Last summer, shortly before Maj. Gen. Tal Russo was appointed head of the Israel Defense Forces Northern Command, a close associate of Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi was asked who would oversee the southern front in the event of a deterioration of relations with Egypt in the post-Hosni Mubarak era.
Russo, one of the best of his generation in special operations and the head of the IDF Operations Directorate for four years, does not view the Southern Command as too great of a challenge. The day-to-day responsibilities of the GOC are only slightly greater - by the addition of the Arava Sector - than those of the commander of the Gaza Sector. Even an operation such as Operation Cast Lead doesn't come close to a confrontation with a regular army.
Though Russo's resume includes heading the 162nd Armored Division, which has led the IDF in all its wars, it is doubtful whether he, or any other general in active service, has the background needed to lead a multiple-division, aerial and armored battle on the Sinai front, in the event. "In that case," Ashkenazi's associate said, "the chief of staff himself would take command of the front."
For around 30 years, the IDF has created perfunctory scenarios involving regime change in Cairo, but in practice Israel's ability to respond and adapt quickly to such a situation, with the military confrontation it could bring, has atrophied. Documents released by WikiLeaks indicate that this is not the case for the other side: Confrontation with Israel is still behind the strategic planning and the exercises of Egypt's military.
Israel, under the rubric of "risk management" and "prioritizing," translated the small likelihood of the collapse of the peace with Egypt into a reduction of forces in the regular army and the avoidance of sensitive intelligence activities. New theaters, such as the Egyptian-Sudanese border, could give rise to threatening breaches, even without considering the possibility of the Suez Canal being sealed off to the Israel Navy, which is responsible for a large share of the operations carried out in distant quarters.
The peace with Egypt has been a decisive strategic boon to Israel, which must refrain from any action that could jeopardize it. Yet the relative complacency - relative to the concern over other threats, near and far - has a price. Experienced generals who fought in Sinai in the Yom Kippur War as young officers and went to command armored divisions, are discharged not only from the standing army but also from active reserve duty. Various units that specialized in planning and in knowledge of the territory and of the enemy were disbanded. The only Sinai veterans remaining in the top ranks of the defense establishment are Ehud Barak, who during the 1973 war commanded an armored battalion and afterward was a brigade and a battalion commander, and Ashkenazi, who fought in Sinai as a military cadet.
With a different Egypt, one that could react harshly, and with oil prices threatening to climb precipitously, the slim chance of an American assent to an Israeli strike in Iran - thought by some to be the main reason for Barak's support of Yoav Galant as chief of staff - fades to zero. The decision of Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to indict Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, pending a hearing, could remove Yisrael Beiteinu from the coalition and bring elections forward, to this summer. In that case, assuming that Galant's appointment will be canceled, the next cabinet should be allowed to select the next chief of staff.
Barak argued last year, and also when he himself was appointed chief of staff, that a designated chief of staff needs six months to prepare for the post. Two weeks, starting today, are not enough.
Ashkenazi's term, until a new successor can be appointed, vetted and prepared, will more likely resemble that of Moshe Dayan (four years and two months) than Rafael Eitan (five years). The scheme-exposing Barak will suspect a global conspiracy - from Boaz Harpaz to the lands of Moshav Amikam and from the twilight of the Mubarak regime to the indictment of Lieberman - but that is a tolerable price to pay in these crisis-rich circumstances.