Authority, Subordination and Responsibility

The framework defining the relations between the commander of the army and the government, prime minister and defense minister, is unclear and subject to interpretation.

Reuven Pedatzur
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Reuven Pedatzur

In 1976, a law regulating the military's standing (Basic Law on the Army ) was passed, in order to clarify the division of authority between the defense minister and the government on the one hand, and the IDF chief of staff on the other. The need for such a law stemmed from the findings of the Agranat Commission following the failures of the Yom Kippur War. The commission absolved the civilian authorities from any responsibility and laid the blame entirely at the feet of the chief of staff and the military.

It turns out, however, that a law that was intended to clear things up left many murky areas. Many gray areas remained undefined, leaving fertile ground for a conspiracy-minded Defense Minister (Ehud Barak ) and a like-minded Chief of Staff (Gabi Ashkenazi ) to engage in a bitter struggle, causing serious damage to the functioning of the defense establishment.

The framework defining the relations between the commander of the army and the government, prime minister and defense minister, is unclear and subject to interpretation. Thus, the "war" (as defined by the chief of staff's adjutant, Col. Erez Weiner ) between Barak and Ashkenazi was conducted within the confines of the law. Weiner explained to the state comptroller - for the latter's report into the so-called Harpaz affair of 2010, when documents were forged to discredit the image of a potential chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant - that his actions were undertaken with the aim of fulfilling his role as the adjutant, attempting to protect the chief of staff and enabling him to command the army. This was allegedly at a time when the defense minister's bureau was attempting to harm Ashkenazi and hamper his ability to command. In other words, Weiner was fulfilling his duties as dictated by the law.

The Basic Law on the Army determines that the military is subordinate to the government, and that the minister appointed by the government to supervise the army is the defense minister. The law further stipulates that the chief of staff is the top commander of the armed forces, under the authority of the government and directly subject to the defense minister. However, the Basic Law on the Government (1992 ) states that the government is collectively accountable to the Knesset. Each minister is accountable to the prime minister for areas under his responsibility.

This is where the confusion begins. The army operates under the authority of the whole government, but the defense minister is appointed to oversee the army. What does this oversight mean? Is he responsible for its organization or combat operations? Are behavioral norms of senior officers or decisions by the chief of staff part of his responsibilities? The law is not clear in this regard.

The law stipulates that the chief of staff is under government authority and subordinate to the defense minister. Again, this is not clear. A struggle between the chief of staff and the minister could carry on without intervention by the government or its head. Even though the law makes the defense minister accountable to the prime minister, it is not clear what this implies. Did Barak fail in his accountability to Netanyahu, or in his struggle with Ashkenazi?

Things get more complicated when dealing with appointments of chiefs of staff. "A chief of staff will be nominated by the government based on a recommendation by the defense minister," the law states. The minister only recommends but does not appoint. The minister can, therefore, not fire the army's commander, since he was not the one who appointed him. Thus, a relationship between a minister and chief of staff can seriously deteriorate without any way to terminate it by firing the commander. The Basic Law on the Army also has no criteria for selecting a chief of staff, no definition of qualifications, and no determination of the duration of the appointment.

In his report on the Harpaz affair, the state comptroller recommends setting out in writing some selection criteria and guidelines for choosing a chief of staff. If a change in the selection process of new chiefs of staff and possibly a reframing of the Basic Law on the Army is one of the results of the comptroller's report, we will all benefit from one of the most sordid and damaging affairs in the history of the defense establishment.