To Whom Does the IDF Chief Answer?

Ehud Barak seeks to wield sole control over the defense establishment without taking responsibility for any of the consequences.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak won a victory this week in the war that he began - the war to determine who the next Israel Defense Forces chief of staff would be and when he would be appointed. The process of appointing Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant to this post, like the process of appointing then-Maj. Gen. Barak to the same job 20 years ago, was completed five months before the current chief of staff's tenure ends.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, left, and former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi.
Tomer Appelbaum

But Barak's victory was a Pyrrhic one, achieved at the heavy cost of clouding the atmosphere within the General Staff and between Barak and outgoing chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. While the defense minister argued that it was vital to dispel the uncertainty over the political/military chain of command, no such uncertainty ever existed, as no one in the IDF ever doubted the supremacy of elected politicians over officers in uniform.

Barak's expansive interpretation of the degree to which the chief of staff was subordinate to him specifically encountered opposition from his cabinet colleagues. They were unhappy that the defense minister - who is supposed to act on their behalf - acted as if his announcement that he had chosen Galant was sufficient to start moving him into the position; they then refused Barak the authority to determine whether the next chief of staff will be granted a fourth year in office, when that time comes.

Barak is well acquainted with the history of relations between the government and the army, and the background to the enactment of the Basic Law on the Army following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The chief of staff at the time, Motta Gur, was worried by the fact that the Agranat Commission - which investigated the war - exonerated the wartime prime minister, Golda Meir, and the defense minister, Moshe Dayan (who claimed he was not a supreme chief of staff, but merely a politician who could only give advice ), yet compelled the wartime chief of staff, David Elazar, and other senior officers to resign.

A similar view was held by then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, himself a former chief of staff. The goal of the law was thus to reinstate a shared fate: The government and the army would be partners in success and glory, but also in failure and resignations.

If Barak also shared this view back when he served as chief of staff, he has changed his mind since joining the government. His recent testimony before the Turkel Committee, which is investigating Israel's raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, reflected an effort to evade his share of the responsibility; the same is true of his decision to have the IDF ombudsman, who is his subordinate, head an inquiry into the forgery of the so-called Galant document.

Barak seeks to wield sole control over the defense establishment without taking responsibility for any of the consequences. But this week his fellow ministers reminded him that the chief of staff, the army's top commander, answers to the cabinet as a whole.