A Challenge for the Cabinet

The ministers scheduled this morning to discuss the request to approve GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant as the Israel Defense Forces' 20th chief of staff have a historic opportunity

The ministers scheduled this morning to discuss the request to approve GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant as the Israel Defense Forces' 20th chief of staff have a historic opportunity. Traditionally the cabinet acts as a rubber stamp in the process. The defense minister essentially finalizes the choice in quiet agreement with the prime minister, the media indulges in accolades for the chief of staff-designate, and the ministers vote in favor. But things are different this time. Controversy has surrounded Maj. Gen. Galant's candidacy; controversy that has gone well beyond the so-called Galant document.

Even though the affair is far from over (and is expected to be investigated by at least one committee, headed by Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yitzhak Brick ), most observers agree that Galant had nothing to do with the forged document supporting him and that his name was unjustly linked to it. Galant is a charismatic and wise officer who is very popular among field commanders. He has an impressive background as a soldier and a commander of the naval commandos.

Many lauded the way he managed Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, certainly when compared to our performance in the Second Lebanon War. Serious people, like the CEO of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yedidia Yaari, and the former head of the Shin Bet security service, MK Avi Dichter, consider him the best candidate for chief of staff. On the other hand, there are generals, some still in active service, who describe the pending appointment as a disaster that keeps them up at night.

In 2005, after Ariel Sharon and Shaul Mofaz linked forces to shorten chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon's tenure, former air force chief Dan Halutz was appointed to the job. Halutz lacked knowledge and experience in land warfare. When Sharon was asked about that he said: "It will be fine." Sharon expected to be around to supervise things. The end is well known. In January 2006 Sharon suffered a stroke, and when the Second Lebanon War broke out in July, Halutz was left to deal with it on his own, one side of an inexperienced triangle at the top that included prime minister Ehud Olmert and defense minister Amir Peretz.

It's likely the next chief of staff will face a massive confrontation that will include missile attacks on Israel's home front. This can happen from the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Iran or some combination of the three. Unlike Halutz, Galant underwent an orderly transfer into the ground forces. He left the navy immediately after he completed his tenure as head of the naval commandos. But there are still many questions about his background and other areas. Does Galant lack sufficient experience on the northern border (Syria and Lebanon ), where he never held a command? And what about the fact that he has never served on the General Staff?

During the past two weeks major generals Gadi Eizenkot and Avi Mizrahi announced that they will not serve as deputy chief of staff. Does Galant plan to appoint as his deputy the head of the air force, Ido Nechushtan? At Southern Command he put together a disciplined and effective staff, but how many of the still-active generals will be able to work with him in view of the crisis that accompanied his selection? Most important: What's the chief of staff-designate's stance on strategic issues? Were other candidates rejected because they took a line different from Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Iran? And how does this fit with the upcoming appointment of the new Mossad chief?

It's doubtful whether the media can seriously examine the capabilities of a candidate for chief of staff. Journalists should also not function as cheerleaders for a chief of staff, whether outgoing or incoming. By comparison, the ministers voting on the appointment of a chief of staff have an important role. It's their duty to show interest, at least. True, Barak doesn't like scrutiny, but since the tenure of the 20th chief of staff will be highly significant, it's the least the ministers should do.