“Natan, are you supposed to be here?” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked his bureau chief Natan Eshel. “Do you want, Locker?” Eshel queried, referring to Netanyahu’s military secretary, Maj.-Gen. Yohanan Locker.
“I think the only one relevant to the matter is Locker, not you, and I don’t think it would be a good idea for you to attend this discussion,” Netanyahu said.
“Fine. So do you want Locker?” Eshel had difficulty understanding.
“Locker, if he can join, but not you,” Netanyahu ruled.
This exchange comes from a conversation that took place in Netanyahu’s office in April 2011. Eshel left the room, but Locker, too, remained outside. Netanyahu’s guests had come to record his version of the role he played in the case of Boaz Harpaz, who was suspected of forging a document that ostensibly attests to activity of the by-then-retired Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, against the defense minister, in the matter of appointing Ashkenazi’s replacement at the IDF helm. Regarding Locker’s participation, the investigators explained that, since a major general in the career army serves both the military and the prime minister, it was therefore “undesirable that he be here.”
Eshel is no longer a civil servant, although he remains close to both Netanyahu and his wife, as well as to Yoni Koren, who was Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s chief of staff. Locker is not the military secretary anymore; he left his job and the IDF. A few months after the cited conversation, Locker was one of three senior officials who complained about Eshel’s conduct and sparked a chain of events that resulted in his agreeing to a plea bargain over a disciplinary offense. Netanyahu reacted by cooling his relations with the complainants, not with the object of the complaint.
In that same conversation ,Netanyahu said about Harpaz: “As I understand it, this Harpaz did a lot of exploiting. That is dangerous both normatively speaking and apparently also intelligence- and security-wise. He is not exactly a man who inspires trust. In my eyes, he sounds like a crook who looks like a swindler. He looks like a swindler. You can see he is an ‘operator’ type. My overall view says there is a man here who is unusually problematic, if you like, a con man and corrupt, who manipulates the system very severely. He is ousted by professional authorities and somehow is returned to the system. Why?! And then he shows up with this document, to try to dismiss a candidate for chief of staff, to influence the decision of chief of staff. From the state’s standpoint, these are very, very serious matters.”
Three times, during April-May 2010, Ashkenazi came to Netanyahu and grumbled in his ear, in conversations that were not recorded − although Netanyahu claims he briefed Locker on their contents when they were over − concerning Barak’s attitude toward him. “The tensions in the relations between them arose as a result of Barak’s decision” to forestall a possible extension of Ashkenazi’s term by a fifth year, Netanyahu confirmed.
He explained that Ashkenazi had told him that, “Barak informed him half a year before he was scheduled to leave ... Previously it was three years with the possibility of extending for one year. Ashkenazi was four years with an extension only in extreme situations. That’s what Barak told me. He told me, ‘Listen, I want to bring the round of names half a year before.’ He told me that when he was appointed chief of staff, that was the size of it, so how long, minimum, what would you call reasonable? Three-four months. So what’s another two months? It didn’t seem ... but evidently to Gabi it seemed very important, and Gabi did indeed come and complain about that and then the tension between them was heightened. I heard him, I told Barak, because I realized there were different tensions between them, the meaning for me was, the only real way to resolve the problem is to make a replacement.
“I’ve encountered this, and so have you, dozens of times in various organizations. The only way to resolve a personal problem between the appointed and the appointee is to replace [the latter]. Completely obvious, as far as I’m concerned, nature’s way − also when I was a bureaucrat, when I joined the civil service and was on the other side of the curtain [as deputy chief of mission in Washington, D.C., in 1982-84] − whatever Misha [Moshe] Arens decides, that is what we will do. So Barak wants to replace him, they don’t get along, let him replace him. What can you do? I didn’t like it and didn’t want it, but Gabi raised the question of a round of appointments. He wanted to complete the round of appointments before he left. I told him I would deal with it, I also discussed it with Barak ... After all, the one who has to decide the next round of appointments is not the outgoing chief of staff. If anything, the one who ought to have the most serious input on this is the incoming chief of staff and above him of course the defense minister, who is in charge ...
“One time he spoke with me about the appointment of chief of the Intelligence Directorate. I think he told me, ‘I have a question here of appointing the head of the Intelligence Directorate.’ I don’t see the problem. I mean, I got it, but fine, so there’ll be an Intelligence Directorate chief decided a month later, a month earlier. It didn’t seem right to me. It seemed to me that the correct thing to do is to enable the replacement and a round of appointments that will ultimately include the next chief of staff, according to the defense minister.”
Netanyahu recognized the fact that Ashkenazi had been slighted, and dismissed it. “Two months more or two months less, of notice about a replacement, it doesn’t seem serious to me. It seems to me, yes, in terms of norms, possibly it was a slight. That much I understood. Possibly he felt personally offended, I got that, but it didn’t seem crucial to me. There is nothing crucial about these timetables. It was pretty clear there is a clear hierarchy here, that there is a correct order here, a ministerial rank that appoints and the incoming chief of staff ought to be involved in the round of appointments.
“I brought this up to Barak, I told him that Ashkenazi is making this complaint, but I didn’t stop any process. I told the chief of staff that I understand, that I will raise the matter with the defense minister. I raised it, but I didn’t stop any process. I don’t recall a single time that I said to Barak, ‘Don’t do that.’ I told him: ‘Listen, take into consideration that there is this reaction of Gabi’s. I see no cause preventing this, but I hear there is a lot of friction, just so you know.’ I told him that, but I didn’t stop him, I didn’t give him a directive to stop appointments, I don’t recall such a thing.
“There have been points of friction like those between a defense minister and chief of staff. What, wasn’t there with [then-chief of staff Moshe] ‘Bogey’ Ya’alon [and Shaul Mofaz]? There was awful tension there. There is interpersonal tension. It happens sometimes, but it didn’t hurt the work in any way that I saw. It didn’t hurt Gabi and the General Staff’s ability to express their opinion on any matter they needed to.
“I always let them, more than any other prime minister, in my estimation, I dare say ... express their opinions fully on sensitive subjects. Not that they decide, but to express their opinion. I saw no blocking of the ability to express themselves, I saw no problem with functioning. It’s true that the matter leaked out. I get that each claims the other leaked it, but I didn’t understand where the harm was.
“Can someone explain to me, maybe update me? Because it is beyond me. Where’s the great wrongdoing? I certainly would not have waged a press battle. I never did that. Witness the appointment of the Mossad chief and Shin Bet chief. That’s how it went by them [Barak, Ashkenazi, Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant]. It wasn’t good. It was bad, I also asked that it not happen, I hoped it would not happen, but it was of no use. There were astonishing impulses here, so I said: Okay, let’s get this over with, obviously it can’t be dragged out, so what would you do? Would I have left it? It would have fallen to pieces.
“The military was coming apart. The General Staff was coming apart. The only thing that could salvage it was not continuing Gabi’s tenure, replacing him with someone. We thought Galant. And what happened, happened. Not Galant? So, another decision has to be made quickly, about something that will bring peace and quiet to the General Staff, which is also part of the considerations in our defense capability. I don’t know what status this fellow, Harpaz, has. I don’t know if he still has access to materials. It is very bad if he does. A stop must be put to that immediately. But the main consideration, from my standpoint, was not Harpaz, not in the sense that I can see the clear connection between Gabi and him. That is a question Barak raised. The question for me was that these two cannot be together, that’s it, enough − and appoint a new chief of staff, then you will have quiet on the spot. That is exactly what happened. I appointed a new chief of staff and the whole business settled down.
“Gabi should have, in my opinion − he had such a document in his hand − come to me and said: ‘I have this document, I demand action.’” After Channel 2 broadcast what would come to be known as the Harpaz document, said Netanyahu, “from the moment I heard that, I said, look into it immediately, that is something incomparably serious. I immediately telephoned [Attorney General] Yehuda Weinstein. I told him: ‘Launch a police investigation at once.’”
About Harpaz, Netanyahu said: “The claim was that he, this Harpaz, exploited funds and means and resources [belonging to a clandestine intelligence unit] in a non-kosher manner, and that in general he is a very dubious character. There was all sorts of information about him, very serious things that this man had done, and some of it sounded authentic. The allegation was, and it may be said that Barak alleged this, that basically Ashkenazi systematically covered for Harpaz, gave him protection. I don’t know if that’s true. I’d venture to say that the things being said about Harpaz are true ... I received this information from Barak. There was a deluge of some kind, I no longer remember from where, I’m not sure everything came from Barak. There were all sorts of noises. There was a rustling, a constant rustling.”
Ashkenazi told Netanyahu that Galant was using the help of public relations people and Netanyahu’s old rival Ariel Sharon’s “farm forum.”
Netanyahu: “I thought, is Galant that foolish, can it be that he is really that stupid? I’m used to it: There is hardly a candidate for any post about whom opponents of his appointment send a stream of explanations my way about how unacceptable this man is, and how he is generally dead-set against me, or works with people who are dead-set against me. On this basis, I can’t appoint anyone, because nearly everyone falls into that category. If you want to appoint someone to Mifal Hapayis, if you want to appoint someone to any position − it is a veritable national illness. But if he had come to me and said: ‘Listen, there is this paper here by Eyal Arad, which develops such a strategy,’ believe me, I would have been jolted as though snake-bitten.”
The minuscule part Mossad chief Tamir Pardo played in passing along the Harpaz document “troubled me greatly,” Netanyahu said. “You can see my attitude to this document not only in that I asked the attorney general at once to launch a police investigation, but also in that I long held off appointing Tamir Pardo, because of the fact that the document had been in his hands, that he did not do anything with it. I viewed that as something very serious. I summoned Tamir several times, I spoke with him about it several times. I said to him: ‘Listen, I am very concerned about this, because there is here something that cannot be, it is a terrible document. If it is real, it is terrible, and if it is fake, it is terrible.
“In practice, I delayed the appointment of the Mossad chief, because he in one way or another took part in that document. If the document was real, he should have come to me with that thing. He knew I was considering him, he should have come. I said to him, ‘why didn’t you come to me? If you thought it was real, why didn’t you bring it to me? If you thought it was fake, why didn’t you come to me? Why did you pass it on, or whatever he did there.’”
Pardo, Netanyahu added, “explained to me, he said that he was merely asked how to pass on this thing, whom to consult, and he gave advice of some sort. I believed him. I believe him, that this is what he said.”
After Pardo was appointed Mossad chief, over Barak’s objections, Netanyahu also considered appointing Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, IDF chief of staff: “Galant I knew from when he was commander of the naval commando unit, and when he was Sharon’s military secretary and I was finance minister. He came to me on more than one occasion to get money for various things and I had a chance to form an impression of him. I formed a good impression of him. He also had a reputation as a good commander, a combat commander. I thought it important. That trait, ultimately, in my eyes, has great value. After Barak came and made the suggestion, I said: Go ahead, appoint him, there is no problem.
“After Galant was out and it was clear he had fallen, I thought that in this process, because of the mess created here, I have to be a lot more involved in the appointment, to see the two leading candidates and interview them, both Gantz and Eizenkot. They came to my home in Caesarea. Both of them made an exceptional impression on me. Not egocentric at all. Eizenkot told me: ‘I’m not suitable at the moment, appoint Benny.’ And Benny said, ‘Decide however you decide. I want it very much.’ They made an extraordinary impression on me as patriots, as serious people.
“I wanted to see Eizenkot, because of the component that interested me then, Galant, because he is considered a very good field commander [an quality Netanyahu indicated that Gantz lacked]. And to ponder. I know it’s going to be Gantz, but I still want to study the matter of Eizenkot, because of that. But Eizenkot told me, ‘It isn’t me, it’s him, I’m not suitable right now,’ so that ended the matter. It’s possible I would have mulled it over for another 24 hours, but there were no misgivings, it ended that moment. That was my involvement in this process and I think it was necessary and correct.
“In view of that experience, it is possible that this procedure I adopted, in practice here, is the correct procedure. Who should be the one to appoint? Active judgment on the part of the prime minister helps to strike a balance. There could be a situation of conflict between the prime minister and the defense minister, it could happen in the future. In this case it did not happen, because Barak agreed to this appointment of Gantz.”
At the meetings in Caesarea, added Netanyahu, “Barak was also present, he asked to be. My wife was at home, but did not sit in on the meeting. Afterward I spoke with Barak and told him my opinion. Both people are excellent, we can’t go wrong either way, but nevertheless I felt a responsibility in these circumstances. By the way, we asked them ethical things too, I want to know, ‘If you have a problem, a balcony, tell me now so we will know. Because these things can always develop, so tell me,’ and they did, Gantz did and he told me what there was to tell.”