Editor's Notes: Man of the year, 2007... we hope

The more Ashkenazi realizes his goal of deterring our enemies, the less we'll be aware of his successes.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
"Unfortunately, despite our yearning for peace as we reach out to our neighbors, the time has not yet come to sheath our sword. It must remain sharpened and honed, prepared to face any enemy... "We will be prepared for the challenges posed to us by the terror organizations and by others who have not yet come to terms with the existence of the State of Israel in the Middle East... We will become stronger in order to deter them. And if need be, we will be prepared to overcome them." From a letter sent to the soldiers and employees of the IDF by Gabi Ashkenazi on February 14, the day he became the 19th IDF chief of the General Staff. On September 6, Israeli jets raided a target in Syria whose precise nature has neither been officially disclosed nor unofficially proven. The remarkable strike, evading Syrian radar and other defenses, prompted a flood of rather confused and embarrassed reactions from Damascus, including an assertion from the Syrian vice president that the target was the harmless "Arab Center for the Studies of Arid Zones and Dry Lands" - a claim which was, amusingly, swiftly denied by said Arab Center. Almost as remarkable as the strike was the relative silence from Jerusalem. Rather than crowing about the intelligence that had established the need for and enabled the raid and highlighting the pinpoint accuracy of the attack, the political echelon, (almost) to a man, kept uncharacteristically mum. Much less surprisingly, the IDF, under its relatively new chief of General Staff, had no comment either. Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who had set the tone for his media interactions months earlier by asking his spokesman's department to cancel the interviews it had lined up for him to mark Independence Day, is more of a doer than a talker. Amid the strict military censorship that still surrounds that September 6 raid, the most that can be said is that it was of critical importance to Israel's well-being; that the Syrians, according to foreign reports, belatedly got found out doing something nuclear in tandem with North Korea that they had thought would remain undiscovered; and that Israel's silence, in turn enabling Damascene denial rather than humiliation, was crucial in preventing the single strike from escalating into a war. Although the raid represented an impressive display of Israeli air and other prowess, it would be an overstatement to assert that, at a stroke, it revived an Israeli deterrent capability so battered by our demonstrable vulnerability to rudimentary rocket attack - from south Lebanon during the 2006 war with Hizbullah, and from Gaza to this day. Nonetheless, it likely gave pause to potential enemies, renewing respect for the IDF's capacity to do the unexpected with exemplary professionalism. Sending his forces into rapier-action deep inside hostile territory, demonstrating the improved readiness to grapple with enemies that he had promised in his introductory letter, Ashkenazi, a member of the Golani infantry force that participated in the 1976 Entebbe hostage rescue, reconnected the IDF to such past glories. This is the essence of Ashkenazi's goal for the IDF. "We will become stronger in order to deter [our enemies]. And if need be, we will be prepared to overcome them." IT IS fervently to be hoped that Ashkenazi, chief of the General Staff for 10 and a half of the past 12 calendar months, is Israel's Man of 2007. If so, we may never know it for certain, for much of his success will lie in the degree to which he is indeed making Israel sufficiently strong as to deter its enemies. It may be that September's surgical strike - and the avoidance of war - marks the first such success. But Ashkenazi is making his quiet impact more widely, too - gradually correcting the damage done to Israel's military image by the Second Lebanon War, rebuilding the IDF's credibility with the US, and bringing his analysis of regional developments, and consequent Israeli imperatives, to a generally receptive political echelon. He is not universally acclaimed as a deep strategic thinker. Nor is there full consensus behind his emphasis on ground forces, with some critics sniping that he is preparing the IDF for the last war rather than the next one. But the elegant theorizing of his predecessor Dan Halutz about the universal capabilities of an air force proved so misguided in the Second Lebanon War. And the IDF was exposed more as a rusted than a well-oiled fighting machine. The no-nonsense, keenly intelligent and workaholic Ashkenazi is proving a sobering antidote - the ultimate IDF insider reviving the IDF from the inside. He inherited a shellshocked military whose failure to decisively prevail against Hizbullah constituted an enemy dream come true and an Israeli nightmare. Our loquacious defense chiefs had assured us early in that conflict that Hizbullah would be largely destroyed within days. And yet more than a month later, the sophisticated might of the Israeli Air Force had failed to thwart the salvos of primitive Katyushas, failed to deter the guerrilla army so unexpectedly resilient in firing them. Ashkenazi's remedy has been a return to basics: An investigation of what had gone wrong and why, and a determination to rectify it. The most obvious and immediate change lies in the attitude to training. Almost from the day he succeeded Halutz, Ashkenazi has reversed norms under which key units could go years without intensive training, a state of affairs that self-evidently left them ill-prepared for the instant resort to war ordered by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on July 12, 2006. Frequently out in the field himself, Ashkenazi, who already had the respect of his peers and subordinates, having risen gradually through the ranks to the IDF's top positions, has cemented the reputation of a hands-on, hands-dirty commander. At the same time, he has credibility among ministers, which helps mightily when defense spending battles are waged. Brought back from the cold to take the post of Defense Ministry director-general by then-minister Amir Peretz, Ashkenazi is now also said to enjoy a good relationship with chief of staff No. 14, Peretz's successor Ehud Barak. Ashkenazi is still watching Lebanon closely - acutely concerned by the rearming of Hizbullah and by the political shifts that could give it veto power over Lebanese government decisions as critical to Israel as the future deployment of the Lebanese Army and the renewal of UNIFIL's mandate. But other fronts are still more demanding. LIKE BARAK, Ashkenazi has taken to warning of late that a major IDF incursion into Gaza looks ever more likely so long as the Kassams rain down on Sderot and its environs. But the chief of the General Staff does not want to invade the Strip. He knows how treacherous it would be for the IDF to fight there, how many lives would be lost, and how rapidly the Kassam crews would reassert themselves the moment the army pulled back. His recipe would be to ratchet up the constraints on Hamas - to keep border crossings closed, to drastically reduce fuel and electricity supplies, to prevent the Palestinian Authority from sending in funds which wind up in Hamas hands. He supports any mustering of pressure on Egypt to change its behavior at the border and work seriously to prevent the massive, ongoing smuggling of arms into the Strip and the departure of Hamas activists for terror training. Hence the security establishment's recent dispatch of video footage to the United States documenting Egypt's complicity - a move, as first reported in The Jerusalem Post last week, designed to alert American leaders to Cairo's failures, and thus to condition at least some of the annual American aid package to Egypt on more serious efforts to close down the smuggling tunnels and properly seal the border. As for the West Bank, Ashkenazi takes seriously the prospect of Hamas replicating its Gaza takeover there. Indeed, like the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), the IDF was not surprised by the ease with which Hamas fighters defeated the US-trained Fatah forces in Gaza, recognizing the greater motivation of the Islamists and the weakness and lack of loyalty and accountability in the Fatah hierarchy post-Arafat. When it comes to internal Palestinian conflict, runs the cold IDF assessment, the Fatah gunmen don't know how to kill or be killed. Ashkenazi's message to the political echelon is that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his relative moderates in the PA survive only because the IDF maintains full freedom of movement in the West Bank and can thus thwart the threat of the Islamists. Pulling back the IDF, ostensibly to help Abbas, would have the opposite effect. Aides to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert determinedly talk up the successes in Nablus of the PA's latest small-scale police deployments, express growing satisfaction about improved cooperation with PA security commanders, and thus speak optimistically about the possibilities, in time, for Israel to start to withdraw from the forward positions it has maintained since the outbreak of the second intifada seven years ago and to relinquish territory to PA control. The assessment in Ashkenazi's IDF, by contrast, is that while Israel has every interest in creating the conditions for improved relations with Abbas's PA, a significant IDF pullback in 2008 is plain unthinkable, that the PA forces are anything but capable of imposing security, and that a premature handover of control would render both the PA and Israel vulnerable to an upsurge in Islamic terrorism. IF ASHKENAZI and Olmert seem a distance apart in weighing PA security capabilities, they may see more eye-to-eye when it comes to Syria. Olmert and his aides have for weeks been highlighting Israel's readiness for renewed talks. And in notable contrast to US President George W. Bush's recent declaration that he ran out of patience with President Bashar Assad "a long time ago," Olmert took pains to praise Assad for sending a representative to last month's Annapolis conference. Ashkenazi well recognizes the immense potential benefits of separating Syria from its alliance with Iran - including the consequent isolation of Teheran, the weakening of Hizbullah, the blow to terror groups and the positive repercussions in Iraq - and believes that Assad may be responsive to economic leverage. While the US has been too ready to maintain its huge financial aid to the Egyptians, it may be overly reluctant, in Ashkenazi's thinking, to contemplate drawing in the Syrians via economic leverage. Assad, after all, is waging a constant struggle for survival, and might not be averse to American economic overtures with tremendous potential domestic benefits. It is worth noting at this point that the idea of Damascus being wooable is far from unanimously accepted. For one thing, it is hard to reconcile the image of a potentially friendly Syria with the fact that the "Arab Center for the Studies of Arid Zones and Dry Lands" constituted so profound and immediate a threat as to have prompted Israel's high-risk bombing raid three-and-a-half months ago. For another, the critics suggest that there's too much wishful thinking and not enough fact to justify the assessment that Syria might forsake its longstanding alliance with the ever-more powerful Iran in favor of a new, untested partnership with an America that is plainly in Middle East retreat. NEEDLESS TO say, as Ashkenazi prepares the IDF to defend Israel in a region characterized by growing instability and further potential deterioration, Iran stands out as the key existential threat. The US National Intelligence Estimate of Iran's nuclear weapons program, with its headline-making assertion that Teheran halted such activities in 2003, is, to put it mildly, not shared in the Israeli military establishment. And it has not impacted Israel's own intelligence estimates. IDF thinking is that Iran is vulnerable to outside pressures and can be stopped short of military action. But if all else fails, Israel would have to act and could act, though no-one should delude themselves that this would involve a repeat of the single-strike bombing of Saddam Hussein's Osirak facility in 1981. Stopping Iran militarily would require not a one-off action, but a sustained campaign. Such an action, given Iran's capacity for retaliation and the colossal regional implications, is almost unthinkable. Ashkenazi's ambition is to so revive both Israel's deterrent capability, and its credibility with its allies regarding the nature of the Iranian threat, as to help create the international circumstances in which military intervention against Iran becomes unnecessary. Of course, if he were able to achieve that, we'd happily laud him as our man of the decade.