Lieberman May Shake Up Race for IDF Chief's Succession

Moshe Ya’alon’s replacement by Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister reopens the possibility of a second deputy chief of staff being appointed, as a stepping stone to the top post.

From right: IDF Chief Gadi Eisenkot, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Deputy IDF Chief Yair Golan raise a glass at the military headquarters in Tel Aviv, May 9, 2016.
Kobi Gideon, GPO

Friday’s resignation was outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon at his worst. Sanctimonious and self-serving, a hypocrite in victim’s clothing, suddenly finding that his superior (previously Ariel Sharon and Shaul Mofaz, now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) isn’t such a positive figure. He only ever discovers this after he’s been hurt. Until then, he’s impervious to everything around him, living in denial, a collaborator with those he’ll only denounce after they step on his toes. Suddenly, Netanyahu is untrustworthy. If that’s the case, then Ya’alon – who during the last election campaign called on voters to leave Netanyahu in power – shares the same problem.

And now that Ya’alon has gone the way of general-turned-politician Itzchak Mordechay – perhaps intent on starting a new party with his former Israel Defense Forces deputy, Gabi Ashkenazi – incoming Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman can shake things up in a game that was supposedly over: He can appoint a second deputy to contend with current Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan to become the next commander-in-chief, replacing Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.

Golan wasn’t Eisenkot’s pick when the latter was chosen by Ya’alon and approved by Netanyahu to succeed Benny Gantz as chief of staff. Eisenkot preferred the then-Southern Command chief, Sami Turgeman, but was obliged to accept the choice made by Ya’alon and Gantz. They preferred Golan, a fellow paratrooper. Paratrooper Brigade 35 won over Armor Division 36, commanded by Turgeman.

Ya’alon’s preferred choice as the next deputy chief of staff was Aviv Kochavi (who replaced Golan as head of Northern Command). If he gets the job as second deputy, Kochavi will be the de facto successor to Eisenkot – thanks to the sharp ideological rift between Netanyahu and Golan. This implies, of course, that Netanyahu will still be the one calling the shots in two and a half years when the choice is made.

Golan’s problem isn’t so much a clash of values as the image he’s insisted on adopting: someone who doesn’t bow to authority with quiet obedience. He doesn’t just take positions, he vents them vehemently.

Avigdor Lieberman
Ilan Assayag

This obviously contradicts the modus operandi favored by Netanyahu. To understand the premier’s approach, you need to take Meir Dagan from the Mossad, Yuval Diskin (and before him Avi Dichter and Ami Ayalon) from the Shin Bet security service and, to a lesser degree, Gabi Ashkenazi from the IDF, and create their negative image. Not in – heaven forbid – black; just dark gray. Very dark, as in the gray Yoram Cohen and his Shin Bet successor, Nadav Argaman – an excellent, task-focused operative who’ll be Israel’s intel officer on Palestinian issues.

The list includes another gray figure, N.A., whose appointment as Mossad chief was mysteriously foiled at the last moment. Similarly, a new police commissioner was appointed not from among top-ranking police officers. Instead, a tight-lipped Shin Bet figure, Roni Alsheich, was chosen, who was used to obeying the prime minister. But Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan’s gamble on Alsheich failed, with a brief honeymoon period followed by months of bitter clashes. This was not the police commissioner Netanyahu and his kashrut supervisor Erdan had prayed for.

So not Golan but perhaps Kochavi – who thinks just as highly of himself as Golan, but coats it with pleasantries – but only if these are the only two contenders. With Lieberman aware of Ya’alon’s future plans, the discussion around the next chief of staff has been reopened. Instead of a straight fight, there may be a Final Four, just as there was in 2002.

Eisenkot may recommend that Lieberman appoint Turgeman – the type of workaholic Lieberman respects (in others) – leaving Kochavi where he is on the volatile northern front, where he’s been for less than two years. From that position, he’ll be able to contend for the top spot without ever being a deputy. This position is desirable, but not essential. Kochavi excelled in two previous positions on the General Staff: as head of the operations division and heading Military Intelligence.

The fourth contender – the best in this excellent group, according to many army colleagues – is Israel Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, who formerly headed the army’s planning directorate. He will be 59 when Eisenkot retires, but nowadays that shouldn’t be an impediment. In an era of battling nonstate organizations like Hamas, ISIS and Hezbollah, and a growth of new sectors such as cyber warfare, there shouldn’t be a problem naming an air force general as chief of staff.

All of this is directly related to State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s report into Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, in which Kochavi, Eshel and Turgeman are all implicated. The comptroller has been extremely slow, taking almost five times as long to prepare his account as earlier reports into the Yom Kippur War or the Sabra and Chatila massacre in Lebanon.

The comptroller may make up for this in his next report, on Netanyahu’s foreign travels and their financing (the so-called Bibi-Tours affair). It may lead to far-reaching changes in the government, which will in turn impact the army. Much depends on Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and police investigators. Foreign sources say the report contains explosive material. The countdown has begun.