Author Ronen Bergman, Is Former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi a Liar?

Ronen and his co-host, veteran journalist Dan Margalit, are the authors of "The Pit," the newly released book that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the power struggle between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

Ronen Bergman, an investigative journalist at Yedioth Ahronoth, hosts "Erev Hadash," the evening news magazine on Educational Television. He and his co-host, veteran journalist Dan Margalit, are the authors of "The Pit," the newly released book that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the power struggle between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, while revealing Ashkenazi's extensive ties with Boaz Harpaz, the man suspected of forging a document to influence the appointment of the next chief of staff.

Since the book was released yesterday morning, there've been lots of complaints.

Outgoing Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi
Moti Milrod

I want to address what is perhaps the most important complaint that has been made - that this is Ehud Barak's version of events. Whether or not Barak's version is correct or not, it is irrelevant to 95 percent of the events discussed in the book because he is simply not part of them. We sent the IDF Spokesman's Office a list of 70 questions, after I spoke to the chief of staff's bureau chief, and Danny (Margalit ) spoke to the chief of staff himself. He declined to answer. We actually pleaded with him to allow us to meet with certain people, including the chief of staff, and this request was also turned down. We received a response that was totally slanderous, but nonetheless, we included it in the book. I invite everyone to debate the facts in this book with me. Anything else is just an attempt to divert the discussion from the main issue.

Who's responsible for the spin?

Ah, the IDF Spokesman's Office, people connected to the IDF Spokesman's Office. Two months ago, the chief of staff contacted the Shin Bet general security service and asked to investigate those journalists who were investigating these affairs on the grounds that they possessed what the IDF spokesman defined as "highly classified" documents. In other words, we're not dealing here with an inquiry into the chief of staff's ties with Boaz Harpaz; rather, we're talking about jeopardizing the security of the state. When he received a negative response from the Shin Bet, he went to the attorney general and said that the journalists' homes should be raided, material should be taken and action should be taken against their sources. The objective of all this was to put an end to the investigations which formed the basis of the book. I must say with some regret that their efforts were partially successful. There are individuals who, because of the Shin Bet's threats, withheld from us some of the information that was important to fill in the puzzle, although to my delight, whatever material we have is sufficient to portray the very serious sequence of events that transpired here over the past year or two.

Bergman - Nir Kafri
Nir Kafri

In the book, you compare the chief of staff's defense of Harpaz, who took classified documents, with his demand to crack down on Haaretz reporter Uri Blau and Anat Kamm, after Uri Blau published a report about problematic financial aspects of the chief of staff's actions, which were also connected to his son.

What is absolutely correct is that the chief of staff, of all people, who tried to portray himself as a man of integrity who treats light violations the same as serious ones, suddenly when it comes to people who are close to him, uses a totally different standard. Boaz Harpaz, who committed some very serious crimes that dealt a serious blow to state security - I can't really talk about it - but the security of all of us was affected and the state's coffers suffered huge losses because of the things that Boaz Harpaz did.

And you claim that Ashkenazi knew about all of this.

Up to a certain point, he certainly knew, because he appeared before the committees and defended him.

In other words, he lied knowingly.

Ashkenazi says in his testimony to the Shin Bet that a lie detector was used in the investigation of Harpaz. But it's not true. Incidentally, to this day, he refuses to take a lie detector test. I didn't say he lied knowingly. Ashkenazi says, in order to explain why he told an untruth to the Shin Bet: I didn't know, Boaz Harpaz set me up, misled me, I believed Boaz Harpaz. I don't know what's worse, that the deputy chief of staff or the director general of the Ministry of Defense, that a con man manages to lead him by the nose or that he knowingly lies. Both are pretty terrible.

But that option that he was misled by a con man is slightly less likely given your claim in the book that Harpaz was a member of a kind of "mini staff," together with Ashkenazi's wife and two senior journalists.

There is no disagreement about the fact that Harpaz assisted the chief of staff's office in all kinds of areas, and the chief of staff's office acknowledges in effect that he was used as a spy in the defense minister's bureau starting in 2010.

What do you mean by a spy in the defense minister's bureau?

This is the response of the chief of staff's bureau: Boaz Harpaz showed up here and said, listen, they want to do terrible things to you in the defense minister's bureau. And then he really does manage to provide amazing information from the defense minister's bureau. And I ask a simple question: How does it happen that a person shows up, offers himself as a spy in the defense minister's bureau, communicates with Ashkenazi's aide in code and no one stops this. He shows up one time, okay, send him to the police, to the military advocate general, send him to the attorney general, but how is it that the chief of staff's bureau does something like this? After all, it's a blatant affront to the political leadership. And that's after I accept the chief of staff's version of events as is.

But even Barak's bureau comes out looking bad in this version.

Barak's bureau made other mistake, and I also don't want to make a comparative value judgment about these things. What is for sure is that the chief of staff's office spied on Barak, and the bottom line is that it provided the incubator for a forged document whose objective was to intervene in the appointment of the 20th chief of staff. Afterward, this document finds its way to the media, and on the way, the chief of staff and his aides provide conflicting versions of events, and when you place them on a timeline or cross-reference them with the accounts of other people, you realize that something doesn't fit here. The versions do not jibe. And when the versions don't jibe, then someone here is lying.

The way you describe things, it sounds as if Avi Benayahu is less an IDF spokesman and more a Gabi Ashkenazi spokesman.

Avi Benayahu, who is perhaps the most brilliant spokesman in Israel - no offense to anyone - did something that should not be done: He totally bound himself to the service of one man, when he should be serving an entire army and an entire defense establishment. I can tell you that we had some very sharp clashes when Benayahu first tried to prevent the publication of the Yedioth Ahronoth report and now the book. In his attempts, he used every trick in the book, from stalling to intimidation and insults. He was also lying nonstop in order to prevent publication of the material in the book.

Lying nonstop?

Lying nonstop. He always starts with the assumption that you know less and when he wants to intimidate you, he bangs on the table and shouts to the secretary who is not really there, "Get me . . . .! " So for example, he says to me "The rot at Erev Hadash has stuck to you." I asked him if I could quote him on that. He bangs on the table and says, "Get me Yaffa Vigodsky!" who happens to be the director general of Educational Television. When you tell this story, it sounds funny, but when it happens in real life, it's not at all funny.

Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, the IDF spokesman, said in response: "My integrity, credibility and professionalism span many years in all my positions in the media, the IDF and the defense establishment. Dr. Ronen Bergman has too little experience in the profession to be able to cast himself as my judge. Bergman is trying to present himself as a fighter for freedom of the press, but the truth is that we only had one, or perhaps two, occasions to discuss the book and no more than that. I can, therefore, say that Bergman would have no problem using distortions and half truths in order to promote what he calls a book."