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In line with tradition, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz placed the insignia of a lieutenant-general on the shoulders of Israel's new chief of General Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, at a ceremony at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
As Ashkenazi stood between the two political leaders, clearly relishing receiving the rank he had eyed for decades and had once thought he would never receive, Olmert and Peretz entered into a race to see who could place the insignia on the new army chief's shoulders first.
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Olmert won by a landslide and was already in the middle of a strong handshake with the new chief of General Staff when Peretz, who was still trying to slide the shoulder strap through the insignia, looked up, smiled, and said, "Just one moment." The three broke out in laughter.
For Ashkenazi, this jovial scene should serve as a reminder that he is now the highest ranking and most authoritative defense official in all of Israel. He is surrounded by two leaders - Olmert and Peretz - who only barely get along together and who are possibly on the Winograd Commission's chopping block.
"Ashkenazi will not receive even a single moment of grace," was how almost all the officers at the change-of-command ceremony at the Kirya Military Headquarters in Tel Aviv described the new chief of General Staff. This is without doubt an understatement.
With Hizbullah rapidly rearming, the Palestinians smuggling in unprecedented amounts of weapons and Iran racing toward nuclear weapons, Ashkenazi will have his hands full preparing the IDF for some of the greatest challenges in its history.
At the ceremony, Olmert hinted at these threats and challenges and said that it was possible that Israel could find itself at war again in the near future.
So what is Ashkenazi's plan? The first thing the new army chief needs to do is to stabilize the IDF, curb the mass exodus of mid-level officers and create a General Staff that he can both count on and use to prepare the IDF for the future.
While they had different reasons, both Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Halutz and Ashkenazi each hugged Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky in turn as they reviewed the honor guard and the long line of generals at the Kirya.
Halutz did so to prove to the public that he wasn't referring to his deputy when he told a Knesset committee on Tuesday, "The worst thing that could happen to a leader is that his No. 2 man stabs him in the back."
Ashkenazi embraced Kaplinsky since he now needs him at his side more than ever. Kaplinsky is one of the only generals in the IDF today who has the experience needed to serve on the General Staff. He has served in a number of key positions and knows the IDF from the inside out. It would be in Ashkenazi's best interests to try to keep him in the military.
Several generals are expected to resign in the coming months, including Kaplinsky, OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh - unless he is offered OC Ground Forces or deputy chief of General Staff - OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern and OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin. For the moment, Ashkenazi's associates say that he has no interest in conducting a major reshuffle but plans to keep key officers in their positions and roll up his sleeves to get to work.
At the Kirya ceremony on Wednesday, officers were wondering out loud which unit Ashkenazi plans to visit for his first surprise inspection as boss in the spirit of the inspections he became notorious for during his term as deputy chief of General Staff.
After stabilizing the Defense establishment, the next issue on Ashkenazi's agenda will be implementing the long list of reform proposals raised following the unprecedented inquiry process Halutz bravely led following the Lebanon war. The bottom line is training, more training, and then some more training.
Working within the IDF's slim budget, Ashkenazi will need to find money to procure new systems and weapons the IDF wants such as an active protection system for its Merkava tanks, which suffered heavily from Hizbullah antitank missiles during the monthlong war.
Ashkenazi has his work cut out for him and the entire world is watching.
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