Israel’s New Top Soldier May Have to Take on the Politicians First – before the Enemy

The incoming chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, won a full four-year term when the cabinet unanimously endorsed him Sunday, Feb 4, instead of the standard 3 years and an optional fourth. He takes the reins from the hands of Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz on Feb. 14. Ashkenazi faces some hard choices before he can settle into the job. The flames of a Palestinian civil war engulfing the Gaza Strip pose a multiple threat to Israel which his bosses, the politicians, persist in brushing aside.
At the cabinet meeting Sunday, vice prime minister Shimon Peres stressed that Israel must not interfere in the Fatah-Hamas factional fight, tossing out typical sound bites: “Leave Gaza to the Gazans.” “We did not pull out in order to return.” “Our interference would be harmful.”
Defense minister Amir Peretz seconded these sentiments.
Neither admits that Israel is already deeply involved in the Gaza war. The new chief of staff will be called upon to judge the situation in the light of national security. If he emulates his predecessor, who slavishly obeyed Ariel Sharon, he will be dismissed as the second political appointee in a row to fill the post of top Israeli soldier.The consequences of Halutz’s meekness were plain to see in the Lebanon War last summer and the breakdown of life, law and order in the Gaza Strip, where Israel’s unilateral pullback left the territory without a Palestinian authority capable of taking charge.
But if the new chief of staff stands up to the policy-makers and keeps the country clear of fresh security blunders, he will go down as a worthy heir of the fine professional tradition of Israel’s past generals.
Ashkenazi faces his first test in the Gaza Strip.
Israel not only supplies the Fatah side led by Muhammad Dahlan with weapons and money to fight Hamas, but also intelligence and logistical backing, thereby sending two messages:
1. If Dahlan cannot finish Hamas, the IDF will go in and do it for him.
2. Even if Fatah under his generalship carries the day, the IDF will have to return to the Gaza Strip to destroy the thousands of missiles Hamas and Jihad Islami have stockpiled for attacking Israel. It is understood that Dahlan cannot complete this part of the campaign himself because this would compromise his bid to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as chairman of the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian and Arab streets would not forgive him for the sin of destroying Muslim weapons aimed at the Jewish State.
debkafile‘s military sources disclose that IDF preparations to retake sections of the Gaza Strip are in place. In stark contrast to the July-Aug 2006 Lebanon War, which left northern Israel prey to Katyusha attack, the defense ministry and military authorities are planning to evacuate the 100,000 civilians living in Sderot and the towns and villages within missile range of Gaza to get them out of harm’s way of retaliation.
This would be another first; Israel has never before evacuated a large population from a potential war zone.
The plan of campaign for the partial reoccupation of the Gaza Strip was compiled by the outgoing chief of staff, his deputy, Maj.-Gen Moshe Kaplinsky, commander of ground forces Maj.-Gen Benny Ganz and OC southern command, Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant. Halutz had hoped to execute it before he quit so as to replace the black marks of the Lebanon War at the end of his service with a successful expedition. But even he lost patience with the way the heads of government dithered over the decision to go forward.
It is therefore over to Ashkenazi. He will be carefully watched to see how he performs as the general of a war in progress and how he copes with a prime minister and defense minister who are at odds.
The cabinet carried Peretz’s demand to extend the chief of staff’s stint from three to four years, further cementing the defense minister’s success in frustrating the prime minister. Ehud Olmert has been stalled in all his efforts to shift Peretz out of the defense ministry and was forced to bow to Peretz’s choice of a chief of staff whom the minister believes to be shaped in his political mold.

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