Good Move, Bad Timing

Mofaz made a good move recommending that military service be shortened, but the timing is off, since the next Knesset is sovereign not to accept the recommendation.

Chief of Staff Dan Halutz's face said it all. Presumably he found it hard to believe that it was happening to him again. In November 2002, the day of the vote for the chairmanship of the Likud on the eve of the Knesset election, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz recruited the commander of the air force for a triple picture in what was ostensibly a security context - the launching of a missile at an Israeli plane in Mombasa - but really political.

On Monday, once again on the eve of an election, once again in what was ostensibly a security context but really a political context, Halutz was recruited for another triple picture, with Mofaz and Avi Ben-Bassat, chairman of the committee that recommended the abbreviation of compulsory military service. Had he been able to, the chief of staff would have avoided this and left the honor to his deputy, Major General Moshe Kaplinsky, an enthusiastic member of the Ben-Bassat committee. But Kaplinsky is in America and Halutz had to serve as a prop in the play called "Abbreviated Service," that is - the prolongation of Mofaz's service in the Defense Ministry. Bad timing spoiled a good move.

The intention, in and of itself, is worthy. It was also worthy when Uzi Dayan spoke in favor of it and Mofaz opposed it (at that time the security situation was grave, and in the meantime it has improved). Halutz was not just a passive participant in the pageant. Until recently his officers made a point of expressing on his behalf opposition to the abbreviation of service; now they are mumbling that this was just a tactic that was useful in obtaining from the Finance Ministry compensation of NIS 0.5 billion, whereas the strategy is to man the IDF with fewer but more effective and efficient soldiers. With the money, the IDF will buy 5,000 short-term career army slots - veteran and experienced soldiers at the end of their compulsory service in whom there is no need to invest as much as in training new recruits.

Even more important than the social and economic aspects of the change is the diplomatic significance: shrinking instead of occupation, an army that is not manpower intensive - in Ehud Barak's version, a small and smart army, in Halutz's version, an army armed with precision-directed weapons or a small professional army.

Enough with defensive positions, firing back and incursions, no to holding on to territory. Halutz already believed in this back in the air force: Launch firepower, not manpower.

This is an intelligent insight in the regional and international reality, but in a properly run country a key issue like the length of compulsory service is not decided by the army or by the defense minister. It is the civil society that decides, by means of the government and the parliament, and here both of these are approaching the end of their tenure in a month and a half and have not yet approved the step. The Knesset will not have time to legislate, and in the government only one-sixth of the Knesset is represented, in a single party.

The political context is not necessarily the triangle Kadima-Likud-Labor. It is more personal than party politics: Mofaz aspires to prove that there is no more natural candidate than him for the defense portfolio - not Avi Dichter, not Ami Ayalon, not Ehud Barak, not Dan Meridor. He is trying to cram the announcement of all the changes he promised to carry out during the three years of his tenure but did not manage to carry out into the election season, even though the implementation (if at all) will not be until afterward. It is on his agenda to announce now, but implement only in the summer - after the retirement of the head of the Plans and Policy Directorate at the general Staff, Major General Yitzhak Harel - the establishment of a supreme planning department in the Defense Ministry. The new department will enable the defense minister to influence the structure of the army, and not only approve or reject the chief of staff's recommendations. This is not an original innovation, but rather a return to the model shaped by major general Avraham Tamir after the Yom Kippur War.

Mofaz wanted to bring Brigadier General (Res.) Eival Giladi back into military service and promote him to major general, but the previous chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, opposed this. Various candidates were considered, among them economist Yaakov Sheinin, Professor Danny Sidon and Colonel (Res.) Dror Ben-David. Now they are bargaining with Brigadier general (Res.) Uzi Rosen from Aviation Industries, formerly assistant to the defense minister for special means. If his conditions are not accepted, Brigadier General Ido Nechushtan will be appointed - as a major general. Both of them are from the air force and close to Halutz, a charm for obtaining the chief of staff's agreement to a change that decreases his power.On January 1, when Mofaz said in a ministerial discussion that service would be abbreviated, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was angry and stressed that this was not the government's position. Minister Meir Sheetrit also protested, and it was made clear to Sharon's and Mofaz's military secretaries that the government had not yet decided.

In his statement this week that the recommendations have been presented to the acting prime minister, Mofaz did not fulfill his obligation. The next Knesset, which will be called upon to legislate, is sovereign not to accept the recommendations or to delay their implementation because the security situation has worsened (Hamas, Hezbollah, "Defensive Shield" in Gaza, Iran). But what will happen after the elections doesn't matter - the points get taken now. Who is the politician who will overcome the temptation, and who the chief of staff, or attorney general, who will forbid officers to participate in election performances, on the front, at the separation fence or in events that do right by the people?