Scandals are prominent in Israeli media only two weeks before the national election. Neither is new, and both are being fanned by political activists concerned to use what they can to garner votes for themselves or the party they are supporting, as well by media personalities who know how to recognize a good story.
One is only the latest chapter in an issue that has been around for more than two years. Now it is in the headlines on account of a report published by the State Comptroller. The details are complex, and not all are available to the public.
The story may have began with disagreements about senior appointments between Gabi Ashkenazi, then Head of the IDF's General Staff (i.e., the commanding general), and his civilian superior, Defense Minister Ehud Barak. They deteriorated to what has been described as Mafia-style warfare at the top of the country's most important institutions. Friends of Ashkenazi, including a key aide along with a former lieutenant colonel who was given access to military matters even though he was not longer part of the military, with or without Ashkenazi's support or encouragement, and perhaps with the involvement of Ashkenazi's wife, gathered material in order to tarnish Barak's standing with senior officers and government officials, and worked to torpedo the appointment of a general out of favor with Ashkenazi who Barak wanted to become Ashkenazi's successor.
Barak, for his part, sought to foul Ashkenazi's actions as commanding general by withholding for months numerous promotions to the top ranks of the IDF, whose implementation required his approval as Defense Minister.
The warfare reached the point where each combatant brought his own photographer to important events, in order to assure how he would appear in pictures for newspapers and the historical record.
Among the charges being made are that personal animosities reached an inability to communicate, and affected the functioning of Israel's military. The prolonged dealing with the story--initially by a media expose, and later by several waves of inquiry and now by the State Comptroller's report--is said to damage public respect for the IDF, and the awe which the country's enemies ought to feel toward the IDF.
The Prime Minister also comes in for some sharp criticism, insofar as he knew of the ego-generated controversies at the juncture of the military and government, and did nothing to either calm the situation or to replace one or both of the individuals involved.
The second scandal also touches Barak and Netanyahu. It results not from an official report but from a interview published in the weekend edition of a leading newspaper (Yedioth Aharonoth) with Yuval Diskin, a former head of the intelligence and security service, Shin Bet, who had 38 years service in Israel's security functions, and participated with the most senior officials in discussions about Iran, Palestinian terror, and other vital matters. Diskin described Netanyahu, Barak, and Lieberman discussing the most sensitive matters in a casual fashion, not especially well informed despite being surrounded by experts, while Barak sipped hard liquor and all three enjoyed cigars whose smoke caused problems for others meant to be part of the discussion.
Diskin claimed that he had to speak out before it was too late, i.e., before a third intifada explodes in the country's face, or Israel blunders into a disastrous confrontation with Iran. He said that he and colleagues at his senior level have little confidence in the capacities of Netanyahu and Barak to lead the country. He described them as more concerned with their personal comfort and standing than with the welfare or future of Israel.
Even more than the State Comptroller's report, Diskin's interview seemed timed for a political impact. Netanyahu himself asked why Diskin felt it appropriate to expose his criticisms so prominently at this point, when he had years to say the same things.
Whatever the motives, there have been no impacts on the current election yet apparent in the polls. There has been some movement among parties over recent weeks, but the major blocs of right, left, and center appear to be stable. Netanyahu seems headed for another term as prime minister, but still open are the parties he will ask to serve with him, and which parties will agree to accept what ministerial portfolios.
Below the bluster of media personalities, former and present politicians, military personnel and other participants on one or another side of the blame games, Israelis can ask, What else is new? Alliances and cabals among military personnel who have known one another, competed and cooperated as they ascended in the ranks is familiar stuff in a society where the vast majority of Jews have experience at one or another level of the IDF, and even more experience talking about who and what they have known from basic training through long years in the reserves. Also well known is that senior politicians and generals have strong egos that may dominate their discussions about weighty matters.
In politics, as well as the military and other large organizations, dominant personalities may be essential for anyone aspiring to the top. Stories about Netanyahu and Barak not all that different from Yuval Diskin's exposes have circulated for years. Biographies of Douglas MacArthur, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, as well as insider reports about Barack Obama, should leave no one feeling that the problem is exclusively Israeli. One needn't be a professor of history to surmise that excessive egoism at the highest levels has been around at least since Nero, or perhaps Jeremiah. While the prophet set a useful standard as someone willing to risk himself by speaking truth to power, he was also a certifiable nut. He put on a yoke to symbolize what would happen to the people who violate the Lord's will, and threatened his listeners with the most awful consequences of disease, destruction, and cannibalism if they did not do what he demanded.
The religious among us may view Jeremiah as a prophet who spoke the word of the Lord. Sceptics can wonder how many asylum inmates also claim to be speaking the word of the Lord.
Democracies are used to problematic personalities in high places, and have taken pains to buffer their excesses. Checks and balances along with a separation of powers appear in all decent governments, although with differences in detail. The American presidency and an independent Congress do not work like a parliament with a government chosen from the elected members. Common to all, however, are requirements of agreements between independent individuals or institutions for the implementation of major decisions. Modern governments depend at least as much on professional administrators expected to exercise their own judgment as on elected politicians. An independent judiciary as well as free media are also essential for any regime recognized as a functioning democracy.
If a true psychopath manages to reach the very top, news of erratic behavior is likely to seep out of the most inner forums. Moreover, the road to the top is not easy. Even the most attractive and best spoken must survive intense competition.
With all that is being said about the bizarre behavior of Gabi Ashkenazi, Ehud Barak, and Benyamin Netanyahu, no one has yet made a convincing case that they did not work together when required. They may have dithered and conspired. Details are still emerging. Currently it is not clear whether claims that they endangered the country are mostly the stuff of last minute political campaigning, or anything firm enough for a criminal indictment.
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at January 07, 2013 06:18 AM
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem