(photo credit: )
The IDF has never had a chief of General Staff who began his service in the Golani infantry brigade. Now, for the first time in the army's history, both front-runners in the race to be the next army commander wear the brigade's brown beret.
Twelve years ago, then-president Ezer Weizman met a group of young men recently discharged from their IDF service. One of them told Weizman he had been an officer in Golani.
"But where did you start, before you became an officer?" asked the president.
Surprised to hear that the soldier had spent his entire service in the brigade, the former general explained himself: "In my time there were a lot of problems with Golani. They had to bring their officers from outside."
Weizman left the IDF in 1969. It was only in the mid-Seventies that brigade commanders who had risen through Golani's ranks became common. Formed in February 1948, three months before Israel's establishment, Golani might be the the IDF's Brigade No. 1, but it took almost three decades before it was capable of grooming a majority of its own officers.
During the War of Independence, the brigade's force was a motley collection of Hagana veterans, farmer boys from the North and Holocaust survivors, fresh off the boat and flung into the fighting. While every well-connected kibbutznik dreamed of joining the fabled paratroopers units, from the '50s onward it was mainly the sons of the waves of immigration from Arab countries who were inducted into Golani. Lacking military tradition and familiarity with the country, and trailing family problems, members of the brigade gained a reputation for rowdiness and less-than-perfect operational results. Very few of the soldiers who started their service in Golani were found suitable for the officers' course and the brigade had to make do with leftovers from the paratroopers.
Jokes about the stupidity of the wooden-headed golanchikim abounded throughout the army. But over the years an esprit de corps of underdogs developed and the brigade proved its competence in wars and operations, distinguishing itself in the bloody battle for the Hermon at the end of the Yom Kippur War.
By the '80s, a new generation of officers who had spent their entire service in Golani had revolutionized the brigade. Gradually the unit became more popular, attracting a higher caliber of youth from a wide range of backgrounds.
Defense Ministry director-general Maj.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi and Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky are both members of this generation, and are the first Golani graduates to be considered as serious candidates for the top job. The only chief of General Staff ever to have served in the brigade was Mordechai Gur, and he was a paratrooper who had only stopped off for a couple of years to command Golani before moving on.
Even when Golani had already proved itself as a bona fide crack brigade, its commanders still found their way to the top blocked. The old boys' network of the army's elite - the paratrooper's mafia - perpetuated its own ascendancy. There was rarely more than one former Golani commander at the General Staff table, and sometimes not even that.
But over the last decade, the taboo has been thoroughly broken. Along with Ashkenazi and Kaplinsky, OC Northern Command Gadi Eizenkot and OC Central Command Yair Naveh also belong to the brotherhood of brown berets. Ashkenazi was even runner-up to Dan Halutz in the last race for the top IDF job.
The recent Golani ascendancy is no coincidence. It is, rather, the result of a quarter century of persistent efforts by the brigade's officers to integrate every kind of Israeli - development town youths who left school early, hesder yeshiva students, Russian immigrants and Druse boys - into the long-maligned, oldest Israeli fighting ethos.
Most of the brigade's alumni find it hard to believe that, finally, a golanchik seems destined to reach the very top and are unable to decide who to root for. Both Kaplinsky and Ashkenazi are popular down-to-earth types. Ashkenazi is a bit more old-school, a product of the more plebeian battalions, while Kaplinsky has the added prestige of having commanded the brigade's elite reconnaissance company.
As generals, both succeeded in making the rare transition for golanchiks to the political scene, gaining valuable experience for the multiple challenges of the job they both covet: Kaplinsky served as Ariel Sharon's military secretary for a year; Ashkenazi has been the civilian head of the Defense Ministry for the last six months.
But this "advantage" might also be held against them. Kaplinsky is seen by some as a Sharon prot g , just like the ill-fated Halutz. Ashkenazi has been Amir Peretz's man since reaching the Defense Ministry, a detail that might set against him the defense minister's many enemies.
But whichever one of them eventually gets the job - and few members of the General Staff expect any third candidate to outflank them - will at least start his command with tens of thousands of Golani fans, from every walk of life, all around the country.