In August 2010, in the pages of this newspaper, I coined the phrase “putsch in the Kirya,” following suspicions that career and reserves officers in the Israel Defense Forces had taken part in forging and disseminating a document, which has since then become known as the “Harpaz document.” I wrote that if the suspicions were confirmed of a conspiracy among officers to thwart the appointment of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant as chief of staff – and perhaps even to oust Defense Minister Ehud Barak – it would constitute a rebellion by a military faction against the civilian echelon that oversees it. I also wrote that the suspicions revealed deep degeneration in the IDF brass, headed at the time by Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi.
The state comptroller’s report on the Harpaz affair reassures us: There was no coup in the Kirya, Tel Aviv’s military nerve center, nor did Ashkenazi plot against Barak. But there was deep decay: There were indeed instances of defying authority, bizarre suspicions and glory-hounding on the part of the previous chief of staff – which were fostered and fed by his closest aides, Col. Erez Wiener and former army spokesman Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, who repeatedly claimed that Ashkenazi had been humiliated and his “status had been damaged” by the defense minister and cohorts. Obviously they hoped to improve their status in the eyes of their commander and gain power among the IDF top brass.
This atmosphere led officials in Ashkenazi’s bureau to collect defamatory information about Barak, his bureau and generals considered to be his associates, by way of Lt. Col. (res.) Boaz Harpaz. The state comptroller considers this conduct unforgivable and unacceptable, even if Barak’s conduct was flawed.
Barak, no less suspicious than Ashkenazi, enthusiastically adopted the claim of a putsch against him by the chief of staff. He appears in the comptroller’s report as an aggressive leader who subjugates government procedure to his struggles with the chief of staff, and whose aides are engaged in a war of leaks against Ashkenazi’s inner circle. But what the commander is permitted to do, his soldiers must not: The comptroller reiterates that according to the Basic Law on the Army, the chief of staff is subordinate to the defense minister and is by no means his equal. “The relationship between the minister and the chief of staff is not symmetrical in nature, as the military echelon defers to the elected political echelon.” The comptroller also rejected the claim from the Ashkenazi camp that Barak and his lot had concocted a plot to humiliate Ashkenazi, belittle him and oust him.
The comptroller did not discuss the “operational putsch” – Ashkenazi and former Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s attempts to the thwart Barak and of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s directive to prepare the IDF for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2010. Scrutiny of that affair exceeded the comptroller’s current mandate, but it deserves a thorough investigation of its own. Did Ashkenazi and Dagan prevent a national disaster, or did they cover for failing to prepare the army for war by raising procedural and bureaucratic claims?
From the details revealed in the report on the mutual abhorrence and lack of faith among members of the top defense brass – which were underscored by comments from former Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin over the weekend – a clear picture emerges: It was a good thing Israel did not go to war against Iran or another enemy during the joint term of Barak and Ashkenazi. This dueling duo failed even in the minor mission of overtaking the Turkish flotilla to Gaza.
The Harpaz and the Iran affairs clarify the fundamental difference between two approaches. One approach views the army and intelligence services as “safeguarding the constitution,” as in the regimes of Egypt and Turkey. Its adherents believe that the political echelon is, at its core, swayed by external considerations and that it therefore needs the checks and balances of the IDF and the intelligence community. In other words, Israel needs to act like a military dictatorship, with a thin veneer of an elected democratic regime. That, apparently is the position of Ashkenazi, Dagan and Diskin.
The comptroller rightly supports the opposite approach – that the army is subordinate to the civilian echelon. Barak appoints Ashkenazi, Netanyahu appoints Diskin and Dagan. The motives and character of the civilian leaders, no matter how irritating they may be, do not give generals and intelligence chiefs the right to exempt themselves from the law or from obedience to the democratically elected government. Sometimes this is unpleasant, it may even stink of cigars, but that’s the way it is.
The problem is that real life is more complicated than who salutes whom, because in times of trouble and crisis, politicians tend to pass the buck down to officers, who are served up on a platter to investigative committees. Military commanders and intelligence chiefs therefore demand equality of authority, not only of responsibility. This is precisely the situation that former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin warned of in his memoirs. Rabin was disgusted by the Agranat Committee report on the Yom Kippur War, which placed responsibility for its failures on the chief of Military Intelligence and the chief of staff, and exonerated Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. Rabin wrote that a chief of staff might say to himself that since he and the army will be saddled with all the responsibility, he should direct the foreign and defense policies of the country by himself; because, Rabin wrote, that chief of staff would think that if there is no joint responsibility for the outcome, neither is there joint responsibility for decision-making.
Rabin, who was appointed prime minister after the publication of the report, also wrote following the Agranat report that the army worked on building an alibi for everything to defend itself against any possible surprise.
The first Rabin government passed the Basic Law on the Army to clarify the defense minister’s responsibility for what happens in the army, but it did not help. As Rabin warned in his memoirs, the military brass’ suspicions of the political echelons have not dissipated. The problem of political control in the army (and the intelligence community), which has troubled all of Israel’s leaders since the War of Independence, was and still is the Israeli system of government’s main stumbling block – and the basis for most affairs and investigations. The Harpaz report, and the spin that will ensure after its publication, will apparently not resolve this ongoing dilemma. If anything, it will be remembered as a footnote to this sorry affair.