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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The appointment of Gabi Ashkenazi as the IDF's next chief of General Staff is now just a rubber stamp away, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has accepted the recommendation of Defense Minister Amir Peretz. And while the appointment must still be approved by a committee on high-level nominations and by the cabinet, praise for the choice of Ashkenazi is already pouring in.
To be sure, the 52-year-old has an impressive military resume. Ashkenazi proved his mettle as a young foot soldier in the Yom Kippur War and then rose to prominence in the Golani Brigade, eventually becoming the brigade's commander. He has extensive experience with the Lebanese front, including a stint as OC Northern Command during the army's withdrawal from the security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000. Finally, Ashkenazi served as deputy chief of General Staff from 2002-2005, and has become acquainted with the civilian side of military affairs as director-general of the Defense Ministry under Peretz.
Ashkenazi's familiarity with the gritty demands of ground fighting has raised hopes that he can repair the damage done to the IDF's reputation during the term of Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, who resigned from the post last week after it became apparent that he would likely face much of the blame from the Winograd investigatory committee for the IDF's poor showing in last summer's conflict with Hizbullah.
In the government statement announcing their agreement on the appointment, Olmert and Peretz themselves expressed confidence in Ashkenazi's ability to fill the post successfully and "implement the lessons from the war in Lebanon."
But while we can safely assume that Ashkenazi will bring a wealth of experience and professionalism to the job, it remains to be seen what his mandate will be. This is because Olmert and Peretz have failed to clearly explain what "the lessons from the war in Lebanon" are.
Partly what our military needs is just some good old-fashioned soldiering. Supply sheds will have to be turned upside down and kept constantly at the ready, to ensure that reservists are not denied the vital equipment and the essential supplies they need to win the battles they are sent to fight, as happened last summer. Coordination in the chain of command from the most senior levels down to the commanders in the field will have to be greatly improved.
But the nation will also be looking to Ashkenazi for long-term planning on the strategic level. Should Israel invest heavily in beefing up its arsenal of tanks, and in sophisticated anti-missile systems? Or should it develop a new war-fighting doctrine that minimizes the use of soldiers beyond our borders? What should be the future size of the army, considering it may currently have more manpower than it can efficiently employ? How will the defense establishment ensure that its numerous, overlapping intelligence and assessment agencies will work together in the future and be able to provide accurate information to commanders in the field?
Although the findings of the Winograd panel on the failings of last summer's war are still two months away, it is already evident that the army needs Ashkenazi to implement a vision that will move it forward to face the myriad challenges on Israel's horizon - a vision no less comprehensive than Ehud Barak's reshaping of the IDF into a "smaller, smarter" fighting force, or Shaul Mofaz's training of an army more focused than ever on effective urban combat.
With an emboldened Hizbullah on our border, a possible nuclear showdown with Iran looming and the conflict with the Palestinians anything but abated, the incoming chief of General Staff will face extraordinary tests. Halutz is going, but the political leadership that oversaw last summer's conflict is still in place, and far from having retrieved the public's trust.
The IDF's new leader cannot restore public faith in our military-political leadership singlehandedly, but all of Israel surely wishes him well in the difficult work that lies before him. His interaction with the government, on the one hand, and the vision, priorities and culture he carves out for the IDF on the other will be central to Israel's well-being these next few years.