Every four years or so there is an amazing beauty contest that goes on inside Israel to determine who will be the next IDF chief of staff (Ramat-Kal in Hebrew). It’s a cross between a U.S. presidential race and the naming of a new pope. There’s no white smoke coming out of a chimney at the Kirya (army headquarters). But there might just as well be.
The reason for all the hoopla is that the IDF plays a role within Israeli society all out of proportion to the militaries of most other countries. It is the glue that holds that society together since so many serve and the military plays such a critical role in the lives of those who serve within it.
This year there is another “race” for Ramat-Kal and the two main candidates seem to be Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, of the Southern Command (which includes Gaza) and Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz, . The beauty contest hadn’t stirred up greater than normal interest until someone threw a live rat into the dressing room of the various beauty queen contestants vying for the title. The “rat” in question was a leaked memo purporting to be written by a prominent Israeli PR firm. The memo was a sort of opposition research document written on behalf of Galant and urging him to make public embarrassing information about Gantz that would torpedo his chances of getting the job.
Most Israelis probably know and even accept that there is backroom politicking that goes into the campaign to become chief of staff. That wouldn’t surprise them at all. But the idea that one candidate for the job would turn it into the type of sleazy mudslinging affair that many voters here in the U.S. have become used to in election campaigns is disturbing to Israelis. They prefer to retain the illusion that candidates are vetted and promoted based solely on merit rather than connections. This despite the fact that Israel invented the word (well, perhaps it has Russian origins, but Israel might just as well have invented it) proteksia. Add to all these operatic goings-on the fact that the PR consultant whose firm’s logo is displayed on the memo claims the memo is a fraud and that it was forged. This could turn the creation of the document and its leaking into a crime. And now you’ve got high drama, scandal, and everything that makes for a great summer soap opera.
If the memo was forged (and I’m not prepared to accept that it was), then the person who leaked it had a motive to harm Galant in his campaign to be named chief of staff. Galant himself is screaming bloody murder and writing furious letters to his boss, the current chief of staff complaining of the evil cabal out to destroy him and his reputation. Methinks the general doth protest too much. But one thing you’ve got to say, the level of histrionics does fit right in with our operatic theme.
So who leaked the memo? There are hints and intimations all over the media and online forums. But speculation centers on the current chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Avi Bnayahu, who is known as an especially slippery, scheming fellow (Hebrew), about whom I’ve written here. The question is: was Bnayahu attempting to hurt Galant’s candidacy and if so, why? Israeli journalist Yoav Yitzhak believes that one motive may be to tarnish Defense Minister Barak, who was seen to be leaning toward appointing Galant. If Bnayahu could make it appear that Galant was using improper smear tactics in his campaign, this could cause the latter’s candidacy to implode and by extension harm one of his champions, the Defense Minister, who would be made to look foolish for supporting such a Yahoo.
Further, the current chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have had a falling out and the latter eased the former out of his job. Ashkenazi would like to have some influence over the choice of his successor and the memo seemed designed to remove any leverage he might have by giving Galant a leg up over his competitor. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has now halted the naming of a new chief of staff until the legal issues can be sorted out. In effect, he’s given Galant a time-out.
In case you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, let’s just put all the inside baseball aside and remember that Israel today stands at a crucial crossroads in terms of its relations with Lebanon, Syria and Iran. It came close to a minor shooting war last week when an IDF Lt. Col. was killed by sniper fire and several Lebanese soldiers and a journalist were killed by Israeli return fire. Despite the Syrian president’s repeated offers to negotiate with Israel over peace, Israel maintains a stolid “Nyet” that precludes talks and ratchets up tension between the two sides. And finally, as Jeffrey Goldberg’s new Atlantic screed proves, there are Israelis in the political, military and intelligence echelons who have dreams of glory involving bombing Teheran and toppling the Ayatollahs.
What I want to know is how in hell is the IDF supposed to take on all these critical responsibilities to protect Israeli security when their generals seem more like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight?? Yediot a few days ago revealed yet another riveting internal IDF drama it called the “war of the generals.” It involved the commander of the recent IDF military exercise which simulated a war on Israel’s norther border (hint, hint). Apparently, early on the morning on which the maneuvers were to begin, Brig, Gen. Galant and his staff arrived unannounced at the command center for the exercise. The commander, Yishai Bar, became furious and threatened to cancel the entire exercise unless Galant left (Bar had once been Galant’s assistant and there was bad blood between them). Bar’s commanding officer refused to intervene and the exercise somehow went forward. Can you imagine major affairs of state subject to the petty jealousies and rivalries of the general staff?
I think all of this proves that the IDF is no longer the invincible war machine it once appeared to be lo these many years ago. It has instead been transformed into an army of Occupation commanded by generals who treat their personal stock portfolios as more important than commanding troops in the field; and by generals for whom personal advancement has long ago replaced any devotion to nation or principle. Woe unto a nation that relies on such mediocrity to defend itself from harm. But really, is the army to blame for such fiascos? Or is it the nation whose political leadership refuses to make the tough decisions necessary to guarantee the nation’s security for the coming generations?