Yehiel Horev, deputy director-general of the Defense Ministry since 2003, is for now filling the post vacated by Gabi Ashkenazi, the new IDF chief of the General Staff.
Horev has taken over because Defense Minister Amir Peretz encountered difficulty locating a permanent director-general after offering the post to several generals, including Yedidia Ya'ari, a former Israel Navy commander and currently director-general of Rafael (Arms Development Authority Ltd.); former OC Central Command Ilan Biran; and Amos Malka, a former head of military intelligence.
Peretz's shaky standing as defense minister and the fragility of the political system do not auger well for the longevity of Peretz's term in office. For this reason, external candidates do not wish to be affiliated with the current minister.
Senior Defense Ministry officials have noted that the ministry can function even without a director-general. They claim that the director-general's activities are confined to the area of coordination. The department heads, they say, are the ones who make professional decisions: The head of the Procurement Directorate is responsible for the defense establishment's network of relationships with civilian suppliers regarding military matters. The head of the Security Assistance Division is in charge of the ministry's contacts with foreign countries. The Research and Development Division deals with R&D of sales tools. According to the high-ranking officials, differences of opinion between the division heads and the director-general are a rare occurrence. In such cases, the conflicting opinions are presented to the defense minister for a decision.
But Horev will doubtless be intent on showing how critical the job really is. For Horev, who began in 1974 as the official in charge of physical protection at the Malmab (Security Authority for the Ministry of Defense), the new position is the pinnacle of his career. He rose quickly in the Malmab, first being appointed deputy to the official in charge, Haim Carmon, and in 1986 to head it himself. He used his abilities to transform the organization into a real empire, controlling information security for the Defense Ministry, security at installations, and physical protection and reliability checks for thousands of employees in the defense industry.
Horev's representatives closely follow all defense industry projects, including examining the origin of parts to verify that these do not originate in the United States. It might be easy to criticize this policy, but that would be to ignore the fact of Israel's military dependence on the United States as well as US sensitivities, the violation of which could sabotage bilateral relations.
Horev also determines whether defense firms can be taken public on the stock exchange. Among the relevant considerations is the concern over exposure of production secrets. The conflict of interest between the business imperatives and the security concerns means defense industries have a different status from civilian industries.
Defense industry employees note that though the Malmab does not neglect the security aspect, it demonstrates understanding of the economic interests of these firms, and that the current trend is towards creating a balance between preventing exposure and economic considerations. Thus the Malmab showed flexibility when Rafael, an especially sensitive firm, nonetheless floated a NIS 350 million bond issue a year ago.
In his new position, Horev will need to deal with further aspects of this same dilemma. The defense industries export a significant portion of their output to overseas markets, and a balance must always be sought between the disclosure of military technologies that could serve as a surprise weapon during wars, and economic considerations of companies that employ thousands of people.
Horev will also be responsible for ministry research and development, and will be involved in contacts with the Americans on ministry issues, where he will have to create a network of trust with them. That won't be simple: In the UAV affair in 1995, the Americans identified Horev as one of those involved in a deal for upgrading Chinese UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), infuriating the US because of the secretive military cooperation with China, and they demanded that his employment, as well as that of three other senior Defense Ministry officials connected to the deal, be terminated.
Horev has also been the object of some public criticism, with many attributing Mordechai Vanunu's and Marcus Klingberg's harsh prison conditions to him. The former spent long years in prison after having divulged what foreign analysts call Israel's atomic secrets. Klingberg divulged the secrets of the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Ness Ziona. According to foreign analysts, this is an institute that produces biological and other materials for military use.
Horev was central to the development of what foreign analysts term "Israel's policy of ambiguity." According to this policy, Israel's official representatives have neither confirmed nor denied the nuclear capabilities attributed to it by foreign analysts.
Defense experts overwhelmingly consider this ambiguity to be a successful strategic policy. It has removed US pressure, and largely negated international pressure, for the supervision of Israeli installations, including the reactor in Dimona.
Those around Horev describe him as a Spartan individual: He neither drinks nor smokes; he works around the clock, and he maintains a very modest lifestyle. "In an era when government leaders and top officials have blurred the line between private and public, Horev is a rare breed," says one of his friends.
Admirers attest to his charisma; critics claim he is tough and uncompromising.
On the one hand, his temporary appointment might last longer than expected. People in the defense establishment are fond of saying: "There is nothing more permanent than something temporary." On the other hand, it will require Horev to regard ministry affairs from a different perspective than the one to which he has been accustomed until now.
But if Horev can navigate this transition well, his authority as a first-rate organization man, his expertise in ministry affairs, and his impeccable background could leave him in the director-general's office even when the current minister departs.