Into the Quagmire

The incoming chief of staff will have to deal, among other things, with the increasingly blurry distinction between generals and politicians, and the fact that both groups are now equally suspect in the eyes of the public.

The Galant affair, which will hopefully end on Monday with the swearing-in of Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz as the 20th chief of staff, is both a story of honor and dishonor, peppered with mutual accusations of injustice, humiliation and insult. Outgoing Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was stung by insults from Defense Minister Ehud Barak; Barak was hurt by the disrespect Ashkenazi and other officers showed their superiors; Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant's good name took a beating in the media.

At its core, this is a political and personal battle. In retrospect, Galant turns out to have been only a small player in the overall plot. Forces more powerful than him, mainly the ongoing brawls between Barak and Ashkenazi, dictated events. Tensions between the two revolved around a dispute over the desirability of an attack on Iran, but at their base are mutual loathing and political competition. The defense minister identified a future threat in the public image the chief of staff had diligently created for himself. It is quite possible that in a more distant way, economic factors were also at play here.

Askenazi in president's residence
Tomer Appelbaum / BauBau

The defense establishment in Israel is not made up solely of current office-holders. Its members also include former chiefs of staff and generals in the reserves, former senior officials in the Mossad and Shin Bet security services, executives in the military industries, and here and there, a well-connected journalist. It's not a particularly large group, and many of its members have business dealings with the defense establishment. The connections among its members have been forged over decades and are often quite tense. Last week, the reactions heard among this group were fairly uniform: sorrow (at varying levels ) about what happened to Galant, sympathy with the difficult days Ashkenazi has been through, and above all, astonishment at the defense minister's behavior.

Barak is the least-liked politician in Israel today. But in February 2009, during the election in which the Labor Party that he headed won only 13 Knesset seats, many in the defense establishment, who know him well, still voted for Labor - thinking he would serve as an informed, balanced and restraining force in any coalition. That was before his extravagances at the Paris Air Show, his silence in the face of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's mischief and his decision to dissolve the Labor Party. It was also before he turned on Ashkenazi and before he got involved in the problematic Galant appointment. "Why is he doing this to him?" wonder the old guard.

That is, indeed, a disturbing question. It is even more disturbing to think about what effect these events will have on the public's view of the Israel Defense Forces, and the way the junior, middle-rank cadre views the organization in which it serves. Apparently, the distinction between generals and politicians is also becoming blurred, as gradually the two groups have become equally suspect in the eyes of the public.

There is no reason to wax nostalgic for the blind admiration of IDF generals after 1967, but in a country where the chief of staff's decisions could have life or death consequences for soldiers (and civilians ), this revulsion is not a healthy phenomenon.

Naveh not notified

On Tuesday morning - after a repeat appearance at the Turkel committee, where he was asked about Gantz's suitability for the position of chief of staff, and before setting off on yet another trip to the United States - Barak met with Galant at Beit Hahayal in Jerusalem. The events of the past 10 days have proven to Galant that more than Barak was keen on his appointment to chief of staff, he was bent on getting rid of Ashkenazi.

After they decided on February 1 to retract Galant's designation, Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that the new appointment would be conducted in an orderly fashion. They would bring a number of alternative names before the Turkel committee, the panel would do background checks on all of them, approve them - and only afterward would the consensus candidate be presented to the cabinet. In the meantime, since Barak refused to continue working with Ashkenazi, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh would serve as acting chief of staff for two months.

Galant was still hoping that during those two months, the arguments and documents his attorneys would present would clear him of charges made by the state comptroller and the attorney general, and the Turkel committee would have no alternative but to restore him to the post of army chief.

But the outcry in the army, the media and among retired generals over the prospect of appointing a temporary chief of staff scared the prime minister. Naveh's appointment was scrapped in a panic, way before Barak even bothered notifying him about it. On February 4, a decision was taken to move ahead with Gantz's appointment as permanent chief of staff. Barak vetoed the possibility of extending Ashkenazi's stint in office by two months, and from that moment on, Galant didn't stand a chance.

Between February 1 and February 6, when Galant petitioned the High Court of Justice, he received mixed messages from Barak and his associates. Only on February 7, when he finally realized that Gantz's appointment was a done deal, did Galant withdraw the petition.

Big strides

Long farewells to chiefs of staff are nothing new, but never have they involved so much fanfare and buzz as in this case. Twice a day this week, news broadcasts opened with descriptions of Ashkenazi's speeches, as he bounced around the country. Having completed 37 years in uniform, wherever he goes, he is embraced warmly by everyone from President Shimon Peres to the parents of graduates of the naval officers' course. These festivities will take on an international dimension when his American buddy, Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrives on Sunday to participate in an IDF salute in his honor.

Barak's accusations notwithstanding, Ashkenazi was an excellent chief of staff. He transmitted to the IDF the renewed "founding faith" it needed after the shock of the Second Lebanon War. When the army is judged on criteria like its level of preparedness, the condition of storage depots, morale in the reserves, the extent of training maneuvers and the relevance of operational plans - it is clear that in the past four years, it has made huge strides.

To his credit, Ashkenazi also showed diplomatic moderation and military caution, working under governments in which the prime minister's character (in the case of Ehud Olmert ) or ideological background (Netanyahu ) had the potential to drag the IDF to distant spheres. The relative quiet on the home and other fronts during his term in office is also noteworthy.

GOC Northern Command Gadi Eizenkot told the chief of staff this week about a regional brigade commander in the north, who said at his own changing-of-the-guard ceremony that he had completed two years of service without one operational incident in his sector. Ashkenazi commanded that brigade in the 1980s, when clashes were reported in the area virtually every week.

While the chief of staff has maintained an apolitical public persona and is supposedly keeping his distance from the media, he has an energetic marketing crew at his disposal. This week, for example, a brochure summing up his activities was distributed to the press. The apolitical chief has also been known to give a wink to the political arena. His visit last November to the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem, a well-known Likud bastion, was an example of real politics in the flesh.

Ashkenazi does not grant interviews. In his farewell statements, the same message is repeated: I am proud of what I have left. I have also made some mistakes I regret. The main problem he leaves behind is the crisis of values in the IDF, but this crisis has prevailed since the Second Lebanon War and Dan Halutz's resignation at the start of 2007.

Toward the end of the month, the outgoing chief of staff will be invited for a final meeting with State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss. Shortly thereafter, the draft report on the so-called Harpaz document - a document was apparently forged in order to influence the appointment of the next chief of staff - will be published.

Iran options

At this week's Herzliya Conference, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chair Shaul Mofaz (Kadima ) said that events in Egypt are a "strategic warning" to Israel. Mofaz fears that Iran will take advantage of the weakness of regimes in the region and that this, together with "a weak and irrelevant American policy," could put power into the hands the Muslim Brotherhood. As chief of staff, Mofaz promoted and nurtured Gantz, Galant and Eizenkot. This week he sounded certain about Gantz's abilities and qualifications to lead the IDF.

Assuming his appointment is approved in the cabinet on Sunday, Gantz will bring with him a different administrative and command style. Under Ashkenazi, cadets in the brigade commanders' course complained two years ago that officers in the army were afraid to speak out. Gantz (like Mofaz ) will emphasize teamwork. Naveh, Eizenkot and Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kohavi will not undermine his status, but neither will they hesitate to challenge his positions. Gantz will need to promote ideas like openness, trust and transparency - and move away from the factionalism that characterized his predecessor in the so-called Harpaz document affair.

In the question mark column, the 20th chief of staff's future subordinates list his decision-making capabilities. Some feel he completed his stint last November tired and lacking in energy. Gantz will have to remember what he learned as a sergeant in the Paratroops more than 30 years ago: Your soldiers will look in battle exactly as they do at their 5 A.M. roll call.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, a battle is waging over the appointment of the next IDF spokesman, aimed at thwarting the appointment of Col. (res. ) Lior Lotan, who was chosen by Galant. Lotan's opponents have been behind a clumsy attempt to link him to the Harpaz affair, and Barak has let it be known he takes an active interest in the appointment.

The defense minister's position has certainly been weakened following his failure to push through the Galant appointment, and the dynamics between him and Gantz are still not clear. Gantz will have to define his position vis-a-vis Barak quickly. His ultimate test, of course, will come during time of war. Let's hope, as we do for every other chief of staff, tha he is not put to that test.

When the Barak-Ashkenazi crisis was at its peak, the prevailing assessment was that Netanyahu and Barak were trying to get rid of the top brass in the defense establishment in order to plant in their stead candidates who would take a more positive view of an attack in Iran. If such a plan existed, it has failed. Meir Dagan at the Mossad and Ashkenazi at the IDF are being replaced by individuals who, like them, will not be chomping at the bit to go into battle just because of political caprices.