His Biggest Battle Awaits

The state comptroller's draft report on the Harpaz affair - and the media's response - will go a long way toward determining Gabi Ashkenazi's political future.

The draft of the state comptroller's report on the Harpaz document is expected to be sent to the main players in the affair shortly. The affair, which revolves around an alleged improper attempt to keep Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant from being appointed chief of staff, has held defense officials and the media in thrall for the past year and a half.

Paranoia appears to have seized both camps in the affair: the one headed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the other by former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. Having completely persuaded themselves, the stalwarts of each camp are telling tales of deception, fraud, surveillance and wiretapping. Even the current chief of staff, Benny Gantz, the only senior figure the investigators have absolved of involvement in the events, has been dragged into the mire over a dispute concerning the appointment of the air force's next chief.

Ashkenazi - Milrod - 1.2012
Motti Milrod

The offices of most protagonists in the story are located in a small area of Tel Aviv. In the north corner are the two towers of the Kirya - the compound housing General Staff headquarters and the Defense Ministry - with a 14th-floor corridor linking the offices of the chief of staff and the defense minister. A little to the south, on the 21st floor of another tower, are the state comptroller's Tel Aviv offices, and next to them is the office of the head of the state comptroller's security division, Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yaakov Or. Lt. Gen. (res. ) Gabi Ashkenazi, the new chairman of Shemen Industries, an oil exploration company, also moved recently into an office in a nearby building.

The comptroller and his staff have interviewed about 350 people in their investigation, which began in November 2010. In the past few weeks, senior figures in that group were interviewed again for clarifications on certain points. They were played recordings of conversations they had taken part in. It seems likely a full text of the draft will be sent to all the major figures. State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss has been wrestling with this question for a while now. The sending of drafts to many people will almost certainly lead to a leak of the full report, in contravention of the State Comptroller Law.

There was a previous case, in March 2007, when the comptroller departed from practice and was about to make public the main points of a report - his scathing criticism of the home front's performance during the Second Lebanon War. He was concerned that without a quick correction of the shortcomings, the civilian rear would remain exposed. The GOC Home Front during the war, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Gershon, launched a legal battle to block early publication, and in the end the comptroller didn't issue a partial report ahead of the final version.

In contrast, the harsh draft report on the handling of the Mavi Marmara - the Turkish ship that was part of a controversial 2010 flotilla to Gaza - was sent out many months ago, but publication of the final version is being delayed. People liable to be harmed by the findings are waging a legal battle on the wording.

Lindenstrauss' term as state comptroller ends at the beginning of July; Yaakov Or's at the end of February. Lindenstrauss is a highly skilled media player. Is it possible he decided to send out complete drafts on the assumption his version would be leaked immediately, without the objections of those who might be harmed?

The state comptroller has a few more reports to release before he retires: on the Mavi Marmara, the Carmel fire and the funding of politicians' trips abroad. For Or, the Harpaz affair is a deep dive into the system where he spent his entire career; it's an attempt to rectify what went so badly wrong. He and Lindenstrauss have assumed a defensive posture ahead of the assaults sure to be launched by supporters of the losing camp.

Fighting it out on TV

Much of the affair is being conducted in the media. An installment of the Channel 2 TV news program "Uvda" ("Fact" ) earlier this month significantly affected the public's view on the matter. There's a difference between the fire and brimstone that journalists Ayala Hasson and Ari Shavit poured on Ashkenazi on Channel 1's weekly newsmagazine, and the bottom line presented by Channel 2's Ilana Dayan in prime time.

The transcripts of the police testimonies of Ashkenazi and his aide Col. Erez Weiner, which were made public on "Uvda" and on the website Mako, paint an unflattering picture. In his first testimony, on August 11, 2010, five days after the story broke on Channel 2, Ashkenazi didn't even mention Harpaz, who had brought the document to him.

"It reached Erez via someone. You can hear about it from him," Ashkenazi said. Harpaz, the chief of staff said in his second testimony, "looks to me like an all right, reasonable person .... I've known him quite a long time from the army. I don't know where he lives. He was never in my house." In his third round of testimony, Ashkenazi said he was convinced Harpaz was incapable of writing the document on his own. "I'm dying to know who did it," he said, admitting that "maybe we hooked up with a dubious character and it could be we were duped."

The head of the chief of staff's office, Lt. Col. Amos Hacohen, told the investigators that Harpaz "always looked a little dubious to me. He engaged in politics and PR." Hacohen testified that he had arranged a short meeting between Ashkenazi and Harpaz, at the latter's request, at a cocktail party at the residence of the Israeli ambassador to Rome, Gideon Meir, during a visit to Italy. "I went over to the chief of staff and asked him if he wanted to talk to Boaz. They spoke for two minutes and Boaz left. No one else took part in the conversation," Hacohen said.

Ashkenazi told the investigators he had not helped Harpaz promote his private business affairs in Italy. Weiner testified that Barak's office systematically made problems for the chief of staff's trips and meetings, including the visit to Italy. "We weren't given authorization for things like a meeting with the education minister or with Omar Suleiman" - the Egyptian intelligence minister. "No authorization and no explanation - and any explanations we did get were insulting," he said.

Dayan drew on the police investigation file in the affair, a journalistic achievement in itself. Nothing substantial has leaked out on the tape-recordings at the hub of the state comptroller's investigation. As Haaretz reported, hundreds of hours of conversations were recorded in Ashkenazi's office, by phone and face to face. The recordings were made available to Lindenstrauss, at his request, after Gantz took over as chief of staff. Some of them are linked to the Harpaz affair.

Listening, filtering out what's essential and analyzing the texts extended the state comptroller's investigation by a few months. People know about Ashkenazi's tendency to use uncouth language when he gets worked up. If the recordings show only that Ashkenazi trashed Barak to his aides in coarse language, there's no story.

But if the recordings show a connection between Ashkenazi and the leaking of the document to Channel 2, or, more seriously, as the Barak camp suspects, if Ashkenazi's circle was involved in creating the document, the result could be a full-fledged "Gabi-gate."

The chief of staff's office taped everything. Barak's policy is to tape only operational discussions and talks with foreign leaders. In the past few months, Barak has greatly lowered his preoccupation with the document. In a conversation with Haaretz a few days after the document's initial publication, Barak described its author as "Nostradamus of the Kirya." The document, he said, was written with "retrospective engineering" to create a false picture about the pre-planning of events that occurred before the document's publication.

A jab at Barak and Netanyahu

The defense minister is certain his accusation about the chief of staff's "professional and ethical failings" (his words to the General Staff a month after the document's publication, and again in February 2011 on the eve of Ashkenazi's retirement ) will be proved correct. After his attack on Ashkenazi, Barak was called to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for a trenchant discussion. What has been published in the press is enough to prove I'm right, he told the committee. If this were Hadera's mayor or the CEO of Israel Railways, not a serving chief of staff, you'd have no problem calling things as they are.

This past Sunday morning, Barak and Gantz appeared before the State Control Committee in connection with the state comptroller's report on the appointment of IDF major generals. Gantz said the chief of staff alone should decide whom to appoint to lead the air force. The media immediately said the remark reflected the contest between two major generals, Amir Eshel and Yohanan Locker, to become the air force's next chief. It was also interpreted as a jab at Barak as well as at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who supports the candidacy of Locker, his military secretary.

Senior officers were quoted as saying that Barak's treatment of Gantz shows that Ashkenazi had no choice but to fight back. Still, because it's known that Gantz wants Eshel for the post and Barak sees no reason to object, Netanyahu apparently will have to forgo his preferred candidate.

The view in defense and political circles is that the report on the Harpaz document will end in a victory for Barak. The aim of Ashkenazi and his advisers will be to reduce the gap in the public's perception of the two men once the draft report leaks.

In the meantime, the senior ranks are deeply immersed in the affair. One major general, who was only tangentially connected to the affair, recalled recently how he was summoned in the dead of night to give testimony to the police. The investigators told him that this way he would be spared the perp walk in front of photographers. This officer is certain the affair will end without a renewed police investigation. "Nothing criminal will be uncovered," he says. "It's going to be a disgusting story, and maybe Gabi will be the one who is hurt more, but it won't be a knockout."

Another major general disagrees. "It would be best for Ashkenazi not to play the wounded guy now," he says. "The comptroller's report should give a lot of people an opportunity for reflection. The chief of staff's office crossed red lines in this affair and in its behavior throughout Ashkenazi's term."

Ashkenazi has taken heavy fire from the media over the past year. Groundless gossip about his family has been presented as solid information. He apparently suspects that journalists have defected to the defense minister's camp. But to this day Ashkenazi has not offered a persuasive explanation about his behavior in the affair. After all, he has had dealings with a person like Harpaz for a long time now, and he held on to the document and showed it to major generals who were competing with Galant to become chief of staff. And then there's the complex way the document was leaked to the media.

During Ashkenazi's term as chief of staff, five senior officers (four brigadier generals - Moshe "Chico" Tamir, Imad Fares, Roni Beni and Itai Virob - and Colonel R., who will soon be appointed commander of the naval commandos ) were severely punished for disciplinary and ethical infractions. The first three were forced to leave the army. Their sins pale compared to the offenses Harpaz is accused of, not to mention the allegations hurled at Erez Weiner, the former chief of staff's aide.

But in the Harpaz affair, there's no parity. Even if it's proved that Ashkenazi was the victim, that he suffered deliberate abuse from Barak's office for two years, the military is not in a position to battle its superiors or adopt pranks from the political arena.

Much of the public has long since lost interest in the affair. Until a year ago, Ashkenazi seemed to have a promising political future - he was the popular chief of staff who rehabilitated the IDF after the trauma of the Second Lebanon War. His moderate views, given the problems of the political center and left, marked him as a future candidate for prime minister. The media hazing that awaits him after the state comptroller's draft report will determine whether Ashkenazi truly possesses the stamina required for political life.