Drumming the generals out

The real transfer of power took place on the night of Sharon's second stroke.

arik sharon main 88 (photo credit: )
arik sharon main 88
(photo credit: )
The full authority of the premiership was finally transferred to Ehud Olmert on Friday night, in total silence and without ceremony or fanfare. The recipient of these powers was vacationing in the Galilee while the previous holder of the office marked 100 days in a deep coma at Hadassah-University Hospital. Nothing has really changed. The real transfer of power took place more than three months ago, on the night of Ariel Sharon's second stroke. We've gone through an entire election campaign since then and Olmert was going to present his government for Knesset approval in a few weeks in any case. This weekend's change, besides its symbolic importance, represents a much more fundamental transfer of power that has been taking place over the last few weeks as a result of Sharon's absence, the election results and the coalition talks. The new government, which is still being formed, seems set on being the first cabinet in which no ex-general has a central role. It's not only the negligible military record of the two figures leading the new administration - Olmert was a correspondent for the IDF magazine Bamahane and Amir Peretz was a junior logistics officer - it's the fact that current defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, who as a former IDF chief of General Staff is the highest-ranking former officer in power today, has virtually no political support. His future is completely dependent on Olmert and the circumstances of coalition-building. Right now, the chances of Peretz or Tzipi Livni ending up on the hot seat in the square building in Tel Aviv's Kirya Defense Ministry compund seem much better than those of the incumbent, and even if Mofaz does manage to obtain the post, he will be there on sufferance. None of the other senior ex-security services figures expected to serve in the new government - Avi Dichter, Ami Ayalon and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer - are slated for anything more than relatively junior posts, nor are they seen as potential movers and shakers in the new administration. Neither Olmert nor Peretz have room for generals in their inner circles. One prefers lawyers, the other trade union activists. If Sharon was still around, it would be totally different, and not only because of his own unparalleled military record. The feeling is that he would have let Mofaz sweat a little but in the end left him on his perch. The others with security backgrounds, especially Dichter, would also be looking at more cheerful prospects and there definitely wouldn't have so much of the casual talk of deep cuts in the defense budget we've been hearing for the last week or so. Does the fact that Israel is going to have an almost entirely civilian leadership redress the historic imbalance of power between the government and the IDF General Staff? Not necessarily. Many senior politicians without much metal on their shoulders tend to be in awe of the top brass, who have no compunction predicting Armageddon if officers' pay is cut. But the money question isn't the most important issue. For the last few weeks, the IDF been waging a low-intensity battle against the Kassam rockets being fired from the Gaza Strip. It seems as if Maj.-Gen. Dan Halutz is running the show singlehandedly, as we have yet to hear a policy statement from the political leadership. A serious government can't allow those in uniform to decide its defense policy, certainly not a government that faces the Iranian threat, has to come up with a way to deal with Hamas, Hizbullah and local and world Islamic Jihad, and at the same time plans to implement a comprehensive dismantlement of settlements in the West Bank. Sharon and Mofaz were confident enough of their defense credentials to depose a chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, who wasn't wholeheartedly in favor of disengagement. Could Olmert and Peretz do the same? Since neither are lacking in arrogance, the answer might well be yes. a Sharon's departure might herald the first Israeli government since the days of David Ben-Gurion where the generals revert to their proper roles as public servants and cease being partners in power.