The IDF and defense establishment are facing major challenges at this time: The ongoing tension vis-à-vis Syria in the wake of the missile transfer to Hezbollah; fears that the latter will realize its threats to avenge Imad Mugniyah’s assassination; the Iranian nuclear threat; the resumption of talks with the Palestinians, and so on.
There is no doubt that under normal conditions, the establishment and its top brass would be able to address developments on the ground and decision-making processes from now until the end of the year; however, these are not normal conditions.
The major confrontation between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi jeopardizes their ability to effectively deal with the various missions faced by the army. What started as a “conflict between bureaus” recently escalated to the point of growing personal hostility.
This doesn’t only take away time, attention, and energy from the two people who have the most influence on our national security – it also negatively affects (for the time being, only the margins) the atmosphere and matter-of-factness of the decision-making process of Israel’s top defense brass.
While the IDF has known major disputes at the top in the past, such open and ongoing confrontation between a serving defense minister and a serving army chief may be unprecedented.
Barak insists on choosing his candidate for next army chief in two or three months. Once the candidate is chosen, he and Barak will decide on a major round of IDF appointments. This plan provokes great anger among Major-General Ashkenazi’s close associates. The army chief will complete his term only in February 2011, so choosing his successor and making major appointments seven months before that will turn Ashkenazi into a “lame duck,” undermining his ability to manage the army effectively.
Where is Netanyahu?Ashkenazi made it clear to Barak that he prefers that the next chief of staff and major round of appointments not take place before November. However, it appears Barak is unimpressed. Meanwhile, some senior IDF officers, as well as individuals familiar with the defense minister, claim that Barak wants to choose a replacement to Ashkenazi soon in order to make it clear to him – and to the public – who the master of the house is.
The huge popularity enjoyed by Ashkenazi both inside and beyond the army drives Barak crazy, military and defense officials say, as the defense minister does not receive the proper credit for his achievements and for being the “responsible adult” in the current government. The fact that senior US official have met with Ashkenazi en masse in an effort to curb an Iran strike also undermines the relationship between the two figures.
This assessment may have a grain of truth to it. The jealousy in the face of the public appreciation enjoyed by Ashkenazi created a need (and possibly and uncurious one) for Barak to make it clear to the army chief time and again who the boss is.
Officials closely familiar with the realities in the 14th floor of Defense Ministry headquarters say that another reason for the friction is the bitter power struggles between aides, or more specifically, between Barak’s powerful Bureau Chief, Yoni Koren, and IDF Spokesman Avi Benayahu.
There isn’t enough room here to present all the arguments and counter-arguments. Meanwhile, senior IDF officers are stuck in the middle, with some of them feeling that the hostility traps them in an undesirable conflict between their wish to advance (which is under Barak’s control) and their loyalty to the army chief.
For the time being, no substantial damage had been caused to Israel’s national security as result of this mud-wrestling campaign. Officers and civilians closely familiar with the issue say that despite the poor relationship, Barak and Ashkenazi manage to jointly take level-headed decisions on major issues. We can also assume that the situation can be rectified, with a little goodwill on the part of both figures. Indeed, signs abound that they are aware of the damage and are seeking a way to end the conflict.
In a normal government, the prime minister would have interfered a while ago in order to help them to get there. However, Netanyahu’s dependence on Barak and his fear that he will lose a vital ally keep him in the safe position of a side observer. Indeed, what a pity.