‘This is an excellent man who, at the head of an excellent team, has improved the country’s capabilities,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said during a June cabinet meeting which ended with a decision to extend the tenure of Mossad chief Meir Dagan.
Three months later, at another cabinet meeting which ended with a decision to extend the term of Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin, Netanyahu said that the decision was based “on the complex security and diplomatic challenges facing the State of Israel.”
Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi likely recalled these statements this week and wondered whether, had things worked out differently, Netanyahu would have soon made those same statements about him. Unfortunately for Ashkenazi, the defense minister under whom he will leave office is not the same one with whom he came in.
Ashkenazi’s return to the IDF from civilian life in 2007 was made possible by his appointment during the Second Lebanon War to serve as director-general of the Defense Ministry under Amir Peretz. Whether or not he intended to, during the war Ashkenazi became the inexperienced Peretz’s confidant and advised him on military and security affairs. When chief of General Staff Dan Halutz resigned following the war, it was natural that Peretz would appoint a man he could trust.
All this changed, however, when Ehud Barak became defense minister in June 2007. While both Peretz and Barak came from the Labor Party, the dynamic they established with Ashkenazi could not have been more different.
Before Barak’s appointment, for a mere four months Ashkenazi was the top defense official in the country. While officially subordinate to the defense minister and prime minister, he was essentially the man who led both Peretz and Ehud Olmert when it came to security affairs.
Once Barak took office that changed. No longer the senior defense official, Ashkenazi now had a former prime minister, defense minister and chief of General Staff as his boss. Barak was also a politician, and therefore some of his decisions were motivated by politics and not only security or strategic considerations.
This week, Barak again showed Ashkenazi that he is the boss of the IDF and that when he is crossed, the payback is quick to come. While Ashkenazi publicly claimed that he had never officially asked for a fifth year in office, he had made no secret of his desire to follow in Dagan’s and Diskin’s footsteps and win an extension.
If the security challenges are so grave that these two needed to stay in their posts, why not Ashkenazi as well? The difference is that in the case of the Mossad and Shin Bet, the prime minister, not the defense minister, rules on appointments. As demonstrated by his overall behavior since taking office, Netanyahu has continuously made decisions that do not rock the boat, politically or militarily. For this reason, he likely decided to postpone the decision on replacing Diskin or Dagan.
In the IDF though, Barak is the man in charge, and as a politician seeking to rehabilitate his image and possibly one day run for prime minister again, he has to be seen as leading and not being led.
The tension between Barak and Ashkenazi dates back to the beginning of their terms together. Publicly respected and accredited with major military achievements, Ashkenazi was perceived by some of Barak’s close associates as stealing the limelight from him. While Ashkenazi soared in the public’s eye, Barak stagnated.
As a result, when the time came last year to appoint a new deputy chief of General Staff, the two could not agree on a candidate. Barak wanted OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant, Ashkenazi OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot. In the end, they compromised on Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz, the IDF military attaché in the US at the time.
Next came Barak’s response to a report on Channel 1 several months ago that he was considering extending Ashkenazi’s term. Barak issued a statement denying the report and claiming that it was the work of IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu. The decision to single out Benayahu, a close associate of Ashkenazi, was viewed as a power play to undermine the chief of General Staff.
What raised Barak’s ire at the report was that it appeared the IDF was dictating to the Defense Ministry what to do and not the opposite.
Barak’s associates viewed Ashkenazi’s attempts at gaining a fifth year as part of an effort to undermine the defense minister’s achievements. By declaring on Tuesday that Ashkenazi’s term would not be extended, Barak was showing the country who the real boss is.
By the time February rolls around and Ashkenazi hangs up his uniform, the defense establishment will also have just parted with Dagan and OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin. Diskin, who retires in May 2011, will have one foot already out the door.
This of course raises questions about the country’s long-term strategic thinking. If it is important to keep experienced people in their posts due to the threats it faces, why have Netanyahu and Barak created a situation in which by this time next year all four military chiefs will have been just replaced?
This is not to mention that in their last months in office, most chiefs of defense agencies are exceptionally cautious, fearing to take risky moves out of concern of the effect they will have on their legacy.
While Ashkenazi is still the chief of General Staff, he is now more of
a caretaker, responsible for maintenance. One issue that he will likely
not be able to touch anymore is the need for a new round of
appointments within the General Staff.
Replacements are needed for Yadlin, OC C4I Directorate Maj.-Gen. Ami
Shafran and Maj.-Gen. Gershon Hacohen, commander of the National
Defense College. Once the next chief of General Staff is chosen several
more jobs will open up, including his deputy, OC Southern Command and
OC Northern Command. There are also a number of brigadier-generals,
such as Aviv Kochavi, who recently finished a term as head of the
Operations Division, who are waiting at home for new assignment and
Ashkenazi is aware that decisions on the appointment of generals who
will take office just months before he retires should be left to his
successor. This could be part of Barak’s master plan, since by telling
Ashkenazi that he will not continue for a fifth year, he also made
clear that he will make the decisions within the General Staff.