Undermining Ashkenazi, the army & the country

If anyone should be going home at this precarious moment in Israel's history, it is the minister and not the general.

By
April 8, 2010 00:09
3 minute read.
Ashkenazi addresses group of soldiers

Ashkenazi Uniform 311. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)

Former chief of General Staff Moshe Ya’alon once quipped that when entering Defense Ministry headquarters, one needs to wear tall boots in order to avoid snakebites. No doubt current IDF chief Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi would wholeheartedly subscribe to Ya’alon’s assessment, after feeling fangs pierce his flesh on Tuesday.

The wound was delivered via an official ministry announcement that Ashkenazi’s term would not be extended by an extra year. This, however, was hardly a surprise. In fact, it wasn’t even news.

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When Amir Peretz was defense minister, he moved to end the routine practice of extending each IDF commander’s tenure from three years to four and instead instituted a four-year term. Until that time, failure to grant such an extension had been widely interpreted as a sign of displeasure, or worse.

This is certainly how former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s refusal to keep Ya’alon for a fourth year – due in large part, presumably, to the latter’s opposition to the Gaza disengagement plan – was widely perceived.

Peretz’s decision to end what had evolved into a customary “right” to an extra year was a positive initiative. But it did not prevent speculation, mostly in the press, that Ashkenazi sought to stay on for a fifth year.

There is no evidence to support this claim. But even if we take the unsubstantiated gossip at face value, there were any number of better ways for Defense Minister Ehud Barak to impose his authority than by issuing a superfluous, humiliating communiqué. Barak had already informed Ashkenazi officially that his term of chief of staff would end, as planned, when his four years are up in February.

The public slight was redundant, excessive and damaging. If Barak wished to make himself look strong, he achieved quite the opposite. He came off as petty and cantankerous.

There had been no insidious moves by Ashkenazi to undermine Barak; hence there was no reason to embarrass Ashkenazi publicly.

It is obvious to any observer that the two men are not bosom buddies. Their differences of opinion have been branded in some parts of the media as outright “bad blood.”

Yet a sign of maturity is to accept that disagreements are inevitable in decision-making forums, especially at the highest echelons and even more so when some of the most vital national security interests may be at stake. Furthermore, true team players don’t allow their divergent views to fester into personal enmity.

As the minister with direct authority over Ashkenazi, it behooved Barak to evince proper patience and prudence. He failed to do so. And in that failure, he undermined Israel’s top soldier, and thus by extension undermined the IDF and the country it protects.

An indication of Barak’s petulance can be found in his implausible contention that Ashkenazi consented to the official communiqué stating he had been denied an extension. Since Ashkenazi never formally requested an extension, it is unlikely that he approved an announcement saying he was not going to get one.

TO RESORT to understatement, this entire affair is juvenile and foolish. But that does not render it harmless.

For one thing, it has prematurely kicked the race to succeed Ashkenazi into high gear. Ambitious generals were already vying for the top IDF job. But now that the contest has been formally declared, the rivalry is bound to get more confrontational. Relations among the IDF top brass are likely to be even less harmonious – again, to the detriment of the army and the country.

There was never any notion that Ashkenazi’s appointment was open-ended, yet the very imperious manner in which the end of his term was pointlessly made public marks him at home and abroad as a lame duck, lacking clout.

This is just about the most irresponsible portrayal one could possibly muster of Israel’s No. 1 soldier, particularly when this habitually beleaguered country faces existential challenges, perhaps equaling those which existed at its birth in 1948.

Small-mindedness is always undesirable, but it’s all the more so at a time of escalating danger. If anyone should be going home after all this, it is the minister and not the general.


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