Security and Defense: Peer pressure

A worried nation looks on as top security echelon falls deeper into sordid quagmire of lies and betrayals.

Ashkenazi Knesset 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ashkenazi Knesset 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
What do you think they are saying about us in Iran?” one senior IDF officer asked this week as news broke that Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi had been in possession of the so-called “Galant Document” for several weeks, or months, before it was exposed in the media.
The answer is probably simple.
While forgeries and rigged elections are something of the norm in Iran, as underlined by last summer’s stolen presidential elections, the Iranians are most likely sitting back, rubbing their hands together and wondering how a country in which the defense minister doesn’t talk to the chief of staff, who doesn’t talk to his generals, who don’t talk to one another, can even contemplate attacking their nuclear facilities.
The content of the apparently forged document, which lays out a strategy for getting OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant tapped as the next chief of staff, is not as important as what the paper represents – an apparent moral and ethical breakdown within the IDF.
Senior appointments within the IDF have always involved politicking.
Ministers and Knesset members frequently lobby on behalf of different officers, as do retired generals who, outside of uniform, still do their utmost to push their former subordinates through the ranks. Just take a look at the number of ex-generals and particularly chiefs of staff who have gone on to enter politics.
Ashkenazi knows what effect politics can have on the military. In 2005, he was certain that he was the leading candidate to replace Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon as chief of staff. Instead, former air force commander Dan Halutz got the job since that is what thenprime minister Ariel Sharon wanted.
Halutz was a Sharon family friend and had vocally supported the pending disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
IF WE ARE to believe Ashkenazi and his associates, the chief of staff was a naive player in this affair. Yes, he had the document in his possession weeks before the story broke. But no, he did not think it was of criminal nature and instead of raising it with Galant or Barak and letting out all the bad blood between them, he preferred to swallow hard and keep on working to keep this country safe.
If we are to believe Galant, then he was ambushed by Ashkenazi and his other colleagues within the General Staff. Galant claims not only that he did not author the document, but that while rumors were being spread throughout the IDF about it and him, he was kept in the dark. Instead of being collegial and giving him the opportunity to explain, everyone assumed that the document was genuine.
That is exactly the trap that Ashkenazi apparently fell into. He already believed that Barak and Galant were out to get him, a feeling which had been accompanying him since after Operation Cast Lead in January 2009 when relations between the three began to deteriorate dramatically.
A lot had to do with the credit for the operation – Barak and Galant both thought Ashkenazi was stealing the credit that they each deserved. Therefore, he may naturally have assumed this was part of their smear campaign against him.
The level of Ashkenazi’s involvement in the affair has yet to be completely clarified. If it turns out, for example, that close friends of his, maybe a group of former IDF officers, wrote the document, then what does this say about the chief of staff? Even in the absence of criminal action, will the public call on him to pay a personal price? This affair has likely caused Ashkenazi irreparable damage. When Ashkenazi took office in 2007 after Halutz’s resignation, one of his first decisions was to recruit Avi Benayahu, the head of Army Radio at the time, to serve as his spokesman. A trusted confidant and natural media wizard, Benayahu worked wonders for Ashkenazi, creating a public image of a tough, no-nonsense general who always has an eye on the mission at hand. Benayahu’s refusal to allow Ashkenazi to be interviewed by the Israeli or foreign press throughout his three-and-a-half years added clout to that image and made many Israelis believe that their chief of staff was so busy keeping them safe that an interview was almost dangerous. Many people still believe today that too much chatter during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 was the prime reason for the IDF’s failures, not the lack of training or the misconception in military offensive strategy.
What these people forget is that in a democracy and particularly a country like Israel which has compulsory service, the public has a right to hear from its chief of staff about how he views the region, its challenges, threats and opportunities. Now, with the revelation that Ashkenazi was in possession of the Galant Document for some time before its exposure, one can’t help but wonder what else the chief of staff has been hiding from the public for the past threeand- a-half years.
This affair has also tarnished the legacy Ashkenazi will leave behind when he steps down in six months’ time.
Instead of being remembered as the chief of staff who returned the IDF to its former glory, Ashkenazi will now be remembered as the chief of staff who was questioned by police as part of a criminal investigation.
He will be remembered not as the officer who rehabilitated the IDF from its post-Lebanon War trauma, but as the chief of staff who lost control of his generals and repeatedly clashed with his defense minister.
The IDF’s top priority now needs to be getting through the current crisis. Barak will then have to decide who to appoint as the next chief of staff. He has three options – to appoint Galant, who appears to be a victim in this story, to appoint Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz, who reportedly knew about the document but was not in possession of it, or to appoint one of the contenders who in the beginning were deemed to have no chance of winning but now might take the prize since they were not involved at all, such as OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Avi Mizrahi. Some officers speculated this week that the third option might be the necessary one to clean out the IDF stables. Some MKs have suggested bringing in an outsider, just as Ashkenazi himself was brought in from the Defense Ministry.
GETTING BACK TO Iran, there can be no minimizing the damage this affair is having on Israel and the way it is portrayed overseas, particularly by its enemies. Iran, for example, this week, was finalizing plans to activate its Busher reactor while in Israel the country was busy asking if the Galant Document is fake or real.
Another interesting development is the announcement that US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will be stepping down sometime next year. In Israel, Gates is viewed as the greatest opponent to military action against Iran within the Obama administration.
A Republican holdover from the Bush administration, Gates had agreed to stay on at the request of President Barack Obama.
The move was intended to maintain stability at a time of two wars, although Gates has been open about his desire to return to civilian life in his home state of Washington.
Depending on who replaces him, it is possible that Gates’s departure from the administration would lead to a more viable military threat against Iran if it continues to enrich uranium and pursue nuclear weapons. From an Israeli perspective, a viable military option against Iran is necessary even if it is never used. Otherwise, the argument goes, the sanctions just won’t work.
As proof, government officials cite Iran’s decision in 2003 to suspend its enrichment of uranium and nuclear weapons program after it feared it would be next in line following the US invasion of Iraq. Once it realized that the Bush administration was stopping in Baghdad it got back to work and hasn’t stopped since.
While Israel is definitely concerned with the Busher development, it is not in and of itself a justification for immediate military action against Iran. Senior Israeli officials have said before that Busher on its own – with the right safeguards and international oversight – would not be a threat to Israel since the reactor really is meant to serve energy purposes.
The problem is with the rest of Iran’s nuclear facilities – Natanz, Arak, Isfahan and Qom – as well as all of the secret sites which serve as the base for Project 111, the team responsible for building the Iranian bomb.
Israel’s current strategy, as outlined recently by a senior government minister, is to cooperate with the international community, basically to be perceived as playing ball.
This dates back to the beginning of Obama’s term as president in January 2009, when Israel warned against engaging the Iranians but eventually acceded to the new US policy, albeit while demanding that the talks be limited in time.
When the talks failed and Obama moved to the sanctions track, Israel again said it was in favor of sanctions but that they needed to be tough and crack down on the Islamic Republic’s energy sector. While this too didn’t happen, Israel is impressed by Obama’s determination to economically crack down on Iran, even though in private conversations intelligence officers say the sanctions will ultimately fail.
That is why Busher needs to serve as an alarm. While Russia’s support of the program is extremely disturbing and a reminder of the intricate game Moscow plays with the world, the fact that after years of sanctions and international condemnations Iran will soon succeed in turning on its reactor should show the world that the current course of action is likely not going to be enough to stop the Ayatollahs.
This happened before with North Korea, which was engaged diplomatically but ultimately succeeded in fooling the world and obtaining the bomb. While Israel is currently cooperating with international efforts, it is preserving the military option and the time will come soon when it will have to decide what to do and how much longer it can wait.
When will this be? Hopefully not before this country’s defense minister and chief of staff are talking to each other again.