From early December 2006, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert worked on a letter of dismissal for defense minister Amir Peretz, head of Labor, the second largest party in his coalition government. Olmert’s aides advised him strongly to take advantage of the popular disaffection with the defense minister, whom 77% of the Israeli public rated unfit for the job, and find a more suitable replacement.
Olmert accordingly launched negotiations with Peretz’s rival for the Labor leadership, former prime minister Ehud Barak, and the opposition leader, former Likud PM Binyamin Netanyahu, as candidates for defense minister.
He banked on the seven Labor ministers not peeling away from his cabinet if he fired their leader, Peretz – even if Labor split over the issue. But he hedged this bet by dealing with the Likud leader, whom he hoped to deploy as an alternative coalition partner should Labor nonetheless quit the government.
But the letter was never posted – and now it is too late. Olmert missed his chance of redirecting popular disaffection over the July-Aug 2006 Lebanon conflict away from himself and against Peretz. Lt. General Dan Halutz‘s unexpected resignation this week left Olmert high and dry with an unwanted defense minister, an approval rating down to 13%, a divided Kadima party and a corruption probe hanging over his head.
Halutz asked to be relieved of his job as soon as possible. He was the first chief of the IDF to take responsibility for a failed war in all of Israel’s 59 years. (In 1974, Lt. Gen David Elazar was asked to resign over the Yom Kippur War. He died two weeks later of heart failure.)
The galloping crisis in which the Lebanon War landed Israel has been reflected in one opinion poll after another. Thursday, Jan 18, nearly 60% of the public voted for a new general election and a clean sweep. The opposition Likud tops all the charts while Olmert’s ruling Kadima drags near the bottom.
Top generals swing between the offices of the prime minister and defense minister
Even if a magic wand waved all those troubles away, the Israeli prime minister is stuck with a fresh woe. As defense minister, Peretz is charged by law with nominating the chief of staff and bringing his recommendation to the full cabinet for approval. The prime minister has no more say in the appointment than any other member of his cabinet. Emboldened by this new lease of life, the defense minister and his following have turned the tables and are using this prerogative to pick Israel’s top soldier as a tool to prod Olmert and, if possible, oust him as prime minister. After losing the chief of staff, the prime minister does not dare to fire him now for, fear of being accused of a mortal assault on national security.
Halutz’s resignation – plus the police inquiry against the prime minister – has sent Israel’s political system and military into an acute crisis.
1. Diverted from their normal duties, cabinet ministers are pitching into the Olmert-Peretz life-and-death struggle.
2. The high command is caught up in the political contest. Top generals are swinging between interviews in the offices of the defense minister and the prime minister. Both camps are dredging up unlikely nominees from the past, including former chiefs of staff and generals who took leave of their military service long ago.
3. IDF leaders are worried and angry. Never before have Israel’s armed forces been tossed between feuding politicians with such reckless abandon. One general said only half-jokingly that the IDF could end up with two chiefs of staff, a loyalist each for Olmert and Peretz. A temporary appointee has been proposed in desperation to stand in until the feud is resolved, although Gen. Halutz is ready to hold the fort. The top brass fear these makeshift maneuvers will seriously hamstring the IDF’s program of rehabilitation from the knocks of the Lebanon war and the revisions needed to take on one or more of the Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah-Hamas bloc waiting round the corner.
4. Both camps are also braced for a further assault on the principals’ positions. They are waiting now for the Vinograd inquiry commission to submit its final report assigning responsibility for the Lebanon War’s mismanagement and Israel’s failure to defeat the Hizballah and recover the two Israeli soldiers the Lebanese Shiite group kidnapped from the Israeli side of the border. In the coming weeks, the panel promises to distribute letters of caution to policy-makers and generals, indicating that they are in the line of fire.
The prime minister and defense minister will not escape the finger of blame; neither will at least one of the generals named as candidates for chief of staff.
Three well-qualified generals for the top job
The Vinograd report therefore has the potential for knocking down the heads of government and a part of the high command. Halutz pre-empted the blow by resigning beforehand.
The three most seriously-considered candidates for the position of Israel’s top soldier are:
Maj.-Gen. (res.) Gabby Ashkenazi, 53
After losing the race for chief of staff to Halutz, he quit the army in 2005 and was appointed director general of the defense ministry six months ago.
Ashkenazi served as deputy chief of staff from 2002 to 2005, before which he was OC Northern Command for four years. He retired after a thirty-year career as an outstanding officer who specialized in conducting large-scale ground and armored battles.
Ashkenazi is the preferred candidate of Amir Peretz, which is a black mark against him for the prime minister. Olmert might be persuaded to endorse his nomination, if Peretz were gone and Ehud Barak took over in defense.
Maj.-Gen Moshe Kaplinsky, 50
Dep. Chief of Staff, he served as prime minister Ariel Sharon’s military secretary from 2001 to 2002, after which he was appointed OC Central command until 2005. Kaplinsky is identified with the Sharon government’s failure to prepare the army and northern Israel for fighting Hizballah and the grave lapses that came to light in the course of the conflict. He is in line after Halutz for a letter of caution from the Vinograd commission.
Maj.-Gen Benny Gantz, 48
Commander of the IDF’s Ground Forces Headquarters, he alone of the three candidates has no political connections. Because his task was to prepare the army in advance of the war and he held no war command, his name has not been associated with its mismanagement. Gantz succeeded Ashkenazi as OC Northern Command from 2002 to 2005 and is well acquainted with the Lebanese and Syrian fronts. He has all the right qualifications for the post of chief of staff, except that the political contest at the top of government makes him a dark horse rather than a front runner for the job.