Middle Israel: Poor man’s Watergate’

The scandal involving former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi is not about crime, but about a politician who thought he was still a general, and a general who thought he was already a politician.

Gabi Ashkenazi (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Gabi Ashkenazi
With a former president doing time for sex offenses, a former prime minister convicted of bribery and a former chief rabbi reportedly facing indictment for money laundering, it would not seem unreasonable that this distinguished list be joined by a former IDF chief of staff.
Yet Israel Police’s recommendation this week to indict Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi and several other senior officers is not about corruption, but governance, and will likely end anticlimactically – despite the legal backdrop against which this tale of raw passions is now set.
The affair harks back four years, when Ashkenazi’s term was approaching its end and the government was preparing to select his successor.
At that point, Channel 2 revealed a document bearing a public relations consultancy’s logo, listing guidelines for the promotion of one general’s candidacy and the derailment of other candidacies.
The document soon proved a forgery; the question was who created and leaked it.
Since the forged document pretended to advise Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant on how to promote his candidacy, the initial scandal was about his self-promotion and insertion of a commercial firm into a process that should have been none of its business. Once the forgery became known, fingers pointed to Ashkenazi, who opposed Galant’s candidacy due to a personal rivalry, in addition to wanting his own term extended by another year.
Meanwhile, the government decided to approve Galant’s candidacy, only to soon see it canceled by Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein in the wake of Galant’s misconduct vis-à-vis public property in the latter’s community of Amikam.
The affair might have ended there, had Galant not been the candidate of then-defense minister Ehud Barak.
An otherwise powerful defense minister, Barak fumed in the face of his appointment’s derailment, which he attributed to the media’s feeding off of leaks by Ashkenazi. Barak therefore aimed his fire at Ashkenazi, accusing him not only of concocting Galant’s demise but also of plotting a putsch against his civilian superior, the defense minister. As the icing on the cake, it has since been alleged that Barak’s office was wiretapping Ashkenazi’s, and that the same office’s procedural tapes of its own conversations were mysteriously destroyed.
Well, the good news is that despite the passions, leaks, investigations and tapes, this will be no Watergate. Following the police’s announcement this week, it is clear the putsch attempt happened nowhere except in Barak’s head. It is also clear that Ashkenazi is not suspected of ordering the anti-Galant document’s forgery – a move attributed to one Lt.-Col. Boaz Harpaz, though his motivation remains unclear.
The bad news is that Ashkenazi and Barak conducted a private war, while holding the two most sensitive positions in the country other than the premiership itself.
THE LEGAL BALLOON that the Harpaz Affair pumped over the past four years has now lost much of its air. Police’s recommendations, besides the fact that Attorney-General Weinstein might dismiss them, boil down to lesser felonies than those originally trumpeted.
Sharing secret information with the media is a felony when committed without the military’s approval, especially when aimed at derailing the military’s operations. However, the army’s commander is authorized to define what is secret and what is not, and in any event Ashkenazi was obviously not out to obstruct an IDF operation by discussing it in advance with a journalist.
Suggestions this week that Ashkenazi leaked information about an operation of a security agency other than the IDF will be more difficult to legalize, if indeed such a charge materializes – but even that will not be comparable with Barak’s charge of a putsch, nor with other public figures’ convictions of briberies, embezzlements or sexual offenses.
Similarly, Ashkenazi’s 48-hour possession of the Harpaz document without properly reporting it may or may not produce an indictment, but if it does, it will pale in comparison with the creation of the document, which police agree Ashkenazi did not concoct.
The same goes for the allegations against several of Ashkenazi’s former aides, most notably his bureau chief, Col. (res.) Erez Weiner; then-IDF spokesman Brig.-Gen. (res.) Avi Benayahu; and Maj.-Gen. (res.) Avichai Mandelblit, then the IDF’s advocate-general and now cabinet secretary.
The three’s alleged felonies, which range from breach of trust to obstruction of justice, are already lighter than the bombastic allegations with which this affair began – and will likely continue shrinking in court, if at they get there at all.
What will not shrink are the egos that touched off this scandal in the first place, and the uniquely Israeli circumstances that produced their clash.
EHUD BARAK and Gabi Ashkenazi hail from different chapters in Israel’s history.
Barak was born and raised in a kibbutz, Mishmar Hasharon; Ashkenazi in a moshav, Hagor.
Though hardly 30 minutes’ drive from each other along the narrow strip between Ben-Gurion Airport and Netanya, the two communities represent the gap between the Jewish state’s founding elite and its successors.
Barak’s kibbutz was founded in 1933 by Eastern European pioneers like Barak’s parents, who came there from Poland. When the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit was created in 1959, its commanders searched for promising kibbutzniks to form its founding nucleus. Barak was thus retrieved from another battalion to serve in the unit where he later excelled, and his meteoric career took off.
Ashkenazi’s community was established in 1949 by immigrants from Bulgaria, like his father, and from the Middle East, like his mother, who arrived from Syria. In line with this unassuming setting, Ashkenazi joined and was reared in the Golani infantry brigade – the social antithesis of the elitist General Staff Reconnaissance Unit.
Born respectively in 1942 and 1954, Barak and Ashkenazi were half a generation apart, the latter becoming a major-general shortly after the former’s term as chief of staff had ended in 1995.
In Barak’s mind, Ashkenazi remained the brigadier- general he recalled from his last years in the military, only by the time Barak returned to the Defense Ministry in 2006 he found Ashkenazi in the IDF commander’s seat, where he had been installed shortly before by Barak’s predecessor as labor leader and defense minister, Amir Peretz.
Peretz was Barak’s political inversion. The Moroccan-born resident of Sderot was – and remains – widely appreciated, even by his rivals, as a genuine union leader who is true to the socialism that Barak betrayed when he chose the high life of dwelling in an ultra-luxurious Tel Aviv skyscraper.
Peretz had lost political altitude by 2006, but the man to whom he bequeathed the IDF’s helm was popular, and was being touted as a potential Labor leader. Barak increasingly treated Ashkenazi with suspicion and gradually made the IDF chief’s work difficult, at one point suspending his recommended promotions of dozens of colonels.
These dynamics are where the Harpaz Affair’s roots lie, and they are much more alarming than the legal allegations they later produced.
ASHKENAZI AND BARAK were both victims of the Israeli political reflex to invite successful generals into politics.
The fact is that most of the many generals who joined Israeli politics since Moshe Dayan in the late ’50s either didn’t make an impact, or failed altogether. Very few gave over any gospel – or even views – on domestic issues, focusing instead on security and foreign affairs.
As defense ministers, retired generals presided over magnificent fiascoes, most notably: the Yom Kippur War, which happened during Dayan’s shift; the First Lebanon War, which was Ariel Sharon’s brainchild; the first intifada, which was Yitzhak Rabin’s failure; and the second intifada, which was Barak’s. By contrast, civilian defense ministers like David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Shimon Peres and Moshe Arens – excelled.
Defense ministers are meant to direct, equip and supervise the army, not micromanage it.
Retired generals, however, tend to breathe down the generals’ necks. While this is not a rule of thumb – Rabin let the generals do their work, as does Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya’alon today – it certainly was the case with Barak.
The decorated warrior’s obstruction of the army’s work reached absurdity when he appointed a deputy chief of staff and an IDF spokesman, without even informing the chief of staff. A civilian defense minister would never do such a thing, as he would not know most colonels and generals – just like the health minister does not know hospitals’ department heads, and does not interfere in their appointments.
Similarly, talk of Ashkenazi-the-soldier’s political potential was destructive, even regardless of what this evidently did to his superior’s juices.
Some generals are meant to become statesmen – Dwight D. Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle come to mind – but most are not. Ashkenazi, like so many other Israeli generals, was a leader, but he had no unique vision or insight concerning Israel’s future. Making a political scarecrow of him was a disservice to politics, and a disaster to him.
Now, faced with a defense minister who was fighting him, Ashkenazi fought back – failing to realize that Barak, despite behaving like an active general, was in fact his civilian superior. That is how Israel witnessed a clash that pitted a politician who thought he was still a general, against a general who thought he was already a politician.
At 72, Barak is history, as are the 60-year-old Ashkenazi’s political aspirations. However, the cardboard walls between Israel’s military and political systems are not a thing of the past.
If anything good is to come out of the Harpaz Affair, it would be the emergence of a norm whereby the position of defense minister is not occupied by a retired general.