The real player in the power struggle among Israel’s top military brass: Iran

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The dispute over an Israeli campaign against Iran provided the backdrop to the clash between the Barak camp – Defense Minister Ehud Barak and members of his bureau – and then-IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi and his associates.

The word “Iran” barely appears in the state comptroller’s report on the Harpaz affair, but that word – along with human nature – is the main player in this scandal. The furor only appears to revolve around a forged document meant to discredit a candidate for Israel Defense Forces chief of staff.

The dispute over an Israeli campaign against Iran provided the backdrop to the clash between the Barak camp – Defense Minister Ehud Barak and members of his bureau – and then-IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi and his associates. It also influenced the standing of the generals whose candidacy for chief of staff after Ashkenazi’s retirement was considered in 2010.

The testimony collected by the State Comptroller’s Office indicates that both Barak and Ashkenazi were worried about their standing; Ashkenazi was anxious to hold onto his honor and Barak to his power. One had an inferiority complex and one had a superiority complex, and the result was not healthy.

What Ashkenazi wanted was to serve at least another four years without a millstone around his neck – a designated successor who gets the devotion and obedience of the officers.

What Barak wanted was a monopoly over Israel’s wartime strength, exclusive rights to the intersection where the military meets the political. He sought to be the one to represent the government’s views to the army and vice versa. In pursuit of this goal, he tried to erode some of the power reserved for the government. Though the previous cabinet had appointed Ashkenazi for four years, Barak strove to make the life of his chief of staff miserable to the point where he would get sick of the job and leave on his own. And even though the cabinet is the ultimate chief of staff, with the defense minister responsible for the IDF only insofar as he is the cabinet’s representative, Barak attempted to equate the government with the defense minister, without approval from the cabinet or attorney general.

This wasn’t just some whim of Barak’s. It was his determination not to return to what, from Barak’s perspective, was the bitter experience of the 2007 operation in Syria, reported to be an Israeli attack on a partially constructed nuclear reactor, or Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009. In both cases, which took place under Ehud Olmert as prime minister and Ashkenazi as chief of staff, Barak was angered by the many restrictions imposed on him.

Ahead of Iran in 2010, with a passive prime minister like Benjamin Netanyahu, who sought to subcontract explosions to Barak, the defense minister worked to shape the chain of command such that he would stand indisputably at its head and personally be the “political leadership” that gives orders to the chief of staff.

To do this, Barak required apathy from a government that neither knew what was going on nor opposed it, a shortened term for Ashkenazi and a new chief of staff who would be grateful to Barak. The new chief also needed to be someone who was not identified as an opponent of an Israeli attack on Iran.

In the meantime, of course, Barak and Netanyahu have not pulled off such a strike. Though this is no guarantee for the future, it turns out that it is the most salient fact in this whole affair – a lot more important than either the recordings of conversations between IDF officers like Boaz Harpaz and Erez Weiner, or the comptroller’s report about all this behind-the-scenes scheming.

 

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