Battle for Post of Military Advocate General Heats Up

Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz disagree on who should be appointed to the post.

The Military Appeals Court's criticism last week of two senior Israel Defense Forces officers - Military Advocate General Maj. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit and former GOC Central Command Gadi Shamni - was exceptionally harsh. The court found fault with the decision by the two to initiate disciplinary action against Kfir Brigade commander Col. Itai Virob, saying the decision may have skewed Virob's testimony in the proceedings against a soldier accused of beating Palestinians.

As a result, the court upheld the soldier's appeal and revoked his conviction last week, sending back the soldier's case for retrial in the Central Command.

The judges said the decision to discipline and subsequently reprimand Virob was "to put it mildly, exceptionally problematic, and liable to be interpreted as inappropriate intervention in a criminal proceeding."

What was left out of last week's media reports about the criticism was the identity of the individual who meted it out - Col. Avi Levi, the court president.

Levi's attack on Mendelblit was legally sound and to the point, and was certainly within the bounds of the court's authority. Nevertheless, it's difficult to ignore the fact that Levi is being mooted as a possible successor to Mendelblit, with the latter reportedly doing all he can to block the former's appointment.

The naming of the new military advocate general has been the subject of a lengthy debate between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. Barak supports appointing Levi to the post, while Gantz objects. Mendelblit, for his part, is backing the candidacy of his deputy, Col. Sharon Afek.

While Barak is the final authority on the appointment, Gantz insisted on his right to submit names of candidate for the defense minister's consideration, eventually submitted three: Afek, Col. Liron Liebman (current head of the international law department in the Military Prosecutors Office ), and Col. (res. ) Danny Efroni, whose last post in the IDF was deputy military advocate general. Levi was not on the list.

Barak and Gantz have consulted on the issue with numerous former military advocate generals and former presidents of the Military Court of Appeals, and each of the main candidates, Afek and Levi, have garnered fierce supporters. Mendelblit and his predecessor, Menahem Finkelstein, support Afek, while Levi has the support of reserve major generals Ben-Zion Farhi, Ilan Schiff and Yishai Bar, and reserve colonels Amnon Straschnov and Uri Shoham.

Afek's supporters stress his experience in international law, an area in which the IDF, particularly since the Goldstone Report on Operation Cast Lead, has been very involved. Levi's supporters claim their man has the advantage of seniority and experience, particularly on the bench, where Afek has never served.

The apparent dropping of Levi from consideration has angered his supporters, who have spent the last several weeks trying to convince Gantz to change his stance and put Levi on the shortlist.

The post of military advocate general is an important and sensitive one, as the individual occupying it has the authority to determine the course of investigations and make decisions relating to ethical problems. Though there have been repeated promises to make a decision on the appointment "soon," Barak and Gantz have apparently not yet made a decision.

Meanwhile, given the background of bad blood between Barak and Gantz's predecessor, Gabi Ashkenazi, rumors have begun to circulate about deals being made that favor one candidate or another. But despite the ongoing debate between Barak and Gantz over the issue, it seems that the dispute is a topical rather than partisan one.