Fresh from the long war with Hamas in Gaza, tensely facing down simmering unrest in the West Bank and chaos on the Syrian border, Israel’s defense establishment is now bracing for what’s shaping up to be the most bruising confrontation of all: the choosing of the next chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
The process looks to be a replay of the last race, an ugly slugfest in late 2010 and early 2011 that resulted in the selection of the current chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. That got so nasty that the lead candidates fought each other to a draw amid mudslinging and dirty tricks that ended up in criminal investigations and indictments. Weirdly enough, the lead candidates are back again.
The lead candidates that fall were Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, chief of the Northern Command, who was favored by then-chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and most of his colleagues at General Staff HQ; and the chief of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, favored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak, but fiercely opposed by the army brass. The mudslinging exploded into a scandal that effectively sidelined Eizenkot, though he wasn’t directly involved. Barak went on to nominate Galant, as expected, and the cabinet duly approved him. Days before Galant was to take over in February, however, he was suddenly charged with real estate fraud and disqualified. In the end the job was handed to everyone’s second choice, the inoffensive Gantz.
Everything fell apart so suddenly that an interim chief of staff had to be appointed, the newly installed deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh. That prompted yet another eruption when Israel’s Supreme Court sharply criticized Naveh as unfit to lead the army even temporarily.
This year all the old ghosts are returning, along with some new ones. The lead candidates are, once again, Eizenkot and Galant. Eizenkot is currently deputy chief of staff, and was thought until recently to be the heir apparent. Galant, meanwhile, cleared up his real estate mess last year and recently nominated himself for the post, announcing on television that he’d be available if “called to the flag,” as he grandly put it. He’s reportedly still backed by Netanyahu, though not by the new defense minister, Moshe Yaalon.
If past were prologue, Galant would now reclaim the job dangled by the prime minister but snatched from him at the last minute in 2011. But under Israeli law, nominating the chief of staff is the sole prerogative of the defense minister. And Yaalon shares the generals’ dislike of Galant and respect for Eizenkot.
Well, I said he’d do it and he’s doing it. Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has reportedly (see here and here) offered the job of United Nations ambassador to the information and homefront defense minister, Gilad Erdan, when current ambassador Ron Proshor steps down in December. Erdan’s departure would bring the next candidate on the joint Likud-Beiteinu 2013 electoral slate, Leon Litinetski of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, into the Knesset.
All else being equal, that would boost Yisrael Beiteinu’s Knesset representation to 13 seats and reduce Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud to 18, making Likud the second-largest party in the Knesset after Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (with 19).
Of course, all else is not equal. Netanyahu is said to have given his approval to the Erdan nomination, but “sources in the Likud” are telling reporters (Maariv, Jerusalem Post) that the party won’t accept Erdan’s nomination unless a Yisrael Beiteinu minister quits the Knesset (while remaining a cabinet minister) to make way for the next person on the joint list, Likudnik David Bitan.
Agriculture minister Yair Shamir, a Lieberman ally, was reported in August to be willing to leave the Knesset. At the time I reported that it wasn’t clear how that would help Lieberman, since trading Shamir’s seat for Litinetski’s wouldn’t change the balance between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. Now it becomes clearer.
It’s still not clear whether Lieberman can bring in Litinetski without sacrificing Shamir’s seat to preserve the current party balance, but nobody ever went broke betting on Lieberman. Martin Indyk told an audience in Aspen in July that Lieberman is “the smartest politician in Israel.” And nobody underestimates the bad blood between Lieberman and Bibi.
All things being equal, falling to second place wouldn’t necessarily threaten Netanyahu’s prime ministership. During his last term, from 2009 to 2013, he had one seat fewer than Kadima (27 to 28) but became prime minister when then-Kadima leader Tzipi Livni couldn’t cobble together a Knesset majority to form a coalition.
But again, all things aren’t necessarily equal. Bibi has trouble brewing on other fronts as well.
To understand why Shelly Yachimovich was booted out as head of the Israel Labor Party after just two years on the job, it helps to note that Labor has had a bad habit, ever since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, of changing leaders every time it holds a primary.
But this time was different. Previous primaries were held after a general election, and leaders were dumped because they’d lost. Yachimovich, by contrast, did fairly well in the 2013 Knesset elections. She nearly doubled the party’s Knesset share, from eight seats to 15. What she lost was the trust — indeed, the patience — of her colleagues and the party membership. This time it wasn’t about Labor, but about Yachimovich. Virtually every senior figure in the party complained bitterly of her high-handedness, her inability to work in a team, her refusal to share decision-making. The poison finally filtered down to the rank and file.
Labor’s new leader, Isaac “Buzhi” Herzog, steps into an unusual situation. He’s well liked by his colleagues and popular among the members in the party branches. He was effective as a government minister, particularly in his 2007-11 stint heading welfare and social services. As the son of ex-president Chaim Herzog, grandson of longtime chief rabbi (and namesake) Yitzhak Herzog and nephew of Abba Eban, he has a Kennedy-like aura of aristocracy, something like what Likud “princes” Bibi Netanyahu, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert all had. Unlike Likud, Labor has never chosen a “prince” before.
And, in stark contrast to Yachimovich, those who know Buzhi agree that he’s a genuinely nice guy, a rarity in Israeli politics. The question is whether he has it in him to capture the public’s trust as the leader of the troubled, threatened nation.
Shaul Mofaz, the chairman of the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee, wrote an op-ed essay on the Ynet Hebrew website on Wednesday May 25, savagely summing up Netanyahu’s American visit. Strangely, it doesn’t appear on the English site. In fact, it’s not so strange—the English site’s opinion section carries mostly right-wing material (Obama vs. the truth, Obama’s skewed worldview, Beware fake humanitarians, Say no to a Palestinian state etc. etc.) while the Hebrew opinion page is fairly balanced between left and right and varied in theme as well.
The failure to translate Mofaz is particularly telling — the Iranian-born ex-soldier has more credibility on defense matters than just about any other critic of Netanyahu right now, given his background as IDF chief of staff (appointed by Bibi), defense minister and ally of Ariel Sharon and reluctant convert to Kadima (he first mulled running for head of Likud after Sharon bolted). He’s someone the security minded would have to take seriously.
Here’s some of what Mofaz had to say:
Like many Israelis I believe the prime minister gave an excellent speech in Congress, but unlike the prime minister I am not a great believer in the power of speeches. I was raised to believe that actions are stronger than words. The prime minister of Israel is good at giving speeches. Very good. If I were looking for a salesman, he would be the man. But Netanyahu sold air yesterday—promises without political backing in front of the wrong audience…
The state of Israel has come to the moment for action. Since the Six-Day War the state leadership has refused to take the necessary decisions. What began as a tactical consideration has become over the years a moral and existential decision that the jewish state can no longer escape. The quest for defensible borders is in opposition to the Zionist nightmare of a binational state. Electoral considerations, populism, seductive words and twisted language have become a replacement for national policy.
The principles of Obama’s speech aren’t new. The American president erred when he chose not to state clearly that there will not be a right of return, there will not be a return to the 1967 lines and that President Bush’s commitment to recognizing the settlement blocs is still in effect. The prime minister erred when he wasted two precious years. He erred in forming a government of national refusal, in relying on war-mongering extremists, in his inability to make a reality of the statement that it would be good for our Jewish state to give up parts of the land of Israel.
A leader is judged by his ability to lead. In the end, Netanyahu chooses to stand in place, to hand out promises that he can’t fulfill, to preserve the past, to muddy the present and to mortgage the future. This is a surrender to paralyzing fear and is the opposite of leadership.
Today Netanyahu returns to Israel. From here Obama looks less threatening. The echoes of the stormy applause in Congress will fade within hours, but the problems, challenges and threats will remain. Fine words are no replacement for leadership. Punchy sentences aren’t a replacement for deeds. September is only four months away and the reality is not going to change—the threats will become reality, the seeming quiet will turn to violent, bloody confrontation.
Taliban and Al Qaeda members are fleeing northern Afghanistan in disarray, amid a “collapse of morale” following the death of bin Laden, Juan Cole reports on his “Informed Comment blog.
It appears that the Taliban were still linked to, and perhaps taking direction from, al-Qaeda, more than most analysts had suspected. It also appears that Bin Laden had more of an operational, strategizing role than we had thought.
If it is true that radicals are fleeing Qunduz, and indeed other provinces as well, and heading for safe havens in places like North Waziristan in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt, it is likely primarily because they had direct contact with Usama Bin Laden and now fear that information about them is in American hands, since the SEALS captured his hard drives and thumb drives.
Speaking of disarray, there are more and more signs of alarm within Israel’s defense and intelligence establishment regarding the cliff toward which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is resolutely leading the country.
Meir Dagan, the long-serving former Mossad director who was a close ally of Ariel Sharon, told a conference at Hebrew University on Friday that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear project, an option cherished by Netanyahu and his defense minister Ehud Barak, is “the stupidest idea I ever heard.”
Dagan was immediately lambasted by Barak and finance minister Yuval Steinitz, a frequent Netanyahu surrogate. Both said he should have kept his mouth shut. But a string of top security honchos sprang to his defense, including former Mossad directors Danny Yatom and Ephraim Halevy. So did Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee chairman Shaul Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff and Ariel Sharon’s defense minister.
Dagan has been in this movie before. The day after he stepped down as Mossad chief in January, he testified before the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee and said Iran could not acquire a nuclear bomb before 2015 at the earliest. He said that Western sanctions and various accidents plaguing the Iranian project were continually pushing the date further and further into the future. (Here is the latest Iranian public acknowledgment of the serious threat that last year’s Stuxnet virus posed to the computer guidance of their centrifuges. They say it’s mostly under control, but it’s not. Here’s the head of the Iranian miltary’s cyber-defense unit in the Iranian army describing yet another virus they found in their nuke computers just two weeks ago.)
That drove Bibi ballistic, according to numerous press reports (including this piece by Ari Shavit in Haaretz, who agreed with Bibi that Dagan was irresponsible.
Dagan sheepishly backpedaled a week later, allowing as how maybe Iran could have a bomb sooner than 2015. It seemed clear at the time that he had been bludgeoned into recanting. Now it’s obvious.