General Staff Sudoku

Barak's early announcement of the next army head will render Gabi Ashkenazi a lame duck, and effectively leave the IDF with two overall commanders - the incoming and outgoing chiefs of staff

The chief of staff has already lost the major battle. Once Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided to implement his intention not to extend Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi's term for another year, there was no way back. Barak's decision generated a few nasty articles in the press, but that episode is long behind him.

Ashkenazi, though, still has one last battle to fight before he leaves next February. Barak's inclination is to announce the name of Ashkenazi's successor at a relatively early date. The prevailing view is that he wants to complete the process of high-command appointments during the summer: a round of appointments of major generals in July, followed by a new chief of staff in August. Ashkenazi is vehemently opposed to this timetable. Such an early announcement would mean that the popular chief of staff, whose relations with the minister are already strained, would effectively be neutralized in terms of decision making and the army would have two commanders: one outgoing, the other the chief of staff-designate. In the past, before Moshe Ya'alon's term was curtailed and Dan Halutz resigned in midterm, the usual practice was to announce the name of the next chief of staff only about three months before he assumed office.

A broad reshuffle of generals before the end of the summer, with the danger of a confrontation in the north still high, is liable to place new and inexperienced officers in key posts (GOC Northern Command, GOC Home Front, head of Military Intelligence). If the reshuffle is moved forward, it will take place without consultation with the next chief of staff. The latter will inherit a General Staff dictated in advance by the minister and will have little influence on senior appointments in the first two years of his term.

Barring an unexpected political shakeup, the appointment of the next chief of staff, and the date on which the announcement will be made, will be Barak's alone. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs Barak more than ever to cope with the increasingly tangled relations with Washington, while the defense minister is stoking the sense of gravity that Netanyahu attributes to the Iranian threat.

In the running

Barak himself has not yet decided who the next chief of staff will be, says a source who has worked with him in the past. Just because Barak is consulting with people doesn't necessarily mean he's listening.

In the meantime, a surprising alliance is taking shape, given the tense relations of the past, between Barak's confidants and a few members of the historic "ranch forum" (referring to Ariel Sharon's Sycamore Ranch). This development is likely to benefit the GOC Southern Command, Yoav Gallant, who was Sharon's military secretary when Sharon was prime minister. Another military secretary, Major General (Res.) Moshe Kaplinsky, whom Sharon regarded almost as a son, dropped out of the race because of Barak's chilly attitude toward him.

Still in the running are Gallant, Deputy Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and GOC Northern Command Gadi Eizenkot. Another contestant is the GOC Central Command, Avi Mizrahi, and no one in the General Staff will fall out of his chair if a fifth general, Gadi Shamni, the military attache in Washington, will soon announce his candidacy from across the ocean. Shamni already served as a territorial commander (GOC Central Command, before Mizrahi). As in the case of Mizrahi, Shamni's entry into the race might have as its true goal a desire for upgrading - to be appointed deputy chief of staff under Ashkenazi's successor, or director of Military Intelligence under Gallant or Gantz as chief of staff.

It's no secret that Ashkenazi preferred one of his Golani Brigade comrades-in-arms - Kaplinsky or Eizenkot - as his successor. He fought for Eizenkot to be appointed deputy chief of staff, and lost. Now Ashkenazi will not try to influence the decision, knowing that an explicit recommendation of Eizenkot is liable to boomerang. Last summer, there were so many media reports to the effect that Ashkenazi wanted Eizenkot as his deputy that Barak insisted on Gallant and finally forced on Ashkenazi a compromise candidate he didn't want, Benny Gantz.

The solution to the chief-of-staff Sudoku will also affect the appointment of the next heads of the Mossad espionage agency and the Shin Bet security service. The current Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, will retire at the end of this year following an eight-year stint, three years longer than the usual term. Yuval Diskin will retire as Shin Bet head in May 2011 after six years, his term having been extended by one year. There is no natural and agreed-on successor in either organization. It is now increasingly thought that Netanyahu will offer Diskin the post of Mossad chief after Dagan.

Last year, Diskin appointed a third deputy director of the Shin Bet and informed the staff of the secret service that the three will compete for Shin Bet head after he retires. Another possible candidate is the organization's representative in Washington. At the same time, it's possible that Netanyahu will force the appointment of a major general from outside the organization, in light of what is considered an uninspiring group of current candidates.

Extreme scenario

The quiet on the borders and the public's complacency do not reflect the true picture. The Syrian-Lebanese summer is liable to be hot and nerve-wracking, despite the Israeli declarations about not wanting a war. The future of the efforts to impose sanctions on Iran is not clear and relations with the United States remain tense, even if President Barack Obama this week spontaneously (after careful planning) popped in while Barak was meeting with his national security adviser, General Jim Jones.

In recent weeks more anti-Israeli declarations have emanated from Ankara, even as Turkey declared its readiness to resume mediation between Syria and Israel ("No thanks," Netanyahu replied), Jordanian King Abdullah warned of a regional war, and in Egypt the pretenders to the crown are in their starting blocks following President Mubarak's surgery in Germany.

As of now, the Netanyahu government is responding to these developments with protracted political paralysis and Independence Day speeches laced with warnings to Iran and promises to build in Jerusalem and Hebron. While the politicians are wasting time and toying with fantasies about Iran, the A shkenazi-Dagan allia nce is tightening.

Here's an extreme scenario, not entirely imaginary, for the remaining part of the year: Under certain circumstances, one or another senior figure might advance his retirement, against the background of a dispute over the Iran question.