The Barbivay Test

The expectations from the first major general in the IDF are practical, but also symbolic, and her personal task will be to prove the doubters wrong.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak's decision, approved by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (though Gantz recommended and Barak approved, in reality ) to promote Brig. Gen. Orna Barbivay to the rank of major general and appoint her chief of the IDF personnel directorate, has produced responses mainly in the folklore department: a small step for Eve, a giant leap for the IDF, an ornament or Barbie Doll for the chief of staff's desk.

In reality, the fig leaf that turns a brigadier general into a major general will also become a burden of proof - that Barbivay's promotion was justified in and of itself, as opposed to the product of organizational politics and a means of letting off lobbyist steam.

The expectations from her are practical, but also symbolic and her personal task will be to prove the doubters wrong.

Her superiors could have considerations other than seniority, others candidates in line for the job and military records. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in his day sought a bereaved father for the job of chief of the personnel directorate, and drafted from the reserves Brig. Gen. Moshe Gidron.

Until the mid-1970s, and the changing of the generational guard following the Yom Kippur War, all the major generals came from the same assembly line: Ashkenazi, Jewish, non-Orthodox (except for the chief military rabbi ) males. That was the way of the world - to the extent that GOC Northern Command Yitzhak Rabin revealed his ethnic proclivities in a meeting of the General Staff in November 1958 with the participation of prime minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion, Chief of Staff Haim Laskov, Defense Ministry director general Shimon Peres, Air Force commander Ezer Weizman and others. A closed club of males and competitors with much more in common than not.

The rank of major general was handed out sparingly in those days, and after a minimum period of time that sometimes seemed like the maximum. Military Intelligence chief Yehoshafat Harkabi worked hard for three years in the rank of colonel before being promoted to general officer.

Harkabi had analyzed the intelligence warning of attack by an Arab army. Without committing himself to a specific number of days, he promised there would be a warning before an Arab attack. The Arabs would not be able to surprise Israel.

"Are we not exaggerating the human inferiority of the enemy?" Ben-Gurion asked him. "No," Harkabi said. "We conducted research together with the university [the Hebrew University, there was none other at the time] and we processed the results of a questionnaire given to prisoners," referring to Egyptian prisoners from Operation Kadesh. The conclusion: the Arab weakness is not only technical, it is "internal-social."

Ben-Gurion was troubled by the pretentiousness of the major generals, confident in their Western superiority, in beliveing they could penetrate the mind of the enemy.

"Is it not a worrisome fact that only Ashkenazis are sitting here," Ben-Gurion asked. Rabin volunteered to explain why the single ethnicity of the General Staff should make them feel secure: "That is more proof that what Fati [Harkabi] said is right," Rabin said.

The arrogance in that statement was shown up in the intelligence failure vis-a-vis Egypt as early as 1960 and again in 1967 and 1973, but only in the mid-1970s and thereafter were major generals of Middle Eastern and North African extraction appointed.

Then came the turn of the Orthodox men from the combat and technology units, rather than just as officers in the military rabbinate, a Druze (in 2001 ) and now a woman.

The first Druze major general, Yosef Mishlev, is still the only one. The former chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, supported Brig. Gen Kamil Abu-Rukun as coordinator of activities in the territories, but Barak prefered to promote his military secretary, Eitan Dangot.

If Barbivay succeeds she will pave the way for other women, like Brig. Gen. Ayala Hakim, commander of the communications unit Lotem, who in a few years will be the leading candidate to command the IDF communications branch. If Barbivay's work is not impressive, it will turn out that Barak and Gantz will this time have only done the minimum required.

The head of the personnel directorate was, during some periods, a key position in the military leadership, as a tool for monitoring, filtering and promoting loyalists. Tzvi Tzur filled the post on the way to the position of chief of staff.

In recent years, it has become less important. The appointment of Barbivay as head of the personnel directorate is the fifth in a row from within the directorate, following Yehuda Segev, Gil Regev, Elazar Stern and Avi Zamir, who were skilled adjutants.

She is not likely to fail any more than her predecessors, but she will have to work hard to embarrass those who say that the job and the rank had more worthy candidates.