Unbalancing the Power at the Top

Moshe Ya'alon's posting as Israel Defense Forces chief of staff was curtailed in 2005, a few months before the Gaza disengagement, due to a combination of reasons that included miscommunication with his superiors - Ariel Sharon and Shaul Mofaz. But the main reason for the decision not to have him serve a fourth year, as was the custom, stemmed from his objection to the withdrawal. Sharon and Mofaz knew that Ya'alon, an outstandingly disciplined officer, would obey the government's directives to the letter. Still, they preferred to replace him with Dan Halutz, who was more commited to them and therefore to the implementation of the plan.

The case of the current chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, is different. A cabinet decision at the time of Ashkenazi's appointment ensured him a four-year term, one that could be extended to a fifth year "under emergency circumstances." Was Defense Minister Ehud Barak's announcement that Ashkenazi would not get a fifth year connected to a possible Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites? Barak and his people say there is no connection. Barak believes that Ashkenazi, whom he describes as an excellent chief of staff, must pass the torch to his successor at the predetermined time.

Even if there is no conspiratorial context for Barak's decision, it may have significant implications concerning the Iranian issue. Ashkenazi will retire in February 2011. About two months before that, the term of Mossad chief Meir Dagan ends. Both Ashkenazi and Dagan are on the moderate end of the balance of power among Israel's top officials. While some in government have been making messianic declarations, the security establishment's top brass has been expressing a more cautious stance.

Ashkenazi, as the main liaison to the American security establishment and particularly to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, is particularly aware of the magnitude of Washington's opposition to an Israeli attack. The departure of the chief of staff and the Mossad head will fundamentally change the system of checks and balances among Israel's top officials on policy toward Iran.

These personnel changes will take place as the clock of nuclear activity slows down somewhat. The United States will be able, at best, to get sanctions against Iran passed only in June. A few more months will go by until their efficacy can be gauged. According to current intelligence forecasts, Tehran is one to three years away from a nuclear bomb. Its rate of progress depends mainly on the regime's decisions, in keeping with its evaluation of the extent of the world's opposition.

The impact of the increasingly severe crisis between Israel and Washington and the freezing of communications with the Palestinians must be taken into account when analyzing future Israeli policy. In an extreme scenario, the rupture with the Obama administration might also push Benjamin Netanyahu's government into attacking Iran. Meanwhile, Netanyahu and Barak are driving the IDF officers crazy, while the forum of seven senior ministers, whose deep and secret deliberations the prime minister is so proud of, rarely invites the heads of the security establishment to its meetings.

This week Maj. Gen. (res.) Moshe Kaplinsky officially dropped out of the running to become chief of staff. Still in the picture are two plus two major generals: Yoav Gallant and Benny Gantz are the leading candidates, and Gadi Eizenkot and Avi Mizrahi are likely to agree to another posting (deputy chief of staff, head of Military Intelligence), under the command of one of the two leading candidates.

Under these circumstances, the identity of the 20th chief of staff will have a major impact on a decision about whether to attack. The candidates' position on the Iranian question could also have an impact on who among them is chosen. An attack on Iran is impossible with a chief of staff who opposes it.