Snakes and Leaders

The Galant affair has exposed the ugly underbelly of relations between the army and the Defense Ministry.

A vitriolic attack on Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in the form of a slide presentation, has been making the e-mail rounds for the past two months. The source is obviously somewhere deep in the extreme right field of Israeli political thought. While the graphics in this computerized polemic may be amateurish, its messages are clear and coarse. It accuses Barak of a string of sins, from "abandoning naval commandos on the deck of the Marmara" and the "crimes of Oslo" to abandoning Border Police officer Madhat Yosef. After a gun battle between security forces and Palestinians at Joseph's Tomb in Nablus in October 2000, Yosef bled to death while the Palestinian Authority prevented his evacuation. Barak, as prime minister, elected not to attempt a rescue in a bid to avoid further escalation and civilian casualties. To the people behind the presentation, Barak bears sole responsibility for all these events.

There is no shortage of legitimate reasons to criticize Barak, without stooping to despicable propaganda of this sort. But it seems that someone close to Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi thought otherwise. Ashkenazi is surrounded by a large, relatively close-knit group of friends and supporters from his Golani Brigade days and other stations along his military career. One of them forwarded the PowerPoint polemic to the entire group, adding that it was "an enlightening presentation, worth reading." The e-mail distribution list included the chief of staff's bureau, but neither the bureau nor any of the named recipients saw fit to reprimand the sender.

Many of those in Ashkenazi's circle have grudges against Barak that date from his days as a general or later, as chief of staff. Some (including Ashkenazi himself ) believed that the "Galant document" was entirely authentic and that it not only reflected a general mood but was also an operational plan cooked up by persons close to Barak and to GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant.

The document, featuring the logo of Arad Communications, is said to outline a public relations campaign for Galant, who is among the candidates to succeed Ashkenazi as IDF chief of staff. Police investigators now believe it was forged, possibly by supporters of either Ashkenazi or one of the other candidates to succeed him, and that Ashkenazi himself was misled.

Amos Biderman

Attempts by figures close to Ashkenazi to portray him as a passive, incredulous observer of Barak's machinations were unconvincing. Ashkenazi's supporters have had a hand in several moves in recent months, from an (unsuccessful ) effort to add a fifth year to Ashkenazi's term to an (almost successful ) attempt to postpone until November, three months before the end of his term, the announcement of his replacement. Ashkenazi himself asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to defer the announcement.

Barak got in trouble over prodigal spending during a trip to the Paris Air Show, and is still under investigation by the State Comptroller's Office regarding companies established by his daughters. His bureau chief, Yoni Koren, has managed to step on the toes of everyone in the military establishment. Since taking up the post in November, he has intentionally aggravated relations with Ashkenazi.

Barak and Koren have drawn harsh criticism for their conduct. Ashkenazi, in contrast, cuts a positive figure as the IDF's savior following the debacle of the Second Lebanon War, benefiting from the mounting influence of IDF Spokesman Avi Benayahu on the major media outlets. Among the media, as in Ashkenazi's circle, there was a tendency to believe that the bad guy in the story was Barak, or at least Koren.

In the week after Channel 2 broke the story of the Galant document, Ashkenazi seemed to have the upper hand. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein pressured Barak to defer the announcement of the next chief of staff, while Ashkenazi made an impressive and candid presentation to the Turkel Committee investigating the Gaza flotilla affair. This week, after it was reported that Ashkenazi had had a copy of the Galant document in his office safe since late April and apparently made no move to investigate the matter, he lost some points in the IDF, the media and in public opinion.

What remains is an ugly relationship between the top two offices in Israel's security establishment. Ashkenazi's missteps in the Galant affair do not exonerate Barak's bureau; no excuse for the way that office has been run over the past year is forthcoming. In the meantime, any leaks from the police investigation should be treated with skepticism. The possibility that at least part of the Galant document was based on a real discussion conducted by his supporters has not been ruled out.

The heart of the matter remains a mystery. Who wrote the document? Was it false? How did it reach Ashkenazi, and Channel 2 news?

According to one IDF officer who knows the chief of staff personally, "85 percent of the story is clear to us, and that's a lot more than what you know in the media, but we are prohibited by police directives from talking." Figures in Ashkenazi's circle project confidence about the rectitude of the chief of staff and his office.

Barak first heard about the document from the Channel 2 report. (In his discussions with chief of staff candidates he heard vague complaints about a smear campaign. ) This week the police investigators came around to his view that the Galant document was a forgery. Barak, contradicting the version of the bureau of the IDF chief of staff, believes it was written recently. Barak reasons that many of the events it mentions have already occurred, in a manner that lends it the credibility of a plan of action that is gradually being implemented. "No Nostradamus has arisen" in IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv," Barak reportedly declared.

Galant himself believes that a bunch of old Golani Brigade veterans, a mix of civilians and serving officers, concocted a clever conspiracy to ruin his bid for chief of staff. He finds support for this theory in the fact that the Channel 2 story was aired two days after Barak reported that he had interviewed candidates for the post. It seems that the political expertise he gained while working in Ariel Sharon's office failed him when it came to spotting the warning signs of a conspiracy.

A number of strange things have happened in Ashkenazi's vicinity in the past year. A security guard, acting under the instruction of Arab-Israeli criminals, stole Ashkenazi's credit card information. A souvenir pistol of Ashkenazi's disappeared from his office, only to reappear under mysterious circumstances. Military Advocate General Avichai Mendelblit, who is close to Ashkenazi, initiated an investigation of the army's most outstanding brigadier general, Moshe "Chico" Tamir, but forgot to proceed with the inquiry (or to brief the chief of staff about it ) for a year, until a mid-level officer retrieved the case file from a desk drawer. Another very close associate (Benayahu ) was kept away from the document affair even though the chief of staff lost sleep over the issue for months. When the affair exploded, Benayahu told top IDF officials that he had nothing to do with the dissemination of the document, but neglected to issue a similar denial on behalf of Ashkenazi.

All of these developments involve reliable, serious people who remain loyal to what they cherish. That leaves the journalist in the position of the queen in Alice in Wonderland, who trained herself to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

The frequent media references this week to the Tamir affair were no coincidence. The issue is not just that Ashkenazi dismissed an extremely talented officer for an infraction that seems minimal compared to the document affair. The problem is that Ashkenazi's handling of the entire Tamir episode apparently reflects shortcomings in administration and in decision making. Some suspect that Ashkenazi's office believes that advantages can be seized in such situations - an officer in trouble is held, uncomfortably, in abeyance for a period, and when the time is right, the incriminating evidence is revealed.

Dark horse

Should the investigation culminate, as suggested by the various leaks this week, in the total exoneration of Galant and the conclusion that his enemies forged the document, he would likely gain sympathy and manage to convert the injustice done him into the chief of staff post. Barak, who will make the final decision, has not implied that the affair has caused him to question Galant's suitability for the position.

The main alternative would be for Netanyahu to break character and plump for a dark horse (Shlomo Yanai? Moshe Kaplinsky? ) who would "bring order" to the army a la Ashkenazi himself when he succeeded Dan Halutz in his brief, troubled term as chief of staff.

Ashkenazi, who on Wednesday promised to provide complete answers to soldiers and their parents at the end of the investigation, this week stained his public image as a no-nonsense warrior who avoids politics. Both his and Barak's bureaus continue to act as though they will be vindicated by the results of the inquiry. But aides to both men concede that the media blitz has spun out of control and could make it hard to go back to business as usual.

Meanwhile, interesting things are afoot in the region. Lebanon is in an uproar as a result of the Hariri assassination investigation, Iran is setting the cornerstone at its nuclear reactor in Bushehr, and Saudi Arabia is stocking up on billions of dollars of state-of-the-art, American-made weapons. One can only hope that Military Intelligence is on top of these developments, in light of the fact that so much of the top brass seemed distracted by other matters this week.

At the end of 2009, Barak's bureau held a retirement ceremony for a top official. It was attended by Barak, Ashkenazi and several past and present associates, including Maj. Gen. (res. ) Uri Saguy, a Golani Brigade veteran who showed up in shorts and sandals.

"Isn't it dangerous to come here in sandals, with all the snakes slithering around?," Barak asked Saguy. Ashkenazi, who at the time could still share a laugh with Barak, interrupted: "Listen, Ehud, for Golani men, that's not dangerous. When Golani soldiers walk barefoot on a mission a snake who tries to bite anyone will be killed."

Where are the snakes in this affair, and who stands to gain or lose? It seems that we won't know the answers until the police complete their investigation.