Perversely, the Best of Times
To those who closely follow events in Israel, this might seem to be the worst of times. Since last year’s campaign in Lebanon, the IDF has been wracked by a process of self-assessment that has been brutal, both in its honesty and in its impact on senior officers’ careers. And the political echelons in Jerusalem have been inundated by a wave of corruption scandals that range from the Presidential Mansion to the Finance Ministry.
But in a rather perverse way, it is also the best of times. While the sight of senior elected public officials facing criminal prosecution is both disheartening and distasteful, it demonstrates the resilience of Israeli democracy. No one – not even a prime minister nor head of state – is above the law.
And even when the question is one of competence rather than criminality, those at the top are finding it difficult to evade personal responsibility for their mis-steps and miscalculations. The most belated casualty from last year’s Lebanon War II is the IDF Chief of Staff (CoS) Dan Halutz, who just resigned his post.
Lieut. Gen. Halutz proved unable to weather the tsunami of criticism that arose from the failures and disappointments of that conflict. And his resignation posts a question mark over the future leadership of both Israel’s military and its government.
In a country where even different health insurance funds have partisan roots, the choice of IDF Chief of Staff often has decidedly political overtones. And this is certainly the case in the wake of a war that was plagued by public perceptions of mismanagement.
But the professional demise of Halutz will hardly sate the appetites of those who want to see a clean sweep of those who presided over the war. In fact the departure of the now-former IDF CoS is like blood in the political water to the sharks who are circling Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defence Minister Amir Peretz.
The loudest voices of discontent regarding the performance of Peretz come from the ranks of his own Labor Party. Peretz is a former union organiser and small town mayor with no appreciable defence expertise or experience. And his hold on both the Defence Ministry and the Labor Party chairmanship are under serious threat from two main rivals who can supply the security credentials that Peretz lacks.
Former PM Ehud Barak is also a former IDF CoS and commander of Israel’s legendary Sayeret Matkal special forces unit, while Ami Ayalon is a former Israeli navy SEAL and chief of the ‘Shin Bet’ security service. At a time when most Israelis talk about renewed hostilities with Hezbollah in terms of ‘when’ rather than ‘if,’ such national security experience will make a candidate much more attractive at the ballot box.
And there are similar machinations and pressures at work within Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party. Kadima was created by Ariel Sharon as his personal platform to bring about a Gaza-style unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank. But just as Sharon has been laid low by a stroke, his “convergence” plan has been rendered moribund by Palestinian and Hezbollah belligerence.
The 18 months since the Gaza disengagement have witnessed southern Israel being continually pummelled by over 1,000 rocket strikes. And during the conflict with Hezbollah last July-August, the Galilee was pounded by over four times as many rockets of various sizes and calibres.
There is no way that the Israeli public would support further unilateral pullback that would put Ben Gurion Airport and the Tel Aviv suburbs in the cross-hairs of Palestinian rocketeers in the West Bank.
Thus Olmert’s Kadima has become a one-issue party without an issue. And his lacklustre performance as Prime Minister has brought his personal approval ratings down to beneath 20%.
But while there is no love lost either personally or politically between Olmert and Peretz, it is the simple principle of self-preservation that keeps the Kadima-Labor coalition intact.
The bitter experiences on its northern and southern borders, combined with the Iranian nuclear threat, have moved Israel’s centre of political gravity to the right. Both Labor and Kadima realise that in any new election they would take a beating at the hands of the Likud. If current polling is to be believed, Kadima would shrink by over 50%, and Labor would lose a seat or two.
So even if Peretz is dethroned as Labor leader, his heir will have a vested interest in perpetuating the lifespan of the current government. And the same holds true for any potential successor to Ehud Olmert, should the Prime Minister be forced to resign. Thus the current coalition will likely endure in the short and even medium term.
Which brings us back to the question of the new IDF CoS, Maj.-General Gabi Ashkenazi. In some respects Ashkenazi is a surprising choice. He is a former Golani infantry officer who retired from active duty in 2005. And the fact that he was out of uniform during Lebanon War II makes him largely immune to criticism over the real and imagined failures of that conflict.
While Ashkenazi is a good operational choice for the IDF, his appointment could be politically hazardous for the defence and prime ministers. With Olmert and Peretz increasingly beleaguered by criticism of their wartime performance, the appointment of a CoS with an unblemished record will make them look even worse by comparison.