There is no lack of inside-track candidates for the key jobs about to fall vacant in Israel's security establishment, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and heads of the Military Intelligence Section (AMAN) and the Mossad external intelligence service.
All three must fit the specifications of high-profile planners and commanders for Israel's projected military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities and military industries.
In Israel, the Deputy Chief of Staff is by definition the next chief- in-waiting. Traditionally, he takes the lead in pre-planning military operations and making sure all the military machine's components mesh smoothly. He will be on track to step into the shoes of Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi when he retires in 2011.
Officials in Barack Obama's administration have come out strongly against a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran without first deferring to – or even informing – Washington. The new Israeli government appears to be preparing to do exactly that.
Whereas Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's predecessors Olmert and Ariel Sharon were willing to rely on the United States-led “international community” to extricate the region from the evolving Iranian nuclear peril, Netanyahu inherits an existential menace too near and palpable for any more fudging.
Obama keeps on harping on a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which administration officials insist is the stumbling block for diplomatic progress in persuading Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions. The White House has thus tossed back to Jerusalem the Netanyahu argument that Iran must first abandon its nuclear dreams and its sponsorship of anti-Israel terrorism before Middle East peacemaking can expect to get anywhere.
The chicken-and-egg impasse between Washington and Jerusalem
This is the impasse hanging over Netanyahu's Oval House talks with Obama in the coming month.
He remembers from his first stint as prime minister a decade ago that, even with solid backing at home, he will pay a political price for crossing swords with Washington.
US defense secretary Robert Gates spoke out for the Obama administration on April 13, when he warned sharply that any sort of pre-emptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would cause a disastrous backlash and insisted that “nothing but tough economic sanctions would persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear weapons program.”
It is perfectly obvious, Israeli insiders commented, that sanctions have failed abysmally as a deterrent and any effort to impose tougher international penalties would be blocked in a thrice by Russia, China and even Germany.
Gates was said to have deliberately under-estimated the effectiveness of a military attack as lasting for no more one to three years, when the Israeli estimate is that a reasonably successful operation would hold Iran in check for three-to-four years.
But, however short, Jerusalem would welcome any respite from the Iranian nuclear cloud on its horizon and would expect even the United States, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates and Egypt to be eventually and undemonstratively grateful for being delivered from this potential scourge.
And should the Iranians go back to their lethal nuclear program after that, well, Israel would have to go for them again and do so as often as necessary, until Tehran sees the light.
Wanted: Military and security chiefs for leading a sustained conflict with Iran
This scenario means that Israel's next Chief of Staff and directors of the Mossad and Military Intelligence will be chosen for their ability to pilot a sustained military engagement against the Islamic Republic – and possibly also its stooges – for a period of one to five years, depending on which of the above estimates holds true.
Why is Israel embarking on a major shakeup at the top of its military and intelligence branches now, on the verge of one of its most demanding war challenges, a one-of-a-kind military operation which could evolve into a protracted conflict with Iran?
The immediate reason is the impending retirement of Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, which leaves a vacancy for the next front-runner as chief of staff and man at the helm of any war situation.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that three contenders have thrown their hat in the ring: Maj. Gen. Benny Ganz, 50, military attache at the Israeli embassy in Washington, who is rated an outsider compared with the real contestants, GOC (General Officer Commanding) of the Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisencott, 49, and Southern Command GOC, General Yoav Galant, 51.
Although Eisencott was Director of the IDF General Staff's Operations Division in the failed 2006 Lebanon War, his qualifications are formidable – not least as the only general to submit to former prime minister Ehud Olmert an alternative plan to the operation led by the then Chief of Staff Dan Halutz.
Eisencott is a graduate of the Orev Commando, the elite unit of the Golani infantry brigade. He is reputed to be the IDF's leading expert on the Syrian and Lebanese (Hizballah) fronts, which the IDF general staff has no doubt will burst into flames as soon as Israel strikes in Iran.
(A nation-wide civil defense drill has been scheduled for the coming June. It will simulate coordinated missile attack on all parts of Israel by Iran, Syria, Hizballah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, part of the retaliation anticipated for an Israeli attack on Iran).
Too taciturn or too outspoken?
This officer's main fault is his reclusiveness. He is so reserved that his ability to manage a highly complicated, multi-front war, and not just a local engagement, is hard to assess.
In contrast, the independent-minded Yoav Galant is no respecter of rank or privilege when making his views known at home or abroad.
His ability to see the big picture is valued as much as his broad military experience. It includes command of the Israel Navy's Commando Squadron 13 (the equivalent of the US Navy's Seals) after which he was appointed head of the Armored Divisions.
As GOC of the Southern Command during the Lebanon War, he joined a group of military and intelligence officers, including Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin, who openly challenged that conflict's management. They warned Olmert and his defense and foreign ministers, Amir Peretz and Tzipi Livni, that Gen. Halutz's strategy of complete dependence on air might to crush Hizballah would lead the offensive to failure.
Ground forces were consequently co-opted to the campaign – all too late.
As commander of the Gaza front, he complained that Operation Cast Lead which ended in January 2009 was prematurely foreshortened. He asked Olmert and defense minister Ehud Barak for “four hours to overthrow Hamas rule in Gaza,” but was denied.
Galant's outspokenness and his clashes with Barak and Ashkenazi delayed his promotion to the No. 2 chair in the General Staff. On the other hand, he has excellent relations with Israel's new prime minister from Netanyahu's days as leader of the opposition to the Olmert government. Galant also has a good understanding with one of Netanyahu's closest military advisers, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ayalon, whom ex-prime minister Ariel Sharon sacked as chief of staff in 2005.
Six well-qualified contenders for top intelligence posts
Whereas most failed contenders for Deputy Chief of Staff chose to retire form the service in the past, the three generals in the running today have been quoted as informing Gen. Ashkenazi that they intend to stay on and bid for the next available command plum, Director of Military Intelligence, who too will hold a key role in any operation against Iran.
The incumbent Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin retires in a matter of weeks. For his job, the threesome (or the remaining twosome after one of them wins the No. 2 IDF spot) will have to beat two more rivals:
Brig. Gen. Yossi Beidetz, 48, currently head of Research Division, the Number 2 job at AMAN, is rated as one of the most outstanding officers ever to hold that post. His expertise focuses on Syria and Lebanon and their interrelations with Iran.
Another rival for the job is Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, Director of the Operations Division at the IDF General Staff.
The political brass in Jerusalem and the defense ministry will fill this position with a seasoned intelligence hand who will hit the ground running because Israel cannot afford to wait for an officer who needs months to bone up on the job.
The third job soon open to competition is that of Mossad director. The highly-esteemed incumbent Meir Dagan has been on the job for six years and is close to retirement. Dagan was close to former prime ministers Sharon and Olmert and Netanyahu is certainly casting about for a trusted replacement.
Ganz, Galant and Eisencott hope to be short-listed for that job too, if the first two fail to come off, along with retired general Moshe Kaplinski, who was Deputy Chief of Staff in the unfortunate Lebanon War.
The newly-appointed National Security Adviser, Dr. Uzi Arad, will no doubt be called on to help the prime minister select the new Mossad chief, drawing on his past experience as a senior staffer of Israel's external intelligence service.