Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a fortnight to start answering President Barack Obama's demand for acceptance of his borders plan and the insulting reception he received at the White House on March 23. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Jerusalem sources, the weapon Netanyahu chose for his repartee was not the Palestinian track but Iran
Defense minister Ehud Barak's notice to Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi on April 6 of his and the prime minister's decision not to extend his four-year tenure for a fifth year when it was up next February was not unusual for its content – most of Israel's top soldiers serve three years, occasionally four – never five. But the normal practice is to open the subject of the chief of staff's successor just three or four months before the incumbent retires. The announcement should therefore have come in November or December 2010.
Giving Gen. Ashkenazi eleven months' notice has made him a lame duck as chief of Israel's armed forces. This move also tells Obama that Ashkenazi, who is not enthusiastic about an operation against Iran, has been sidelined so that the operation, most likely while Ashkenazi is still at the helm, will be led by a more hawkish general – or directly by Barak, a former chief of staff himself.
Washington begins to intertwine Iranian, Palestinian issues
Before 24 hours had gone by, the US administration's response was delivered, just as indirectly, in an article by David Ignatius in the Washington Post of April 7, headed: Obama Weighs New Peace Plan for the Middle East.
As DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources laid the draft proposal out in detail for the readers of this issue, Ignatius announced a plan for the Middle East that the president is considering now will be presented in the fall. He quoted a senior administration official as saying anonymously that it is impossible to separate the Middle East from the Iranian nuclear issue: A political battle royal is likely to begin soon, he writes, with Israeli officials and their supporters in the United States protesting what they fear would be an American attempt to impose a settlement and arguing to focus instead on Iran.
He quotes the White House rejoinder as expressed this way by one of the senior officials: "It's not either Iran or the Middle East peace process. You have to do both."
In previous issues, we reported that the Obama administration and American military leaders had gone to a lot of trouble to cultivate Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi on administration instructions. They viewed him as a key military leader for promoting President Obama's borders plan in Israel, while at the same time helping to forestall an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Netanyahu and Barak have the very general up their sleeve for a bout with Iran
On March 26, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 438 reported the following under the caption: Can Obama Hold Israel Back from Striking Iran?:
However, Israeli military circles monitoring the Iranian issue acknowledge that, since visiting the United States, Ashkenazi's rhetoric on Iran in closed forums has toned down noticeably… According to one source, the Israeli general (Ashkenazi) interpreted the US official openness he met on matters they no longer discuss with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak as channels available for dialogue with the right interlocutors.
"That's where he's mistaken," said the source. "He thinks he made real headway in Washington, but when the moment of decision about attacking Iran comes around, he'll find himself receiving the same treatment as any other Israeli in authority."
It was therefore only a question of time before Netanyahu and Barak made the connection between the crisis with the Obama administration on the Palestinian issue and the move to marginalize Ashkenazi in the event of a decision to strike Iran.
Both now agree that Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, 52, veteran commander of the southern front, is the man for the job. Our military sources report that Barak and Galant worked well together in the Operation Cast Lead campaign against Hamas in Dec, 2008-Jan. 2009. Then, too, they often bypassed Gen. Ashkenazi, who preferred to run the operation from general headquarters. Galant is admired for his wide-ranging strategic vision, independence of mind and boldness, the qualities called for in a major military operation.