Unbeknownst to most Israelis, this week marked a critical shift for the worse in the regional balance of power. While IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi was busy demanding that the government pay a ransom of more than a thousand terrorists for captive soldier Gilad Schalit, few paid attention to Iran's newest strategic successes.
Over the past week Lebanon capitulated to the Iranian axis. Turkey solidified its full membership in the axis. And Egypt began to make its peace with the notion of Iran becoming the strongest state in the region.
Less than five years after former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated by Syria, his son Prime Minister Saad Hariri paid a visit to Damascus to express his fealty to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Days later, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki visited Beirut and began giving the Lebanese government its new marching orders.
On Wednesday, Hizbullah forces deployed openly to the border with Israel under the permissive eye of the US-armed Lebanese army. Lebanon announced that it was no longer bound by binding UN Security Council Resolution 1559 that requires Hizbullah to disarm. And Hariri announced that he will soon visit Teheran.
While Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his media echo chamber insist that Turkey has buried its hatchet with Israel, on Wednesday Prime Minister Recip Erdogan led a delegation with 10 cabinet ministers to Damascus. There, according to the Syrian and Turkish Foreign Ministries, they signed 47 trade agreements.
This Turkish-Syrian rapprochement is not limited to economic issues. It is a strategic realignment. As Assad's spokeswoman Buthaina Shaaban explained to Iran's Arabic-language al-Alam television channel, "We are working to establish close ties between Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq so these countries can act as one regional bloc in order to promote peace, security and stability in the Middle East, while keeping the West's dictates and lust for the region's natural and oil resources at bay."
For years Egypt has been the most outspoken Arab opponent of Iran's moves towards regional hegemony. This past summer Egypt did not hesitate to accuse Teheran of trying to overthrow the regime when it discovered a network of Iranian-commanded Hizbullah operatives planning a massive terror assault on the Suez Canal.
Yet on Sunday, Mubarak hosted Ali Larijani, Iran's former nuclear boss and current speaker of Iran's parliament in Cairo. Following their meeting Mubarak traveled to the Persian Gulf for consultations on Iran's nuclear program. Given Mubarak's poor health, the fact that his meetings with Larijani sent him flying to Saudi Arabia indicate that something of major importance has just occurred.
Many IDF commanders are happy to leave the issue of Iran to the US, which they insist is capable and willing to deal with it. But the fact is that since Iran rejected President Barack Obama's diplomatic overtures, the US has shown clear signs of strategic dissonance.
While Israel clings to the hope that sanctions might prevent Iran from going nuclear, this week that notion was exposed as a fiction. Although Obama gave the House of Representatives a green light to vote on sanctions against Iran, he quickly demonstrated that Teheran had no reason to worry.
First Obama and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry blocked discussion of sanctions in the Senate. And now - with full White House backing - Kerry is trying again to appease the Iranians by begging them to let him visit Teheran. Clearly appeasement is the only play in Obama's book.
Furthermore, China's refusal to back sanctions in the UN Security Council coupled with Lebanon's and Brazil's ascension to the council next month obviate any possibility that a harsh international sanctions regime will be instituted against Iran any time soon.
FOR ISRAEL, Iran's successful moves to preempt American threats to isolate it should have been the top news story and the main issue on the government's and the General Staff's agendas. But it wasn't. Indeed, no one seemed to notice. They were otherwise occupied.
For the past week, the government's security cabinet and the IDF's top commanders have devoted themselves entirely to discussing how many terrorists Israel will give Hamas in exchange for captive soldier Gilad Schalit. For three days, the security cabinet met around the clock to discuss this issue alone. And the most insistent advocate for accepting Hamas's demand that Israel release over a thousand terrorists has been IDF Chief of General Staff Ashkenazi.
On Monday, Channel 2 reported that National Security Adviser Uzi Arad accused Ashkenazi of acting like the president of the IDF's parents' association rather than the chief of General Staff. Arad criticized Ashkenazi for demanding that Israel ransom the captive soldier while failing to supply the government with any option to use force to rescue Schalit.
The media pounced on the Arad-Ashkenazi story like hungry wolves. The national debate was dominated for two days by the burning questions of whether or not Arad would apologize, and whether Netanyahu can continue to retain Arad's services after he insulted Ashkenazi.
Conspicuously absent from the media's coverage of the spat was any discussion of the reasonableness of Arad's criticism. So, too, the media ignored the question of what - if anything - Ashkenazi's behavior tells us about the IDF mindset and disposition as Iran consolidates its regional power.
The fact is that Arad's criticism was on point. Schalit has been captive in Gaza for more than three years. At no point has the IDF provided the government with an option for rescuing him.
A year ago, Ashkenazi sent the IDF's best combat units into Gaza. During their stay, they were not ordered to rescue Schalit. And now, a year later, Ashkenazi is demanding that the government pay for the IDF's failure to rescue Schalit by accepting a deal that will imperil the country. And he is claiming that failure to do so will constitute nothing less than an abdication of Israel's moral responsibility to its soldiers.
Following the publication of Arad's attack on Ashkenazi, the IDF's Spokesman's Office issued a statement that army commanders are fulfilling their "professional duties" by insisting that Israel ransom Schalit.
This is untrue. It is not the professional duty of IDF commanders to opine on ransom demands. They have no professional qualifications to determine the reasonableness of ransom demands. In Jewish history, the role of ransoming captives has traditionally been the writ of rabbis, not military men. The writ of military men was to rescue them.
The professional responsibility of the IDF is to provide the government with military options for achieving its strategic objectives - including rescuing Schalit. By failing to provide such options, the IDF - with Ashkenazi at its helm - has failed to uphold its professional responsibilities. Worse still, by demanding that the government endanger the country to ransom Schalit, Ashkenazi and his generals are telling us something distressing about how they define their role as military commanders.
The IDF's apparent confusion about its role is not new. It was this confusion that led the army to fail to present the government with options for defeating Hizbullah in Lebanon in 2006 or for defeating Hamas in Gaza last year.
Whereas former prime minister Ehud Olmert properly received most of the blame for Israel's poor performance in the Second Lebanon War and in Operation Cast Lead, the fact is that it was the IDF that failed to deliver the goods. The operations the IDF designed, recommended and carried out in both campaigns were not meant to defeat Israel's enemies. All they were supposed to do was demonstrate Israel's firepower. And even this wasn't done particularly effectively.
In 2006, then-chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz rejected a ground invasion of south Lebanon in favor of an air campaign. When it became clear some 24 hours into the operation that an air campaign would be incapable of defeating Hizbullah or even degrading its ability to paralyze northern Israel with short-range rockets and missiles, Halutz and his deputies refused to conduct a ground assault. And, when after three weeks of failure they finally deployed ground forces in significant numbers, they didn't know what to tell them to do.
For his part, Ashkenazi sat on his hands for months as southern Israel was pummeled with rockets and mortars from Gaza and refused to offer the government a military option for protecting the South. When last December Hamas forced his hand by announcing that it was abrogating its cease-fire with Israel, Ashkenazi grudgingly agreed to let the IDF respond to its aggression. But even then, he opted for an operational concept that had no chance of defeating Hamas. Ashkenazi rejected the notion of retaking the Gaza-Egypt border. He refused to order IDF forces into Gaza's population centers. By opting not to do these things, Ashkenazi guaranteed that the IDF would accomplish little. Consequently, even top IDF commanders acknowledged this week that the army will be forced to return to Gaza in due course. There, thanks to Ashkenazi's refusal to defeat Hamas, Israel's soldiers will face a far more formidable foe than the one they were not allowed to defeat last year.
While refusing to fight Israel's enemies, under Ashkenazi, like under Halutz before him, the IDF has enthusiastically attacked religious Zionists. Since 2002, the only sustained operation the army has carried out successfully was the expulsion of all Israelis from Gaza and northern Samaria in 2005.
When Defense Minister Ehud Barak severed the IDF's ties with the Har Bracha Yeshiva last week, he was acting on Ashkenazi's advice. Ashkenazi has promoted anti-settler commanders like Col. Yitzhak Barr. As a brigade commander in Samaria, Barr has reportedly prohibited his soldiers from fraternizing with Israeli families on Shabbat and personally refused to visit IDF Chief Rabbi Brig.-Gen. Avichai Rontzky at his succa during Succot.
EVERY DAY the dangers to Israel's security and very survival mount. At this time, the government and the people of Israel need to be able to trust in the IDF's ability to defend the country. Rather than earning that trust, those tasked with our defense are spending their time berating the political leadership for their own failures. Moreover, they are expressing a disturbing desire to pass the buck on fighting Israel's enemies while aggressively hounding Israelis.
This situation is unacceptable. Either Ashkenazi and his generals should prove they are capable of performing their jobs, or they should be replaced.