Friday, September 24, 2010

Rank Rivalries In the IDF

A bare majority of Americans know that David Petraeus commands U.S. forces in Afghanistan. It's anyone's guess how many can name Navy Adm. Mike Mullen as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In contrast, the IDF chief of staff is a household name in Israel, has operational control over the armed services and is an ex-officio cabinet member.

That is why the current friction between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi is making headlines in Israel. Barak decided against extending Ashkenazi's term beyond February 2011 and has embarked on a highly-publicized – some say premature and humiliating – course of finding a replacement. With no dazzling general waiting in the wings the three main contenders are Yoav Galant, chief of the southern command and rumored to be Barak's favored candidate, Benny Gantz, deputy chief of staff, and Gadi Eizenkot, head of the northern command. As the unpopular leader of the waning Labor party, with his own political fortunes uncertain, Barak would not mind having Ashkenazi take early retirement and have his man ensconced sooner rather than later.

Lacking institutional processes, the quest for the chief of staff job has characteristically involved behind-the-scenes scheming. In this instance the curtain has been clumsily lifted. Thus someone – perhaps with Barak's interests at heart – leaked top secret testimony from the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that laid blame for the IDF's poorly-executed interdiction of the Gaza-bound Turkish on Ashkenazi's shoulders. Then came the bombshell that Galant had engaged wily political strategist Eyal Arad – a nemesis of Premier Benjamin Netanyahu -- to help him elbow out the incumbent. Television pundit Amnon Abramowitz broke the story based on a leaked strategy paper containing Arad's logo. Galant says he knows nothing about the paper; Arad denies authorship. The matter is now being investigated by the attorney-general.

Genuine or forged the document is a jarring reminder that the IDF chief of staff role is hardly above the political fray.
There are no ex-generals in the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives. Since 1900, only one general, Dwight Eisenhower, reached White House. In Israel, however, a generalship is a stepping stone to politics. Prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak were former chiefs of staff; Ariel Sharon was a major-general. Since the 1967 War, only a handful of chiefs of staff have opted against a political career.
Yet, as an institution, Israel's military is by and large apolitical just as David Ben-Gurion wanted it to be. The supremacy of the civilian echelon is sacrosanct. Still, the political leanings of prospective chiefs of staff plays a role in their selection. Moreover, influence runs both ways. In 1949 active army generals associated with the left-wing Mapai party appeared on its Knesset candidate's list – nowadays there is a cooling off period before officers can enter politics. In 1956, then chief of staff Moshe Dayan donned civilian clothes to lobby the ruling Mapai party on a sensitive security matter. General Mordechai Gur bickered with Dayan over policy when he served as Golda Meir's defense minister after the Yom Kippur War. More recently, Sharon refused to extend General Moshe Ya'alon's term as chief of staff because he was unenthusiastic about the Gaza disengagement.
That said, jingoism is not a feature of the high command's ranks. When generals formally enter politics their positions are anything but monolithic; some like Amnon Lipkin-Shahak turn left, while others like Ya'alon head right. Tel Aviv University professor Yoram Peri, a former editor of the now defunct Labor newspaper Dvar, maintains that with Israeli politics stalemated, politicians find it convenient to push ex-generals who share their security orientation -- whether hawks or doves -- into the front ranks of politics.
As Israelis gloomily observe the spectacle of their top generals and defense minister being investigated over the leaked strategy paper, and with the process of picking Ashkenazi's replacement now on hold, they can only trust that the cutthroat competition for the military's top spot and the lack of esprit de corps exposed by this episode will not impact life-and-death national security decision making.

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