(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In 1992, Ehud Barak, then chief of General Staff, stood on a hill at the Tze'elim training base in the Negev and watched as Sayeret Matkal, the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, held a final exercise ahead of the planned assassination of Saddam Hussein.
The plan was shelved after a fatal accident during the exercise - which was later given the name "the Tze'elim Bet Disaster" - took the lives of five members of the assassination team.
Fifteen years later, Saddam is no longer alive. But on Tuesday, Barak, now defense minister and accompanied by Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, returned to the same hill at Tze'elim, to again watch a live-fire exercise, this time with reserve tank units.
To end his visit, Barak held a lengthy talk with a group of reserve officers, some of whom could not hold back and spoke out about the lack of training, the continual broken promises by commanders and the corrupt IDF culture.
"This is the first time I'm training in seven years," one battalion commander said.
"My unit hasn't seen a tank since 2002," exclaimed another.
"We are having more difficulty convincing people to show up for reserve duty," claimed a third.
Sitting on the side, Ashkenazi listened attentively, nodding his head, as if to acknowledge that he still has a lot of work ahead of him before he can succeed in completing the IDF's long-needed rehabilitation.
Two weeks ago - alongside the daily war on terror and non-stop preparations the army is making in face of regional threats like Iran and Syria - Ashkenazi also had to deal with a Golani Brigade soldier forgotten in Gaza, and a platoon commander who ordered his soldiers to steal a cab in Dariya and shoot a Palestinian teenager.
This week, he had to handle a face-off with settlers holed up in the Hebron marketplace, a cabinet which refused a request for a significant increase in the defense budget and the greatest act of insubordination since the disengagement from Gaza two years ago.
According to officers close to him, even after six months on the job, Ashkenazi is still surprised at how rotten the IDF had become over the past decade. On Tuesday, he heard about the drop in motivation, battalions still not receiving enough ammunition for exercises and disenchanted reservists who are wondering what they are really fighting for.
In public, Ashkenazi is treated like no other chief of General Staff has been in recent years. When he visited the Bakum Induction Center in Tel Hashomer last month, he was greeted with cheers and pats on the back from parents of soldiers.
Ashkenazi was brought back into military service and pegged as the only officer around who could properly rehabilitate the IDF and return it to its former glory. To do so, however, he has embarked on a mission characterized by an obsession to know everything that is happening, all the way down to the individual soldier.
When Ashkenazi took over, commanders quickly got used to his probing questions and constant demand for comprehensive answers. Shortly after that, he began wanting more, and decided that no unit could stop a training exercise without his personal permission.
One of his latest decisions was to distribute a directive ordering commanders to file a comprehensive summary of every car accident involving soldiers - even when off duty - on his desk within 18 hours.
Some might call this need to control a bit excessive. But officers close to Ashkenazi claim that the problems have grown so rampant that his involvement is needed daily on almost every issue.
In addition, he is currently confronting a number of more immediate leadership tests, among them crafting the future face of the General Staff. A number of positions are opening up in the coming months, including the chiefs of the navy, Ground Forces Command, in the Human Resources Department, Military Intelligence and Home Front Command. The first appointment he will need to make is a replacement for Maj.-Gen. Dan Harel, who is returning home from nearly two years in Washington, where he served as military attachÃ©, to become deputy chief of General Staff.
A more difficult slot to fill is that of Ground Forces Command, whose head, Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz, is expected to be replaced by the end of the year. A number of generals have been asked to accept the important job, but they have all turned it down. One test of Ashkenazi's leadership will be judged by whether he is able to persuade a current member of the General Staff to take the position, or is forced to promote a brigadier-general.
A KEY issue that required Ashkenazi's attention this week was the insubordination among 12 Kfir Brigade soldiers who refused orders to man a checkpoint in place of border policemen who were participating in the Hebron market evacuation.
Since the disengagement from Gaza, the religious-Zionist movement has been shifting to the right. While enrollment in religious premilitary academies (mehinot) - for many years the source of the religious officer corps - has stagnated, the number of youths asking for religious-based exemptions is growing significantly. According to some estimates, out of the 6,000 religious youth who annually graduate high school, almost 1,000 are skipping military service.
The fear in the IDF is that the "Hebron 12" are just the beginning. With plans to remove a long list of outposts under consideration by Barak and with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas talking about holding final status negotiations, many evacuations are potentially in store.
Though OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni may have been right to sentence all the soldiers who refused orders, he could learn a lesson from the IDF's excusing of soldiers with family connections to Gush Katif from participation in its evacuation. One of the soldiers who refused orders this week was uprooted from his home in Neveh Dekalim. The thought of evacuating additional Jewish families from Hebron clearly was too difficult for him.
ON A separate note: The IDF has a new spokesman. A former reporter and head of Army Radio, Brig.-Gen. Avi Binayahu has replaced Brig.-Gen. Miri Regev, who was responsible for the IDF's image during two of the most difficult events in recent years - the disengagement and the Second Lebanon War.
The first she conducted almost perfectly - opening up the evacuations to full media coverage, a move that is believed to have assisted the public in coping with the traumatic event. While she again maintained her policy of openness by allowing reporters to embed with forces in Lebanon, and by allowing almost free access for military reporters to the senior brass, she was in the end blamed for a number of mistakes by the General Staff and particularly by Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Halutz.
Last week, The Jerusalem Post reported on the lessons learned from the accidental bombing of Kafr Kana during the war in which 28 people were killed, including 16 children. Regev and her department failed to defend Israel effectively in face of the international outcry, only releasing video footage of Katyusha rocket fire from near the building 12 hours after the bombing.
Regev was also nowhere to be seen during the day. While foreign news networks hooked up to the live feed Al Jazeera was providing from the rubble, junior military spokesmen were stammering on camera trying to do damage control. A credible, more senior officer never stepped up to the plate. The IDF still does not have a full-time senior officer who is responsible for briefing the foreign press.
What can be said for Regev is that she spearheaded the implementation of the lessons drawn from the Kafr Kana failure. It has become a case study for the IDF Spokesman's Office, which now works to raise media awareness throughout military ranks, so commanders can better understand the importance the media plays in the battlefield and the effect it has on diplomatic and political processes.
It will be incumbent upon Binayahu to keep Kafr Kana in mind when taking up his post. His job is not merely to protect and promote the chief of General Staff from and in the media. It is, first and foremost, to defend the IDF and prevent such mistakes from recurring.