner, whose investigation could have been handled by the Military Police alone. Weinstein acted under threat of the petition to the High Court of Justice, submitted by the Movement for Quality Government and demanding a criminal probe. The hearing on the petition has been scheduled for September and the state would have had a hard time explaining why it had refrained from launching such an investigation despite the mounting ostensible suspicions.
The Military Police probe itself was confidential, but it seems to have centered on the battle between Ashkenazi’s bureau and that of former Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and on claims that government officials had been undermined. A good deal of the struggle between the two men’s offices took place in the media, and involves the relationship between Ashkenazi and his spokesman with journalists. This, of course, is a particularly problematic area for the police to look into. It is to be assumed that the investigators will tread carefully there, whether to avoid impairing freedom of the press or out of the reasonable expectation that the police will subsequently face a settling of accounts. Efroni, a determined and honest man, whose picture in uniform should appear next to the meaning of the word “square” in the dictionary, has been bracing himself since Friday. He probably will soon have to hear more baseless claims that he is Barak’s messenger.
The main evidence in the case were found in a series of conversations taped in Ashkenazi’s office, which were examined by the state comptroller, and recently more thoroughly by Military Police investigators. As far as we know, the military investigators did not question witnesses or suspects. The Israel Police will have to do that, confronting those involved with what emerges from the tapes. What exactly the military advocate general and his staff came across in the investigation is not known, but we can assume that there is enough there to persuade even the biggest skeptics among the senior officials in the State Prosecutor’s Office to change their minds and toe the line with the MAG’s position.
As far back as May 2012, the former state comptroller recommended a new police investigation. Weinstein and people speaking for him explained at the time how Lindenstrauss clearly must have lost his mind and there was no justification to ask them to extricate the state comptroller from the entanglement he had created. The fact that they changed their minds strengthens the conclusions of the report by the state comptroller, who had been the target of so much criticism by the press. Lindenstrauss and his people had set out a position in the realm of normative conduct. To it they appended important recommendations with regard to the process of appointing a chief of staff, which have not yet been implemented. Now comes the turn of the police to fully investigate the criminal suspicions, a task at which it failed abysmally in its previous attempt. It cannot be ruled out that to get a breakthrough, the investigators will now try to seek a state’s witness among the lower-level suspects
The attorney general’s statement reflects a gloomy time for the IDF. Of course, meanwhile, there is no decision on indictments and it could very well be that none will be forthcoming in the end. But the very fact that a former chief of staff is expected to be summoned to interrogation as a suspect, and no longer as a person in a privileged position asked to give testimony will be very unpleasant (one of the testimonies in the summer of 2010 was taken from him at home, in the presence of his wife, Ronit, who was also involved in the affair).
Senior figures in the defense establishment came together on Thursday night in Tel Aviv for a farewell event for the outgoing Defense Ministry director general, Udi Shani. Although Barak and Ashkenazi were not present, Weinstein’s statement was the subject of the hour. The more time passes, the more of the military and defense brass realize what they should have realized exactly three years ago, when the affair began. Barak’s public conduct was very frequently infuriating. It is very doubtful that he will be remembered as an outstanding example of leadership or proper administration. But as far as the heart of the dispute goes – the conduct of the chief of staff toward the minister overseeing him – more and more people believe that, in principle, Barak was in the right.
Ashkenazi will have to present good answers to the police and in the end will also have to answer to the public for his years of conflict with the minister. Even if it turns out that there is no basis for criminal proceedings, the public shadow is not going away any time soon. The former chief of staff on Thursday made do with a short statement in which he said he will always cooperate fully with the authorities and that he hopes that this time the truth will come to light. We may certainly join him in this hope.