Crisis at the Top

For 48 hours, the nation was fascinated with documents detailing the Yom Kippur War discussions. The present-day analogy is obvious

For 48 hours this week, the attention of both the media and the public was captured by minutes of meetings from a war that more than half the country's citizens (those under 40 and more than a million immigrants ) did not experience firsthand. Thirty-seven years later, the discussions held by the war cabinet of Golda Meir during those fateful days of October 1973 gripped the nation, spawned commentaries and kicked up a wave of emotional responses. At a time when the military arena is quiet and the dispute over the settlement construction freeze has produced a yawn, the minutes released by the state archives fell into the hands of the media like ripe fruit.

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

But in the background a deeper issue hovers. The Yom Kippur War remains a searing collective trauma. The huge surprise, the painful departure from the arrogant sense of security that dominated the six years that preceded the war, the scale of the debacle and the existential fears it stirred in the first days, the battlefield reversal that was achieved at a heavy cost in Sinai and the Golan Heights, the postwar "we are all guilty" feeling - all of this remains deeply engraved in the national memory.

The present-day analogy is obvious. The political deadlock, a growing security threat, political confusion and inaction, and now extensive changes in the top military ranks are producing unease. Those who wish to can also discern the worrisome signs of an overriding "conception," as dominated the conventional wisdom in 1973. Besides the feeling that achieving a political settlement is not urgent, there is also a prevailing belief that it's enough to rehabilitate the army and learn the lessons of the Second Lebanon War's failures in order to ensure success in an anticipated third Lebanon war.

Every broad scenario for the next war includes the assumption of a massive rocket and missile assault on Israeli citizens. The army hopes the Israeli public will obey the instructions of the Home Front Command and give the air and ground forces enough breathing space to get the job done. In that case, Hezbollah will collapse (if Iran, Syria or Hamas are not also involved ) under the pressure, and the sting of the rockets will gradually be dulled. But it will take the army some time to achieve its goal, the more so if it needs to comb through southern Lebanon and mop up the launch areas. While Israel's citizens endure shelling, the Israel Defense Forces will have only limited freedom to maneuver in tactical operations. Against the background of the "Goldstone effect," the international community - and above all the Obama administration - will subject every Israeli move to microscopic examination.

The assumption that somehow things will work out reflects collective positive thinking, which is liable to prove fallacious. The country's leaders will have to take these doubts into account, both in trying to decide whether to renew the peace process with Syria and in war scenarios involving Iran or Lebanon (a confrontation with Iran will almost inevitably engender a clash with Hezbollah in Lebanon ). Much of this, of course, depends not only on Israel but on the behavior of its radical enemies.

After the pounding it took four years ago, Hezbollah appears to be avoiding another round against Israel, but that's true exactly until the day the deterrence fades, or the day when Iran tells Hezbollah otherwise. The country's leaders might get up one morning to discover that they are at war, whether because the enemy took them by surprise and intelligence failed to analyze its intentions correctly (as happened to Golda Meir on October 6, 1973 ), or because the leadership did not properly analyze the consequences of its own moves (Ehud Olmert on July 12, 2006 ).

A sense of despondency

It's best not to get too excited over the photos this week of Yoav Galant passing a soccer ball to Gabi Ashkenazi during a friendly soccer match between the IDF generals and Maccabi Haifa. The TV channels jumped at the rare chance to document the incoming and outgoing chiefs of staff in a situation where they are not exchanging looks that could kill.

Ashkenazi has another four months as chief of staff. Galant will soon finish his term as GOC Southern Command, in order to prepare to take over from Ashkenazi. Their relationship remains one of mutual suspicion, despite the high five between passer and goal scorer.

In the segment of the IDF athletic championships that was not broadcast, the group run, Ashkenazi was almost alone this year. Once more, the announcer informed the participants time after time that "it's forbidden to pass the chief of staff," but some officers recalled how only last year, a large group of generals hovered around Ashkenazi.

Galant kept his distance this year and ran alone, some distance behind, though he is fit enough to outpace most of his colleagues easily.

There was something wrenching about the combination of the two headlines: the excessive glorification of Ashkenazi's four goals, alongside the minutes of the cabinet meetings from the Yom Kippur War.

"Everyone with basic intuition understands that we are on the edge of a cliff," said an officer, asked to explain why the headlines bother him. "The security circumstances, the challenges, the quarrels between the minister [Defense Minister Ehud Barak] and the chief of staff, the ugly fight over the choice of a new chief of staff. This army is suffering from problems with its high command and its values, from intellectual shallowness, and from a crippling fear of disputes over fundamental issues and of self-expression. The country's citizens don't read or hear about this enough, because most of the watchdogs - the media and the other civil oversight mechanisms - are asleep. Most of the time the media is busy with nonsense."

Good publicity versus harsh reality

There is no doubt that a great deal of work has been done since the Second Lebanon War. It includes thorough preparations and training. The leap forward in Military Intelligence and in the territorial [MERHAVI'IM?? IS THAT RIGHT TRANSLATION?] commands is particularly striking. But the IDF shied away from an in-depth transformation, in structure and in culture (if for the moment we disregard the restoration of the Human Resources Branch to its original name, the Manpower Directorate Branch ).

Israelis are bombarded with encouraging images: a sports day at the IDF, reservists charging up the hills at the Tze'elim training base, whispers ("foreign reports" ) about mysterious operations in places ranging from Syria to Sudan. If so, the Israelis tell themselves, we're in good hands again.

But good publicity and harsh reality are two different things. The positive images are liable to generate unrealistic expectations ahead of the next round of fighting. (This is also where the dilemma of the media's role crops up, in the sense that projecting a tough image has the positive effect of strengthening deterrence and thereby perhaps distances the war. )

The IDF, however, at least the top generals, is in crisis. A guest who was invited to the change-of-command ceremony this week at the operations directorate was stunned by the gloomy atmosphere. Some of the veteran generals, who are on the brink of leaving the IDF, looked downright exhausted. The new and designated generals don't yet feel comfortable in their new role. The current General Staff forum is a bland group, for the most part.

Make no mistake: The appointment of Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yair Naveh as the new deputy chief of staff reflects poorly on the situation of the high command. This has nothing to do with Naveh's impressive resume or personality - it's about the lack of choice that forced the IDF to call on a retiree.

Galant is not chiefly to blame. Ashkenazi inherited a problematic General Staff from his predecessor, Dan Halutz, after the Second Lebanon War. He then immersed himself in rehabilitating the army and devoted little time to long-range personnel planning. By the time he got around to that, toward the end of his tour of duty, the rift with Barak prevented any changes in the General Staff. Under these circumstances, Maj. Gen. Yaacov Ayish (the new head of operations ) and Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the next director of Military Intelligence, spent almost a year effectively unemployed instead of undergoing an orderly preparation process. On top of this is the refusal of two major generals, Gadi Eizenkot and Avi Mizrahi, to serve as deputy chief of staff under Galant.

The communication problems between the political echelon, the General Staff and the territorial commands [YES??] also remain unresolved, irrespective of the personal feuds. A good example of this is Operation Cast Lead, which is considered an Israeli "correction" after the Second Lebanon War. At the height of the fighting, it emerged that there was no agreement among the various echelons about the goal of the operation: Was it a punitive and deterrent measure or an attempt to topple the Hamas government in Gaza?

And still hovering in the background is the so-called Galant document, the allegedly conspiratorial document related to the process of the chief of staff's appointment. Two rival Byzantine courts, for each of which the end pretty much justifies any means, are fighting for control. The document might yet turn out to have the same devastating effect on the IDF that the bus No. 300 affair had for the Shin Bet security service in the 1980s.

Galant is hardly involved in any of this. However, for the army's sake, what went on between the bureaus of the defense minister and the chief of staff needs to be thoroughly investigated.

The attorney general and the police commissioner will soon have to decide whether to continue the investigation or make do with addressing the criminal aspect of the case and recommending charges for Lt. Col. (res. ) Boaz Harpaz, who is suspected of forging the document. It will be very tempting to close the case quickly, for fear of the additional harm it could do to the army. But that would be a major mistake. The rot, only part of which has been uncovered so far, needs to be fully exposed.