Twenty-one Sabbaths to Go

Though Ehud Barak wasn't the defense minister who appointed Gabi Ashkenazi, the two got off to a good start. Then petty issues drove a wedge between them, and now their mounting mutual animosity has cast an unflattering light on the end of the chief of staff's tenure

There is a story that Gabi Ashkenazi has repeated often in recent months: In January 2008, Moshe Levy, the 12th chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, died at the age of 71. Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi, still relatively new to the post, was called on to eulogize him. To make sure he did not get the details wrong, he consulted a close friend, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, himself a former chief of staff. Their conversation meandered to the topic of the lifespans of the men who have held the position. Lipkin-Shahak told Ashkenazi that he had researched the subject and found that the average age of death of chiefs of staff is 70 years and five months - far shorter than the overall average for Israeli men.

Eran Wolkowski
Eran Wolkowski

Lipkin-Shahak suggested that Ashkenazi step outside his office and survey the photographs of his predecessors, which hang on the wall along with their birth and death dates and the amount of time they served in the post. Ashkenazi did just that, and found that Lipkin-Shahak was correct. Less than two months later, Dan Shomron, who had been the 13th chief of staff, also died. Shomron was 70 and six months old.

Out of 19 chiefs of staff, only the last six are still with us: Ashkenazi, Dan Halutz, Moshe Ya'alon, Shaul Mofaz, Lipkin-Shahak and, of course, Ehud Barak. The last of these, as defense minister, has made Ashkenazi's life a misery for the past year.

The grave personal crisis between the two - mainly surrounding the decision to appoint Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant as the 20th chief of staff, and the "Galant document" affair - has cast a shadow for the first time over a public career that had hereto appeared almost invulnerable. Many in the political establishment venture that Ashkenazi will put himself forward as a candidate for prime minister in a few years' time. But the recent months spent dealing with Barak have been very trying, to the point where he seriously considered retiring early.

Ashkenazi was not appointed to the post by Barak. After Halutz resigned as chief of staff, in January 2007, Amir Peretz, the failed defense minister during the Second Lebanon War, lobbied for Ashkenazi, then-director general of the Defense Ministry, to be appointed to the position. Ashkenazi, who had left the IDF less than two years earlier (after Ariel Sharon and his defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, passed him over by choosing Halutz to be chief of staff ), came back to the army out of a deep conviction that it was up to him to cure the IDF of all the ills exposed during the war.

In May of that year, Barak was elected Labor Party leader, and ousted Peretz from the Defense Ministry, notifying him by fax. Barak had a favorable recollection of Ashkenazi as commander of the Lebanon liaison unit and head of the General Staff's operations division during his own time as chief of staff. He also remembered Ashkenazi's tenure as GOC Northern Command, when he successfully carried out the unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, during Barak's tenure as prime minister and defense minister - although he was personally critical of the move. Barak was also impressed by the vigorous steps Ashkenazi took to lift the army out of its post-traumatic funk and whip it back into shape, following the Second Lebanon War, in view of the concern that a regional war could erupt.

Ashkenazi, for his part, rarely intervened in political matters and was careful not to disagree with the defense minister in public. The impression that emerged, after the so-called "war of the generals" that followed the Second Lebanon War, was that the pair had done a good job of demarcating the boundaries of their respective sectors. Quiet was restored on both sides of the 14th-floor corridor that links the minister's office to that of the chief of staff.

By the autumn, Barak's relationship with then-prime minister Ehud Olmert had grown shaky. Staffers in Olmert's bureau were not keen on the close alliance between the other two sides of the senior defense "triangle."

The tension begins

Things began to go wrong between Barak and Ashkenazi more than a year later, in connection with Operation Cast Lead, in January 2009. Both Barak and Ashkenazi had long harbored reservations about a military operation in the Gaza Strip, and agreed to it only when they felt that there was no alternative. Both sought to complete the ground part of the offensive as quickly as possible, and both vehemently objected to the idea of broadening the operation and taking control of the Philadelphi area on the Rafah border (an option that was broached by GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant and also had Olmert's support for a while ).

Apparently the crisis between the two began over a very mundane matter: a battle over credit. Galant was angered by the chief of staff's effort to play down his role in preparing and overseeing the Gaza operation, and for being kept away from the media. He uncharacteristically lost his cool and allowed his associates to leak to the daily Yedioth Ahronoth a photograph that pictured him in Sheikh Ijlin, deep inside the Strip on the southern coast, with the forward troops. Ashkenazi, who was furious at Galant when the photo appeared, marked him for good as someone who was unworthy of becoming chief of staff.

In the meantime, however, the public gave Ashkenazi most of the credit for the operation, which was viewed as indisputable proof of the IDF's successful rehabilitation after Lebanon. That rattled the defense minister: Sources close to Barak wondered how "Mr. Security," who still commanded the public's faith in his functioning as minister, was not able to improve his shaky political standing following the Gaza war. Meanwhile, columnists and analysts nurtured (occasionally with the active encouragement of Ashkenazi's friends ) a scenario suggesting that the popular chief of staff could be expected, upon his release from the army, to do for the Labor Party what he had done for the army, and what Barak had been unable to do. In retrospect, however, Ashkenazi now is convinced that that was when he lost Barak.

Barak's office caused ongoing humiliation to the chief of staff, by preventing him from meeting with various individuals (from the education minister to the Egyptian intelligence chief ), making peculiar appointments and fighting over credit. The offices of the chief of staff and the prime minister, who was by then Benjamin Netanyahu, watched aghast as Barak appropriated for himself the success of the operation about a year ago to seize control of the Iranian weapons ship Francop - after the three bureaus had agreed hours earlier that senior officials would refrain from visiting the ship.

The personal dispute between Barak and Ashkenazi has had an impact at times even on technical, professional matters. Recently, for example, their respective offices have been engaged in a pitched battle over the question of finalizing a Supreme Command Order (SCO ) that defines the chief of staff's powers. The office of the military advocate general drafted it, Ashkenazi submitted it, and Barak approved it and then recanted . Now the lawyers are scuffling over the nuances of the wording, which was supposed to have been a done deal months ago.

Well-founded suspicions

When asked recently about the tension in their relationship, Barak commented: "I give him credit all the time, why don't we ever hear from the chief of staff that we also have an excellent defense minister?" But in view of the media's profound distrust of Barak, any public praise for the chief of staff is viewed as an attempt to conceal a knife being plunged into his back at the same time - and in at least some of the cases, the journalists' suspicions proved to be well-founded.

In the summer of 2009, the tension spilled out into the open, following Barak's attempt to appoint Galant as deputy chief of staff. Ashkenazi, who was adamantly opposed, wanted Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot as his deputy. Finally, Barak imposed a compromise: He appointed Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz to the position, but in the same breath announced that in his eyes, the position was not a stepping stone on the way to becoming chief of staff. By then, Ashkenazi was already convinced that Barak had made up his mind to choose Galant as his successor.

Barak appointed Yoni Koren, his assistant back in his IDF days, as his bureau's chief of staff. Koren was brought in to restore order in the office, after a series of public relations fiascos - including that relating to the astronomical sums that were squandered on defense minister's June 2009 trip to attend the Paris Air Show. Koren squared off with Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, the IDF spokesman and a close adviser to Ashkenazi. Meanwhile, the tension was exacerbated not vis-a-vis Ashkenazi, but also with a large group of retired generals, who had bones to pick with Barak. In recent months, some members of this group have been energetically waging a smear campaign against the minister, which in several instances has included complete fabrications about new corruption cases that ostensibly involve Barak.

Ashkenazi's ties to Lt. Col. (res. ) Boaz Harpaz - who is suspected of forging the so-called Galant document, and who used to be a regular fixture in the offices of senior people, including Ashkenazi - were resumed in January, at Harpaz's initiative. The person in charge of the contacts was Ashkenazi's chief assistant, Col. Erez Weiner (the police investigation uncovered 180 phone text messages that had been exchanged between Harpaz and Weiner during the period in question ). The assistant and his commanding officer concluded that Harpaz was delivering authentic information from the minister's office when several moves that Harpaz predicted (among these, an official announcement about not extending Ashkenazi's term for a fifth year, and a barefaced attack on Benayahu ) actually occurred.

The document, which was purportedly prepared in the office of political strategist Eyal Arad, merely served to confirm the version of events that those in the vicinity of the chief of staff had begun to accept: that somebody in the minister's office (the arrows were largely pointed at Koren ) was stirring the pot, with the help of PR spinmeisters and businesspeople, veterans of Ariel Sharon's "farm forum." The goal: Make Ashkenazi look bad, get candidates for the position of chief of staff disqualified, and thus expedite Galant's appointment.

Ashkenazi's staff did not trouble themselves about Harpaz's dubious background; the circumstances of his ouster from Military Intelligence were well known to the chief of staff (Ashkenazi even volunteered to testify to his good character in a proceeding Harpaz had initiated to overturn his dismissal without a pension ).

Crumbs of information

The police's conclusion with respect to the whole document affair, at least at this stage, is that Harpaz alone forged a document that was based on crumbs of information he had picked up in various official bureaus, plus some wild speculations, in the hopes of helping Ashkenazi secure a fifth-year extension to his tenure.

Ashkenazi and the generals who lost the race to succeed Galant do not believe this. In their opinion, Harpaz may well have "doctored" the document by adding the logo of media consultant Arad, but its contents are genuine - and a large part of what it proposed has indeed come to pass since the document reached the chief of staff's office in April.

Barak's office makes the opposite claim: Harpaz has no ties whatsoever to the defense minister (and, indeed, no such connection has been proven to date ). And if he was operating in concert with others, then it was Ashkenazi's supporters who abetted the forgery.

The chief of staff's conduct in this story has been eccentric, to say the least: the ties to Harpaz; the decision to hold on to the document, but not to approach those allegedly incriminated by it (Barak and Galant ), nor to request a hearing from the prime minister or the attorney general; the fact that he showed it to generals Gantz and Eisenkot, Galant's rivals; its transfer by a convoluted route to Channel 2 TV news (from Weiner, to retired general Gabi Siboni, to a former senior Mossad man, to commentator Amnon Abramovich ), with the chief of staff claiming that he knew nothing of the leak. While the affair was unfolding, Ashkenazi presented his version to the General Staff forum. Even there, on his home turf, quite a few eyebrows were raised.

By the same token, it is hard to accept the position of the defense minister, who rushed to appoint a confidant, Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yitzhak Brik, to investigate the affair, with the argument that he (Barak ) is in the position of reviewer, not reviewee, in this story. Barak's behavior toward Ashkenazi is a key component in the document affair, in which more has remained unknown than revealed.

Meanwhile, with the intervention of Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, the work of the Brik committee was suspended. This appears to be merely a temporary lull in the document affair - unless a serious security crisis overrides the agendas of all involved. At gatherings of commanders on the occasion of Rosh Hashanah, officers had tough questions about the behavior of the chief of staff and the generals. Privately, other complaints get voiced, and some are directed also at the defense minister. "There is a general sense of disgust, suspicion and knife-wielding," one senior officer said. "Ashkenazi ostensibly was supposed to have cleansed the army of such phenomena after the Lebanon war and its investigations - and now it looks like we're back to square one."

Another senior officer talked of "a gloomy mood among the ranks." Several officers point to other scandals of the past two years, especially the dismissals of brigadier generals Moshe Tamir and Imad Fares, stressing two aspects of those affairs: For one, both men were sent packing for offenses that now appear minor in comparison to the present one. Second, the questions is asked, as part of the interest people are taking in Ashkenazi at present: What did the chief of staff's office know, and at what stage, about both men's entanglements?

Anti-intellectual atmosphere

Despite the events of the past few months, there is no question that as someone who was not personally tainted by the Lebanon debacle, Ashkenazi was the right man in the right place following the departure of Halutz. The army benefited from his great familiarity with ground warfare (far beyond that of most General Staff generals who served under him ), the heavy emphasis he placed on discipline, the strong work ethic. Nor should we take lightly his political moderation and the great caution he displayed in everything to do with exercising force. On the other hand, his attitude toward the political echelon - according to which the army must present several possible courses of action without recommending one in particular, and the ministers make the final decision - is controversial both within the government and on the General Staff.

On the minus side, Ashkenazi will be remembered poorly for his harsh, occasionally tyrannical, treatment of his generals. He did not foster an atmosphere that allowed for freedom of expression and thought, of the sort that Ya'alon, for example, had permitted. His detractors say as well that the IDF under him did not give enough thought to ideas concerning its preparation for more complex challenges in the warfare of the future.

"There is no doubt that if you were to take any company on the Golan Heights now, it would deal better with an open terrain exercise or conquering a built compound," says one general, about the General Staff. "But the army has lost something of its spark, of the will to develop and think. After Lebanon, an anti-intellectual atmosphere spread in the army. What with all the desire to talk plainly, they stopped delving. I am certain that we will pay a price for that in the next war."

Ashkenazi is an especially popular chief of staff, but this did not happen naturally. His is an image that was built meticulously, mainly by Benayahu, with silence (i.e., zero media interviews in three and a half years ) serving as a central component in the strategy. Still, just as happened after Operation Cast Lead and the naval commando operation to stop the Turkish flotilla in May, the question arises as to whether there might have been an excessive emphasis on a PR triumph: Had Ashkenazi not been "marketed" to the media so successfully (and had many of the reporters not bought into the desired image so enthusiastically ) - would he now be encountering such a severe backlash, both from Barak and some journalists?

Over the past few weeks, Ashkenazi cut back on public appearances, though this was in part because of frequent scheduling changes dictated by consultations among the top brass. He appears to have lost some weight. After the dressing-down Barak gave him in front of the generals in a speech about the meaning of democracy, during the traditional New Year's toast, he seemed rather crestfallen. At that time he was contemplating pushing up his retirement and ending his term immediately after the holidays, next month. Most of the people he consulted recommended that he stay and take the heat, for two reasons: the complicated security reality, which requires an orderly hand-over of responsibilities despite the tension with Galant, and the wish to cement his public standing as someone who does not stoop to the level of the intrigues being waged against him.

Barak, despite his full-throated denials, apparently would have been happy to see Ashkenazi go home earlier. For now, Ashkenazi has no intention of giving his rivals that pleasure.

A few days later, at a farewell evening in Neot Kedumim for senior officers who were retiring from the career army, the chief of staff seemed in a better mood. A few hours earlier he had learned that AG Weinstein had ordered Barak to suspend the work of the Brik committee, on the grounds that it might disrupt the ongoing police investigation into the document affair. The generals on the General Staff were in near-full attendance that evening - and the chief of staff and his wife, Ronit, sat at the table of honor with his designated replacement, Yoav Galant.

At another appearance, before high-school students in Or Yehuda, where he was made an honorary resident of the city, Ashkenazi said he was going through "an unpleasant period." In private conversations, he said: "I know that I erred. But it was not a colossal mistake. I made an error in judgment, in the manner in which I handled Harpaz's document when it reached me. There was no plot here."

In the past few years, whenever friends of the chief of staff asked things were going, he would reply like a new recruit, saying how many Sabbaths remained before he would complete his sentence and be released from the army. Assuming that he ultimately decides to stick out his term until February 2011, he has another 21 to go.

'Don't worry'

N., an Arab restaurant owner from the north, sounded troubled two weeks ago. "Why do they pick on Ashkenazi like that? Is this what he deserves after rehabilitating the army?" he demanded.

Why should it bother you? You're a member of the Islamic Movement.

N.: "But we know him well. Before he rejoined the army he ate here on more than one occasion. And I also met him two months ago at some function we catered in Savyon. I asked him: 'Gabi, why do all the Arabs I know think that there's going to be a war soon?'"

And what was his response?

"He replied: 'That's odd. Most of the Jews I know think so, too.' And then Ashkenazi smiled and said: 'Don't worry, so long as I'm chief of staff, there won't be a war.'"