Acting Within Authority

The quick decision to appoint Galant highlights the fact that the civilian echelon is in charge when it comes to the army.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday acted as required within their authority and jurisdiction by announcing the appointment of General Yoav Galant as the next chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. From the moment the last legal hurdle was cleared, any further delay in naming the next IDF chief would have been interpreted as casting doubt on the candidate and his abilities, thus damaging the legitimacy of his appointment. The quick decision highlighted the fact that the civilian echelon is in charge when it comes to the army.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, left, and former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi.
Tomer Appelbaum

Barak succeeded in putting down the "putsch" hatched by the outgoing IDF chief, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, his aides and his associates in the army and the senior officer corps in the reserve forces. Ashkenazi called into question his subservience to the defense minister as well as Barak's right, as stipulated by law, to select the candidate of his choosing to become the next chief of staff and to present that appointment for the government's approval. The chief of staff sought to impose the naming of a different candidate on the government - or to wrestle a fifth year in the post.

Ashkenazi and his cohorts waged a multi-pronged campaign against the Galant appointment, which included directly appealing to Netanyahu in an effort to postpone the announcement on a successor, publicly claiming that naming a replacement at the present time would undermine the authority of a serving chief of staff who has been in office for an extended period of time; blaming his direct superior, Barak, for unleashing a media campaign designed to cut down and humiliate Ashkenazi; and, finally, the move that turned out to be an own goal - the leaking of the shady "Galant document" to Channel 2 in an effort to undercut the legitimacy of the minister's decision and besmirch the public image of the GOC Southern Command.

A police investigation revealed the document to be a forgery, and the officers who got their hands on the poisoned fruit and disseminated it throughout their offices and, eventually, to the media, were dealt a stinging defeat. They will need to shed their army fatigues and retire.

Political control of the army and the secret services is a challenge faced by all democratic states, including the powerful United States, whose commander of its forces in Afghanistan was replaced after he undermined the authority of the commander in chief, President Barack Obama. This is certainly the case in Israel, a country in which the issue of security sits atop the public agenda.

Most of the "affairs" and crises from throughout the state's history stemmed from problems in the civilian echelon's ability to exert control over the army and the intelligence community, episodes like the "generals' revolt" against David Ben-Gurion, the decommissioning of the Palmach following the War of Independence, the Lavon affair, the Bus 300 affair and the crisis that immediately preceded the 1967 Six-Day War. The "Galant affair" continues this tradition.

Barak made clear on Sunday that the chief of staff "is subject to the authority of the government and is subservient to the defense minister," as codified by the Basic Law relating to the army. The chief of staff is not an autonomous entity, nor is he entitled to appoint officers and pick his successor, as Ashkenazi's supporters claim.

The defense minister proved on Sunday that he is not a formal rubber stamp whose job is to provide political backing to decisions taken by the chief of staff. Rather, he is "the minister in charge of the army on behalf of the government," and it is his right - even his duty - to intervene in the management of the military.

Barak could also claim credit for a political achievement by winning Netanyahu's full support for naming Galant right now. Barak threatened to resign from the government "in January," or to foment a coalition crisis over the issue of peace negotiations and the freezing of settlements. Netanyahu read the message loud and clear and lined up behind Barak, a scenario that seems to perfectly fit the description of the prime minister as stated in the Galant document. In it, the premier is portrayed as malleable and easily prone to back down in the face of intimidation.

The prime minister demonstrated on Sunday that his alliance with the defense minister has survived the Gaza aid flotilla fiasco and the Galant affair.

Although he could claim victory in his battle with Ashkenazi, the controversy surrounding the chief of staff's appointment is also Barak's failure. In his statements to the Turkel Committee probing the flotilla raid, Barak described his position thus: "As defense minister, I assume overall responsibility over everything that happens in the apparatus over which I'm in charge, and that includes the IDF."

If so, then it is Barak who is responsible for the intrigues, the spreading of rumors and the back-stabbing, even if they were aimed at him. If he didn't know what is going on in the general staff, then that is very bad. It is his job to know such things. If he knew and allowed the poison to wash over the entire apparatus without intervening in time, then that is even worse.