Will the Real Supreme Commander Please Stand Up?

With Benny Gantz set to become the 20th IDF chief of staff, questions loom over the definition of that position, and where it fits into the whole tangled defense hierarchy.

Smugness toppled Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant within the space of a month. At the end of 2010 he was still asking for an exemption from appearing before the High Court of Justice, which was slated to deliberate on a petition against his appointment as chief of staff. Over the course of four weeks in January and February, the court kicked the ball to the attorney general, and it then passed back and forth between him and the state comptroller. Eventually it was kicked back up to the government, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were forced into shooting an own goal. In the end, Galant was defeated by Barak's words back in August, concerning the excellence of all the candidates for the Israel Defense Forces' 20th chief of staff.

Even if protocol says Galant should stand alongside his colleagues in the ceremony transferring command from outgoing Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi to his designated successor Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz on Monday afternoon, he will be forgiven for his absence.

Ilan Assayag

Gantz will be heading a General Staff that is recovering from being put through the wringer. He has the option to assemble the generals for three days of seclusion and team-building, which must take into account the retirement of half-a-dozen generals within about a year. He will be able to rely on his former deputies, now leading important directorates: Yaakov Ayish, who was his effective and thorough bureau chief in the ground forces, as head of the IDF operations directorate; and Aviv Kochavi, his deputy brigade commander in the paratroops, as head of Military Intelligence. The team assisting Gantz will become even stronger once Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot moves from GOC Northern Command to deputy chief of staff.

Ashkenazi spoke this week about the difficulties of predicting events, explaining how neither he nor MI could have been expected to know more about Egypt than the Egyptian chief of staff, who was himself surprised by the events unfolding in Cairo. In terms of the developments at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, Gantz never imagined he would be pulled out of retirement to become chief of staff - nor did Eizenkot have any idea his plan to retire in the spring was about to be canceled.

The IDF feels like it has just been through a war, a war for peace in the General Staff. The revocation of Galant's appointment, the defense minister's last assault on Ashkenazi, Gantz's designation to the post - all of these occured at a dizzying pace.

Barak offered a ridiculous, conspiratorial explanation for the implosion of Galant's appointment. It is not by chance, he said, that the old matter of Galant's disputed property on Moshav Amikam suddenly cropped up again two weeks before Galant was to take up the position. Barak claimed this was another missile - this time an effective one - in the salvo that began with Lt. Col. (res. ) Boaz Harpaz's forged document.

As relates to the Harpaz affair, police have refused to confirm Barak's grave suspicions. Last week Police Commissioner David Cohen and national police headquarters bid farewell to Ashkenazi. Cohen showered the outgoing chief of staff with compliments and surprised him by mentioning that Ashkenazi's aide, Col. Erez Weiner (who was not in attendance ), had not been involved in any skulduggery.

Uncorking the bottle

Thanks to the protracted preparations for Galant's accession, dozens of officers ranked brigadier general and colonel who'd already been through promotion vetting under Ashkenazi's command, have been waiting to have their appointments approved since May last year. Barak refused to sign off on any of them until Galant came in. Gantz, who was a partner to Ashkenazi's personnel decisions, can now demand that Barak uncork the bottle.

Barak will respond by demanding that Weiner, who was approved for promotion to chief education officer with the rank of brigadier general, be removed from the list. In the officers' eyes, this will be Gantz's first test. The issue will end in a compromise, with Weiner's promotion conditioned upon his exculpation in the comptroller's report; or, alternatively, it will be determined that Weiner can become a brigadier general but not the army's education administrator - and he will be moved to another position, like head of the manpower directorate at ground forces headquarters.

The Barak-Ashkenazi war, which began with the 2009 struggle over the appointment of the deputy chief of staff, flared into a major conflagration over the past year (from February 2010 to February 2011 ). The Harpaz document was greeted on both sides as proof of the other's malevolence. Ashkenazi was insulted by the appointment of a Barak yes-man as comptroller of the defense establishment, Hagai Tannenbaum-Erez, and refused to invite him to General Staff discussions, as is customary but not required. Barak renewed the prohibition on generals giving interviews in the media without his permission, and complained about the promotion of reserve officers to the rank of brigadier general behind his back. (One case involved the former commander of the Sayeret Matkal special-ops unit, Shahar Argaman. )

Knotty background

Things came to such a pass that Ashkenazi listed "conduct" as one of the items on the agenda in working meetings with Barak, along with the approval of sensitive operations.

Most conspicuously absent from the entire affair, to the point of having been totally invisible, is Netanyahu. Barak blamed Ashkenazi for the military's skirmishes with the government. But if a commission of inquiry reads the documents and questions the witnesses - which is perhaps being done without fanfare by the head of the defense division at the state comptroller's office, Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yaakov Orr - it will show the chief of staff was falsely accused of "revolting" against the defense minister. If the commission goes to excessive lengths, it might well interpret the defense minister's behavior as preparation for a revolt against the government and the prime minister.

In the ongoing saga between the army and the state, the authority that should have truly bothered Barak was the one above him. The background is knotty, but also without malice. Basically, it centers around the problem of updating the structure and hierarchy of the army's command, something which was expounded upon in an article in the military journal Ma'arachot last June. The piece was written by one of the central figures in the affair, Col. Nurit Gal, who headed the organization department of the planning directorate.

Gal sought to make order out of an old mess: the relationships within the IDF command and with the civil authority, from the time of David Ben-Gurion in 1948 through Moshe Dayan's term as chief of staff, in 1956; the definitions formulated by the Agranat report in 1974; the Basic Law on the Army passed in 1976; and the changes introduced by Shaul Mofaz and Dan Halutz during their terms serving on the General Staff, starting in 1998 - which, according to the Winograd report, interfered with the army's functioning. By contrast, the national headquarters of the Haganah (pre-state underground militia ) was headed by a politician (Moshe Sneh, Yisrael Galili ) and a general staff.

With the establishment of the IDF, the civil authority came to be led by nonmilitary figures, first by Ben-Gurion and then Levi Eshkol, who each served as both prime minister and defense minister simultaneously, as well as Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon and Prime Minister Moshe Sharett. Ever since the Six-Day War, former chiefs of staff have crossed the line into politics: Dayan as minister of defense and Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister.

Thus the title "supreme chief of staff" was born, which Dayan refused to accept in the context of his responsibility for lack of preparedness for the Yom Kippur War. The scuttling of the operations directorate and the dividing of its responsibilities between the deputy chief of staff and the head of the operations directorate only exacerbated the confusion.

Gal and other veteran sources, like Binyamin Amidror, tried to untangle this knot. They concluded that what is today called the General Staff is not actually a staff, but rather a command. The deputy chief of staff, they determined, is the bureau chief of the military commander - who himself is called "chief of staff." Therefore, they argued, it is best to change the terminology and call the chief of staff the "commander of the army," which would be similarly subordinate to the government.

The document with their conclusions was submitted to Barak and he signed it. But then Barak decided that therein lies a plot against him: How can it be said that Ashkenazi is commander of the army when he, the defense minister, is the chief of staff's commander - i.e., commander of the army?

Ashkenazi, along with his aides and his lawyers, corrected Barak, saying that it is not the defense minister, but rather the government that is the supreme commander of the IDF, as stipulated in the Basic Law on the Army.

Endless memoranda flew between the two bureaus and between the legal advisor to the defense minister, Ahaz Ben-Ari, as well as his aide Benny Cohen, and Military Advocate General Maj. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit. And all this at a time when Barak's bureau was planning to evacuate Ben Ari's position in favor of Civil Service Commissioner Shmuel Hollander (a member of the same Turkel committee that approved Galant's appointment ).

The dispute among the military jurists found its way to Raz Nizri, a senior assistant to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. The cabinet, the supreme commander of the IDF, had no idea all this was happening behind its back. Netanyahu, whose government's authority has been significantly eroded by Barak, listened to Ashkenazi's complaints once - and kept silent.

Arens vs. Barak

Ashkenazi had a good model of a chief of staff standing on his principles vis-a-vis a defense minister: Barak. In 2002 Moshe Arens, the defense minister who in 1991 recommended Barak's appointment as chief of staff, described the conflict that had quickly developed between himself and Barak. At the time, Arens was concerned about Israel's lack of preparedness in the face of an attack from Iraq, and acted, according to his public testimony, to establish "a branch at the Defense Ministry that would deal with special means."

"Barak was of the opinion that such a branch had to be located within the framework of the army and under the direct authority of the chief of staff," Arens said. "I was of the opinion that the branch should be under the authority of the government, the civilian part of the administration. A fierce disagreement erupted between us. There were even hints he would resign if I persisted. But I stood my ground and indeed this is the situation [today]. The branch is now operating in the framework of the Defense Ministry."

Barak claimed that he had been distracted when he signed the change to the orders, and announced that he was withdrawing his signature from the bottom of the form - at the top of which Nurit Gal's signature can be found. Ashkenazi refused to add his signature to the revocation. The upshot is that the previous document remains valid. Will Gantz sign? Will Weiner's head be included in the deal?

During the past two years, toward the end of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime, Ashkenazi has done some investing in multipurpose infrastructure in the Negev. The IDF's human resource, in the form of a cadre of experienced officers, was dismantled by Halutz. But during Ashkenazi's tenure, for the first time in many years, a considerable quantity of up-to-date maps has been printed. It is necessary to reestablish formations trained to operate there - which will cost about NIS 80 million - and to put at its head, in reserve service, the officer most knowledgeable about this front at the moment: Galant.