Blaming the Fourth Year

At the end of yesterday's cabinet debate over the appointment of the next Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Defense Minister Ehud Barak revealed the real reason for his tempestuous relationship with outgoing IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi. Had Ashkenazi's term been limited to three years, Barak said, there would have been no problem.

Apparently it wasn't the idea of a fifth year, which was floating about until Barak shot it down, that bothered the defense minister. It was Ashkenazi's fourth year in office that Barak sought to make as difficult as possible.

Barak argued last week that Israel needs to spell out the chief of staff's powers. He was referring to the bogus dispute over the relative status of the defense minister and chief of staff.

All that commotion was meant to make Barak look more powerful, but all it did was bring him down to size as the cabinet reminded him that it appoints the chief of staff and he just serves as its representative.

Such politicization of the army hasn't been seen for decades. The power to offer the incumbent chief of staff a fourth year in office was given to the cabinet as a whole, though it was intended to be used only in rare circumstances, like on the eve of war. That's how Haim Bar-Lev got his fourth year from Golda Meir in 1971, in light of the Egyptian threat to renew the War of Attrition.

It's a good idea, if not an original one, to grant three-year terms to chiefs of staff (even though Barak himself got an extra nine months in the post ). Turnover is crucial, and it is essential to give middle-aged generals an incentive to hang around for another chance to make it to the top.

Galant is starting his five-month period of on-the-job training on a bad foot. On a personal level (though not a national one ), he is facing the toughest circumstances ever for an Israeli chief of staff beginning his term, though the generals who so vehemently opposed him have yet to explain their reasoning.

Galant deserves an opportunity to defend himself against the whispered gossip. As army chief-designate, though not yet commander of those whispering generals, this is his last chance to hear what they have against him and try to win them over. He needs to get them together, without Barak or Ashkenazi, for a weekend of all the claims and accusations.