IDF big guns in face-off as Barak takes on Ashkenazi

Israel Defence Force Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi inspecting newly trained soldiers last year

Israel Defence Force Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi inspecting newly trained soldiers last year

The laconic announcement published by the defence minister this week that IDF Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, would end his term as planned next February, hid beneath it a bubbling storm of ego and political reckoning. It had little to do with Israel's strategic interests.

The appointment of the IDF's chief has always been carried out in a hotbed of political intrigue. There are few democracies in which the army's supreme command carries as much social and political significance as it does in Israel.

While officially a public servant, under civil control and serving at the pleasure of the elected government, the Ramatkal (the acronym for "Head of the General Staff") is a national father-figure, whose every statement is widely published in the media. Upon retirement, he is assured of a second political career. Ten of the 18 chiefs of staff before Gen Ashkenazi have subsequently gone on to become cabinet ministers; two of them, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, became prime ministers.

It is Mr Barak, now defence minister and nominally Gen Ashkenazi's boss, who is one of the main protagonists in the current power struggle at the apex of Israel's defence establishment.

In recent years, the office of ramatkal has suffered some knocks. Gen Ashkenazi's two immediate predecessors were forced to leave their posts early. Moshe Yaalon (currently Minister for Strategic Affairs) was replaced after then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lost faith in his commitment to the government's agenda. Mr Sharon's favourite, Dan Halutz, resigned after the fiasco of the second Lebanon war.

With Gabi Ashkenazi it was supposed to be different. In the past, army chiefs were appointed for three years and if the government was pleased with them, they received a fourth year of command.

To prevent the rigmarole that always surrounded the decision to extend his service, the cabinet decided when appointing Gen Ashkenazi that he would serve for the full four years.

But over recent months, former generals began quietly lobbying Mr Barak to further extend Gen Ashkenazi's term for a fifth year. They reason that the possibility of a strike against Iran and the volatility on Israel's borders with Lebanon and Gaza necessitate an experienced pair of hands at the wheel.

Gen Ashkenazi is widely credited with rebuilding the IDF after Lebanon and putting it back on an operational footing, with units training like mad and maintaining full preparedness.

The consensus around the army's chief jarred Ehud Barak's nerves. He has tried to position himself as the nation's responsible grown-up; indeed, that is the only rational reason he can offer for Labour remaining in an increasingly right-wing coalition. But the credit for the army's resurgence is going to Gen Ashkenazi, who constantly features as the nation's most respected public figure in polls, while Labour continues to plummet.

The timing of this week's announcement, a full 10 months before the end of Gen Ashkenazi's term, is a signal that Mr Barak is fed up and wants to show everyone who the real boss is.

The ramatkal's office issued a wounded response saying that he never asked for a fifth year in the first place. The ensuing media storm, in which Mr Barak has been cast the villain, is proof of the standing which Gen Ashkenazi enjoys. He will not be able to immediately enter politics because of a new law mandating a three-year "cooling off" period for retiring chiefs of staff. His name, though, is already being pushed for Israel's next ambassador to the US.

Meanwhile, the IDF Gen Ashkenazi will leave behind him is better trained and equipped, but at its very top, there is uncertainty over who calls the shots. Over the next year, the heads of the IDF, the Mossad and the General Security Service are all slated for replacement, as are most of the senior generals. They will have no period of grace.

    Last updated: 1:27pm, April 8 2010