Security and Defense: Leaving the stage or setting it?

Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz made a grand exit this week, carefully timing his bow and prompting a complex succession drama.

Halutz speaks 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Halutz speaks 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
On April 1, 1974, the Agranat Commission released the interim report of its investigation into why the IDF had been poorly prepared for the Yom Kippur War a year earlier. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. David Elazar immediately submitted his resignation. This he did while accusing the report of bias for blaming the military and letting the political leadership - particularly defense minister Moshe Dayan and prime minister Golda Meir - off the hook. Dan Halutz's decision to resign Tuesday night - weeks before the government-appointed Winograd Committee is to release its interim findings - indicates that the current chief of General Staff did not want to follow in Elazar's footsteps. By leaving his post now, Halutz will be able to appear before the committee that is investigating the decision-making process behind Israel's second Lebanon war as a civilian. According to General Staff sources, this will enable him to openly place blame on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. A former chief of General Staff who has already appeared before the Winograd Committee said that Halutz must have gotten word he was being set up to take the fall for the IDF's failures during the 33 days of fighting against Hizbullah this summer, and for the disappointing outcome of the war. "By resigning now," this former top officer said, "he is basically signaling to the diplomatic echelon that the gloves are off." Some 50 internal commissions of inquiry have probed the IDF's performance during the war in Lebanon: from the level of intelligence that was obtained prior to the July 12 kidnapping of reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, to the quality of equipment in IDF emergency warehouses, to the overall preparedness in the regular ranks and among reservists. These probes were completed two weeks ago, and Halutz presented them to officers, from the rank of colonel and up, during a two-day seminar at the Hatzor Air Force Base. The feeling then among the brass was that Halutz was here to stay - something he himself told military reporters during a January 2 press conference. He seemed to be following the advice of former chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Dan Shomron. Shomron investigated the performance of the General Staff during the war and recommended that the current command - the one under Halutz which conducted the probes - also be the one to implement the reforms. Appearances were misleading, however. In fact, Halutz had already made up his mind to resign. The timing, from his perspective, couldn't be more perfect: It enables him to appear before Winograd as a civilian; it gives him the opportunity to go down in history as the chief of General Staff who conducted the most comprehensive post-war probe in IDF history; and it allows him to save face by taking responsibility - leaving of his own accord, not scapegoated, like Elazar, by a government committee. Sources close to Halutz said his decision to quit was also based on a feeling that he no longer commanded the kind of respect and authority a chief of General Staff needs from his subordinates. As was reported in this column in November, the IDF is still trying to prevent a mass exodus of low-to-mid-level officers, who no longer want to remain in the IDF due to a feeling of a lack of military and political leadership. Halutz knew that he was no longer perceived as the fresh and innovative commander who swept into office in June, 2005 as the first chief of General Staff to hail from the Air Force. THE SUCCESSION battle is in full swing, with generals and politicians - both current and former - lobbying Peretz and Olmert on behalf of their favorite candidate. Former prime minister Ehud Barak, for example, is said to be lobbying on behalf of OC Ground Forces Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz. Barak's opinion should not be dismissed as irrelevant. He has a chance of becoming defense minister following the Labor Party primaries in May, and his recommendation will carry weight during Olmert's deliberations. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz - the man who, together with former prime minister Ariel Sharon, appointed Halutz - is said to favor former deputy chief of General Staff and current Defense Ministry Dir.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. Halutz is backing his deputy - Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky - for the job. And Peretz has already met with Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ilan Biran, a former MOD director-general, as another possible candidate. The real fighting is not going to be among the candidates, however, but rather between the defense minister and the prime minister. Peretz is angry at being snubbed by Halutz, who submitted his letter of resignation to Olmert on Sunday but hid the news from Peretz until Tuesday night. Peretz's office spent Wednesday updating reporters about the defense minister's meetings with the various candidates, and explaining how he would "use his authority by law" to appoint the next chief of General Staff. Olmert's office did the same thing, briefing the press about the prime minister's plans for the next few days, which include meetings with former prime ministers, chiefs of General Staff and defense ministers. This could lead to a clash between the two, which could spell trouble for the coalition. Equally importantly, it might mean cause difficulty in their agreeing on a candidate. Peretz is known to favor Ashkenazi, the man he brought into the Defense Ministry during the war. Olmert is said to be inclined toward Kaplinsky - who, like Olmert, smokes cigars, a habit the general picked up when he served as Sharon's military attach . On the other hand, Olmert is also known to be good friends with Ashkenazi. The problem is that both Ashkenazi and Kaplinsky have testified before Winograd, and both run the risk of being warned by the committee and coming under fire in the interim report - Kaplinsky for his role as deputy chief of General Staff during the war, and Ashkenazi for his role as OC Northern Command until 2002. This is where a third candidate could come into play - someone like Biran, who has been out of the game long enough not to be tainted by the war. If Olmert and Peretz fail to reach an agreement, a "wild card" like Biran might be brought in as a compromise. He could be the Motta Gur of 2007 - the man brought in from outside. (Gur was in Washington during the Yom Kippur War, and was appointed to replace Elazar.) The next chief of General Staff has his work cut out for him. He will need to stabilize the institution, prevent the exodus of officers and begin implementing the work plan for 2007, which calls for increasing training regiments and refilling emergency IDF warehouses. Indeed the entire IDF - as the recent war proved - needs revamping. The Israeli defense establishment was not the only body undergoing changes at the top this week. In New York, the United Nations Security Council approved the appointment of Italian Maj.-Gen. Claudio Graziano as the new commander of UNIFIL, in place of French Maj.-Gen. Alain Pellegrini. Graziano served in the past as the head of the Kabul Multinational Force in Afghanistan under NATO. Respected by the IDF Northern Command, he is also said to be "unbiased" when it comes to the Israeli-Hizbullah conflict - not something that was widely said here of his predecessor. As these changes are being implemented in the IDF and UNIFIL, a conference will be taking place at the National Defense College in Stockholm this weekend on "Civil-Military Cooperation in Multinational Missions." The conference will be attended mostly by European defense officials, but also by a two-person contingent from Israel: Lt.-Col. Yigal Haccoun, head of the European-NATO desk at the IDF Strategic Planning and Relations Division, and Dr. Efrat Elron of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Haccoun will discuss the IDF coordination center he directed in Lebanon this summer that facilitated international relief agencies' work inside the war-torn country. Elron will speak about Israeli relations with UNIFIL and the international community. A specialist in organizational psychology, Elron has spent the past six months since the war studying Israel's relationship with UNIFIL and trying to develop a model that would assist the two military forces in forging better ties. The model details the preparations and actions Israel needs to take to create a closer and more effective partnership. It was presented recently to the IDF Planning and Strategy Division, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Elron even recently traveled to Venice, where she spent several days with a military brigade during its last training before being shipped off to southern Lebanon to join UNIFIL. Elron's model calls for creating a positive dialogue between the IDF and UNIFIL, which, in recent years were suspicious of one another. Elron calls for "positive meetings" she claims will assist the IDF in getting UNIFIL to crack down on Hizbullah and prevent it from rearming. The appointment of Graziano is a step in the right direction, she says, explaining that the French general's three-year tenure was too long. "I did an analysis of his statements over the past few years," she says. "And I arrived at the conclusion that now is a good time for a new commander to come into the job." While Elron was cautious in her remarks, IDF officers were not. They said "good riddance" to Pellegrini, whom they accused of being blatantly pro-Hizbullah and anti-Israel. Such statements, Elron asserts, counter Israel's objective - to develop strong and positive ties with UNIFIL and the international community. "We need to give the impression that we are cooperating with UNIFIL, not working against it," she says. This challenge, like many others, awaits the next chief of General Staff.