A bare majority of Americans know that General David Petraeus commands U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Fewer, surely, would be able to name Navy Admiral Mike Mullen as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In Israel, by contrast, the chief of the general staff of the country's defense forces is a household name—for he is the unique individual in public life who is single-mindedly focused on military security, the reassuring figure, above the political fray, to whom Israelis can look with confidence at times of threat to their national safety.
Or is he? Recent headlines about the friction between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi suggest a rather different and more alarming picture. As the unpopular leader of the waning Labor party, his own political fortunes uncertain, Barak would not mind having his man ensconced in office sooner rather than later. Having decided not to extend Ashkenazi's term beyond February 2011—the current chief was appointed by the former Olmert government—he has embarked on what has turned into a highly-publicized course of finding a replacement.
With no dazzling general waiting in the wings, candidates include the deputy chief of staff and the head of the northern command. But the main contender is Yoav Galant, chief of the southern command and said to be Barak's favorite. Although, historically, the process of choosing the chief of staff has involved a great deal of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, in this instance the curtain was clumsily lifted from the start.
Someone, perhaps with Barak's interests at heart, leaked top-secret Knesset testimony laying blame on Ashkenazi for errors in the IDF's interdiction of the Turkish flotilla. Then came the bombshell that Galant himself had reportedly engaged the political strategist Eyal Arad—a nemesis of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—to help him elbow out the incumbent. The allegation was based on a leaked strategy paper containing Arad's logo; Galant says he knows nothing about the paper, and Arad denies authorship. The matter is now being investigated by the attorney general's office, which has put a halt to any further movement toward the selection of Ashkenazi's replacement.
Genuine or forged, the document is a jarring reminder of just how deeply the role of chief of staff is in fact enmeshed in politics. True, as an institution, Israel's military is by and large just as apolitical as David Ben-Gurion wanted it to be. The supremacy of the civilian echelon is sacrosanct. But the political leanings of prospective chiefs of staff play a role in their selection, and in a country where a generalship is a stepping stone to politics, those leanings are often plain to discern.
In 1949, to take an extreme case, still-active army generals who were associated with the left-wing Mapai party appeared on the party's list of Knesset candidates. These days, a cooling-off period is mandated before generals can enter politics. Their positions are anything but monolithic: some, like Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, have leaned left; others, like Moshe Ya'alon, right.
Willy-nilly, politics also often follows them into office. Among chiefs of staff, Moshe Dayan lobbied Mapai on a sensitive security matter in 1956; after the Yom Kippur war, Mordechai Gur bickered with Dayan, by then the defense minister; Ya'alon's term was curtailed by Ariel Sharon because of his lack of enthusiasm for the Gaza disengagement.
Where Galant stands politically is unclear. But then, Ehud Barak's own politics are themselves notoriously enigmatic. What is all too clear is that, faced with the spectacle of their defense minister and top generals being investigated over a leaked document, and with further movement toward naming a new chief of staff on hold, Israelis have reason to worry about those in charge of life-and-death decision-making on matters of national security.
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