The Harpaz stain

The convoluted affair at the heart of the defense establishment poisoned the atmosphere among the top brass

ashkanazi barak 521 (photo credit: GIDEON KOBY / FLASH 90)
ashkanazi barak 521
(photo credit: GIDEON KOBY / FLASH 90)
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once commented that Israel did not have foreign policy, only domestic politics.
Paraphrasing Kissinger’s observation, one can say that two top Israeli security and military officials, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and former Chief of Staff Major- General Gabi Ashkenazi, have been motivated by personal ambitions rather than genuine concerns for national security, or so it appears from what has been dubbed the “Harpaz Affair.”
For more than two years now, the convoluted affair has dominated the concerns of the security establishment, poisoning the atmosphere among the top brass, and occupying the Israel Police, the State Comptroller, the Attorney General, the media and the public at large.
The twists, manipulations, spins and roller-coaster rides of the parties involved are difficult to explain and even harder to understand.
In a nutshell, it can be summed up as an affair rooted in the bad blood between Barak and Ashkenazi when the two were in office together. Instead of working in harmony and collaborating with each other for the good of the nation, the two developed a mutual hatred and distrust, which damaged national security.
Well-informed officials say that the Barak- Ashkenazi animosity sprung from the cabinet deliberations in the spring-summer of 2007, before the decision to attack and destroy a Syrian nuclear reactor in September of the same year. It was reported by foreign media (including in the book, “Spies Against Armageddon,” which I co-authored) that Barak was staunchly opposed to the bombing of the Syrian reactor.
The defense minister kept voicing strong objections to the operation. He did not say that he was opposed to bombing Syria in principle, but suggested that Israel still had time, that there was no need for haste. Barak tried to convince Ashkenazi to support him in his opposition to the proposed air strike; but the Chief of Staff sided with his fellow generals and with Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad intelligence agency and with Yuval Diskin, head of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet). They all supported Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was the main driving force behind the approval of the military operation.
The Israel Air Force bombed the reactor in the Dir a-Zur region in Syria on September 6, 2007, under a veil of total secrecy; and only six months later did the US government announce that the destroyed target had been a nuclear plant built with North Korea’s assistance.
Israel has never officially admitted to carrying out the bombing.
From that moment on, Barak regarded Ashkenazi as a “traitor,” and did everything possible to interfere in his daily running of the Israel Defense Forces. For example, Barak delayed and failed to confirm the appointment of senior officers promoted by Ashkenazi. At the same time, Barak conspired to replace Ashkenazi with his favored candidate, Lieut.-Gen. Yoav Galant, head of Southern Command.
Ashkenazi became very suspicious of Barak, even paranoid, and he began believing the spate of vicious rumors that were circulating.
Thus, two polarized “courts” were created at the “Kirya” in Tel Aviv – the headquarters of the IDF and the Defense Ministry.
And like in royal courts, the two “kings” were surrounded by lackeys, servants, informers and intrigues.
Into this mélange of intrigue, stepped Lieut.-Col. Boaz Harpaz. In his late 40s and a product of the covert world of intelligence, Harpaz served in the early 90s in a noncombatant capacity at the headquarters of Sayeret Matkal, the elite special forces unit.
Later he became a staff officer at a unit known in Hebrew as Mem Mem. The two letters are a Hebrew acronym for Special Operations. Mem Mem was a super-secret unit under the direct command of the head of Military Intelligence. Prior to the Harpaz affair, the unit’s name and missions were censored and never revealed to the public. It can be reported now, however, that Mem Mem deals with planning, coordinating and supplying unique intelligence equipment for special operations in near and distant enemy countries. The unit is also in close contact with all other intelligence organizations, including the Mossad, Shin Bet, the IAF and special forces units.
Harpaz proved himself to be indispensable.
He was a hard-working, tireless planner and logistics troubleshooter. By the nature of its work, the unit’s officers, usually mid-level ranks, have unprecedented access to senior officers at the General Staff and they can even rub shoulders with defense ministers and prime ministers when they come to brief them before each operation is approved. Through these channels, Harpaz met and was befriended by Ashkenazi. In 2004, Harpaz was forced to leave the IDF after he was found guilty of violating field security. Ashkenazi tried to reverse the decision but failed.
Harpaz was deprived of his top security clearance, left the IDF and, like many former security officials and officers, turned into a “security consultant”– a spruced-up word for arms dealer. Using his old contacts, he pressured his way to getting permission to export security hardware and software to Italy and other destinations.
Despite his dubious past, he continued to be welcome at Mem Mem, rubbing shoulders with his former buddies and walking freely through the corridors of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff. The oldboys network proved to be useful. When Ashkenazi visited Italy, Harpaz followed him to Rome and asked to be introduced to the Italian Chief of Staff.
Soon Harpaz became known in military and defense circles as “Ashkenazi’s friend,” and also the friend of Ronit, a real estate agent, who happened to be the ambitious wife of the Chief of Staff. At the height of the affair, Harpaz and Ronit Ashkenazi exchanged more than 1,000 text messages. In cruder language, Harpaz was termed “the fixer” and the “door opener” to Ashkenazi’s bureau. Intelligence officers who were looking for promotion turned to Harpaz.
The ties between the major general, his wife and the colonel deepened. Sensing that the rift with Barak was taking its toll on Ashkenazi, Harpaz offered his services to spy on Barak – and Ashkenazi agreed, feeling that he had been betrayed by the defense minister. The go-between was Colonel Erez Weiner, Ashkenazi’s chief of staff.
Harpaz began to feed Weiner and Ashkenazi with information – partly gossip, partly educated speculation, partly half-truths, which he had assembled from his unauthorized sorties in the corridors of power.
Ashkenazi began to believe that Harpaz had genuine sources within Barak’s inner circle – but he didn’t.
Harpaz eventu ally compiled a short document, which he fabricated to look like a plan put together by Eyal Arad, a leading PR consultant known to be close to Barak, to target Ashkenazi. Harpaz even downloaded Arad’s company’s logo from its website and attached it to the document. The document purported to present the argument that Yoav Galant must soon replace Ashkenazi.
The “document” made its way from Weiner’s office to a number of Ashkenazi’s old friends, including current Mossad chief Tamir Pardo. They in turn, presented the document as a “leak” to the Channel 2 television station. The TV reporters swallowed the bait and introduced the document as a sinister plan by Barak’s inner circle court to smear Ashkenazi.
Harpaz’s plot seemed to be working. But very soon the course of events was reversed.
Arad complained to the police about the forged document¸ and a subsequent investigation revealed that Harpaz was the forger. Initially, he admitted to fabricating the document; but he later changed his story and denied he was the perpetrator.
The police have recommended indicting him, but the case is still in the hands of the Attorney General who has not yet decided how to proceed.
Parallel to the police investigation, the State Comptroller’s Office opened its own inquiry into the affair. While the two investigations were underway, Barak and Ashkenazi attacked each other verbally. Barak alleged that the Chief of Staff had essentially been involved in a military “putsch” against him; Ashkenazi, on the other hand, claimed that he was the victim of an ugly smear campaign initiated by Barak.
The State Comptroller’s report was published in early January and portrays an ugly picture of what had motivated and occupied the time of the top two officials of the security establishment. “It is shocking,” said MK Uri Ariel, the chairman of the Knesset State Control Committee, which dealt with the report, “for Israeli parents who send their boys to the military with the hope that they are entrusted in good hands to find out the truth about our leaders.”
Following the Comptroller’s report, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz moved swiftly to dismiss Colonel Erez Weiner from the IDF.
Weiner, who was Ashkenazi’s aide, was harshly criticized in the report. Gantz promised to cleanse the army of the “rotten” smell of the Harpaz affair.