The Defense Minister's Last Maneuver

Peretz, however, couldn't help but give Ashkenazi a parting present, knowingly infringing on his successor's freedom of action, as the next defense minister will no doubt be among Peretz's critics.

Both Washington and Jerusalem announced top military appointments last Friday. The Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, announced that he had decided - with Defense Minister Amir Peretz's approval - to appoint his military attache to Washington, Major General Dan Harel, as his new deputy.

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that he will recommend President George W. Bush to appoint Admiral Mike Mullen as the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Secretary Gates also announced that he will ask the president to nominate Marine Corps General James Cartwright as vice chairman.

Ashkenazi had to persuade only two figures to approve the nomination: Peretz and the would-be deputy, Harel. Gates, however, had to avoid re-nominating the top two incumbent U.S. military officers to their posts, to avoid a contentious Senate confirmation process related to the war in Iraq. And so he had to dispense with the services of the current chairman, General Peter Pace, and his vice, Admiral Ed Giambastiani.

Unlike his American counterpart, Peretz decided to end his embarrassing term in the Defense Ministry with a dubious gambit. Harel was earmarked in advance as Ashkenazi's preferred candidate for the post of deputy chief of staff and head of his chambers, in which he will serve as the man responsible for carrying out Ashkenazi's policy.

The duo had worked before with Ashkenazi as commander and Harel as his deputy. They had cooperated nicely when Ashkenazi and Harel had served in the Operations Directorate; in the Northern Command; and when Ashkenazi was deputy chief of staff and Harel served as the head of the Operations Directorate.

The former chief of staff, Dan Halutz, who resigned in January, told Peretz before the Second Lebanon War last summer that he intended to appoint Major-General Benny Gantz as his second deputy this spring.

The war ended up wiping Halutz off the map, along with Gantz's appointment. The war will also sweep Peretz out of the Defense Ministry - but only after he hastened to approve Harel's appointment instead of leaving it for his successor.

Appointing a new deputy during his first few months in office is a perfectly acceptable action for Ashkenazi to take. It is, however, an unacceptable action for Peretz, whose term is nearing its last moments. It is as if Ehud Barak would have used his authority as defense minister to secure Major General (Res.) Uzi Dayan's appointment as chief of staff just before Barak lost the 2001 elections.

The General Staff members - who hope to contend for the post of chief-of-staff after Ashkenazi's term - argue that it is unwise to appoint Harel as the deputy chief-of-staff. As an artillery corps officer, they argue, Harel is not among Ashkenazi's potential successors.

This isn't America, they say, where a navy admiral like Mullen - who has no experience in commanding ground forces - can be appointed to head the military establishment. Someone like Mullen, who was trained as a navy destroyer commander, could never be appointed to head the IDF, nor could an Air Force pilot or artillery officer. Those days ended with Halutz, who hailed from the Israel Air Force, they claim.

Had their claims been accepted, one of the officers who would stand most to gain is Major General Yoav Galant, Harel's successor as GOC Southern Command. Harel had served in the artillery corps until he reached the rank of brigadier general. Galant started in the navy, where he had served as an outstanding officer until making colonel. But Galant has completely dried up in the 10 years since he was transferred from the navy.

Unlike Harel, Galant commanded a regular army division. On the other hand, Harel had completed two positions as major general, as opposed to Galant's two posts.

Harel's appointment served to push Galant aside, putting the incumbent deputy chief of staff, Moshe Kaplinsky, in an excellent position to contend for the post of chief-of-staff in three and a half years, after Ashkenazi's term ends. Other notable contenders are GOC Northern Command Gadi Eizenkot, who might well replace Harel as deputy chief of staff somewhere along the way.

Harel's appointment is reminiscent of (res.) Major General David Ivry reenlistment in 1983 following the first Lebanon war and the findings of the commission of inquiry which investigated its progression, to serve as deputy chief of staff under Lieutenant General Moshe Levi.

Levi conspired to sabotage Dan Shomron's appointment as his deputy, hoping to prevent him from succeeding him as chief of staff, as indeed happened in 1987. Moshe Arens, who served as defense minister then, agreed not to appoint Shomron, on the condition that Levi put him in command of a new directorate, which later evolved to be called GOC Army Headquarters.

Peretz, however, couldn't help but give Ashkenazi a parting present, knowingly infringing on his successor's freedom of action, as the next defense minister will no doubt be among Peretz's critics.

And that was Peretz's last maneuver in the Defense Ministry. Unless, of course, Peretz manages - just as he is leaving - to secure a promotion for his friends in the IDF's top echelon away from Ashkenazi.