TEL AVIV — Although the official announcement has not been made, the word out of the Defense Ministry is that the commander of the Israel Air Force, Major General Dan Halutz, will be appointed deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces this summer. The promotion makes Halutz the prime candidate to become Israel’s next military chief of staff — and marks a revolution within the services.
Halutz would be the first air force pilot ever to become chief of staff, a post always held in the past by officers from the ground forces. But that is not the only reason his promotion has tongues wagging. Halutz has a reputation as a political hawk, standing to the right of a General Staff that is largely centrist and resolutely apolitical. His emergence as the front-runner for chief of staff has prompted anxious speculation among portions of the chattering classes about politicization of the military’s top command.
Halutz himself strongly rejects the hawkish label. Those who know him best insist this reputation results from his blunt style and penchant for provocative statements, not from his views.
Nonetheless, his promotion comes at a time when politicization within the General Staff is rising as a topic of public concern. Attention has been focused on a string of recent statements by top generals that appeared to cross a line between the military and political spheres. No less important from the army’s point of view, the timing of Halutz’s promotion furthers a recent trend of midterm appointments that have broken with longstanding tradition and been seen as reflecting political rather than professional considerations.
But the politics important here are interpersonal rather than ideological. Traditionally, chiefs of staff have taken office with a deputy who served under him and succeeded him at the end of a three- or four-year term. However, each of the last two chiefs has had two deputies who served half-terms, and in both cases the deputies brought in at midterm were the ones who succeeded the chiefs. In 1998 Shaul Mofaz, currently Israel’s defense minister, was preferred over Matan Vilnai to succeed outgoing chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, even though Vilnai had served as deputy during most of Shahak’s term and was widely regarded as the front-runner. In 2002 Moshe Ya’alon, Mofaz’s second deputy, was chosen over his predecessor, Uzi Dayan.
If this tradition holds, Halutz will succeed Ya’alon, whose three-year term ends in July 2005. The other contender will be the current deputy, Major General Gabi Ashkenazi, whose new posting, while he awaits the decision on the next chief, is not yet clear.
There have been political aspects to the recent jockeying. Vilnai, after being denied the top post, entered the leadership of the Labor Party, while his rival Mofaz joined the Likud after completing his term. Dayan, a nephew of Labor legend Moshe Dayan, was closely identified with Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak and served as chief of his National Security Council after leaving the deputy’s post, while Ya’alon had undergone a highly public hardening of views while serving as military intelligence chief in the late 1990s.
But history shows that most promotions in the senior ranks of the military have less to do with national politics than with the personal kind: rivalries, animosities, cronyism and expected obedience to the prime minister or to the defense minister, who usually makes the decision.
When Mofaz was chosen over the more experienced Vilnai, for example, it reflected a personal vendetta on the part of the defense minister at the time, Yitzhak Mordechai, who had been at odds with Vilnai since the two were young paratroop officers. As for Dayan, he had been at odds for years with the outgoing chief, Mofaz. When Sharon ousted Barak as prime minister in 2001, Mofaz easily convinced Sharon that Dayan was Barak’s man and should be pushed aside.
As for Halutz, he is considered to be close to Sharon himself. He was a candidate for chief of staff in 2002, and was mentioned by Sharon as a good choice. He was rejected partly because he had less senior command experience, and partly because he came from the air force at a time when the ground forces were carrying the burden of the Intifada.
The current jockeying in the top ranks comes at a charged time. Within the General Staff there is a widespread feeling that Israel’s elected leadership is not offering a clear direction, leaving the army to guess at the goals it is supposedly pursuing. In the vacuum, generals say their political-sounding statements are meant not to preempt the elected leadership but to raise options and offer professional assessments.
The first of these pronouncements was the chief of staff himself, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, who charged in a press briefing last November that Israel had unwisely undermined the moderate Palestinian prime minister, Abu Mazen, by failing to offer him concessions. The most recent was last week, when military intelligence chief Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash told a Knesset committee that the unilateral redeployment in Gaza broached by Prime Minister Sharon would, by appearing as a response to terrorism and not a negotiated agreement, give a boost to Islamic terrorists and weaken Palestinian moderates.
Other generals have spoken similarly in recent months, both about the need to strengthen Palestinian moderates and about what they view as the “seriousness” of recent peace overtures by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Those who know Halutz say his views are well within the mainstream consensus of the General Staff. His image as a hawk is of fairly recent vintage, bolstered by several provocative statements. The most noteworthy came in the summer of 2002, after a 2,000-pound bomb dropped from an air force plane killed senior Hamas operative Salah Shehadeh and 14 civilians, including Shehadeh’s wife and daughter. Eager to protect his pilots from public criticism and to quell unease in the ranks, Halutz gave an interview to the daily Ha’aretz, claiming he had slept “very well” at night after hearing of the outcome of the bombing. Asked what he feels while releasing a bomb over a populated area, Halutz said: “I’ll tell you how I feel: There is a slight tremor in the plane when the bomb is released, and that’s it.”
These statements enhanced Halutz’s image as a cocky, unreflective — some said insensitive — hawk who feels not a twinge as his troops kill innocent civilians. Even inside the air force, the interview prompted murmuring. About a year later several pilots, most of them already out of active duty, published a letter declaring that they would refuse to participate in “illegal” actions such as these. Halutz dealt with the crisis skillfully, but some unease remains in the ranks.
Halutz’s image as a political animal was strengthened by a strange incident in which he appeared to serve as a prop in a political stratagem by Sharon. It was in late 2003, on the day of the Likud primaries, with Sharon facing a leadership challenge from Benjamin Netanyahu. Voting was interrupted by a terrorist attack near one of the polls, in the northern town of Beit She’an. Sharon convened a hasty press conference, flanked by Defense Minister Mofaz and by Halutz, who had come to talk with him about a missile attack that day on an Israeli civilian plane in Kenya. In a bizarre scene, Sharon, apparently fearing a low voter turnout would hurt him, issued an emotional call for Likud members to “go out and vote” as a “response to terrorism.”
Halutz seemed visibly uncomfortable at his unintended role, but some observers speculated that his unplanned presence at a political press conference would be remembered by the prime minister come promotion time. Whether Sharon survives long enough to reward Halutz depends on many factors, of course, not least the outcome of his legal troubles.