The Day We Drop the Bomb

Benny Gantz's recent appointment showed what is typical of the current selection process in the security and intelligence establishments - prolonged negotiations between defense minister and chief of staff, a last-minute compromise and not an iota of external supervision.

Let's say a senior advisor to the prime minister, horrified by the "scorched earth" policy inherited from previous governments, decides one day that Israel has no choice but to launch an aerial attack on Iran. Let's imagine for a moment that another official, who is very close to the leadership, has already spoken in closed forums about his desire to see F-16 bombers take off from the Israel Air Force base in Ramat David, heading east. Let's assume the prime minister, with or without a grain of sand in his eye, must make a decision in the next year or two on the most crucial issue of all - whether to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, after all the international community's efforts to stop the country's nuclear program have failed.

Who the prime minister consults with before the fateful decision would be of the utmost importance. Cabinet ministers praise the depth and seriousness with which the forum of six (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor and Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin) discuss foreign affairs. Since taking office the forum has managed to cover all the most important issues. It would appear that the scenario of July 12, 2006, when the government of Ehud Olmert was dragged into what became the Second Lebanon War without a single preliminary discussion about the complexity of the situation on the northern front, will not become a precedent.

The situation in the military establishment is fundamentally different. Western intelligence organizations believe Iran will be capable of manufacturing a nuclear device (but not yet a nuclear warhead) in 2010 or 2011. During this period most Israeli security organizations will get new leaders. Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin is set to leave in May 2010, and Military Intelligence commander Amos Yadlin is also scheduled to retire next summer. The head of the Mossad espionage agency, Meir Dagan, is also set to finish his term at the end of 2010, unless it is renewed for another year, which would be his ninth. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi is slated to step down in February 2011.

The search for a successor at all these organizations is in trouble. The Mossad and Shin Bet are discussing bringing in candidates from outside, perhaps from the IDF. All three chief of staff hopefuls have less experience than their predecessors. Deputy chief of staff designate Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz is just now beginning his first significant General Staff position. Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot was head of the Operations Directorate during the 2006 war. Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, who insisted on remaining head of the Southern Command, has never served on the General Staff. By the time one of the three is appointed chief of staff, none of them will have served, for example, as head of MI, unlike previous chiefs of staffs Barak, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Ya'alon (all of whom were also deputy chiefs of staff prior to getting the top job).

Gantz's appointment last week was typical of the current selection process - prolonged negotiations between defense minister and chief of staff, a last-minute compromise and not an iota of external supervision. It is quite possible that Gantz is the most suitable candidate to be next chief of staff, but it is important to ask how his experience insures that this is indeed the case.

The importance of the chief of staff can be seen in the very different conduct of the last two position-holders in the last two wars. Ashkenazi, before and during Operation Cast Lead, was a moderating, balancing influence who restrained some of the government's excessive ambitions. His predecessor, Dan Halutz, provided a troubling reminder of his performance in Lebanon in a lecture at Tel Aviv University this week - loads of self-confidence, complete faith in the rightness of his way and almost zero willingness to admit mistakes.