Ready to Pay the Price

Gabi Ashkenazi didn't have a free minute during the past month, but two weeks ago he spent two hours by the bedside of Raphael Gerstein, in Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. The two held an intimate conversation, laced with heartfelt nostalgia. Raphael and his wife, Shula, members of Kibbutz Reshafim, are the parents of Erez Gerstein, the commander of the Lebanon Division (the "liaison unit"), who was killed in a Hezbollah terrorist attack on February 28, 1999.

In the annals of the Israel Defense Forces, many promising officers have been killed in the line of duty, but in only four instances have their deaths influenced the composition of the high command: Asaf Simhoni, the GOC Southern Command in the Sinai Campaign of 1956; Albert Mandler, who commanded the Sinai Division in the 1973 Yom Kippur War; the GOC Central Command Nehemiah Tamari, in 1994; and Brigadier General Gerstein. The first three all had a good chance to become chief of staff. Gerstein undoubtedly would have become at least a major general, maybe the GOC Northern Command, and if he had held that post last summer, the war in Lebanon would have been conducted in a radically different way.

Ashkenazi has been mourning Gerstein for eight years. His photograph accompanied him from Northern Command to the office of the deputy chief of staff and now, certainly, to the bureau of the chief of staff. When Raphael Gerstein asked to see him, Ashkenazi made time in his crowded schedule as director general of the Defense Ministry and the chief of staff-designate. They talked, naturally, about how much they miss Erez. Who knows, maybe he would have been a contender for chief of staff, Ashkenazi remarked.

In 1998, when Gerstein warned that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon would set off a chain reaction - the consequences, he said, would be the slackening of the South Lebanon Army, the strengthening of Hezbollah, more IDF casualties - he didn't anticipate how quickly he himself would be one of the victims of that call.

Ashkenazi, too, was against abandoning Lebanon without a settlement. He supported an agreement with Syria, whose minimum set price was the Golan Heights, because what remains in the give and take relates to the strip between the slopes of the Golan and Lake Kinneret. In the ceremony Wednesday, at which he formally became chief of staff, Ashkenazi noted that his mother had immigrated to Israel from Syria. The political-security logic and the family background thus converge: If Ashkenazi plays a central role in the attainment of peace with Syria, his mother will be able to return to visit her childhood stomping ground.

As GOC Northern Command, Ashkenazi belonged to the school of his predecessor as commander of the Golani Brigade, Major General (res.) Uri Saguy. Saguy helped the prime minister and defense minister, Ehud Barak, in his contacts with the regime of president Hafez Assad, in part directly with the foreign minister, Farouk Shara, until Barak got scared of himself and withdrew from the withdrawal.

Saguy, Ashkenazi and senior officers in the career army and the reserves volunteered to help Barak market the agreement to the public, if it were signed. Back in 2000, they bemoaned the missed opportunity and feared that a unilateral withdrawal would have an adverse effect on the Palestinian arena. Despite his reservations about such a withdrawal, Ashkenazi conducted Operation Forbearance - the move back from Labanon to the Blue Line in May 2000 - with relative success (no fatalities, but a panicky abandonment of equipment in the field).

Since then, as far as is known, Ashkenazi's approach has not changed. As chief of staff, he will be able to exert his full influence in this direction, as well as reduce the risks of war on the northern front. In all the IDF's war games, exercises and simulations, which presuppose thousands of Israeli casualties in a clash with Syria, the aim of the war is defined in identical terms: to arrive at negotiations with Damascus "from an advantageous position." But what, exactly, will be considered an advantage after all the killing and destruction, when the same result can be reached without even one casualty?

We will know what to do

In February 2000, at a gathering at an air force base, with hundreds of high-ranking officers of the IDF, Barak boasted that "only by setting a target date [for leaving Lebanon] will we create a framework in which it is not important what the other side does. Since we are leaving by choice... we are preventing a dynamics of departure that might give the impression of defeat."

Barak added that it would be preferable to leave as part of a settlement, "because the security situation along the international border will be different if we arrive at a settlement in which there is an address on the other side that takes responsibility with its armed forces for preventing Hezbollah from deploying and opening fire... If there is a settlement with Syria, a settlement with Lebanon will be annexed to it... not because we insist on this as a condition, and not because we discussed it, but because it will stem from the sheer dynamics of the negotiations." A superb analysis, which lacked only the political will to realize it.

"If we do not reach a settlement, we will know what to do in its absence," Barak continued.

Whether Barak returns to the government in three months' time as defense minister - after the internal elections in