Analysis / How the Chief of Staff Position Was Lost

Almost no one comes out of this story well, but one thing is clear: The appointment process of the IDF chief is in desperate need of improvement.

This story features a horse named Olympus, who used to be a competitive jumper. It belonged to Gali Ashkenazi, daughter of Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and his wife Ronit. Four years ago, when Olympus reached the ripe old age of 14, a friend of the Ashkenazi family, Erez Zuckerman, looked for a place to put it out to pasture. He asked one of his neighbors on Moshav Amikam about it. The horse ‏(res.‏) did well at Amikam until eventually moving on to that stable in the sky.

Ashkenazi and Zuckerman knew each other back when they served together in the elite Egoz unit. Later, when Ashkenazi was GOC Northern Command, he defended Zuckerman when a petition was submitted against the latter’s appointment to command Shayetet 13, the naval commandos. But Zuckerman now belongs to the rival camp, that of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant.

IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi
Tomer Appelbaum

Somehow, the story of Olympus took wings throughout the Israeli press, as its members sought some sort of connection between Ashkenazi, who never met the horse’s host, and Galant’s troubles.

But after yesterday, when the chief of staff’s job finally slipped away from Galant, there is no longer any point in the effort by his camp, headed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, to cast Ashkenazi as the villain who sought to thwart the hero.

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss’ announcement focused on Galant alone. Perhaps this was only supposed to happen tomorrow or next week, but the Galant camp’s bizarre tactics, the latest in a series of mistakes it has made over the past year, made it happen even before the High Court of Justice ruled, and before Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein had even reponded to the High Court petition against Galant’s appointment.

As a leading candidate for chief of staff, thanks to Barak’s clear preference for him, Galant should have handed his controversial private affairs over to a trustee, or arbitration, or some other framework that would prevent his candidacy from being attacked in High Court petitions.

Yesterday morning, Galant’s supporters said Lindenstrauss was reasonably satisfied with Galant’s story, that things were not so bad. The State Comptroller’s Office read that false report and decided, yes, they are that bad.

Now, it is not the petitioners who must prove Galant’s faults, but Galant who must find excuses for his actions − and, even more, for his problematic signatures on documents that are far from truthful. But even if he finds some excuse that manages to scrape by Weinstein, the High Court will be skeptical.

The heart of the petition revolves around the appointment process, which revealed serious flaws and is in desperate need of improvement. Galant is now hopelessly compromised.

But Weinstein and his office could be the next victims, if he gambles on the High Court’s usual deference to his considered opinion. Though it would be natural for him to try to save a candidate for chief of staff, Weinstein must first save the attorney general.

Jacob Turkel has been embarrassed by accusations that the committee he heads, which is supposed to vet senior civil service appointments, was careless in Galant’s case. But the government was similarly careless in choosing the committee’s members, who serve a three-year term.

Gila Finkelstein, for example, was formerly a mediocre Knesset member from the National Religious Party. Party activists like Zevulun Orlev begged various ministers to find her a job, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found the perfect one: appointing the IDF chief of staff, the police commissioner and the heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service.

Turkel and Co. now have only bad alternatives: They can resign; they can insist on reapproving the appointment and thus expose themselves to the High Court; or they can nix the appointment and say that last time, they were misled ‏(by Galant‏).

Barak will try to get Netanyahu to dig himself in. But the remnants of Barak’s credibility sunk along with Galant’s chances of becoming chief of staff, and Barak’s political power has faded.

Barak’s influence over Netanyahu on security matters does not blind ministers who have been humiliated by him and are jealous of the successful rebellion staged by Improvement of Government Services Minister Michael Eitan, who fought Galant’s appointment.

The law allows the defense minister to propose a candidate for chief of staff. But it doesn’t prevent other cabinet ministers from demanding the establishment of a committee to discuss the appointment in order to rein in the defense minister.

The question was never whether Galant had an inherent right to be chief of staff, but what damage would be done to the state if he were not appointed.

Now that the answer to that is obvious, the question of who the next chief of staff will be is in the air. When Barak recommended Galant, he said his choice was not easy, having been made from among several excellent candidates. He will not be able to justify ignoring those candidates now.

A more immediate question is what will happen on February 14, when Ashkenazi’s term ends. If Barak hopes Ashkenazi will refuse to remain in office a bit longer to ensure a smooth handover to his successor, he will be sorely disappointed. Ashkenazi will accede to the cabinet’s request, no doubt backed by a plea from President Shimon Peres as well, and will view the additional weeks as a kind of reserve duty.