Analysis: A hierarchy gone awry

The chief of General Staff of the IDF answers first and foremost to the defense minister, but Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz preferred to send his letter of resignation to the prime minister. This last action of his command was yet another symptom of all that had gone wrong in the essential relationship between the IDF's high command and its political masters. Halutz wasn't appointed in 2005 because the government thought it would be a brilliant idea to have an air force commander in charge of the army for the first time in the IDF's history. He got the job simply because he was Ariel Sharon's chosen one. Sharon bypassed the politically weak defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, and appointed the general he believed would be most loyal to him, and would carry-out to the letter the disengagement from Gaza and further plans he had in store. Sharon broke the proper hierarchical structure by having his own man lead the army and while it might have worked as long as Sharon was still in charge, when Sharon was replaced by a prime minister inexperienced in military matters and a defense minister who never wanted the job took office, the chain of command became totally imbalanced. Actually, the hierarchy had gone awry long before. Politics always took up inordinate space in the IDF's senior promotions, but things took a turn for the worse in 1996, when Binyamin Netanyahu had to give Yitzhak Mordechai the Defense Ministry in return for his support in the elections. Mordechai, disgruntled from never reaching the top in the IDF, took to his new job with a vengeance, ruling against the appointment of his old rival Matan Vilna'i, who up until then had been seen as the natural choice for chief of staff. Things didn't get any better when chief of staff Shaul Mofaz made his own move to the Defense Ministry less than four months after his discharge. Sharon didn't see any problem with the arrangement. He was fulfilling his own dream to be the ultimate commander of the IDF - the minister and chief of staff were simply subordinates. It was natural for him to fire chief of staff Moshe Yaalon when he suspected him of not being wholeheartedly behind the disengagement and replace him with the more loyal Halutz. Halutz impeccably followed Sharon's orders and the IDF's flawless execution of the withdrawal gave the impression that Halutz was indeed a brilliant operator. No one stopped to ask whether evacuating a few thousand Israeli citizens was a real test of the army commander's capabilities. With Olmert and Peretz nominally above him, Halutz began to feel like the only responsible grown-up left in the room to take care of Israel's security, and the mismanagement of the Lebanon war became an almost foreseeable tragedy. Despite some minor failings at the field level, it's clear - even before the Winograd Commission delivers its interim report - that the IDF's combat units acquitted themselves well in the fighting. What was so miserably lacking was any clear sense of direction from the top. Five months after the war's end, we still don't know what its objectives where. There is also no agreement over whether it was the right move to respond with an all-out offensive to Hizbullah's attack, and we aren't sure who actually won that war without a name. This muddled aftermath is a direct result of the total inability of the political leadership to come up with a coherent strategy during the war and the chief of staff's failure to present them with military options for approval. Both sides failed to understand their duty in a proper, democratic civilian-military hierarchy and had unrealistic expectations of their colleagues. Halutz's successor will have two urgent tasks to carry out in his first months of command. First, he will have to implement the lessons drawn from the army's conduct during the war; Halutz has taken the first major step in that direction by setting up 40 teams that assessed the army's performance at all levels. In the second task, the next chief of staff has received no help from Halutz. He will have to singlehandedly redress the balance and return the IDF's high command to its correct position, fulfilling the elected government's directives. But it will be impossible to fulfill this task without a political leadership above him that understands that it's there to decide policy for the chief of staff, not simply to authorize whatever he presents to them.