Sunday 29 August 2010

Playing Military Politics

It was hoped that the announcement of the appointment of Major General Yoav Galant as the 20th chief of general staff of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) would bring an end to the "Galantgate" scandal. This episode involved the release of a PR document into the public domain which, it turns out, is a forgery. Unfortunately, the announcement has not had the desired effect, and the issue has continued to gain headlines in the media. Despite its negative aspects, however, I am of the view that the scandalous behaviour also has a positive side to it.

The competition to become the next chief of staff of the IDF has been fierce. The current incumbent, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, will have served in the position for four years out of a possible maximum of five years by the time he is replaced in February 2011. The process of nominating his replacement has been highly politicised and controversial.

In the first place, it was regarded as unusual that defence minister Ehud Barak decided not to appoint Ashkenazi for a fifth year, as permitted under Israeli law. The chief of staff (or ramatkal as he is known in Hebrew) is appointed for an initial period of three years. At the end of that period, he can be appointed for further periods of one year each up to a maximum of five years. Ashkenazi was not viewed to have made any major mistakes during his first period of time in the position. On the contrary, he was the one who oversaw substantial changes to the IDF following the lessons learned from the Second Lebanon War, and showed that he had successfully implemented them during the IDF's activities Operation Cast Lead. As such, there seemed to be no operational reason why Ashkenazi should not have the support of the politicians to see out a full five year term. Politics, it seems, intervened to cause the minister of defence to decide that four years would be enough for him. The only plausible reason offered by the press for this decision was the fact that the two men do not enjoy the best personal relationship.

Minister of defence Barak then announced his short list of candidates to succeed Ashkenazi. They were Yoav Galant (OC Southern Command), Gadi Shamni (military attaché in Washington), Benny Gantz (deputy chief of general staff) and Gadi Eizenkot (OC northern command). During the process of interviewing the candidates, a mystery document suddenly appeared in the public domain. The document was on headed paper of the Eyal Arad agency, a well-known local public relations agency with strong political connections and a track record of working effectively in the political arena. The document is reputed to outline a PR campaign to promote Yoav Galant in his efforts to become the next chief of general staff. It is generally regarded as inappropriate for the generals to go to such lengths to promote their candidacy for chief of general staff. It is regarded as unacceptable for generals to involve themselves with politicians to try to influence the view that the politicians hold, and their decisions, which affect the IDF. The discovery of his document gave birth to "Galantgate".

After further investigation, the police concluded that neither Galant nor Arad were involved in the preparation and circulation of the document. They have now arrested retired Lt. Col. Boaz Harpaz who is reported to have admitted to his role in fraudulently producing and distributing the document. He is currently being held by police. The act of forging a document and distributing it in this way is to be abhorred, and the culprits should be subject to all punishments available under the law. It is still unclear whether Harpaz's intention was to harm Galant or to promote him. In the event, the only impact that it seems to have had on his appointment to the top IDF position, is to encourage the minister of defence to advance the timing of his announcement in an attempt to defuse the situation.

On the face of it, the whole episode seems quite sordid. The series of events, from the decision by Ehud Barak to decide to replace Ashkenazi only for personal reasons, to the Galant document leave little to feel proud about. After all, the appointment of the right chief of staff for the IDF could have an impact on Israel's continued existence in the community of nations. Israel's very future depends upon making the correct appointment to this important position. This fact, however, also allows us to view the events in a slightly different light.

In many countries around the world, heading up the armed forces is a purely ceremonial position. It is a position that enjoys high levels of public recognition and standing, without carrying significant responsibility. In many countries, whether the army is an effective fighting unit or not makes little difference to the country and its future. This situation is clearly not the case in Israel. The position of ramatkal is one of the most critical in Israel. The level of responsibility that goes with this position could scare off even the bravest of soldiers. The wrong appointment to ramatkal, or the wrong decision by the ramatkal could be the difference between Israel succeeding in fighting off her enemies or not. It could be the difference between having a Jewish nation, and not having one.

Under the circumstances, it is heartening to see how much competition there is from those wishing to take on this high-risk position. Despite the possibility that one small error could risk lives of soldiers and citizens, and the future of the country as a whole, there are many people out there able and willing to take on this responsibility. Unfortunately, this is also accompanied by a willingness to go to unethical, and even criminal, lengths to secure the appointment. There is no doubt that the public standing and privileges associated with the job are highly attractive. Nonetheless, the weight of responsibility surely outweighs any benefits that the ramatkal enjoys.

This willingness to take on a tough challenge with high risk and responsibility is shown to be present throughout the ranks of the IDF. We even see it with the new recruits, many of whom are now being enlisted, and their willingness to volunteer themselves for the elite (and most dangerous) units in the IDF. It is surprising as much as it is heartening to see how many of our young men and women are eager to make a real "difference" in the IDF by serving on the front line in the combat units, without thinking about the danger that it brings to themselves. Their enthusiasm is such that we see groups of youths undertaking physical fitness training throughout the hot summer months, to ensure that they are physically ready for the day when they enlist and are called upon to serve their country. Although it is obvious that these young people have a clear understanding of the risks confronting Israel and of the importance of the IDF in combating these threats, it still never ceases to impress me when I see the seriousness and the enthusiasm with which they enlist. The same can be said of most of the new recruits, whether they are slated for front line or back-of-the-house jobs. The army would never survive with only combat soldiers, and all soldiers play an important role in the effective defence of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

In a strange way, the fierce competition and some of the dirty tricks employed to promote one candidate over the others for ramatkal is vitally important. It sends a clear message to thousands of soldiers, permanent force and conscripts alike, that serving in the IDF is something to be proud of and to fight for. The competition for positions that we see at the top is multiplied many times down the ranks, and even to those who are yet to enlist.

I fear the day when the position of ramatkal does not attract competition. Although it would be better to see a clean (and legal) fight amongst the candidates, the fact that so many people are so eager to fill the position surely bodes well for Israel. This fact is sent as a message to all others in the IDF about the pride associated with serving in this organisation. While I do not wish to condone dirty tricks in any way, I sure feel proud of the fight that Israelis are prepared to put up in order to have the right to serve the Jewish nation. While the police continue to hold Boaz Harpaz in custody and decide how he will be brought to justice for his role in the affair, he has succeeded in showing that the fight to be the best, and to serve the State of Israel, remains throughout the ranks of the IDF.

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