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ISRAEL: A cautionary tale of officers, gentlemen and snakes

August 23, 2010 |  1:09 pm

Every so often, a legendary Israeli institution falls from grace. In 1995, the Shin Bet failed to protect Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from assassination; in 1997, the Mossad loudly bungled an attempt to assassinate Khaled Meshaal in Jordan and more recently seems to have tripped over its tennis shoe laces in Dubai. Presidents have been disgraced by financial or sexual misconduct, prime ministers by corruption allegations.

Now the army is the latest of Israel's sacred cows to be skewered by scandal.

To start from the end, the next chief of staff has been named -- Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, currently in charge of the Israel Defense Forces' southern command. He will replace Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who ends his term in February. Galant, perceived as stubborn, reactionary and a natural if forceful leader, is the right man at the right time, commentators say. The appointment of an offensive-minded chief of staff sends a strong message to Iran, writes defense analyst Ron Ben-Yishai.

But before he deals with Iran or anything else, he'll need to clean up a small mess involving the weeks before his appointment.

A few weeks ago, Channel 2 reported the existence of a strategic campaign promoting Galant, one of a handful of candidates, for the appointment. It showed a document outlining the campaign strategy, actively building Galant as a positive brand while doing the opposite to Ashkenazi, the popular and much-admired incumbent. Ashkenazi is credited with rehabilitating the army after the second Lebanon war, but his relations with Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- not known for his  people skills -- are strained.

The document bore the logo of Israel's top strategic consultancy and public relations firm, headed by Eyal Arad, whose work as campaign strategist and media advisor to politicians has made him a force to be reckoned with. Arad worked closely with Ariel Sharon. Galant had been Sharon's military secretary. On the face of it, there was a dirty political campaign in a place it didn't belong.

But Arad rejected the document as a forgery and filed a police complaint, which prompted an investigation. It's not every day that police question the country's top brass. At the end of the day, the document was deemed fake and the army's top officers declared ''not implicated'' in its production.

Still, someone had gone to the trouble of faking it, and someone to the trouble of leaking it to the media. In between those events, it had been floating around the offices of the army's general headquarters for months. When the document surfaced, top army officials felt that something between a dirty bomb and a stink bomb had gone off at headquarters, said one military commentator.

The IDF has consistently enjoyed the highest level of public trust compared with other political and national institutions in Israel, including the police, Supreme Court, parliament and presidency. The Israel Democracy Institute's 2009 index shows 79% trust of the IDF among the general public and 88% among the Jewish public. The uproar over the document reflected the alarm that this relatively untainted inner sanctum had been infiltrated by corruption and that strategist tails were wagging the country's favorite dog.

So now it's clear: The army's top officers are not demigods, they're as mortal as the next guys, and general headquarters isn't immune to byzantine intrigue. When Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon -- today minister of strategic affairs -- was pushed out a year early, he commented that he wore high boots around military headquarters because of all the snakes in the grass. The comment was ridiculed at the time, but now, writes columnist Yoel Marcus, it's obvious he was right.

The investigation isn't over and questions remain, including who forged the document -- and why, it turns out, Ashkenazi had it for some time but refused to deal with it before a friend lost patience and gave it to the media.

Once the police cleared the candidates of suspicion, Barak quickly named Galant chief of staff. The Cabinet is expected to approve the appointment next week. All eyes are now on Ashkenazi, awaiting his next move. This isn't a time for political games in the army, commentators caution. The handover is likely to be professional and civilized. Still, no one comes out of this smelling like a rose.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photo: Israeli army Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant during a training exercise in southern Israel on Sept. 28, 2008. Credit: Yossi Zamir / EPA