Security and Defense: ‘This is peaceful, but fragile'

Ashkenazi took charge of a bruised army three years ago, and is seen to have restored its deterrent capability. With the Iranian nuclear program in full steam, the IDF may face its greatest challenge yet, but will Ashkenazi be there to lead it?

February 11, 2010 21:56
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi

ashkenazi GOOD 311. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)


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Israel engaged in an imaginary war this week as security forces conducted a large-scale civil defense exercise in the center of the country.

The Israel Police, soldiers from the IDF’s Home Front Command, firefighters and Magen David Adom personnel ran simulations of a conventional and nonconventional nature to test their response to threats ranging from mega-terror attacks to Iranian, Syrian, Hizbullah and Hamas missile strikes.

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As Home Front Command led the exercise on Tuesday, Iran began increasing its enrichment of uranium from four percent to 20%, which would position it just a leap away from obtaining fissionable material for a nuclear weapon.

A week earlier, Israel and Syria had been exchanging threats, leading to fears of renewed conflict in the North. In the South, barrel bombs were washing up ashore, dropped in the sea by Palestinian terrorists to target navy vessels.

For some countries, this sequence of events is unheard of in the span of a year. Here it is just another two weeks in the life of Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who on February 14 will mark three years since becoming the IDF’s 19th chief of General Staff and will enter what could be his final year on the job.

Ashkenazi’s return to the IDF in 2007, many officers noted this week, could not have come at a better time. The country and particularly the IDF were still reeling from the failures in the Second Lebanon War, and Ashkenazi helped restore the IDF’s strength and deterrence. His main message has not changed in his three years on the job.

“We are told very clearly by Ashkenazi that as a military we are either at war or preparing for war,” explained one top officer. “That is what we do.”

Training has been the name of the game for most of Ashkenazi’s tenure, but so has force development. Over the past three years, the IDF has embarked on some impressive procurement plans – from purchasing new fifth-generation stealth fighters to new missile ships, armored personnel carriers, an updated version of the Arrow missile defense system and assorted other smart weapons.

From Ashkenazi’s point of view, the IDF will never be able to outnumber its enemies in soldiers or tanks. But his thinking goes, while Israel doesn’t have more soldiers than Syria, it will have better trained ones; while it doesn’t have more tanks than Egypt, it will have more advanced ones; and while it might have the same F-15s as Saudi Arabia and F-16s as Egypt, its will be equipped with smart bombs, specially-designed armaments and advanced electronic warfare systems.

This is otherwise known as the qualitative edge, which goes hand-in-hand with more training to prepare soldiers for close combat inside urban centers in the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon.

THE CHANGE has been felt. While the failures of Lebanon have yet to be forgotten, Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip last winter gave the IDF an opportunity to demonstrate a stronger fighting force, one more capable and better prepared. At the same time, the IDF was more modest in its objectives and, in contrast to 2006 when officers were caught declaring an end to Hizbullah, in Gaza the main two goals were restoring deterrence and bringing security to the South.

While the situation is extremely fragile and Hamas continues to build up its forces and obtain rockets capable of striking Tel Aviv, there is no question that both goals have been achieved. The numbers speak for themselves: In 2008 more than 2,000 rockets were fired into Israel. In 2009, it was less than 200 rockets, when the hundreds fired during the first few weeks of January are excluded.

“This is a peaceful time, but this reality is fragile,” Ashkenazi said during a visit to Home Front Command headquarters to watch the ongoing exercise. “We have to face the changing nature of today’s wars, changes which caused a threat to the home front and turned it into an operational arena.”

In another public appearance, Ashkenazi said: “The IDF needs to reinforce its preparedness and capabilities in face of the challenges and threats that we face from our enemies who have yet to come to terms with our existence here.”

While IDF intelligence assessments for this year are that conflict is most likely with Hamas in Gaza and possibly, although not probable, with Hizbullah, the IDF is still facing its greatest challenge yet – Iran’s nuclear program.

The defense establishment supports the international community’s calls for increased sanctions on Iran. Ashkenazi has been a strong proponent of sanctions since taking up his post, and in closed door talks has, on more than one occasion, expressed his belief that the regime in Teheran was somewhat rational and would cave in to major economic pressure.

At the same time, he has been overseeing the IDF preparations for the possibility it will be tasked by the government with attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. This scenario is at the forefront of all training regimes in the air force, where according to one senior officer, the question is no longer “whether we can or can’t but whether we should or shouldn’t.”

These challenges are ultimately what stand behind the tension this week that came out into the open between Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak over media reports that informal talks were taking place about the possibility that Ashkenazi’s term would be extended by a fifth year.

The idea of extending Ashkenazi’s term has been in the air ever since the government successively extended the terms of both Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin. If the security challenges are so grave that these two need to stay in their posts, why not Ashkenazi as well?

The difference is that in the case of Diskin and Dagan, the man who makes the decision is the prime minister and not the defense minister, who wants to become the prime minister.

The Channel 1 report about the possible extension of Ashkenazi’s tenure infuriated Barak’s office, since it appeared that the IDF was dictating to the Defense Ministry what to do and not the opposite, as Barak believes it is supposed to be. Barak, who wants to return one day to lead the country, cannot be seen as being led; he needs to be leading.

The tension between Barak and Ashkenazi also has its roots in earlier disagreements about appointments in the General Staff, most recently regarding the question of Ashkenazi’s deputy. He wanted OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot to get the job; Barak wanted OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant. At a deadlock, the two agreed on Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz, who was serving as military attaché in Washington.

Other appointments will need to be made in the coming year. OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin is expected to step down in the summer, as is OC C4I Communications Branch Maj.-Gen. Ami Shafran and National Defense College head Maj.-Gen. Gershon Hacohen.

Ashkenazi and Barak will have to decide on their replacements, setting off a reshuffle of the General Staff which will likely include the promotion of some brigadier generals, such as Aviv Kochavi, who recently finished a term as head of the Operations Division and has been waiting for a new appointment.

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