Strong, Fast, but Inelegant

Changes need to be made to the process of appointing a new IDF chief of staff.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak made a show of force yesterday in his hasty announcement that GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant would be the Israel Defense Forces' next chief of staff. He did this even though much is still unknown about the investigation into the so-called Galant document, a reportedly forged document that promoted Galant's candidacy. The issue is the intolerable triviality of the appointment, which is supposed to be carried out with greater elegance.

The recently appointed attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, will surely understand that his announcement of an "absence of a legal prohibition" concerning the appointment, which too gently hints that the public perceives things differently, does not mean a thing to someone holding the reins of power. This of course is not to minimize Maj. Gen. Galant's qualifications, though it is not clear whether he is the best candidate for the job.

In the late 1960s, when I was a military reporter, I had the occasion to talk to Haim Bar-Lev, who was then deputy chief of staff and coined the expression "strong, fast and elegantly done." Bar-Lev was speaking before he was appointed chief of staff about the fact that we don't have any standards for appointing a chief of staff or a way to distinguish among the candidates. "Everything is personal," he said.

Nothing has changed. The Basic Law on the Army, passed in 1976, provides that the chief of staff is appointed by the cabinet on the recommendation of the defense minister. The law therefore does not allow the cabinet to appoint a chief of staff without the defense minister's recommendation. In such a reality, defense ministers have more than once had to concede because the prime minister had a different point of view, even though the prime minster is not mentioned in the law.

The cabinet is authorized to decide, and each cabinet member has the responsibility to seriously consider the defense minister's recommendation. Cabinet members, however, view the appointment as the defense minister's special privilege and relegate their role to that of a rubber stamp.

Barak also hastened to recommend Galant to head off any chance that the appointment process would be changed. In any event, debate on a new appointment procedure can still be on the public agenda. It's even possible to support the current law giving the defense minister the right to recommend a candidate to the cabinet, but also not agree to a situation, for example, in which the minister recommends a less-qualified candidate, an associate with similar political views.

The law does not even require the defense minister to confer with other relevant people. A consultation procedure is required for appointing members to the plenum of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, but isn't required for the defense minister's recommendation of a chief of staff.

A model for the selection process can be found in the procedure for appointing the attorney general, which was changed following Roni Bar-On's appointment in January 1997. That selection was made according to the wishes of the prime minister and with the cabinet's approval, but without an orderly process for identifying potential candidates.

After the controversy that ensued over alleged improper motives for the appointment, the cabinet decided in 2000 that it could not choose an attorney general without a recommended slate of candidates proposed by a nominating committee that would examine and compare the candidates' qualifications in detail. The justice minister appears before the committee, and his position has great weight. Although the ultimate authority to decide remains with the cabinet, it can only appoint someone deemed "fit and proper" by the nominating committee, which proposes a number of candidates.

A similar procedure, with necessary adaptations, would be developed for appointing the chief of staff. For example, the nominating committee could be composed of retired defense ministers and chiefs of staff who would examine the candidates' backgrounds and make recommendations to the defense minister.

That minister, in consultation with the prime minister, would present his choice to the cabinet. The cabinet would decide after receiving a summary of the nominating committee's deliberations, which would include the criteria the committee applied in choosing one candidate over the others.

Currently the most important appointment in the defense establishment is made without any clear standards and is greatly linked to considerations that are potentially political or ideological. These considerations may touch on the defense minister or prime minister's comfort and friendship with the chief of staff.

If some people oppose an improved, orderly process, Barak's approach yesterday, which was strong, fast, but inelegant, might convince them otherwise.