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Even when the commander of the IAF presents himself as a humble subcontractor and not the architect, his identity and the timing of his appointment are important; you don't want an experienced commander stepping down right before a new military challenge.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

When GOC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Yair Golan was drafted, in 1980, the regular army had two infantry brigades - Paratroops and Golani - and six armored brigades. Today the situation is nearly reversed. The army changes in accordance with society, the economy and changes in the character of warfare. Even Sayeret Matkal, the General Staff's elite special-operations force, which held onto the precious real estate of its base in central Israel for years after other units vacated, finally surrendered. The force will soon move to its new base in the south.

The changes have not affected the centrality of the Israel Air Force. The only way to avoid being worn down in tank-to-tank combat in Sinai in the event the new Egypt violates the peace treaty is by building battle plans around a swift and overwhelmingly superior air fleet. Even when the commander of the IAF presents himself as a humble subcontractor and not the architect, his identity and the timing of his appointment are important; you don't want an experienced commander stepping down right before a new military challenge.

In December 2007, Iran's nuclear program seemed to be approaching the tipping point. Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was undecided over who to name as successor to IAF Commander Eliezer Shkedy, and when. In a two-way race between the head of the planning and policy directorate, Maj. Gen. Ido Nechushtan, and the commander of IAF headquarters, Brig. Gen. Amir Eshel, Ashkenazi's preference was for the older Nechushtan to be tapped first. Eshel could be promoted to succeed Nechushtan, first in the planning directorate and, later, as head of the air force. Defense Minister Ehud Barak concurred. Due to external circumstances, Iran's nuclearization was delayed. Nechushtan became IAF commander in May 2008.

This play is currently in revival on the Israel Defense Forces stage, with a new cast: Only Barak has kept his role from the last time, while Ashkenazi became his primary archenemy. And still, waiting in the wings, a potential military conflict with Iran. Vying for the lead role this time are Eshel and the military secretary to the prime minister, Maj. Gen Yohanan Locker. The fact that the latter is a navigator should not count against him. It did not keep him from commanding a combat squadron and the Hatzerim Airbase, as well as serving as a group commander. But, as in 1990, when it was Barak's turn to be named chief of staff, there is no real reason now to relinquish Eshel and send him home. He is a knowledgeable and opinionated planning directorate head, ready to take command of the IAF and fully oriented within his various environments - strategic, operational and budgetary. Weighing against him is that he was close to Ashkenazi during his time as chief of staff; Benjamin Netanyahu's lobbying efforts on behalf of Locker; and the assumption that Locker would be a more pleasant travel companion for Barak and the prime minister on their crazed flight to Tehran.

Locker, the wind beneath the wings of Netanyahu's bomber, gathered the momentum to overrule National Security Council heads (in violation of the law) and was sucked into the politicians' court, as a few of his predecessors were with Ariel Sharon.

Netanyahu's disregard of the state comptroller's report warning of the inappropriately great power of the military secretary proves that the criticism was apt.

As part of the balance of powers and the reining-in of the politicization of the army, the political leadership can prefer one candidate to another as long as the reasons are solid, and the IDF chief of staff agrees. Defense Minister Moshe Arens received from the outgoing IAF chief, Avihu Bin-Nun, a graded comparison of five candidates to succeed him, with Eitan Ben-Eliahu in first place and Herzl Bodinger last. On account of his support for the Lavi project, Arens picked Bodinger. Chief of Staff Barak did not object. Ben-Eliahu remained for the next time, with the recommendation of the next chief of staff, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.

The key, then, is Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Until now, he has avoided confrontations with Barak and done his bidding. His conciliatory approach has won him affection, rather than respect, among the top brass. At the start of his term, which he does not owe to Barak and Netanyahu - they did not want him - he said he would agree to interference from above only with regard to appointing his deputy and the head of Military Intelligence. Since then, he has given in two or three times. If he does so over Eshel's appointment, then Gantz will remain Barak's chief of staff, next to Barak's supreme chief of staff, Yoni Koren, but he will not be the true chief of staff.

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