IDF Chiefs and Defense Ministers: A Relationship Without Rules

Harpaz affair probe shows debacle could easily happen again.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Former IDF chief Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Barak in 2011.
Former IDF chief Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Barak in 2011.Credit: Ariel Hermoni
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Harpaz affair, which began with a forged document meant to influence the appointment of the next chief of staff but quickly expanded into other issues, revealed many problems in the relationship between the defense minister and the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff. The state comptroller’s probe of this affair concluded that some of these problems are structural. But so far, almost nothing has been done to fix them.

In particular, the way the chief of staff and other senior IDF officers are appointed remains unchanged, despite vocal promises to correct it. As one person closely involved in the issue said, it remains “a process devoid of process that takes place in dark corners with no transparency or public supervision.”

Granted, the relationship between the defense minister and the chief of staff has improved, but only because new people entered these jobs: Moshe Ya’alon replaced Ehud Barak as defense minister and Benny Gantz replaced Gabi Ashkenazi as chief of staff. The rules of the game, though, remain unchanged.

Moreover, the ugly atmosphere is liable to return soon, due to the race over who will succeed Gantz. The leading candidate, Deputy Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, was marginally involved in the Harpaz affair. And the recent entry into the race of Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant – the man whose appointment the forged document was meant to prevent, though he ultimately lost the job for other reasons – is liable to reawaken all the old tensions.

The Basic Law on the Army states that the chief of staff is appointed by the cabinet “upon the recommendation” of the defense minister. The comptroller’s report on the Harpaz affair devoted an entire chapter to this process. After interviewing past and present office-holders, it concluded that prime ministers, defense ministers and chiefs of staff have very different views of how this law should be interpreted. In practice, there are no fixed procedures, no documentation and no transparency.

The law doesn’t even define the length of the chief of staff’s term. Ashkenazi served four years, and a dispute erupted over whether he should be given a fifth. Gantz’s term was originally set at three years, but last year the cabinet extended it for a fourth. In contrast, the terms of most senior public officials are fixed by law, including the president, attorney general, national security adviser and head of the Shin Bet security service.

One key question over which Barak and Ashkenazi squabbled was when the minister should start interviewing candidates to become the next chief of staff. Barak began doing interviews in August 2010, six months before Ashkenazi’s term ended. That infuriated Ashkenazi, who saw it as an attempt to turn him into a lame duck. Ya’alon plans to begin his interviews this October, four months before Gantz’s term ends. No law or regulation addresses this question.

The comptroller’s report also discussed the appointment of IDF major generals – another bone of contention between Ashkenazi and Barak. Here, too, the law is unclear. Ostensibly, this is the chief of staff’s decision. But the process calls for the chief of staff to make recommendations and the defense minister to approve them. The result is that in practice, the two must consult, and often even negotiate over this issue.

One particularly critical appointment is that of the deputy chief of staff. First, holding this position is almost a necessity for anyone seeking to become chief of staff, and this gives the sitting chief of staff significant influence over the choice of his successor. Second, the deputy replaces the chief of staff whenever the latter is ill or abroad. Thus a situation could arise in which the army is temporarily commanded by someone whose appointment the cabinet had nothing to do with and never voted on.

Disputes between the minister and the chief of staff over other appointments important to both, like the military advocate general or the coordinator of government activities in the territories, are also common, and there are no rules for how to resolve them. Toward the end of Ashkenazi’s term, the IDF proposed a bill on this issue, but it died after he left office.

The comptroller also found numerous problems with Military Intelligence’s special operations department, primarily relating to consulting contracts and other economic ties with civilians who serve as reservists in the department. The defense minister and MI claim these problems have been solved, but some intelligence professionals are skeptical of this claim.

The Defense Ministry and the IDF have a standard procedure for dealing with the comptroller’s regular annual reports: A committee is appointed to oversee correction of the problems the report cited; it briefs the comptroller’s office on what has been done; and the comptroller’s office issues a follow-up report. But no such procedure exists for dealing with special reports like the one on the Harpaz affair, making it harder to determine whether problems have actually been fixed.

Aside from the structural issues, the Harpaz affair revealed serious ethical problems in the IDF. Among other instances of misbehavior, senior officers destroyed information and lied to the comptroller and the police. For instance, police say Ashkenazi’s top aide, Col. Erez Weiner, deleted information from a computerized datebook about Ashkenazi’s meeting with then-Police Commissioner David Cohen in order to mislead the comptroller.

So what has the IDF learned from this? Have any steps been taken to prevent a recurrence? So far, the army has made do with declaring that the atmosphere has improved – and canceling Weiner’s appointment as its chief education officer.

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