Men of the New Year

Game of Thrones, the IDF Version

Veteran officers are always maneuvering for the IDF's top jobs. However, the current battle over the next deputy chief of staff is taking place in the shadows of the Harpaz affair, and may see a young gun triumph over the old guard.

While the army's top officers realize the importance of dealing with the Iranian nuclear project and with the rising power of Hezbollah in Lebanon, they also cannot ignore the possible repercussions of these and other issues on their future in the Israel Defense Forces.

For example, there is the Harpaz affair - in which Lt. Col. (res.) Boaz Harpaz allegedly faked a document that aimed to discredit Gen. Yoav Galant in his attempt to become chief of staff - which marked a new high point in terms of personal grudges and aggressive competition at the top of the defense establishment.

Only a very few officers attain the position of deputy chief of staff, which is now up for grabs; only half of these, in the best case, will eventually cross the corridor from the right side to the left, and into the chief of staff's office.

Nearly every officer from the rank of colonel up - though most will vigorously deny this if asked - is engaged in a ceaseless attempt to plan his military future. If he does not invest time in this, it is doubtful he will become a general, and he certainly will not become chief of staff. And yet many appointments are fortuitous.

The Second Lebanon War, and the series of ethical bust-ups that occurred after it, knocked a whole list of talented and outstanding officers out of the running for top posts. Sometimes there are also misses that result from tragic events. Had Brig. Gen. Erez Gerstein not been killed in southern Lebanon in 1999, many assume he would have been one of the contenders for the position of chief of staff in the latest round (about a year and a half ago).

This is also connected, in part, to the unreasonable pace at which IDF officers change jobs. Limiting the term of a battalion commander to two years is apparently unavoidable because of the tremendously demanding nature of the position. But division commanders, brigade heads at the General Staff and even some of the major generals have also been serving in their positions for a similar period of time.

At the very highest ranks, there is hardly any rule of thumb. A major general could be stuck in a regional command for four years, or spend time in a branch at the General Staff as a way station for a year, because the defense minister and the chief of staff suddenly and urgently need to improvise an important appointment to some other position.

Not only do many officers not manage to become sufficiently professional in their positions (or to bring about meaningful change in the areas of which they have been put in charge), but also the rate of turnover means they have to almost immediately start taking an interest in the next position they will get.

There is a well-known joke about Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is considered perhaps to have been the most calculated and well-planned careerist ever during his military service: New division commander Barak arrives at his office for the first time and orders the driver to wait in the car with the motor running. After all, he doesn't intend to stay there for long before moving on to the next position.

More than two years after it erupted in August 2010, the Harpaz affair is still an important piece in the crossword puzzle of appointments in the IDF that will be solved in the coming months. In the background, too, are strategic developments - from the repercussions of the Arab Spring and the Iranian threat, to the IDF's need to be prepared for a reality in which localized escalation could quickly develop into all-out war.

After the public wrangling with former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and the decision to cancel, at the last minute, the appointment of Yoav Galant as his successor, Barak initiated a strange government decision limiting the tenure of designated Chief of Staff Benny Gantz to only three years (a year less than the standard term ). Although the formulation of the decision was very precise, there are many who believe that the so-called "industrial quiet" Gantz is producing for the government will ultimately lead to the extension of his term for another year.

Names in the frame

Current Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh is due to complete his term at the end of this year. The officer appointed as the next deputy could find himself in a starting position to succeed Gantz - or, alternatively, to serve as a kind of temporary fill-in, until Barak or the defense minister who comes after him decides on the identity of the successor. (The next Knesset elections are currently scheduled for November 2013, close to decision time if Gantz's term is not extended.)

There aren't too many names in the crossword puzzle for the two top IDF posts. In the picture are two veteran brigadier generals - Gadi Eizenkot and Avi Mizrahi - and also two younger men: Yair Golan and Aviv Kochavi. It will be especially interesting to see what develops with respect to two of them this coming year, Eizenkot and Kochavi.

Eizenkot, 52, has done most of his military service in the Golani Brigade, which he commanded toward the end of the 1990s. He served as military secretary to Barak (who valued him greatly ) when the latter was prime minister and defense minister, and as commander of the army in the West Bank during the period of the second intifada. In 2005, then Chief of Staff Dan Halutz appointed him Operations Directorate head at the General Staff.

Signs of trauma

Among the brigadier generals who are "graduates" of the Second Lebanon War, Eizenkot managed to emerge from the Winograd Commission and subsequent investigations relatively unscathed. However, the signs of that trauma were very marked, even after he was put in charge of rehabilitating the Northern Command after the war.

Last summer he completed a five-year tour of duty in the north and went on educational leave. This has now been extended into an overly prolonged waiting for Barak's decision.

At the heart of his indecision is the Harpaz affair. The state comptroller's investigation into the matter found that two of Eizenkot's close friends, Tamir Pardo (who had not yet been appointed head of the Mossad) and Col. (res.) Gabi Siboni, had given the document to Channel 2 in the week Barak was interviewing candidates - among them Eizenkot and Galant - for the position of chief of staff. Eizenkot and his friends saw it as an authentic document, reflecting an effort in Barak's circle to ensure Galant's appointment. According to the testimony, the brigadier general also did not know that his friends had given the document to the media.

In the two drafts of his report, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss has addressed Eizenkot's involvement somewhat benignly, even though he does mention the brigadier general's excessive interest in the document. The defense minister himself has not yet opined publicly on the matter. However, others - among them Barak's bureau chief Yoni Koren and Maj. Gen. (res. ) Galant - have expressed criticism of Eizenkot's conduct in the affair.

Eizenkot's conduct regarding appointments is far from the norm. In 2009, during the race for the position of deputy chief of staff, he suggested to Barak that he prefer other candidates to him. In 2010, when Galant was designated to become the next chief of staff (an appointment that did not come to fruition after he was found to have taken public lands for his personal use ), Eizenkot refused to serve as his deputy and considered resigning from the army.

At the beginning of 2011, even before Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approached Gantz, he consulted with them - at their request - at the prime minister's private home in Caesarea, and recommended Gantz, rather than himself, as chief of staff. Many top people in the defense establishment, among them former chiefs of staff, see Eizenkot as the most suitable candidate to succeed Gantz. This, insofar as is known, is also the view of the chief of staff himself. His supporters praise his strategic vision, his intelligence, his experience and his restraint.

Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, 48, started out in the Paratroops and commanded the regular Paratroops Brigade at the start of the second intifada. He later served, among other things, as commander of the Gaza Division during the 2005 disengagement and as head of the Operations Directorate at the General Staff. About two years ago, after almost a year of enforced waiting at home as a result of the battles between Barak and Ashkenazi, he was appointed head of Military Intelligence.

Kochavi is your classic "top trainee." As far back as his days as commander of the Paratroops Brigade, he was spoken of as a future chief of staff. He arrived at MI on the eve of the outbreak of the Arab Spring, yet nevertheless he is succeeding in getting through a tour of duty without crises. He's also keeping a relatively low media profile. To his detriment, he got caught up in the margins of the Harpaz affair when Barak's rivals leaked, from the minister's testimony to the comptroller, a comment to the effect that Barak thinks "Kochavi is a very talented fellow, who simply doesn't understand and is just not sufficiently acquainted with the intelligence experience."

Barak, who was referring to the weave of relationships among former MI staff and their connections to the alleged forger of the document, Lt. Col. (res. ) Boaz Harpaz, uncharacteristically hastened to stress - in a public appearance the day after publication - that Kochavi is "an excellent MI chief. The citizens of the country and the decision makers can sleep soundly."

Also on the back of the Harpaz affair, Kochavi has recently completed a process of reorganization at MI in which, among other things, an officer with the rank of brigadier general (rather than colonel ) has been put in charge of Special Operations. There is still a group of senior officers there, friends of Harpaz, waiting to see whether Gantz and Kochavi will take any measures against them in the context of their relations with the reserve officer.

Risk of deterioration

These are the least of the worries with which Kochavi will have to contend. The intelligence assessment for 2013 finds that the chances of a conventional war against Israel initiated by Arab armies have decreased. However, in the same breath MI says the risk of deterioration has increased - whether as a result of an Israeli decision to attack Iran, or as a repercussion of a local incident on one of the borders getting out of control.

This is a reality that requires Intelligence to prepare differently and look differently at the processes that are driving the Middle East, as civilian populations take more power into their own hands at the expense of the ruler. In these circumstances, says a colleague of Kochavi's at the General Staff, "Our working assumption is that an outbreak could happen tomorrow morning, and it isn't certain we will have an intelligence alert in advance of 72 or at least 24 hours. The situation is so volatile and unpredictable that we have no alternative but to see an alert as a kind of bonus."

The intelligence picture will apparently remain unclear. The appointments crossword depends mainly on Barak. If in the end he appoints Eizenkot as deputy chief of staff, he will be giving a clear signal as to the leading candidate to succeed Gantz. If Eizenkot refuses the appointment, he can be expected to retire from the army. In that eventuality, the experienced Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi (previously head of the Technological and Logistics Directorate, commander of the ground forces and currently GOC Central Command) will have a good chance of being appointed deputy.

In such a case, Mizrahi, too, would become a claimant with a chance of becoming chief of staff. But there is also the possibility of "skipping a generation" and the appointment of one of the two younger majors general, Kochavi or GOC Northern Command Yair Golan, as Gantz's successor. After all, Barak already proved that he does not see the position of deputy as a necessary way station to becoming chief of staff when he designated Galant, who hadn't held the position of deputy.