By Jahangir Arasli, Non-Resident Scholar, INEGMA
Last August the politico-military establishment of Israel was briefly rocked by a scandal catalyzed by the so-called “Galant’s document.” The document leaked to the media and portrayed as a PR strategy devised by the private consulting company for Major General (MG) Yoav Galant, then a Chief of the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) Southern Command, who was competing for the position of the IDF Chief of General Staff (CGS). Since the alleged document referred to the compromising of other candidates, a criminal investigation has been launched. The police found the “document” fake, cleared MG Galant of any misconduct and identified a person who fabricated the narrative “on his own.” When the dust was off, MG Galant was rapidly nominated by Ehud Barak, the Minister of Defence (MOD), as the next CGS and approved by the Knesset to replace Lieutenant General (LTG) Gabi Ashkenazi whose tenure will be over in February 2011. What remained unanswered is who initiated the scandal thus leaving room for suggestions and speculations. Whatever the truth is, the episode became another illustration of the edgy civil-military relations (CMR) – a microcosm of a macrocosm of always complex political dynamics in Israel.
Yet, this time the issue may go far beyond the domestic political realm and must be evaluated more broadly. The purpose of this article is to analyze two interrelated factors – the Israeli CMR and an ongoing reshuffle at the top of the national security echelon – which may potentially have strategic implications. As it was suggested in the Jane’s Defence Review (see Yaakov Katz, “Israel in Two Minds over Defence Reshuffle,” JDW, July 14, 2010, p. 38), the change of guard in the top military command indicates Israel is not willing to target the Iranian nuclear program any time soon. Let us look at the issue from the opposite angle: what about Iran and its allies targeting Israel?
Top Brass’ Dynamic: Tensions, Rivalries and the “Newbies”
The upper level of the Israeli chain of command currently is plagued by conflicts of interests, and groups’ and personal rivalries more than ever, reflecting a complex dynamic, shifting tactical alliances, and fragile balances in the executive and legislative power of the country. Minister Barak, who, in theory, should represent civilian control over the military elite, is himself a retired general with strong political ambitions and obvious combat credentials which are seen by him as a justification to intervene into professional affairs. The clout exercised by Barak in decision-making is strengthened by his position as the Avoda party leader whose opinion has to be taken to account according to the cabinet’s coalition agreement. His tense relations with the outgoing CGS LTG Ashkenazi became the talk of the town. Barak’s efforts to cancel an expected prolongation of Ashkenazi’s four years’ term in early April 2010 launched a spiral of competition in the military elite for the emerging vacancy. Not surprisingly, the above mentioned August scandal was overplayed by the ubiquitous media in a way that Ashkenazi might be a real mastermind behind it, aimed at torpedoing the nomination of Galant, supported by Barak, as a successor at the CGS position. Some sources, particularly, portray Ashkenazi as jealous to Galant’s fame who successfully led the operation Cast Lead in Gaza in winter 2008/2009, ignoring orders by the CGS. The minister was able to intercept an agenda and succeeded in approval of Galant as the CGS even earlier than scheduled. However, the personal patterns of Barak’s leadership continue to cast a shadow on the IDF. There is a strong suggestion that Barak ignored a warning issued by Ashkenazi prior to the notorious Free Gaza Flotilla incident, when the CGS urged to take preventive diplomatic measures to avoid political consequences. Another indicator of tense relations and lack of coordination was the simultaneous departure of the MOD and the CGS from the country to conduct pre-scheduled foreign visits in November 2010, while the national security procedures prohibit such situations. More recently, in mid-December 2010, Barak denied access of the U.S. special envoy to both the outgoing and incoming CGS’ which was requested to get acquitted with the Israeli defense establishment’s vision on the regional developments.
Overall, LTG Ashkenazi enjoys high respect in the officers’ corps and the society in general for his role in the repairing of the IDF image damaged by the last Lebanon war. His credible contacts with Admiral Mike Mullen, the U.S. Chief of Joint Staff, were important for Israel to upkeep a functioning strategic communication channel in time when bilateral relations were affected by the Obama – Netanyahu disagreement over the Middle East peace process. While Ashkenazi remains silent about his plans upon the retirement, he undeniably will have a promising political future, including the position of the MOD, if he opts for. His successor MG Galant is broadly viewed by the insiders as a professional leader who earned a respect in the IDF ranks. More than that, he is not tied too close to any of the existing political groupings and as such represents a good choice for a role of unbiased interlocutor between the military establishment and civilian leaders. His portfolio includes the Cast Lead success, and he is clean of the failures of Lebanon-2006 and the COIN in the Territories. On the flip side, MG Galant lacks sufficient experience in the CGS job. His service background (Naval/SOF) may cause a potential inclination in operational and budgeting matters, but that still waits to be proved.
Problems associated with the current CGS replacement circle are not limited to politics only. The IDF have lost three “heavyweights” – Major Generals Benny Ganz, Gadi Eizenkot, and Moshe Kaplinski – who opted for retirement after losing the competition for the CGS posting to Galant and subsequently rejecting a position as the Deputy CGS. So far they also turned down any positions outside the IDF (MG Ganz was reportedly offered the police chief general inspectorate). As a result the Deputy CGS position is taken by MG Yair Naveh recalled from reserve, and not by an active service general. The new guard to be in charge includes, as of mid-December 2010, MG Tal Russo (whocomes from SOF) who will lead the Southern Command, MG Aviv Kochavi (from the airborne infantry) to take responsibility over the Military Intelligence Directorate, and MG Yaakov Ayash (a tanker) to be a Chief of Operations. T heir experiences include participation in the operations Peace to Galilee (Lebanon, 1982), Defensive Shield (the Territories, 2002), Cast Lead (Gaza, 2008/2009) and managing the security zone in Southern Lebanon (1985-2000), but, notably, all of the mentioned have “clean skin” since they were not involved into fighting during the abortive Second Lebanon war.
Overall, the IDF have launched the process of replacement of key commanders, including the CGS, his two deputies, chiefs of the major GS directorates, including Operations and Military Intelligence, and chiefs of all three combatant commands. It reflects a broader trend of a generational change in the nation’s military elite. Being an unavoidable process in any army, this case is distinct by four features. First, the change occurs in a relatively short time span. Second, the replacement goes on concurrently. Third, the combat experience of the new generation differs from of an “old guard.” Those of the backfill started their military career after the October war, 1973 – the last major conventional war fought by Israel, not to consider a brief and limited engagement with the Syrian army in Lebanon, in 1982. Their practical skills are of other sort and related predominantly to irregular warfare and urban COIN campaigns. While corresponding well with the contemporary strategic picture, this factor still may play a negative role in a potential major state-on-state, force-on-force confrontation. Lastly, the ongoing change is aggravated by the political tensions and personality clashes, adding complexity to CMR.
Intelligence Domain: Change and Uncertainty
A further complicating factor is a parallel reshuffle going on in all three agencies instrumental to Israeli national security – the foreign (Mossad), the military (Aman) and the domestic (Shabak) intelligence services. Mossad’s chief Meir Dagan left in December 2010 after eight years of tenure. In this interval the service stopped its evolution towards transforming into an MFA-type analytical department and restored previous credibility by regaining back direct actions in addition to the collection and analysis capabilities and managing such a broad range of issues from the Iranian nuclear program to the alleged targeted assassinations of non-state foes. Tamir Pardo, chosen as his successor, appears as a good choice. A civilian “intelligencer” by trade rather than a military officer, he, nonetheless has some connections to the defense sector as well, by serving a draft in the 1970s in the Sayeret Matkal deep RECCE unit under command of Barak, and later, in 2006–2007, being temporarily attached to the IDF GS as a SOF advisor. Pardo’s past experience is thought to be useful in facilitating better interagency relations and cooperation between the intelligence and the MOD/GS, instead of rivalry and competition. Still, there are rocks and shoals, since Barak supported the alternative candidates– MG Elizer Shkedi, a former Air Force commander and responsible for the “Iranian front,” and Yuval Diskin, an outgoing head of Shabak. The latter is posed to leave in May 2011, after six years in the post, that may further undermine already strained security cooperation with the Palestinian authorities. Finally, chief of the military intelligence LTG Amos Yadlin ends his term as well. This is a relevant factor, given the function of that agency as a leading national intelligence estimator. Yadlin is believed to play a crucial role in altering the U.S. attitude towards the Iranian nuclear program and insisted on a proactive countering approach, given his personal participation in the airstrike against the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 as a jet fighter pilot. Thus, the Israel intelligence and law enforcement agencies are experiencing institutional tremors due to the leadership change, erosion of the veterans’ core, and fear of a potential taking over by outsiders.
Other Complexities: Lawfare, Media Scandals and Social Tensions
The above mentioned internal dynamics in the defense establishment and the national security domain overlaps with the aggravated broader CMR trends. In the recent years IDF is growingly subjected to “lawfare” by various domestic and international actors using a wide range of tools from the provisions of international humanitarian law to the Internet and Youtube campaigns. The examples are the recent trial of servicemen accused of the misconduct towards civilians during the Gaza operation, publication of the names of the alleged “war criminals” on the web, and the prosecution of a few military commanders under universal jurisdiction for human rights violation which seriously complicates their travels abroad. The May 2010 intercept of the Turkish flotilla off Gaza led to an internal investigation and a broad media criticism, while mismanagement of the forest fires in November revealed poor preparedness of the IDF rear services for tackling contingences. Furthermore, the personal abuse of top figures in the national security domain, overhyped by the media is also adding gasoline to the fire. Two such stories kicked-off last October – November, after the revealing of the illegal hiring of a Philippine maid by Barak’s spouse, and a sudden court appeal by Brigadier General Imad Fares, the most high-ranking Druze officer in the IDF, for a restoration of service after he was fired by Ashkenazi for the car accident involving his wife.
On the social side, the IDF experiences a shortage of draftees due to decrease of prestige and motivation among the young generation, ideological rejection, poor health, criminal records, and living abroad. The rejection of service grew from 12.1 percent in 1980 to 26 percent in 2007 and is forecasted to be as high as 43 percent in 2020. As for May 2010, the force was deficient of 10,000 soldiers. Another trend is the growth in numbers of the religious servicemen and servicewomen. For instance, an influx of religious officer candidates to the Infantry School rose from 2.5 percent in 1990 to 31.4 percent in 2007, as was revealed last September by Haaretz. The number of religious in the officer corps currently is between seven and nine percent, but steadily growing, providing a glimpse how the future military elite will look like. Yet another indicator is the creation of the first battalion consisting purely of ultraorthodox draftees. The split loyalty between “command and God” potentially leads to politicization of the force, insubordination, and undermines the culture of military obedience, as was clearly illustrated by an overt clash during the Gaza disengagement in 2005. Another issue, indicating a projection of a deep societal division at the IDF, is the recent parliamentary debates over the simplified procedures of the conversion to Judaism for the repatriates from the former Soviet Union, serving in the military (more than 4,500 soldiers used this opportunity so far to strengthen a citizenship bid).
Overall, the IDF and the entire national security establishment are suffering from several overlapping trends – the tense relations at the top level, politicized rivalries, command rotation, societal divisions, and loss of credibility due to recent operational mishaps and misconduct scandals. This activity affects the strategic and operational planning, as well as readiness, effectiveness and capabilities of the force.
Strategic Implications: A Second Round Looming in Lebanon?
Now, it is a time to integrate the issue into a broader context and connect dots. No doubt, the transition process and other IDF dynamics are closely watched by Israel’s adversaries. Israel is facing HISH (Hizbullah – Iran – Syria – Hamas) – a unique strategic alliance involving two states and two violent non-state actors. This alliance is currently losing its homogeneity, with Syria and Hamas taking more separate stand due to changing interests’ agenda. Damascus is apparently not interested in a major confrontation and modifies its strategy after the U.S. presence in Iraq was replaced by the growing Iranian influence, while the prospects of the Syrian return to Lebanon are looking good. The Hamas, contained in the Gaza locker, is living on international aid, consumed by an internal rift and focused at the West Bank takeover agenda. Any action from the Strip will face a massive retaliation with a high probability of Israel going until the end to dismantle the organization’s capabilities. Mashaal is unlikely keen to put the movement under the hammer of the overwhelming force, though diversionary efforts are very possible, as was indicated by the December 2009 rise of tensions at the border, involving the first ever use of Russian anti-tank missiles by the Hamas. Gaza is remaining a wild card and may still reemerge as a proactive part of the HISH.
However, the two other alliance’s members are in a different position. Iran and Hizbullah find themselves under an increasing pressure. Iran views the covert actions against its nuclear program (like the Stuxnet worm attack and scientists’ assassinations) and insurgencies in Baluchistan and Kurdistan as a joint U.S.-Israeli undertaking. The growing impact of the international sanctions gripe, fear of a “soft warfare” and the a tacit hostile position of the Arab states “wikileaked” recently, all are raising anxiety in Tehran, widening a rift between the clerical wing of the regime and the Revolutionary Guards, and aggravating Iranian threat perceptions and increasing paranoia over expectation of a strategic surprise. Hizbullah’s agenda is entirely centered upon the expected findings of the Hariri tribunal. The thickening shadow of the legal prosecution and consolidation of the alternative political forces in Lebanon makes the movement’s leadership, especially in the security apparatus, feel growingly cornered. On the other hand, it is said, the generals always prepare to the past wars, especially those of successful, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ generals are not an exclusion. Lebanon–2006 is viewed as a success story both by the radical Guards and the Hizbullah military commanders who are linked in a way not too much transparent even to their political leaders. Thus, in the conditions of the perceived Zeitnot with the patience wearing thin, the incentives to preempt the anticipated events by throwing the region into a mess to win time are increasing.
Adding other pieces help to aggregate the grand picture. The Middle East peace negotiations process is in an impasse due to the resume of the Israeli settlements’ construction on the West Bank, and regional tensions are rising. The approaching start of the U.S. Presidential elections campaign in fall 2011, the prospects of an accelerated recognition of the Palestinian state that may lead to its unilateral proclamation, Turkish posturing, the anticipated power transitions in Cairo, Riyadh and Ramallah, an Israeli–Lebanese row over the offshore gas fields, and others variables, separately or together, are contributing to the accelerating risk factors. Beyond that, the winter-spring season offers certain advantages to the technologically inferior non-state adversaries, when clouds, winds, and rains would help mitigating Israel’s airpower, targeting, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. With a combination of all of the mentioned and omitted factors and conditions, a likelihood of radical actors pulling the trigger at the Lebanese–Israeli border or around, to ignite Israel’s overreaction and set up the 2006 redux, objectively rises. And the internal dynamics in the Israel’s military, including changes in the command echelon that are undoubtedly erode Israeli deterrence, may play as a decisive consideration for an overt action.
Impact of civil-military relations is normally contained at the national level. However, the extent of the current CMR developments in Israel goes beyond, creating a perceptional window of vulnerability that, coming in resonance with other factors, may embolden the adverse regional actors and provide a decisive consideration to test water. That is not to insist the war is inevitable, there are still many caveats for it. That is to say, when the impact of HISH dynamics, regional political developments, seasonal factors and some “unknown unknowns” concur with peak effects of the IDF cadres’ rotation, it will potentiality increase significantly, culminating by summer 2011. However, the stage is getting prearranged and a spiral may start to unfold as early as this spring. Beware of the March ides?