Facing Backward, They March Forward

The army's top brass was always political, but in recent weeks, in the service of Kadima, it has gone backward, to the 1950s of Mapai.

They did not manage to get a former chief of staff, but they did snag a former head of the Mossad, a retired police commissioner, five reserve major generals and other retirees with the rank of brigadier general or colonel, in order to scatter gunpowder, rub in some gun lubricant, wipe off the dust of battle and anoint Ehud Olmert with this mixture as Ariel Sharon's heir. This anointing will take place this evening at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds, not far from the booths where Olmert just barely made it onto the Likud Knesset slate, before he switched parties and was converted from a hack into a leader. This is "a conference of generations of warriors for the sake of advancing peace, security and Israeli society via Sharon's path, in the presence of Olmert." And what a presence: of generations of warriors, Ehud in his generation and Arik Sharon in his.

The veterans give themselves labels. Haim Erez is "commander of the tank brigade in the [Suez] crossing division" commanded by Sharon in 1973. Danny Matt and Shimon (Katche) Kahaner bear similar tags - commander of the crossing division's Paratroops brigade. Shlomo (Chich) Lahat, who has been a politician since 1972, is "commander of the armored forces in Sinai" during the War of Attrition. In the back hides the event's impresario, a reserve colonel and treasurer of the Armored Corps Association, which Erez chairs: Avigdor Yitzhaki, one of Sharon's aides and a Kadima party candidate for Knesset.

Politics makes odd bedfellows. Menachem (Mendy) Meron carried out Moshe Arens' campaign to purge the defense establishment of Sharon's influence following Sharon's ouster as defense minister during the Lebanon War. But now, he favors Sharon's path. Arik's "Chich," "Katche" and "Mendy" are with Olmert, to whom the quartermaster failed to issue the nickname of "soldiers' buddy." But no matter: They all participated in the same stretcher march, whether they were on the stretcher or under it.

The king is in a coma, long live the king. And the former lords of the army are gathering to swear fealty to Olmert - who did not abstain from politics even during his compulsory and reserve army service - and to thereby grant him the public rank of honorary commander, just as Kentucky did for Colonel Sanders, the commander of its fried chicken brigade.

Such a mobilization of retired army officers for the sake of a political candidate with a security background is nothing new. Shabtai Shavit and Shlomo Aharonishky, Avihu Ben-Nun and Asher Levy, Erez and Matt and Meron and Kahaner - they are merely following in the footsteps of officers who supported the right wing of the Labor movement: David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan of Rafi, Yigal Yadin of Dash, Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and Ehud Barak in 1999. Dayan, Yadin, Rabin and Barak were all lieutenant generals. Centrist parties that were headed by more junior officers, such as Avigdor Kahalani's Third Way and Yitzhak Mordechai's Center Party, met with chilly receptions from the highly rank-conscious military gang.

Kadima, essentially a new incarnation of Rafi and Dash, gained the support of this group's members despite its roots in the Likud, thanks to their comrade (and rival) in arms, Sharon. It is seeking to keep these security doyens with Olmert by billing him as Sharon without Sharon. Had Barak been at the side of Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz, it would have been harder.

The soldiers of 1948 and 1973 are citizens, and therefore free to vote for whomever they most admire, however dubious their choices. The same is not true of the General Staff of 2006, which has blatantly mobilized behind Kadima, as well as behind its own self-promotion. Not a week goes by without some photo opportunity of a senior officer alongside a Kadima candidate, such as a candidate looking through binoculars or standing beside the Israel Air Force commander in the Negev.

GOC Central Command Yair Naveh was reprimanded because he tacitly questioned President George Bush's vision of Arab democracy, thanks to which the Palestinian majority could vote to overthrow the monarchy in Jordan. Naveh sinned by intruding on the political domain for purposes other than praising the government and its policies - and worse, at an institute identified with Benjamin Netanyahu and against the tide: His words could be interpreted as criticism of Olmert, who allowed Hamas to participate in the Palestinian elections and win them.

The army's top brass was always political, but in recent weeks, in the service of Kadima, it has gone backward, to the 1950s of Mapai.