On Ashkenazi's Watch

Brig. Gen. Imad Fares was punished not because he lied on an insurance form, but because, like Ehud Olmert, he made the mistake of thinking that even his fifth or sixth imbroglio would be forgiven the way his earlier ones were.

The Israel Defense Forces successfully carried out a surprise call-up and preparedness exercise last week. The exercise measured the scope and pace of soldiers' response to a surprise demand that they make contact with their unit - after a soldier erroneously reported seeing another soldier being kidnapped and stuffed into a car, presumably en route to the West Bank.

But satisfaction over the fact that the report proved false, and over the opportunity to test army emergency procedures, was outweighed by the concerns stirred by the theft of a pistol and credit card information from the office of the IDF chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi. If even the highest-ranking officers do not know what is happening under their noses, how can they presume to know the state of their forces or what the enemy is really planning?

Any criticism of the IDF should be directed at Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi. When a major general goes to the quartermaster's office to sign for the chief of staff's kit, he turns in what is left of his modesty, if he has not yet managed to get rid of it all, and in exchange receives a double portion of hypocrisy, which enables him to choose which General Staff orders to ignore even as he forces other soldiers to obey them. There is one law for ordinary soldiers and another for senior officers.

In recent years, we have had one chief of staff who, before retiring from the army, held forbidden contacts with politicians (but the military advocate general treated this forgivingly). Another redacted his retirement date to spare himself the required cooling-off period before entering politics.

There are also those who bypass the ban on smoking in their offices. Smoking at army meetings is permitted only if all the participants agree. But what officer hungry for promotion would dare tell the chief of staff not to light up?

Ashkenazi is scrupulous about preparing operations. He carefully analyzes whether they are truly needed, discusses and weighs them out, and forces the politicians above him to treat the ramifications of opening fire with all the seriousness they deserve. Under him, there will be no intentional rash escalations into anarchic wars. And this insistence by Ashkenazi has filtered downward: Officers absorb the spirit of the commander.

But the same is true if officers lie and think nothing bad will happen to them. There is "adherence to the mission in light of the goal," but there is no "adherence to the mission in light of values."

When the chief of staff ousts the commander of an armored battalion for failing to storm the enemy along the Gaza border, he expects the next battalion commander to fear a similar punishment if he hesitates to act. But when a brigadier general, and then another one, lies, they assume that their future in the army will not stand or fall on such a triviality. And Ashkenazi has not restored his deterrence in this sphere. As proof, consider his letter to the military court that sentenced Brig. Gen. Moshe "Chico" Tamir.

Nor did the abusive hazing in one of Brigade 188's tank companies cause him to retract the brigade commander's appointment as a division commander. This indicates that he does not consider such hazing so terrible.

Brig. Gen. Imad Fares was punished not because he lied on an insurance form, but because, like Ehud Olmert, he made the mistake of thinking that even his fifth or sixth imbroglio would be forgiven the way his earlier ones were - and also because he chose to lie to Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, who is likely to play a key role role on the next General Staff, either as chief of staff, deputy chief of staff or a candidate to succeed the next chief of staff. In practice, Fares was not sent home; he merely understood from Ashkenazi and Eizenkot that he would not become a major general. And at 48, having already acquired full pension rights, resignation was his best option after having hit a brick wall following his third posting as a brigadier general.

Not every brigadier general who excels in combat is qualified to be a major general and member of the General Staff, just as not every major general is qualified to be chief of staff. Gen. George Patton was a renowned field commander but a problematic personality - a serial violator of orders who abused his soldiers. He barely escaped dismissal, while his subordinates passed him by and became his superiors. And not every Tamir or Fares is a Patton.

In the absence of multiyear data, it is impossible to claim that IDF ethics have actually declined under Ashkenazi. But he bears responsibility for what happened on his watch.

So what can he do? First, get rid of the superfluous headquarters of the chief education officer and the IDF chief rabbi. Second, force all senior officers to spend one week a year sobering up by living as civilians, ordinary Joes, with no offices or status symbols. And finally, just as one-day refresher courses are scheduled whenever operational mishaps accumulate, Ashkenazi should schedule one-day refresher courses on credibility - which the chief of staff himself should also attend.