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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In terms of military doctrine, until the appointment of Dan Halutz as chief of General Staff in June 2005, the IDF was split into two camps - one pushing the traditional combat soldier's insistence on the need for ground battles, infantry and artillery, and the other spearheading a technological and robotic approach.
The appointment of Defense Ministry Director-General Maj.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi this week as the IDF's 19th chief of General Staff is an acknowledgement that the sophisticated hi-tech approach that Halutz brought to the position is, at least for now, a thing of the past. By giving the nod to Ashkenazi, the government is recognizing the need for the IDF to once again feel, smell and live the land and train to return to its former glory - spoiled by the war in Lebanon - and become a military force countries in the region need to fear.
If everything goes as planned, Ashkenazi's appointment will be approved by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet next week, and he will stride across the walkway connecting the 14th floor of the Defense Ministry tower with the adjacent IDF tower at the Kirya in Tel Aviv and take up his new post.
Brought back to the defense establishment during the war in Lebanon after an 18-month hiatus, Ashkenazi played his cards right by keeping quiet on the IDF's failures during the war, a decision that helped pave his way back from the reserves. Thought in 2005 to be the natural heir to chief of General Staff Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon, Ashkenazi in the end lost out to Halutz, the politically-connected IAF commander. He left the IDF in enormous pain and disappointment and became a partner in a security consultancy company based in Tel Aviv.
Last July he was called back to duty, this time under Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who was looking for a former general to become his director-general and compensate for his lack of military experience. Ashkenazi was offered the job and immediately accepted, diving head first into the position and wowing many veteran ministry officials with the speed at which he grasped issues, solved problems and moved stalled projects along.
Those who know him claim he is a "soldier at heart," a "man of the field" and a commander who gets nervous when sitting behind a desk for too long. Recruited into the Golani Brigade in 1972, Ashkenazi will rejoin the IDF as one of only two remaining officers to have fought in the Yom Kippur War (the other is Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin) and as the only one to have participated in the legendary 1976 Entebbe rescue operation.
He climbed through the Golani ranks and eventually commanded the brigade during the 1982 Lebanon war. He then commanded an armored division and later went on to head the IDF liaison to Lebanon unit. Ashkenazi went to the Staff and Command College at the US Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia and also finished with honors Harvard University's international business administration program.
While deputy chief of General Staff under Ya'alon, Ashkenazi was appointed project manager of the West Bank security fence. He also oversaw the reorganization of the IDF under the budget cuts in the earlier part of the decade. His legacy, however, is in Lebanon, where as OC Northern Command he led the bloodless withdrawal from the security zone Israel had maintained for 18 years.
ASHKENAZI LIVES in Kfar Saba but was born in Moshav Hagor, which his parents helped found (his mother immigrated from Syria, and his father is a Holocaust survivor from Bulgaria).
He is thorough and sharp and lives by the details. What he lacks in eloquence and suaveness, he makes up with a battle-rich past and inherent leadership qualities. While his soul is in the field, Ashkenazi has gained vast diplomatic and strategic experience as director-general of the Defense Ministry, a position occupying the junction where military and diplomacy meet.
The war caught him abroad, but he immediately returned and rushed to the northern border to be with the residents he once defended.
As a tough Golani veteran, Ashkenazi is said to see victory in conquest and through direct contact with the enemy utilizing strong, mobile ground forces. His version of weapons development and procurement includes better armor, advanced command and control systems and improved firepower for the troops.
This is almost the exact opposite of Halutz, who swept into his former post from the pilot's seat, immediately setting into motion changes to the Ground Forces Command and representing a more technological approach to victory, one that called for the utilization of superior air power and sophisticated hi-tech, even robotic, weaponry. This perception, IDF sources have said, was what led Halutz to an over-reliance on air power and to postpone the launching of a ground operation in southern Lebanon during the war.
Ashkenazi made history twice with his appointment this week: once as the first chief of General Staff to come from the Golani Brigade; and the other by becoming the first chief of General Staff to return to service after retiring, a feature that played to his advantage in the race against Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, who is tainted from the Lebanon war.
Defense officials call him a "modern day Motta Gur," in reference to the general called back from a stint as military attach in Washington to replace chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. David Elazar, who resigned under criticism over his part in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
"He is a soldier in his soul," explains one of Ashkenazi's good friends who is also an official in the defense establishment. "He believes that hard work and discipline and strict adherence to detail are what personify the perfect soldier."
Ashkenazi will be taking over a broken IDF, writhing in pain from its failures during the war against Hizbullah. His first mission will be to implement the necessary reforms that are part of the 2007 work plan formulated by Kaplinsky and Halutz, which calls for a major increase in training for infantry and armored units.
His tasks will include preparing the IDF for the Iranian nuclear threat and for the possibility of a new round of violence against Hizbullah, the Palestinians or Syria. Gaza is also an immediate thorn in the side. Cpl. Gilad Shalit is still being held, Kassams are still being launched and Hamas is continuing to smuggle weapons and prepare for war.
But his biggest task will be to bring a calm and steady hand to the helm and prevent a further breakdown in military ranks and the chain of command. He will need to revamp the General Staff, the Ground Forces Command and Military Intelligence and prepare the air force and navy for the battles ahead.
This is, no doubt, Ashkenazi's sweet comeback. But it is also an immensely challenging one.