Rules of Appointment

In their battle for public support, Ashkenazi still has the advantage over Barak. But beyond fighting for their reputations, the two are also locked in other disputes

Five weeks ago at the height of the confrontation between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Dahaf pollster Dr. Mina Tzemach surveyed 500 Israeli Jews to find out how much support each of the rivals enjoyed. The replies, rounded off: Ashkenazi - 60 percent; Barak - 10 percent; neither - 10 percent; and "I didn't sense the tension / I don't know" - 20 percent.

Harpaz- Alon Ron
Alon Ron

This week, Tzemach was asked whether there has been any change. She went about her business, looked into the matter and came back with the answer: no.

None of the reports appearing in the media in the time between the two surveys has budged the public from its positions, nor is the wealth of coverage this week about Lt. Col. (res. ) Boaz Harpaz - and indirectly about Ashkenazi - expected to reverse that trend.

The Barak-Ashkenazi dispute is not over a challenge on a matter of principle that the army posed to the government, although Barak is trying to depict it that way. The issue is entirely personal. The current arena of hostilities between them is the state comptroller's examination of machinations that surrounded the appointment of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant as the next chief of staff. The hostilities center around the document Harpaz gave Ashkenazi, which went from him to the media, after having passed through four stations along the way.

Astonishingly, Harpaz is a "deluxe suspect." At the end of his questioning by the police, he was released on bail for 180 days, under restricted conditions. One of the restrictions imposed on him, with his agreement, is that he must refrain from any contact with the media. However, he has not been prohibited from leaving the country; indeed, he has flown abroad about as many times as he has met with his lawyer, attorney Yaron Kosteliz of the law firm of Yaakov Weinroth.

Ashkenazi will have to provide convincing explanations for the closeness of his relationship with Harpaz, and prove he was not in a conspiracy with him, but rather - and this is apparently the truth - was led astray by him. Ashkenazi claims he believed the document was genuine, not because of the letterhead on which it was written (that of Eyal Arad's firm ), but because of its content. This is based on a familiar occurance in the Israel Defense Forces, intelligence agencies and also the press: Insert a change into a "raw" news item before it is reported in the media, so as not to reveal the source and thus not hurt his effectiveness, his livelihood, his liberty or his life.

Deceiving himself

Barak is deceiving himself that the doubts people have about Ashkenazi will work to his own benefit. If, for example, the chief of staff's wife Ronit Ashkenazi had a close SMS relationship with Harpaz, what does this say about her husband? No more than what Barak is hoping the affair involving his own wife and the Filipina domestic worker says about him. And if Barak's signature appears on a warm recommendation letter for Harpaz, without revealing that, as Barak later claimed, he doesn't actually even know the man - this erodes the defense minister's trustworthiness, even if Ashkenazi has damaged himself with his support for Harpaz.

For many weeks now, the head of the security division of the State Comptroller's Office, Maj. Gen. (ret. ) Yaakov Orr, and his small staff, have been perusing a vast amount of information concerning the appointment of Galant as chief of staff. They will summarize their findings and the final formulation will be written up and signed by the comptroller, retired Judge Micha Lindenstrauss.

One item listed in the comptroller's conclusions does not need to wait for any summary, since it was mentioned in August in Lindenstrauss' office's report on the appointment of senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces (and, by extension, in the security services ). In that report Barak and Ashkenazi were described as disagreeing on the issue of the appointment of generals, among them the deputy chief of staff. Only on one point were the two in agreement: The discussion between the defense minister and the chief of staff on various appointments, said both men, should not be documented in any way, because "it is necessary for the minister and the chief of staff to analyze candidates freely and documenting the discussion could affect this."

It wasn't the officers' right to privacy that concerned Barak and Ashkenazi, but rather their honest feelings about them. This, they agreed, should remain their shared secret.

On two other, more central, issues, disagreements between them emerged. Barak, according to the comptroller's report, objected to "anchoring in writing criteria for appointing officers to positions at the rank of major general." In his view, the current procedure is good: The candidates are in effect agreed upon "and ultimately the decision-makers - the minister and the chief of staff - take the same things into consideration."

Not so, responded Ashkenazi. "Basic criteria or guidelines for the appointment of generals should be set down in writing. It is the IDF's intention to institutionalize in writing criteria for appointing generals that the IDF follows."

Ashkenazi proposed seven personal and organizational criteria for the promotion of brigadiers general, the first of them being minimum age (44 in the combat units, or 46 outside them ). This rule was not applied at the start of the 1980s, when Barak himself was promoted to major general at the age of 39, or in the 1990s, when Ashkenazi was awarded the rank at the age of 42.

Barak's dislike of the idea of institutionalizing the criteria reflects a politician's natural desire to keep maximum flexibility. Barak wants to increase his control of the appointment of generals, beyond his authority to approve or reject the chief of staff candidates for the ranks of colonel and up. Currently the minister is also allowed to decide whether a civilian can be appointed to certain civil-military posts under the joint auspices of the Defense Ministry and the General Command (such as coordinator of activities in the territories and head of weapons research and development ), without taking into account the chief of staff's views.

Barak also told the state comptroller that, in appointing generals to a number of key positions - i.e., deputy chief of staff, head of military intelligence, commander of the air force - "there has to be an arrangement that is different from the current procedure. The defense minister should be able to nominate candidates alongside the chief of staff's candidates."

Ashkenazi opposed this. He told the comptroller that "it is necessary to abide strictly by the existing procedure, whereby only the chief of staff proposes candidates and the defense minister approves them." A man like Ashkenazi is not going to be happy to confront three to five top-ranked generals (including his successor ) around General Staff table who owe their positions to Barak.

If Galant has a strong opinion about this, he has not yet expressed it. Therefore, it has not yet become clear whether one of the motivating factors in his appointment is the fact that he accepts Barak's position on this matter, which boosts the minister's powers at the expense of the chief of staff's.

All of Barak's maneuverings have not improved his status with the public. It seems he is lost, even if tomorrow morning he were to rescue Gilad Shalit and tomorrow evening he were to destroy the Iranian nuclear program. And even if it's true that Ashkenazi is not as pure as the driven snow.

This is no way detracts from the importance of the State Comptroller's Report, on condition it is submitted quickly and it names names. In 2000 State Comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat published in a report on the Shin Bet: "Scorn for the law, incomplete or false reporting, deviations in action alongside a baseless claim that the law is properly observed ... False reporting is the mother of all sins." The Shin Bet head at the time was Avi Dichter, his predecessor was Ami Ayalon and Ayalon's predecessor was Carmi Gillon. The report, however, dealt with the period of Gillon's predecessor, Jacob Perry. For the comptroller's report to be of any use this time, it must be published while Barak and Ashkenazi are still serving in their positions.