Small minds might expect that with everything going in Egypt, Israel’s senior defense officials would have spent the last week focused on what happens next along Israel’s long, undefended southern border. But of course, that’s not how things work these days, now that Israel has Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history, as minister of defense.
There was a time when people expected Barak to do for the Labor Party what he had done for the army. It turns out he’s doing to the army what he did to the Labor Party — wreathing himself and the institution in a stunning combination of chaos, depression and internecine backstabbing.
The immediate crisis is the choice of the next chief of the military General Staff, the top dog in the army. The incumbent, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, finishes his term on February 14. He was to be succeeded by Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, the chief of the Southern Command, who was handpicked by Barak last summer.
But something went wrong — something entirely predictable. As of now (Saturday night Feb. 5) the Israel Defense Forces will be without a commander as of February 14.
What happened was that in mid-January, the state attorney general opened an investigation of Galant’s behavior in a real estate deal. Galant is said to have commandeered public land to plant olive trees and build an access road adjacent to his spacious home in Amikam, a gentrified moshav farming village. He is believed to have perjured himself on several occasions when questioned by authorities about the land. (Galant claims he merely got some facts wrong.)
Galant’s appointment had been challenged in the Supreme Court by Yesh Gvul, a peace organization, together with several public figures including Shulamit Aloni and poet Natan Zach. Barak and his boss, Bibi Netanyahu, had ignored the court petition, assuming that it was a nuisance case that would be dismissed after a single hearing. At the end of January, however, the attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, announced that after reviewing the facts of the case, including a stack of new documents that had just emerged in mid-January, he could not defend Galant’s fitness for the post in court, given the cloud over his ethics.
And so Galant’s nomination was withdrawn, leaving the army in an uproar with no clear chain of command.
Barak initially said he would go ahead with Galant’s installation regardless. That brought an outcry in the press and, more important, in the senior ranks: The military could not function effectively if its top commander had a reputation for dishonesty. The public would question the institution upon which the nation’s survival depends. Equally important, the chain of command might be weakened if messages, orders and reports were second-guessed in the midst of crisis.
A chorus of cabinet ministers and retired generals urged Barak to extend Ashkenazi’s term by 60 days to allow Galant time to defend himself and, if needed, to choose and vet a new chief. Barak refused to extend Ashkenazi and announced instead that the deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, would be acting chief of staff until a new chief was chosen. And there it stands as of this writing (Saturday night).
The appointment of Naveh raises several difficult questions, though. He has been deputy chief for barely three months, having been called out of a three-year retirement—after three years of being out of the loop, that is, in changing technology, changing regional relationships, changing balance of forces on the ground on all fronts. Bad enough to entrust command to an acting chief, whose every decision, every appointment, every strategic initiative will be up for reexamination in two months. Worse that of the obvious choices available—leaving Ashkenazi in charge, bringing back the previous deputy chief, the respected Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz, currently in Washington—Naveh was the only one with utterly no experience working at central command headquarters in Tel Aviv, understanding the global, multi-front, multi-platform management required, building crucial relationships with counterparts in Washington, Brussels, Cairo, Ramallah and more.
There’s one more problem with Naveh, and this takes us to the heart of the crisis. Naveh has faced a court challenge since his appointment in the fall based on actions in his last command, as chief of Central Command with responsibility for the West Bank. He was a leading champion of the practice of targeted assassinations of suspected terrorists. He was openly contemptuous of Supreme Court rulings placing strict limits on the practice, is accused of blatantly violating the court’s rulings and on one occasion, when challenged that he was breaking the law, was caught on tape saying: “Don’t bother me with the Supreme Court” (“azov oti me-haBagatz”).
Why did Barak pick him, of all the possible generals available, given the obvious problems? For the same reason that he picked Galant last summer despite his known legal problems, and failed to vet the legal record before naming him. For the same reason he refused to do the obvious and ask Ashkenazi to stay on for a few weeks. Barak hates Ashkenazi, hates his outlook, hates his friends. Barak favors soldiers who agree with him.
The feud between the defense minister and the chief of staff has been common knowledge for several years, but it wasn’t brought out into the public until last summer.
That was when Barak announced that Ashkenazi would not be kept on as chief for the customary extra year after February. Not that Ashkenazi had asked. Barak just wanted to make it clear. Announcing it six months before Ashkenazi’s term ended was highly irregular. Customarily, the defense minister announces the chief’s successor three months before the incumbent’s term ends, to allow an orderly transition without leaving the outgoing chief hanging as a lame duck for too long.
What followed was a long, ugly squabble with three candidates jostling for Barak’s favor. The main candidates were Galant, known to be Barak’s favorite; Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, chief of the Northern Command, who is close to Ashkenazi, and Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz, who served as Ashkenazi’s deputy for three years before being replaced by Naveh.
The Barak-Ashkenazi feud is partly personal—Barak is said to be deeply jealous of Ashkenazi’s popularity with the troops and the public—and partly philosophical. Barak and Galant share a belief in maximum firepower and taking the fight to the enemy. Ashkenazi and Eisenkot believe in exhausting diplomacy before opening fire. Both Ashkenazi and Eisenkot were appointed to their current posts in the first months after the summer 2006 fiasco of the Second Lebanon War. Ashkenazi was called out of retirement—he was director general of the Defense Ministry, after having served as deputy chief and then turned down for chief in 2005—to replace the disgraced Dan Halutz, rebuild the command structure and restore morale. Eisenkot was called out of his position at General Staff headquarters to take over the Northern Command, the Lebanon front, with orders to clean up the dysfunctional command center, restore troop morale and restore calm to the jumpy border.
Galant was appointed to the Southern Command around the same time, and was in charge of planning and implementing the 2008-09 Gaza incursion, Operation Cast Lead.
Perhaps worst of all in Barak’s eyes, Ashkenazi opposes a military strike against Iran, arguing that the certain cost in terrorism, bombardment and international isolation will not be worth the gain—and that diplomacy and covert action have been effective so far. Eisenkot agrees with him. So does Gantz. So do Meir Dagan, who recently stepped down as head of the Mossad, and Yuval Diskin, who recently stepped down as head of the Shin Bet. Both secret services got new chiefs who favor military action.
The military was supposed to get the same thing in Galant. Indeed, it was Galant who decided last fall, after his appointment was announced, to pick Yair Naveh—a like-minded thinker and one of the only Orthodox Jews in the senior ranks—to be his deputy.
Since the whole thing blew up at the end of January, the army and the political system have been in an uproar. Galant has reacted to his dismissal by accusing the legal system of overstepping its boundaries and interfering in military affairs. Interviewed in Yediot Ahronot this weekend, he was reacted acidly to the attorney general’s questioning his “ethics and values” by snapping that he never ran into the attorney general in the places where he fought and that the only people entitled to judge his values are the soldiers who fought under his command. He believes the state is being taken over by lawyers fixated o nonsense while the ground rumbles underneath. The Cabinet is supposed to discuss Naveh’s acting-chief appointment at its regular Sunday afternoon meeting, unless Barak sobers up and nominates someone who can do the job.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).