Analysis: Striking the right balance

In no festive speech did anyone mention one of the more delicate tasks awaiting Ashkenazi, that of redressing the balance between military and civilian leadership.

Among the many challenges awaiting the new IDF chief of General Staff are the lurking threat of Hizbullah, a resurgence of Palestinian terror and the danger aimed at Israel from distant targets in Iran - all of which require that he prepare and repair the army. In none of the festive speeches did anyone mention one of the more delicate tasks awaiting him, redressing the balance between the military and civilian leadership. If unlike his two immediate predecessors, Gabi Ashkenazi succeeds in completing his full four years at the IDF's helm, there will be at least one election - quite likely two - during his term, probably at least one change of prime minister, and he will almost certainly serve under two new defense ministers, the first of them will be replacing Amir Peretz in a matter of months. This on its own doesn't make Ashkenazi's tenure different from any of the previous chiefs of General Staff, or any other senior civil servant in a country with frequent changes of government. But the circumstances under which Ashkenazi is assuming his post make this all the more difficult. Exactly two years ago, defense minister Shaul Mofaz announced that Moshe Ya'alon's term as chief of General Staff would not be extended, effectively firing him. This unprecedented move was made after Mofaz, and more crucially prime minister Ariel Sharon, came to the conclusion that Ya'alon was not wholeheartedly behind the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Sharon, who was calling the shots, insisted on having an army chief he could implicitly trust. Enter Dan Halutz, perhaps the only man that Sharon could imagine replacing him one day. The chief of the army carries out the government's instructions and a good relationship is useful there, but they shouldn't get too cozy as this can change very quickly. The old warrior, Sharon, knew exactly what he wanted from the IDF; he didn't only give the basic orders, he could have told the company commander which route to take on the way to his target. What he demanded from his military subordinates - and that is how he saw Mofaz and Halutz - was unswerving loyalty. He didn't pay them to ask too many questions or offer significant opinions of their own. Strategy was his. He was barely even prepared to give over implementation to others. But the arrangement lasted only seven months and ended when Sharon's body gave in. All of a sudden, the balance was upended with a dominant, confident chief of General Staff answering to a prime minister without experience in security and military affairs, and three months later, a defense minister who had never even served in cabinet. The lack of clear leadership over the last 10 months, especially during the Lebanon war, was a direct result of the lack of balance between politicians and generals. At no stage could the cabinet be totally certain that it was fully informed on what the IDF was doing. Halutz failed to put out clear courses of action and a cohesive strategy for conducting the war, and the orders Peretz and Olmert handed down to the army were often impulsive and misinformed. Whatever the conclusions of the Winograd Commission, all three can say in their defense that the war's mismanagement wasn't their fault. The moment Sharon disappeared, it was hard to imagine how any other politician could deal with Halutz. Ashkenazi has to bear this in mind from his first day in office, and learn from the mistakes of Ya'alon and Halutz. He has to inspire the confidence of the government of the day and carry out its policies, bearing in mind that at the bat of an eyelid, his masters can change. One day he is taking orders from a military neophyte like Amir Peretz and the next, he is answering a former army chief who has seen it all, like Ehud Barak. He has to be able to represent the IDF to a cabinet which has already decided exactly which targets should be bombed and take orders from a clueless, quarrelsome group of ministers. After the 1996 elections, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that after years of the Oslo process, "the generals have to change their disk." Ashkenazi will have to remind himself, his colleagues, and whatever government the people of Israel vote in to order him around, that the IDF doesn't change its disk. It works on a 59-year-old operating system with a very simple code. That code is summarized in The Basic Law: The Military: "The Israel Defense Force is the army of the state. The army is under the command of the government." Simple, the IDF is responsible for the nation's security and takes its orders from the cabinet, through the defense minister, under the leadership of the prime minister. But for the last two years, it all got mixed up. In order to face all his other challenges, Ashkenazi is going to have to regain balance first.