Fresh from the long war with Hamas in Gaza, tensely facing down simmering unrest in the West Bank and chaos on the Syrian border, Israel’s defense establishment is now bracing for what’s shaping up to be the most bruising confrontation of all: the choosing of the next chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
The process looks to be a replay of the last race, an ugly slugfest in late 2010 and early 2011 that resulted in the selection of the current chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. That got so nasty that the lead candidates fought each other to a draw amid mudslinging and dirty tricks that ended up in criminal investigations and indictments. Weirdly enough, the lead candidates are back again.
The lead candidates that fall were Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, chief of the Northern Command, who was favored by then-chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and most of his colleagues at General Staff HQ; and the chief of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, favored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak, but fiercely opposed by the army brass. The mudslinging exploded into a scandal that effectively sidelined Eizenkot, though he wasn’t directly involved. Barak went on to nominate Galant, as expected, and the cabinet duly approved him. Days before Galant was to take over in February, however, he was suddenly charged with real estate fraud and disqualified. In the end the job was handed to everyone’s second choice, the inoffensive Gantz.
Everything fell apart so suddenly that an interim chief of staff had to be appointed, the newly installed deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh. That prompted yet another eruption when Israel’s Supreme Court sharply criticized Naveh as unfit to lead the army even temporarily.
This year all the old ghosts are returning, along with some new ones. The lead candidates are, once again, Eizenkot and Galant. Eizenkot is currently deputy chief of staff, and was thought until recently to be the heir apparent. Galant, meanwhile, cleared up his real estate mess last year and recently nominated himself for the post, announcing on television that he’d be available if “called to the flag,” as he grandly put it. He’s reportedly still backed by Netanyahu, though not by the new defense minister, Moshe Yaalon.
If past were prologue, Galant would now reclaim the job dangled by the prime minister but snatched from him at the last minute in 2011. But under Israeli law, nominating the chief of staff is the sole prerogative of the defense minister. And Yaalon shares the generals’ dislike of Galant and respect for Eizenkot.
Eizenkot’s path would be pretty clear, then, except that it’s the prime minister who sets the cabinet’s schedule and agenda. Netanyahu can stall the nominating process to pressure Yaalon. As February approaches and Gantz starts packing, things could get tense.
The difference between Galant and Eizenkot is partly one of style and partly philosophy. When they headed the southern and northern commands respectively, Galant took pride in the pounding he delivered to Hamas-ruled Gaza in response to incessant rocket fire. Eizenkot, by contrast, took pride in the utter quiet that reigned on the Lebanese front. Eizenkot shares the IDF culture and ethos of informality, collegiality, minimum necessary force and staying out of politics. Galant is sometimes compared by critics to Patton, forceful, strutting, openly ambitious and pals with pols.
In August 2010, during the early jostling for the 2011 changeover to replace then-chief of staff Ashkenazi, a document surfaced that appeared to be a letter from a Tel Aviv public relations firm to Galant. It recommended various measures to discredit Eizenkot and ensure his own nomination. Galant insisted it was a fraud, and a police investigation proved him right. It turned out to have been forged on the firm’s letterhead by a retired colonel with ties to Ashkenazi, one Boaz Harpaz. The purpose had been to make Galant appear underhanded. It backfired and knocked Eizenkot out of the race.
The fraud caused a furor and touched off a series of investigations. Among other things, the public learned that Ashkenazi and Barak, the chief of staff and the defense minister, were barely on speaking terms. Ashkenazi and his aides believed, apparently correctly, that Barak was deeply jealous of the easy-going Ashkenazi’s popularity with the troops and the public, and that the minister was looking for ways to undermine the general’s authority. Ashkenazi’s staff began spying on Barak’s office to learn what was coming.
Unfortunately for Ashkenazi, a voice-activated tape system had been installed in his office by his predecessor, Dan Halutz, but Ashkenazi was never told of its existence. As a result, thousands of hours of frank, incautious conversation were available to the investigators. A similar system had been installed in Barak’s office, but it had somehow been disabled, so no tapes were available and only the testimony of the minister and his staff could be used in evidence. Several of Ashkenazi’s top aides were indicted for involvement in the forgery and various other crimes. Earlier this month, in September 2014, police recommended that Ashkenazi himself be indicted, though few expect prosecutors will bring charges.
Meanwhile, in the fall of 2010, as Galant’s candidacy appeared assured, his ally Yair Naveh was appointed to a two-year term as his deputy chief of staff. The appointment was controversial for different reasons. While serving as chief of Central Command during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, he was captured on tape deriding the Supreme Court’s restrictions on targeted assassinations. An aide had warned him that an assassination he had approved would violate Supreme Court restrictions on the practice. His reply was “Don’t bother me with the Supreme Court” (“Azov oti im ha-Bagatz”).
Naveh, one of the few Orthodox Jews in the top ranks of the IDF, became the first Orthodox deputy chief of staff in October 2010. That put him in position to take over as interim chief of staff in February 2011. Galant had been unexpectedly disqualified by revelations about his real estate dealings, forcing the search to be reopened, and Barak refused to extend Ashkenazi’s term for the six to eight weeks the new search was expected to take. That’s when the Supreme Court, responding to a lawsuit, issued its sharp opinion that Naveh was unfit for the top job because of his disrespect for the rule of law. Barak ignored it and appointed him interim chief, until Gantz was nominated, approved and put in place.
The deputy during the second half of Gantz’s four-year term has been Eizenkot, still the general with the broadest support and respect within the ranks. Naveh has made it known that he’d like to be a candidate for the top post when the nomination is made this fall. If he were, he’d be the first Orthodox chief of staff. Serving alongside Shin Bet director Yoram Cohen, , a Naveh appointment would mean that an unprecedented two of the three top security posts would be held by Orthodox Jews. (The third post, chief of Mossad, is held by Tamir Pardo.)
Naveh’s candidacy won a strong boost in a highly flattering article this weekend in the right-wing Maariv, but it seems to be a long shot.
There’s a fourth candidate in the running, current chief of Northern Command Yair Golan. He’s widely respected and has no known enemies. He’s only 51, while the other three are in their late 50s, which gives him a certain advantage in image and perhaps energy. On the other hand, he’s never held a senior post heading a department or corps at General Staff headquarters, which is usually considered a prerequisite to taking over the complex organization.
There’s a trace of the old pre-state Haganah-Irgun rivalry in the Eizenkot-Galant competition. Eizenkot represents the mainstream culture in the IDF that traces its origins back to the informality of the Haganah and the ethos of avoiding unnecessary force. Galant emerges from the more traditional Western, spit-and-polish military culture that Ze’ev Jabotinsky tried to inculcate, and that has existed as a subculture within the IDF.
It’s probably a coincidence that the IDF’s most controversy-ridden chief-of-staff appointments of recent times have all come during Netanyahu’s tenure. In 1998, then defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai passed over former deputy chief of staff Matan Vilnai, the overwhelming favorite of the IDF, in favor of the less popular Shaul Mofaz. Netanyahu is said to have kept out of the argument, which reputedly reflected a longstanding personal feud between Vilnai and Mordechai. Then came the sidelining in 2010 of Eizenkot, the General Staff favorite, as collateral damage in the personal feud between Ashkenazi and Barak. What happens this time is anybody’s guess, and may depend more than anything on personal relations between Yaalon and Netanyahu.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).