Behind the Lines: Generals' public and public's generals

While even now Halutz might still believe that public opinion isn't a factor in who is named chief of General Staff, his superiors obviously think differently.

Halutz salutes 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Halutz salutes 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Less than three weeks ago, Dan Halutz faced his media tormentors at a press conference marking the end of a two-day seminar on the lessons of the Lebanon war and the IDF's work plan for 2007. After repeated questions on whether his remaining in his post wasn't undermining the public's trust in the army, the chief of General Staff angrily retorted: "I'm not [a contestant on] Kochav Nolad and no one votes for me in text-messages. I haven't heard from my superiors that I have to leave." Halutz's dismissive reference to the hit TV show, the Israeli version of Pop Idol, in which nobodies become star singers overnight if they manage to capture the audience's liking, reflected his personal belief that, with all due respect to the public, it doesn't appoint the chief of General Staff. If the multitude of anonymous senior sources within the IDF are to be believed, we should take Halutz at face value: His decision to tender his resignation came when he realized that if he held on any longer, the Winograd Commission would show him the way out. He preferred to choose his own departure date, and it had nothing to do with his ratings in the polls. Just like any other senior civil servant, the chief of General Staff shouldn't be concerned with his popularity. He is appointed by politicians, and they are the ones who have to win the public's trust to get into office and ultimately pay the price for the public's displeasure in the next elections. In principle, while the generals get on with the job of ensuring the country's security, it should be the defense minister who takes the media flak for their mistakes. In practice, this has never been the case, and Halutz's refusal to understand this is further evidence of the pilot's failure to descend from above the clouds and connect with reality. While pretending to remain above the political fray, the army's senior commanders have always enjoyed being in the public eye. The chief of General Staff is no faceless bureaucrat; he has an almost mystical standing, revered and respected as one of the nation's leading figures. The level of public adulation hasn't always been constant; it reached heady peaks following the Six Day War, when generals were transformed into modern-day idols, but those idols took a beating after the Yom Kippur and first Lebanon wars. Nonetheless, Israelis continue to love their generals. The press realizes this and, despite becoming gradually more critical over the years, the tabloid dailies still present their readers with an official pin-up portrait of the new chief of General Staff upon his appointment. The IDF's commander is the only civil servant with his own private PR agent, officially known as the IDF spokesman (or woman, as in the last two cases). The spokesperson is ostensibly in charge of the entire army's image, but is always a personal appointment of the chief of General Staff, arriving with him and leaving immediately after his successor takes office. Over the years, there have been chiefs of General Staff more adept at playing the media game - Moshe Dayan will always remain the ultimate myth - but in recent years, Ehud Barak and Amnon Lipkin Shahak were also grandmasters, while Moshe Ya'alon was an abject PR failure; but he never really cared. HALUTZ WAS a strange media creature. He courted the press, willingly gave interviews - at which he was never at a loss - and actively built up his public image, while at the same time trying very hard to give the impression that he didn't give a damn what people thought of him. At the height of the Lebanon war, he allowed Channel 2's Ilana Dayan, probably his favorite journalist, to accompany him with a camera crew for days, giving her almost unlimited access to closed meetings and briefings. In the end, what will be remembered from the resulting broadcast was his answer to a question on the public's criticism of his personal conduct. "I don't really care," he said bluntly in English. The war was a turning point in what had previously been a love affair with the media. Almost the entire press corps eagerly bought into the story of the brilliant pilot who would teach all the grunts how to run the army. His spokeswoman, Brig.-Gen. Miri Regev, together with Ariel Sharon's spin doctors, sold disengagement perfectly through the media, with the soldiers appearing as the good guys - efficient, compassionate and all-Israeli, cradling babies in their arms and hugging crying settlers on the way to the evacuation buses. On the last day in Gush Katif, Halutz appeared in person at Netzarim, the last Gaza settlement to be dismantled. After visiting the rabbi's house, he went on a walk-around, offering the cameramen numerous photo opportunities, joking with reporters, sitting down with his officers and lighting a cigarette, with a small smile of satisfaction on his face at a job well done. Outside the settler community, Halutz was a hero who could do no wrong. When the inexperienced Amir Peretz became defense minister eight months later, the feeling was that as long as Danny Halutz is around, we're safe. Quiet grumblings from within the General Staff about his arrogance and the way he began moving air force officers into staff positions formerly reserved for the ground forces were airily dismissed as petty rivalry. Imagine Halutz's surprise when all of a sudden, when it became evident that the war in Lebanon wasn't going quiet as planned because there really weren't any plans, the media turned on him and began taking the internal criticism extremely seriously. Ma'ariv's scoop, a day after the cease-fire, that Halutz found the time during the early hours of his war to take a call from his broker and ordered him to sell his stock portfolio might have seemed a low-point for him at the time, but worse was to come. Over the last five months, he has taken a constant pummeling from the press; every week there have been new revelations on his failings during the war and predictions of his imminent removal, and still he continued to act as though nothing touched him. While even now Halutz might still believe that public opinion isn't a factor in who is named chief of General Staff, his superiors obviously think differently. Peretz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be the ones who have to make the decision, but first thing on Wednesday morning, both were very eager to supply the media with details of the extensive consultations they plan to hold. Whomever is appointed the next chief of General Staff, this time around the public will have to be convinced he is the right man for the job. The media have already taken sides. The front pages of the two major Hebrew dailies on Thursday made that quite clear. Ma'ariv led with a headline that Halutz had recommended his deputy, Moshe Kaplinsky, and a photo of the said general smiling. Yediot Aharonot proclaimed that Olmert wouldn't oppose Peretz's candidate; in other words, Gabi Ashkenazi is as good as appointed. The public is also into the name game: By noon on Thursday, one hundred and eighty readers had already written talkbacks to a Ynet feature on the various candidates, each with his own views for and against a favorite general. Opinion polls on the public's preferred candidate have yet to appear, but I wouldn't be surprised if discreet polling is already taking place. The race for the IDF's top job has just started, but it already looks like a beauty contest and everyone wants to be a judge. To what number should we send our SMS?