Tarnished Ex-general Is Israeli Left’s Best Hope to Oust Netanyahu

Little is known about the politics of former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, but his popularity, and enmity with Netanyahu, make him the best chance the center-left has to challenge the premier

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-IDF chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi in 2010.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-IDF chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi in 2010.Credit: Emil Salman
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

On February 14, 2011, Gabi Ashkenazi was the most popular man in Israel. As he left the Israel Defense Forces headquarters for the last time ever in uniform, his car was mobbed by ecstatic fans, twice. First, by young soldiers as he was exiting Victors’ Gate. And then – after long minutes of handshakes, selfies and hugs – by civilians out on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street. Of course, the average Israeli loves the IDF, and its chief of staff is nearly always one of the most admired men in the land. Ashkenazi, however, was a cut above, probably the most idolized commander since the days following the Six-Day War. Back then, in 1967, generals were virtually hero-worshipped, but that changed following the debacle of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Ashkenazi also took the top job after what was perceived by many Israelis as a military failure: the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006. In four years, he had come to be seen not only as the man who put the IDF back on track, but the man who had restored Israelis’ somewhat shaken faith in their army. As he stood there soaking up the adulation of the crowd on that sunny winter’s day in Tel Aviv, more than one onlooker observed, “He’s acting like he’s the next prime minister.”

But while it failed to dampen the enthusiasm surrounding him, there was already a dark cloud forming over Ashkenazi’s head. His four-year term had ended on a sour note, as a bitter enmity with his political boss, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, surfaced in what became known as the Harpaz affair.

A former lieutenant colonel in the Intelligence Division and a businessman with a shady reputation, Boaz Harpaz was a confidante of Ashkenazi’s. Harpaz had been distributing a memo that purported to detail a plot emanating from Barak’s inner circle to tarnish Ashkenazi’s reputation and replace him. While initially the spotlight was on Barak and his advisers, the “Harpaz memo” quickly turned out to be forged – perhaps by Harpaz himself – and part of a much larger web of subterfuge between Barak and Ashkenazi’s 14th-floor offices in the twin towers of HaKirya (as IDF headquarters are known).

Hot political property

Barak swiftly turned the tables on his enemy, now out of uniform. What began as a probe by the state comptroller was followed by a critical report into the ex-general’s conduct, and ballooned into a massive police investigation of Ashkenazi, his two closest aides and Harpaz, This dragged on for some five and a half years.

Gabi Ashkenazi.Credit: Eran Wolkowski

The Israeli media split into two camps, supporting Ashkenazi or Barak, publishing leaked confidential information from the convoluted investigation – which most of the public soon tired of. Ashkenazi and his men were accused of having plotted, as officers in uniform, against elected politicians; of collecting intimate information on rival generals; sharing classified details of special operations with journalist allies; and holding confidential documents in their homes.

The investigation went on and on until, finally, outgoing Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein published his 116-page report last week. He excoriated Ashkenazi and his coterie, but reached the conclusion that there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing (except by Harpaz, who will stand trial). And now, after five years on the shelf, Ashkenazi is suddenly the hottest political commodity on the market.

The leaders of the main opposition parties, Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), were quick to tweet their congratulations to Ashkenazi after his exoneration. Both would love to have him as their number two in the next Knesset election campaign. But who says Ashkenazi will make do with second spot? He is already being mentioned as a possible leader of the Labor Party (the main component of Zionist Union) or as the head of his own putative centrist party, with various speculative lists of stellar candidates.

Twenty-four hours after the attorney general’s decision, there were already polls indicating that Ashkenazi is the most popular leader on the center-left, even though he has yet to give any indication of his future plans. Still, he remains way behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in popularity among the general public – but then again, he has yet to launch his campaign.

So what makes the 61-year-old Ashkenazi, on paper at least, such an attractive candidate?

He has it all. As the son of a Bulgarian father and Syrian mother, who grew up on the working-class Moshav Hagor in central Israel, no one can accuse him of being an Ashkenazi elitist (despite the family name). Neither will the Likud campaign machine be able to portray him as a limp-wristed leftist, as it did with Herzog and Tzipi Livni in last year’s election.

Gabi Ashkenazi with his wife, Ronit, in February 2014.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Ashkenazi is the ultimate “Golanchik,” having spent half of nearly four decades in uniform in the tough Golani infantry brigade, including as its commander, followed by a succession of senior combat and operational postings, usually involved in the fighting on Israel’s northern border. Over the years, he cultivated the tough-talking image – with the help of a willing press – although beneath the gruff demeanor is a sophisticated and calculating mind. Add to that the fact he already has nationwide name recognition and the experience of managing Israel’s largest organization as deputy chief of staff and then director general of the Defense Ministry, before getting the top job. Ashkenazi is everything the opposition has lacked coming up against Netanyahu in the last two elections.

Ashkenazi’s wife, Ronit – a real-estate agent – is also deeply involved in his career, and was investigated for her own dealings with journalists. They have two children and live in a spacious apartment in Kfar Sava, north of Tel Aviv.

But why does everyone think Ashkenazi belongs to the center-left camp? Even though he held hundreds of off-the-record briefings for journalists as chief of staff and is still close to a number of senior reporters, he has not given a proper interview to the Israeli media in a decade. As a serving officer, he was not allowed to express political opinions, and over the past five years as a civilian has yet to indicate which way he leans.

His record as chief of staff offers contradictory clues. In his four years leading the IDF, he supported a policy of gradually removing roadblocks and other restrictions on Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. Conversely, he urged politicians not to use the army in confrontations with lawbreaking Israeli settlers.

In Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza offensive that began at the end of 2008, he urged his field commanders to use large volumes of artillery fire to protect Israeli forces. This kept IDF casualties down (10 soldiers were killed in the operation), but also contributed to the Palestinian death toll of over 1,300, including hundreds of civilians. After the operation, Ashkenazi strenuously objected to any Israeli cooperation with the Goldstone Report, which played a part in the UNHRC-appointed commission’s one-sided conclusions.

The most significant clash between Ashkenazi and his political masters occurred behind the scenes. As Netanyahu and Barak looked to place the IDF on operational readiness for airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear installations, Ashkenazi was one of the main opponents of such an operation (together with Mossad chief Meir Dagan and President Shimon Peres). Ashkenazi’s exact objections to an Iran operation may not be known until the transcripts of his classified meetings with Barak and Netanyahu are published, probably decades from now, but it certainly put him on a collision course with the two political leaders.

Former Defense Minister Ehud Barak and ex-IDF Chief Gabi AshkenaziCredit: Archive / Alon Ron

‘Scandal of scandals’

In the absence of any clear political beliefs, it is his enmity with Netanyahu that gives the center-left hope. Neither of them have expressed these feelings in public, but Netanyahu is reported to have described Ashkenazi’s conduct in the Harpaz affair – particularly his disclosing secret operations to journalists – as “the scandal of scandals.” Ashkenazi, meanwhile, has been quoted in recent days as saying that “Israel has been kidnapped by Netanyahu.” Whatever political ambitions Ashkenazi harbors are fuelled by a desire to bring Netanyahu’s rule to an end.

So is Ashkenazi the champion the center-left has been waiting for, the person to finally topple Netanyahu? Perhaps, but a closer look suggests he is far from a dream candidate. Few things fade as fast in Israeli politics as the epaulets of a former general. Ashkenazi will never be as popular as he was on his last day in uniform. And while Weinstein cleared him of any criminal actions, he emerges from the report as a deeply suspicious, vindictive and manipulative figure.

Of course, many would say this just proves that he can be an excellent politician, but the Harpaz affair is not entirely over. More dirt will probably come out at Boaz Harpaz’s trial, and Likud’s research files on Ashkenazi have been years in the making.

Ashkenazi’s short career out of uniform also raises questions. For two years between 2011 and 2013, he was chairman of an energy company but resigned after its first offshore drillings failed. He was paid 3 million shekels ($755,000) during that period, when he was reportedly mainly involved in using his contacts to help the company receive its drilling license.

It may be difficult for Netanyahu to smear Ashkenazi – he won’t be as easy a target as Herzog and Livni – but there will be no shortage of mud to fling.

Twenty years ago, Labor elected as leader a popular former IDF chief of staff to challenge Netanyahu – Ehud Barak. He went on to beat Netanyahu in 1999, but his own character flaws and hubristic failures at reaching peace agreements with both Syria and the Palestinians in his first year in office mean he didn’t last much longer than that first year. Barak left, returned, split his party and ended his political career as Netanyahu’s defense minister. But Labor is weak. Since losing to Likud for the first time in 1977, it has won outright election victories only under the leadership of generals – Yitzhak Rabin and Barak. Right now, for all his faults, Ashkenazi looks their best and perhaps only option of ever beating Netanyahu.

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