Head to Head in Defense

The command of our armed forces, subject to civilian supervision, should be filled by the most able and professional people at all times.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last year extended the tenure of Mossad Director Meir Dagan for an additional, eighth year, made an enlightening observation yesterday: "Every organization must refresh its chain of command, even when there are quality people at its head."

The immediate context for his remark was the noisy quarrel between the two most senior members of the defense establishment, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu and Barak met and agreed that Ashkenazi would end his term as planned, in 2011, after serving four years. Then Barak summoned Ashkenazi to inform him of the decision.

So far, everything has been conducted in accordance with proper procedure. What was not right, however, was the publicity coming out of Barak's office that made it sound as though Ashkenazi had asked for an extension and was turned down.

Ashkenazi has no reason to seek a fifth year as chief of staff, and it is not certain that he wanted it either. However, his excessive uncommunicativeness, something that has mostly prevented him from embarrassing slips of the tongue, this time caused him to appear to both the public and the army as someone who, if he was informed that it was decided he would stay in office for a little while longer, would not refuse.

But this minor error of Ashkenazi's is dwarfed by the ham-fisted way in which Barak portrayed him as both greedy and a loser. Barak's announcement was superfluous and caused yet another deterioration in the already-tense relations between the two.

Essentially, three or four years is a long enough term at the head of an organization like the IDF. It may be better to have four chiefs of staff over a period of 12 years, each serving three years, than to have three, each serving four years.

The command of our armed forces, subject to civilian supervision, should be filled by the most able and professional people at all times. In their hands lies the power to make life and death decisions for the entire nation and its army. It is not a personal matter for the ministers or the generals.

Squabbles at the top of the defense establishment weaken the public's confidence that its security is in good hands. Barak, who has held his current position as defense minister for three and a half years, should have prepared a group of worthy candidates to be the next chief of staff, who possess backgrounds that have prepared and tested them.

He has not done an outstanding job in this respect. Now he must quickly vet the candidates, and also decide on other key appointments, among them deputy chief of staff, head of Military Intelligence and regional commanders.