(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi this week celebrated his third Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) as chief of General Staff. Appointed to the post in February 2007, he has completed just more than half of his four-year term.
This week was a busy one for Ashkenazi. On Sunday, he led the flag-laying ceremony at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, where he continued a relatively new IDF tradition of placing a flag on the gravestone of the last soldier to fall in battle, in this case Capt. Yehonatan Netanel, a deputy company commander in the Paratroop Brigade, who was killed during Operation Cast Lead.
On Monday night, Ashkenazi attended the official state ceremony for Remembrance Day at the Western Wall. There he spoke about the Iranian threat. "I do not recommend that anyone test the IDF's resolve to defend and safeguard the continued existence, independence and security of the State of Israel," he declared.
On Tuesday, he attended the main ceremony at Mount Herzl, where he spoke about the allegations raised against the IDF following the Gaza operation.
On Wednesday morning, he appeared with the rest of the General Staff and top military brass at Beit Hanassi, for a ceremony honoring exemplary soldiers, and for the traditional group photograph of the generals with the president and prime minister.
ALL OF the above is compulsory for the chief of General Staff. But, unlike his recent predecessors - Dan Halutz, Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon and Shaul Mofaz - Ashkenazi refrained from one long-standing Yom Ha'atzmaut tradition: granting holiday interviews to the media.
In fact, during his 26 months at the helm, Ashkenazi has not granted a single interview or held a single televised press conference, and he rarely gives on-camera statements, even at public events. Indeed, if it weren't for his speeches at public events, the public may never have heard his voice.
Take the period of Operation Cast Lead as an example. During the 22-day offensive against Hamas, Ashkenazi gave one two-minute statement to the media which were invited to IDF Headquarters to cover President Shimon Peres's visit to the underground command-and-control center.
The rest of the IDF was just as quiet throughout the operation, since as one officer explained: "When the chief of General Staff doesn't talk, why would anyone else - even senior generals - want to risk getting into trouble by giving interviews?"
This is in contrast to the Second Lebanon War, when the IDF held daily press conferences and briefings for the media. It is also in contrast to the behavior of many other Western military commanders.
Take Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, for instance. Last week, Mullen, who has developed a warm relationship with Ashkenazi over the past two years, was interviewed on NBC about the danger of Pakistani nuclear weapons, in the event that Islamabad falls into the hands of Islamic radicals - a fear jointly shared by Washington and Jerusalem - and then on ABC about the threat of Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden.
The week before that, Mullen flew down to El Paso, Texas for a brief tour of the border with Mexico and the current focus of the administration's efforts to curb the smuggling of drugs into the United States. There, too, he addressed the contingent of reporters who accompanied him, and later took their questions.
Then there is the French Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, who was interviewed several times earlier this month, after a French national was killed in the crossfire between Somali pirates and elite French troops off the Somali coast.
The question arises as to why Ashkenazi is different from his French, Spanish and US counterparts. The answer, as one IDF officer intimately involved in the issue said recently, is that he can be and - from a public relations point of view - his policy of silence works to his advantage.
ASHKENAZI'S MEDIA policy can be traced back to the disengagement from Gaza. There, in what turned out to be a brilliant public-relations move, IDF spokeswoman - now Likud MK - Miri Regev decided to open up the entire evacuation to media coverage. The objective, which was later achieved, was to present the IDF as a sensitive and caring military forced into a mission it would have preferred not to carry out.
This policy carried over to the Second Lebanon War, but subsequently blew up in Regev's and Halutz's faces. After the war, the two were accused of releasing too much information to the media, which, in turn, were accused of publishing classified information, such as the location of IDF forces in Lebanon and their planned targets.
When Ashkenazi took over, together with his spokesman, Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu, the IDF completely shifted its policy. Instead of saying more, it said less. Instead of daily televised press conferences, during Operation Cast Lead, there were none.
With the success of Cast Lead, and few IDF casualties, came the public's conclusion that Ashkenazi and his generals were doing what they were supposed to be doing - running a war - and not talking to the media, even though thousands of young soldiers were fighting, and parents likely would have been interested to hear what the chief of General Staff had in store for their sons.
INDEED, IN his two years in office, Ashkenazi has completely changed the way the IDF does business, not just with the media. The intensive training regimens created following the Second Lebanon War remain intact despite expected budget cuts, and the IDF is keeping its promise to invest more resources in ground forces.
At the same time, Ashkenazi is faced with a number of immediate challenges. First, there is the Iranian nuclear threat, which will reach a level of maturation over the coming year. Ashkenazi has already presented IDF assessments of the threat, as well as some operational plans, to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
"If Ashkenazi thinks that the IDF can take out the nuclear facilities, it will be up to him to convince Netanyahu that it is possible," explained one former top IDF officer, who used to be involved in the diplomatic-military decision-making process.
Before that, however, Ashkenazi will also need to decide on the future makeup of the General Staff, primarily the identity of his next deputy, likely to be his successor.
Three officers are currently in the running to replace Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Dan Harel, who is scheduled to retire later this summer, though he may be asked to stay on in an unknown capacity. The first is OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, believed to be Ashkenazi's favorite. The second is OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant, who commanded Operation Cast Lead. The third is Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz, the current military attachÃ© in Washington and a former OC Northern Command and Ground Forces Command.
Eizenkot, 49, and Ashkenazi have a long history together in the Golani Brigade, which both commanded. He has served as OC Northern Command for the past two-and-a-half years, and came under criticism for his involvement in the Second Lebanon War, when he served as head of the Operations Directorate.
If Galant doesn't get the job, close associates of his have said that he may leave the IDF. According to some reports, he may be asked to head the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) as a consolation prize. Gantz will also leave the service if he is not promoted, but might be tempted to stay on if he is offered Military Intelligence, the term of whose commander, Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, will end this summer.
Another candidate for MI, or to replace Gantz in Washington, is OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni, who previously served as prime minister Ehud Olmert's military aide. Other positions Ashkenazi will need to fill are the heads of the Home Front Command, Southern Command, Central Command, Northern Command and Ground Forces Command.
Ashkenazi has mainly worked with the General Staff he inherited from Halutz, with minor changes. In the upcoming round of appointments, he will likely bring some new faces to the to the General Staff table, and tell others that they no longer have a spot around it.