The Iranian Wild Card

Whether Gabi Ashkenazi stays on as chief of staff depends in large part on what happens in Iran.

Beyond the personal friction and power plays involved in the issue, the disagreement over extending Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi's term centers around deadlines involving two developments, one certain and the other possible: the next Knesset elections and the possibility of war with Iran.

For Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, as a politician it would be advantageous to extend his future rival's term at the helm of the Israel Defense Forces not only for an additional fifth year, but also for a sixth and seventh, and to send him into political isolation until he has sat out the waiting period the law provides. The chief of staff, major generals and other senior defense officials must wait three years after leaving the army before they can run in a Knesset election. However, in subsequent Knesset elections, even if they are held early and are held within those first three years, the retired chief of staff would not be disqualified from a bid for a Knesset seat.

The elections to the next Knesset, the 19th Knesset, if the 18th parliament serves out its full term, are due to be held in 2013 - when former chief of staff Dan Halutz, who left the army at the beginning of 2008, could be a candidate as MK. Ashkenazi, whether his term as chief of staff ends next year or a year later, will be barred from running for the 19th Knesset, but would qualify to run for the 20th. Ashkenazi could not serve in the cabinet (including as prime minister) until the expiration of the full three-year waiting period.

Former attorney general Menachem Mazuz worked to have Ashkenazi appointed for a four-year term, to spare him any dependence on politicians in getting a fourth year. But in doing so he only postponed the problem. So at the end of Ashkenazi's three-year term, the fuss over the fourth year that was not granted to chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon resurfaces as a fuss over a fifth year for Ashkenazi. Ya'alon, who lamented being given the boot, benefited in the end. If he had stayed on as chief of staff until the summer of 2006, he couldn't have been a Knesset candidate in February 2009.

It turns out the politics regarding the appointment of the chief of staff motivates Barak (and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) to favor a fifth year for Ashkenazi. The issue is Barak's image and range of action. Barak, who took office early when he became chief of staff by asking his predecessor, Dan Shomron, to leave two weeks early, and then rushed to leave office before four years, has not yet influenced the chief of staff's appointment.

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak was Barak's only deputy as chief of staff, breaking a promise to Uri Saguy. Barak as prime minister and defense minister wanted to appoint Uzi Dayan chief of staff after Shaul Mofaz's three years in the job, but when Barak was defeated and also lost the defense portfolio, he didn't ensure that Benjamin Ben-Eliezer carried out his wishes.

Barak's authority will be damaged if Ashkenazi is perceived as arranging an additional year for himself on a wave of public support, seen as a referendum. And that would be before any commotion from below from GOC Southern Command Yoav Gallant and others in the general staff, who anxiously open their mail every day hoping to find an invitation for Ashkenazi's retirement party.

Until the Six-Day War, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin were the only chiefs of staff to receive a fourth year in office (and Dayan got an extra two months on top of that). The standard three years was supposed to be reinstituted on the appointment of Rabin's successor, Haim Bar-Lev, but Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who threatened that 1971 would be a "year of decision" on resuming war, handed Bar-Lev a fourth year. Currently playing the role of Sadat to ensure a fifth year for Ashkenazi is Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who heads the Khamenei-Hezbollah-Hamas axis of evil.

The hesitance to change chiefs of staff on the eve of a war, especially a war that Israel initiates, gave Rafael Eitan a fifth year as chief of staff in 1982, which prime minister Menachem Begin forced on then-defense minister Ariel Sharon. This year it will become clear if the confrontation with Iran is escalating to the point of war. About three years ago, also a volatile period, and for the same reason, Ashkenazi deliberated whether to leave air force commander Eliezer Shkedy in office a bit longer.

For similar reasons, Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin began a fifth year in office last month while the term of the head of Yadlin's research division, Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, has been extended until the summer of 2011. The accepted wisdom is that the choice of the next chief of staff will be made in November and that Ashkenazi's term will be extended, not for a year, but for a period to be decided "pursuant to developments."