It's More Than Tamir

Despite the efforts to focus on Brig. Gen. Moshe Tamir, the affair over the disgraced Gaza Division commander goes beyond the man himself. It involves how the army conducts investigations and prosecutions, quarrels over appointments and ranks in the Military Advocate General's office, and a power struggle: Who determines the outcome of cases involving senior officers? The chief of staff, or lawyers?

The military judges who convicted Tamir of covering up his teenage son's ATV accident exposed severe shortcomings in the Military Police inquiry. Tamir was not questioned under caution, and the investigators did not approach additional witnesses. This suggests the Israel Defense Forces cannot be trusted to probe top brass on its own. Every unit has Military Police investigators who look into matters like arms theft, drug abuse and sexual harassment. They recruit soldiers as informants in problematic units; the soldiers volunteer either because they want to help, or in order to negotiate lighter sentences for their offenses.

The Tamir file revealed that the ATV accident had been caused by the general's son, and not by his driver, as had been written in the official accident report. This revelation was not properly handled, even though the Military Police is supposed to be the Military Advocate General's investigative arm.

Criminal suspicions regarding senior officers is often presented to the chief of staff. The system failed in the Tamir case due to "procedural matters." Conspiracy theorists, however, would say the failure occured because of the people involved. "Procedure" calls for treating the case as an accident with no casualties. Some would say the investigators, or their commanders, took pity on the well-known division commander.

Court president Brig. Gen. Avi Levi wrote the minority opinion, stating that Tamir should not be demoted, but merely should have his promotion postponed. Levi is the leading in-house candidate to become the next military advocate general, after incumbent Brig. Gen. Avichai Mandelblit leaves. The external candidate is deputy state prosecutor Shai Nitzan. Sources in Mandelblit's office say he will agree to stay through 2011, when the next chief of staff takes over, only if he is promoted to major general. This depends on Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. All these calculations erode the public's confidence in military investigations.

Judge Uri Goren, who is a reserves colonel and until recently was president of the Tel Aviv District Court, is a diehard security man who dealt with the most sensitive affairs involving the IDF, the Shin Bet and the Mossad. District Court presidents hear witnesses, and they usually have more experience than Supreme Court justices regarding security-related crimes. Like his predecessor Eliyahu Winograd and their Jerusalem counterpart Vardi Zeiler, who headed military and police probes, Goren would agree to head a committee probing the Military Advocate General's and Military Police's conduct in the Tamir case.

Another Uri Goren, also a reserves colonel, was the communications officer in the paratroops brigade that Ariel Sharon commanded during the 1956 Sinai Campaign. There were two major scandals during that campaign: The superfluous Mitla Pass battle, and the Kafr Qasem massacre. The chief military police investigator in the Kafr Qasem affair, Second Lt. Yaakov Danai, stayed with the Military Police for decades as a reservist, reached the rank of colonel, and has been commanding the internal investigations unit that handles complaints against military policemen. This unit is supposed to examine the Tamir case for Mandelblit.

This Goren, who later commanded an important Intelligence Corps unit, was a key witness in the Mitla scandal. Maj. Gen. Haim Laskov secretly investigated the battle, which cost more than 100 paratroopers their lives because Sharon insisted on moving westward through the narrow pass, even though he had no authorization to do so. Laskov had to choose between the accounts of Sharon and Rehavam Ze'evi, both of whom were lieutenant colonels at that time. The men were photographed together, sitting beside a jeep studying maps. Laskov believed Ze'evi. Now, Goren has revealed in his memoirs that he was the third person in the jeep, and that he was never questioned in the affair.

Had the Mitla disaster happened in 2006, the criticism of the public and the soldiers' parents would have sent Sharon packing, despite his credentials as the main force in the military's fighting spirit. But this was 1956, and Laskov's conclusions remained classified. Sharon was sent into "deep freeze," but a decade later he was promoted to major general and assigned to command a division. He excelled in the 1967 Six-Day War, and then became Southern Command leader. Some of his officers never forgave him for Mitla, including his deputy Yitzhak Hofi and battalion commander Mordechai Gur. However, the IDF felt it needed Sharon, much like it feels about Tamir today, and forgave his shortcomings, much as it has did for ex-chief of staff Moshe Dayan and Ze'evi.

The protection that prime minister and defense minister David Ben-Gurion afforded to people he liked, first and foremost Dayan and Sharon, contradicts his reputation as a man who valued honesty and truth. This was a matter of convenience. Ben-Gurion had a smart managerial tool that disappeared with the years: delaying promotions. At that time, the rank of brigadier general did not exist, and officers went from colonel to major general. A colonel who was assigned a post that carried a general's rank, as in the cases of air force commander Mordechai Hod or training division head Yeshayahu Gavish, had to stay colonels for six months, or even a year, until their superiors agreed to promote them.

Had Tamir regained his composure and acted sensibly, after he let his son drive the ATV and before he filed falsehoods, and had he told his superiors what really happened, they probably would have treated him more leniently. At the most, they would have postponed his promotion. But by behaving as he did, the case became a matter for the military's lawyers, whether they wanted it or not. They had to address the obstruction of an investigation, even if that charge was dropped in the plea bargain Tamir signed.

With his conviction, and demotion to the rank of colonel, Tamir became - in his supporters' words - the army's most vital officer. This argument makes any discussion on appointments superfluous: "Such a terrific officer is always better than all his competitors" (and they surely are his competitors, not his comrades). Tamir is indeed one of the outstanding officers from the 1982 draft - in both his strengths and his shortcomings.

Officers who matured alongside Tamir valued his performance more than his behavior. At a 2004 meeting of officers convened by then-chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon to explain why he had forced Gaza division commander Shmuel Zakai out of the army, a Golani alumnus stood up and asked whether Ya'alon would rein in another officer "who is allowed to do whatever he wants," referring to Tamir. Ya'alon kept Tamir out of the job he wanted - commanding the 91st division along the Lebanon border - and sent him to lead the Central Command instead. Tamir excelled there, and was later promoted to command the Gaza Division.

The key to Tamir's future is now in the hands of Military Court of Appeals head Shai Yaniv, who will choose the bench that hears Tamir's appeal. He might decide to hear the appeal himself. Yaniv can guess what his different colleagues will say regarding the main issue, Tamir's demotion. The choice of bench members may determine the outcome, even though there could always be surprises. Even if the appeal judges uphold the Dreyfus-like demotion, there is no legal reason Tamir could not be re-promoted to brigadier general. We can assume Tamir will leave the Court of Appeals with his rank intact, but even if he is demoted, the claim that this would force him out of the army is sheer demagoguery.

Regardless of what happens with Tamir's appeal, the Military Police's and Military Advocate General's activities still need to be reviewed. The executive branch must make sure this happens, and if it does not, then the Knesset must do so. This is too important a matter to leave with Ashkenazi, who is concerned about Tamir's fate, but most of all is concerned about himself.

If Ashkenazi and Barak consider it important that the next generation of generals includes outstanding field commanders, they will have a tough time convincing people it all depends on Tamir. A better initiative would be to turn to officers in active duty, who were eased out over the past few years but have unexhausted potential. Some could call this "general amnesty," but we could call it generals' amnesty.