Not Just Cooling Off - a Freeze

The problem worsens when a new senior pensioner from the army skips right into the role of defense minister, making fateful decisions about the officers with whom he served only a few days earlier.

Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon is casting himself in recent days as the astonished, miserable victim of Shaul Mofaz. Ya'alon suddenly found out, to his shock, no less, that the intrigue reaches all the way to the uppermost levels of the defense establishment, and that Mofaz will use all means at his disposal to get rid of senior officers with glorious accomplishments when he feels challenged or threatened.

That astonishing discovery was not known to Ya'alon 10 years ago, nor five years ago. In 1995, then-chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak had an open fight with his successor at the head of Military Intelligence, Uri Saguy, who he wanted out of the job - and the army - a year after preventing Saguy's appointment as a second deputy to then chief of staff Ehud Barak.

With the approval of then-defense minister Yitzhak Rabin, Shahak showed Saguy the door. Who benefited? The brigadier general commanding the Tzealim base, who won his major general's stripes, the head of Military Intelligence and a platform for further advancement: Moshe "Bogey" Ya'alon.

In 2000, the next chief of staff, Mofaz, wanted to get rid of his deputy, Uzi Dayan. The winner: Ya'alon. He didn't display any outrage about how Dayan was treated, just as he did not comment on the approach to Saguy. His hand may not have been involved, but his foot went in through the door without hesitation. His work was done by others, and maybe he deceived himself to believe he was immune to the kind of fate that befell Saguy and Dayan.

Along with Ya'alon's much acclaimed integrity, which didn't prevent him from building his career upon the abuse of his predecessors, those scandals had something else in common: the backgrounds of the defense ministers Rabin, Barak and now Mofaz. Each of them - and before them Moshe Dayan - was a former chief of staff, trapped in the senior officers' club, imbued with residue from his military service.

Prime Minister Barak appointed himself defense minister only four and a half years after he was chief of staff. Rabin, an old pensioner from the army, was left feeling that he didn't want to do to a sitting chief of staff what he did not want done to him while he was chief of staff in the 1960s. During Rabin's first term as defense minister, in the 1980s, his personal precedent helped Moshe Levy. Rabin in 1967 was the second chief of staff (preceded only by Dayan) whose three years were extended to four. Levy played on those chords and won a fourth year, presenting it as if not getting the extra year was the equivalent of being fired.

To the four former chiefs of staff one can add defense ministers Ezer Weizman, Ariel Sharon, and Yitzhak Mordechai, major generals in reserves, each with his own accounts to settle for not becoming chief of staff.

Mofaz, whose career was made by the hatred Mordechai felt for Matan Vilnai, supported Ya'alon as his successor as chief of staff to block Uzi Dayan from being appointed. The decent Ya'alon would never have considered presenting a false demobilization date to enjoy some extra benefits, like the right to get elected to the Knesset; but when Mofaz, who wanted to get elected, argued that he left the army at the end of July and not in August, Ya'alon fell silent and covered him.

The date of Mofaz's demobilization came up ahead of the 2003 elections because of the precedent-setting element of the law that "cools off" senior officers before entering politics. The law's formulation, which requires a six-month interlude between stepping out of a major general's uniform and into a politician's suit and tie, was the minimal amount that the initiator of the law, Moshe Arens, was able to achieve. If the law had been passed by the previous Knesset, Mofaz would have been prevented from joining the government less than four months after he finished his service as chief of staff.

The problem worsens when a new senior pensioner from the army skips right into the role of defense minister, making fateful decisions about the officers with whom he served only a few days earlier. Such an eventuality, which climaxed in the cases of Mordechai and Mofaz, should not only be chilled, but frozen.

At various times in the past, proposals were rejected in Israel to copy the American model, which prevents brigadier generals and up from being appointed defense secretary within 10 years of leaving the army. Only under very special circumstances and on the basis of an emergency appointment does the law permit someone to bypass that strict criteria. Only once has it been applied: in the case of retired Gen. George Marshall at the height of the Korean War, six years after he retired from the army. There is no legal barrier to appointing a former senior officer to any other position in the administration, or electing one to the supreme command of the army - the presidency.

In Israel, the other route - from politics to the army - is also sometimes used in emergencies: Moshe Dayan and his request to be named head of the Southern Command in 1967, and Sharon and Bar Lev in 1973. But in practice, that route has been barred since then. The Mofaz-Ya'alon case is reminiscent of the need to extend by many years the interlude between the farewell march out of the army and the return to oversee it, as defense minister.