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All things being equal, given Israel's precarious security situation and its urgent need to implement the lessons learned from last summer's war against Hizbullah, the government ought to choose a new chief of General Staff to replace Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz as quickly as possible.
With Hizbullah reportedly back at its pre-war strength, this is not a good time to be without a full-time leader at the top of the military pyramid.
But as is often the case, what appear to be an obvious truth in theory is complicated by the realities on the ground.
The government has three obvious candidates to replace Halutz - Defense Ministry director-general Maj.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky and OC Ground Forces Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz. The problem is that all three played key roles in the war itself, or in events leading up to it after Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.
This means that they are among the subjects of investigation by the Winograd Committee, which could find any or all of them personally at fault for the failures of the war.
Obviously, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz would be on safer ground if they could await the committee's final report before choosing the next chief of General Staff. Unfortunately, the Winograd Committee's final report is an unforeseeably long way off.
On Wednesday, in response to a High Court petition by Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On, the state announced that the committee had questioned 60 witnesses (all behind closed doors) and still had 15 more to go before completing its first round of hearings. After that, it will deliberate on the evidence and issue a report on its preliminary findings. At the same time, it will send letters of caution to all those who stand to be hurt by the committee's final findings and who might want to hire a lawyer to defend them in the crucial second phase of the hearings.
In its response, the state told the court the committee could not say when the interim report would be ready. "The committee cannot yet commit itself to a date for releasing the interim report, but we are talking about a relatively short time and certainly not a matter of many months," wrote the state's representative, attorney Aner Hellman.
So why don't Olmert and Peretz at least wait until the publication of the interim report, which will give them some idea of the role that each of the candidates played in the war. There is nothing stopping them from doing so. However, for them to base as important a decision as who should become the next chief of General Staff on the interim report would undermine the fairness of the entire investigative procedure.
According to Haifa University law professor Ariel Bendor, the right to due process is an integral part of the procedures of the Winograd Committee, as it is of a state commission of inquiry. Anyone who could be hurt by the committee's findings has the right to know in advance what the allegations against him are and the opportunity to disprove them, including the right to hire a lawyer and to question witnesses.
The committee may only reach a final decision on the role that each "suspected" person has played after hearing his response to the specific allegations for which he stands to be reprimanded or punished. Therefore, it would be unjust and contrary to the proper procedures of the Winograd Committee for Olmert and Peretz to disqualify any of the candidates before they had the chance to reply to the allegations against them.
Because of the problems involved in appointing a new chief of General Staff while the Winograd Committee is in the midst of its examination, there have been appeals from some quarters, such as the Movement for Quality Government, for Olmert and Peretz to wait for the final report.
Maj.-Gen. (res.) Danny Rothschild, chairman of the Council for Peace and Security, has suggested appointing an interim chief of General Staff until the committee completes its work.
This recommendation may not be the ideal solution to the dilemma faced by Olmert and Peretz, but it could be the optimal one under the circumstances.
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