Wanted: A Political Chief of Staff

It is vital that there be some congruence between the government's policy and the outlook of the IDF's top command echelon.

Gabi Ashkenazi's successor needs to be a political chief of staff. This is not the kind of thing one is supposed to say aloud, in polite society. The chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, who is appointed by political people, is supposed to be apolitical, a professional soldier. This is correct in the narrow sense. The lieutenant-general's uniform must not be placed on a wheeler-dealer, and the chief of staff cannot delve into politics or be active in a political party or faction. This is not correct in the broad sense. It is vital that there be some congruence between the government's policy and the outlook of the IDF's top command echelon.

Above the prime minister of Israel stands a president. Not Shimon Peres, but Barack Obama. In the coming years, the fate of the peace process will be decided. Something has to give, or move, and probably someone, too - the Israeli government, followed by thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of settlers. Despite efforts to avoid it, in the end it will be the IDF, not the Israel Police, that will once again asked to assume responsibility for the evacuation. A chief of staff who shirks this duty will share much of the responsibility for the war that will come in the absence of peace.

The chief of staff is more central to the army than the prime minister is to the political system. As chief of staff-designate, Moshe Dayan reminded the generals of the general staff that they were authorized only to propose, not to vote. Decisions are not taken by vote, there is no majority rule. The top commander decides. That is why Ezer Weizman wanted to oust chief of staff Motta Gur, who was opposed to the peace initiative of Anwar Sadat. That is also why Moshe Arens examined the position of chief of staff-candidate Moshe Levy regarding the territories (and also about the Lavi project and the field corps command ).

When David Ben-Gurion appointed Dayan chief of staff after Mordechai Maklef had held the post for just one year, it was a political statement. Maklef had useful plans for updating the IDF structure. Maklef was right. Dayan was wrong to oppose the establishment of a Field Corps chief officer command and the promotion of the Armored Corps. But for Ben-Gurion, who was retiring for a bit to Sde Boker, it was more important to have a chief of staff who was of like mind politically, who would implement a more offense-oriented security policy than that of Prime Minister Moshe Sharett.

Ben-Gurion knew what he was doing in appointing Dayan, without whom there would have been no Sinai Campaign, but in the end Dayan came to the Mapai secretariat to argue against Ben-Gurion's decision to withdraw from Sinai and from Gaza, as he had done regarding the dismantling of Palmach headquarters and the marginalization of the anti-American Mapai party faithful.

Particularly illuminating is the record of the Ben-Gurion's first meeting with "Aharon (as he interpreted the derivation of the nickname Arik ) Sharon" after the Qibiya raid in October 1953. Ben-Gurion questioned Maj. Sharon about his history ("From Kfar Malal, 25 years old, commander of the special unit" ) in the War of Independence and in the IDF, and asked him for details about the fighters of Unit 101 - "45 men, 35 of them in compulsory service, average age 19." Ben-Gurion asked Sharon how many of them were from cities, how many from moshavim, how many from kibbutzim - and which kibbutzim. In particular, he asked how many were from Mapam.

Sharon, Ben-Gurion wrote, "promises that there is no fear whatsoever that they will turn into 'professionals.' If after an Arab attack there is no reprisal operation they will be angry, but he definitely thinks they will not take matters into their own hands."

Not only did Ben-Gurion want to supervise a lieutenant general and get to know a major, he also wanted to keep tabs on a corporal from Kibbutz Mizra. He believed that even a single, strategic corporal could, with a single long, unnecessary, burst of gunfire, set the Middle East alight - in contravention of government policy, in this case.

Sharon tried to implement what he learned from Ben-Gurion as defense minister and de facto chief of staff during the evacuation of Yamit, despite Rafael Eitan's opposition; and as prime minister, when for the sake of evacuating settlers from Gaza and northern Samaria he preferred to have Dan Halutz as chief of staff rather than Moshe Ya'alon (or Ashkenazi, Ya'alon's candidate, even though today IDF officials point out that, unlike his predecessors, Ashkenazi has blocked all attempts to establish rogue outposts ). Of the five generals who openly desire to succeed Ashkenazi, three interned under Sharon as military secretary.

Ehud Barak, who as a candidate for chief of staff in a Likud government tried to distance himself from his Labor Party image, will soon be interviewing the candidates. Meeting the professional requirements is crucial, certainly, but insufficient in itself. If Barak is as dedicated to peace as he professes to be, he will have to determine which of the generals, as chief of staff, would willingly take on the large-scale evacuation of the West Bank.