Sharon Picks Next Chief of Staff: Moshe Yaalon

DEBKA-Net-Weekly discloses the hotly debated name of the next Chief of Staff of Israel’s Defense Forces after Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz retires in May.

He is Mofaz’s deputy, Maj-Gen. Moshe (“Boogie”) Yaalon. No less important is the name of his deputy, Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. Dan Halutz.

In making these choices, prime minister Ariel Sharon overruled defense minister Binyamin ben Eliezer, with the full support of the outgoing chief of staff. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military analysts note that he chose to install as the head of Israel’s armed forces for the next eight years the leading advocate in the General Staff of a tough line in the confrontation with the Palestinians. The defense minister tipped the more moderate former military intelligence chief, Maj.-Gen. Amos Malka, for the job.

Yaalon’s appointment is a pointer to the prime minister’s far from optimistic assessment of the military developments in store for Israel and the Middle East in the foreseeable future.

For the moment, Sharon is keeping the army in a holding pattern, pending the launch date for America’s full-scale offensive against Iraq and the Lebanese Hizbollah.

A former long-serving general himself – who never made it to chief of staff – Sharon has been bitterly criticized at home for keeping the armed forces on a leash throughout the latest round of Palestinian attacks; in the second half of February, Israel’s death toll rose to 23 security personnel and civilians.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s political sources say Sharon is determined to hold back on tough military action until he is sure the Bush administration is indeed gong forward with its offensives in Iraq and Lebanon. However, if for any reason, the United States hangs back, Israel will go ahead alone, launching a twin military campaign against the Palestinians and their Lebanese radical Shiite ally. Its combined objectives will be to topple Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority regime and bring about the military collapse of the Hizballah.

Sharon perceives Iran and Iraq as strategic threats to Israel. He sees the Palestinians and other terrorist elements in the Middle East – such as al-Qaeda – as capable of pressing on with their terror war undaunted – unless the Palestinian-Hizballah operational link can be broken.

In the two generals, Yaalon and Halutz, Sharon sees the personal and professional traits for executing his strategic and tactical concepts.

Yaalon is the author of the Israeli military doctrine, which employs tank and armored forces to wage localized battles and rapid-movement confrontations with small terrorist units. Many members of the general staff and field commanders dispute his ideas, arguing that breaking up large tanks units into small entities, often consisting of a single tank, degrades the military’s preparedness for full-scale warfare. It reduces the training standards of tank commanders and crews, leaves them unready to return to their regular duties in regulation-sized units in case of war, and impairs tank maintenance. Engaged for any length of time in combat in the sands of the Gaza Strip away from base, a single tank – or even a pair – will fall into technical disrepair for lack of proper maintenance.

Yaalon’s single-tank combat doctrine suffered a setback earlier this month when a Palestinian unit, guided by Hizballah demolition experts from Lebanon, blew up the IDF’s most advanced tank, the Merkava-3, killing three of its crew.

Nonetheless, Yaalon, Sharon and Mofaz, are not deterred from applying tanks to combat against the Palestinians. They see these engagements as practice runs for large-scale warfare – although they regard this strategy as viable only when armor is combined with aerial strikes against the enemy targets in its path.

Back in September 2001, when Sharon first ordered F-15 and F-16 warplanes to pound Palestinian targets, many military experts saw air strikes as no more than ineffectual deterrent actions for instilling fear in the civilian population living near the target areas. Many Israeli officers, including some air force brass, bitterly criticized the deployment of heavy weapons in localized counter-terror operations as overkill.

However, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, the tactic was developed by the Air Force commander, Maj.-Gen. Halutz, as part of a wider military concept that borrowed its basic principle from Yaalon’s tank strategy. Why not use fighter-bombers and missile gunships to fight small terrorist targets, combining them with pilot-less aircraft for providing real time data on the field below? A single warplane or helicopter can carry out a short-range, local mission, much in the same way as a lone tank.

The notion caught on among combat officers, who in briefings to field units now refer to aircraft and helicopter as “flying tanks”.

The Yaalon-Halutz doctrine received a boost from the lessons drawn by US ground and air forces in the Afghanistan War. In that campaign, ground and air forces operated side by side, the former going into action while warplanes cleared the terrain of enemy troops.

DEBKA-Net-weekly‘s military sources report Sharon was particularly impressed by the ability of generals Yaalon and Halutz – a tankman and an airman, who hail from often rival corps — to slap their concepts and ideas together and integrate different forces in the field for combined operations.

The military’s success in seizing the Palestinian arms ship, the Karine A, in a joint air-naval operation in the Red Sea in January persuaded Sharon that Generals Yaalon and Halutz were the right men to lead Israel’s armed forces in the coming years.

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