Security and Defense: Surmounting the Harpaz Report

Ashkenazi may have come off the worse for wear, but it doesn’t look like that will stop him taking on Barak.

By
March 8, 2012 22:20
former IDF chief of staff Asheknazi, Barak

former IDF chief of staff Asheknazi, Barak. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / IDF Spokesperson )

 
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While US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu discussed ways this week to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, an atomic bomb was going off at the Kirya Military Headquarters and Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.

This one was not connected to Iran, but rather had to do with the infamous Harpaz Affair and the release of the State Comptroller’s draft report to the involved IDF and Defense Ministry officials.

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The Harpaz Affair is named for Boaz Harpaz, a former military intelligence officer who allegedly forged a document detailing a strategy of how to get former OC Southern Command maj.-gen. (res.) Yoav Galant appointed chief of staff in place of Gabi Ashkenazi. Defense Minister Ehud Barak wanted Galant for the role, while Ashkenazi was believed to have wanted a fifth year in the job for himself.

The document was leaked in 2010 to Channel 2 and was later discovered to have been forged. While Galant was tapped by the government as the next chief of staff, he ultimately lost the appointment due to an unconnected land affair involving his home in Moshav Amikam.

It will still take another month or two for the final report to be released to the public, but what has already been leaked from the draft raises serious questions regarding the interaction between the defense minister and the IDF chief of staff.

What is unclear though is what set off the war between Barak and Ashkenazi – one that has led Barak to accuse Ashkenazi of leading a coup with several of the officers who worked closely with him, and for attempting to undermine the government’s authority over the IDF.

By repeating the accusation that Ashkenazi was planning a coup, Barak seems to be trying to get the police to re-launch a criminal investigation into the affair, which it closed after discovering that Harpaz had forged the document. The police refrained from investigating the issue in depth – for example, trying to answer the question of who Harpaz was working for, and why he wrote the paper to begin with.

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The comptroller’s report does not appear to provide clear answers, but does raise serious questions regarding Harpaz’s relationship with Ashkenazi – and particularly his wife Ronit. It appears that Harpaz, as well as some other officers close to the former chief of staff, were asked to gather information on Barak, his wife and some of his close associates.

Looking back, some officials in the defense establishment claim that the Barak-Ashkenazi relationship was a recipe for disaster from the beginning. Barak, a former chief of staff himself, entered the Defense Ministry in June 2007, about four months after Ashkenazi took office under then-defense minister Amir Peretz.

Ashkenazi’s return to the IDF came in the wake of the failures of the Second Lebanon War. His nononsense approach, image as a rugged field commander and strict ban on interviews gained him immediate public fame. When Barak took office, Ashkenazi was already rated one of the most-popular chiefs of staff of all time.

Their relationship quickly turned sour.

Legally, the IDF is subordinate to the government and the defense minister is something of a coordinator between the two, which means that Barak needs to approve certain high-level appointments made by the chief of staff, as well as any diplomatic meetings the chief of staff holds with foreign-government officials.

“When two powerful people are in these positions, there is always going to be a built-in tension,” one official explained.

A few years ago, for example, Omar Suleiman, then the Egyptian intelligence chief, visited Israel.

Ashkenazi wanted to sit down with him for a meeting but Barak refused to approve the request.

Ashkenazi saw this, as well as other similar rejections, as Barak’s way of trying to sidestep his authority and undermine him as chief of staff. Barak, on the other hand, viewed Ashkenazi’s desire to meet with government officials as a way to undermine his position as defense minister and to make him irrelevant.

When Operation Cast Lead came in December 2008, Ashkenazi and Barak again clashed over the way the operation should be conducted, how extensive it needed to be and how it should end. When Ashkenazi received the credit for the operation, it only added to Barak’s frustration.

Ultimately though, the report has to be looked at in a strategic and political context.

On the one hand, it should concern Israelis that scandals like these are occurring in the two most sensitive offices in the Israeli government – the Defense Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, which was recently rocked by the Natan Eshel affair.

On the other hand, some might say that the problem was not with Ashkenazi or Barak per se, but rather with the way the political-military system works in Israel. The Winograd Committee, which probed the Second Lebanon War, picked up on this point in its report and recommended that the National Security Council be given more authority and sharper teeth. This has yet to happen.

In the meantime, Barak will have his own personal challenge of remaining in political office. His new party Independence is not expected to make it into the Knesset in the next elections, which means he will need to depend on the good grace of Netanyahu to appoint him from the outside.

By portraying himself as the victim of an attempted coup led by Ashkenazi, Barak is also looking to gain points within the public.

Lacking clear criminal allegations however, the report will ultimately blow over. Barak does not enjoy high public approval ratings like Ashkenazi, and in two years, when the ex-IDF chief’s cooling-off period ends, it is questionable if anyone will even remember the Harpaz Affair?

If Dan Halutz, the chief of staff during the Second Lebanon War, is running for a spot on the Kadima Party’s list, Ashkenazi might ultimately be thinking that no matter how bad the comptroller’s report is, there is nothing stopping him from doing the same.

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