Israeli army battles generals' scandals

Feb. 3, 2011 at 2:12 PM
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TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 3 (UPI) -- Amid the turmoil sweeping Egypt that could threaten its 1979 peace pact with Israel, the Jewish state's military leadership is fighting a battle at home to preserve the reputation of the army over legal challenges against two of its top generals.

The command echelon has been thrown into disarray for months over unseemly and highly public scandals involving senior officers, scandals that have seriously dented the military's long-held status as Israel's most cherished institution.

These events have occurred amid an unprecedented shake-up in the military establishment that runs down the chain of command to battalion level as the tenure of most senior officers, starting with the chief of the general staff, expires.

Younger officers, some of them untested at such levels, are being moved into top command positions at a time when Israel has threatened airstrikes against Iran's nuclear facilities, operations that could trigger a region-wide conflict.

The wave of political upheaval across the Arab world, but particularly in Egypt and Jordan with whom Israel has peace treaties that anchor its strategic thinking, has added new dangers at a critical time as the military finds itself grappling with new strains and threats.

These culminated Tuesday when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak took the unprecedented step of dumping the decorated war hero they had named as the next chief of the general staff, the highest military position, because of "improper behavior" over seizing 9 acres of public land to add to his private estate in the north.

Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, a 33-year career soldier who was head of Israel's Southern Command, was doomed after State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, a public watchdog, interrogated him and ruled he had illegally occupied the land and lied to authorities about his actions.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who had initially defended Galant against the accusations that came from the environmentalist Green Movement, announced he could no longer support his appointment as the Israeli military's 20th chief of staff.

Galant led the highly criticized 22-day invasion of the Gaza Strip by Israeli forces in the winter of 2008-09 in which some 1,400 Palestinians, mainly civilians, were killed.

Human rights groups have accused him of committing war crimes in the operation.

Galant, 52, had been due to take over as chief of staff from Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi Feb. 14.

Galant was approved for the post by Netanyahu's Cabinet in September but only after months of scandal over allegations he sought to smear his rivals in the competition for chief of staff.

The scandal, which caused deep dismay within the military establishment, centered on a forged letter that bore the imprimatur of a public relations outfit with strong political connections.

A police investigation cleared Galant of involvement in the forgery and a reserve colonel linked to Ashkenazi was arrested. There has been no suggestion Ashkenazi himself was involved in the forgery.

But the affair underlined how the process of selecting chiefs of staff has become highly politicized.

For a nation that has been at war since the state was founded in 1948, the position of top soldier, known in Hebrew as "Ramatkal," is a critical one for Israel's survival.

Galant is close to Barak, a former chief of staff himself. There have been suggestions Barak selected Galant because he's a hard-liner who favors military action against Iran, like Barak and Netanyahu.

Ashkenazi opposes pre-emptive strikes against Iran because they are likely to trigger a wider Middle East war. He has clashed frequently with Barak during his three-year tenure that followed the disastrous 2006 war with Hezbollah.

Military commentator Yaakov Katz wrote in The Jerusalem Post that "the past few months have been poisonous for the upper echelons of the Israeli Defense Forces … the atmosphere has been bitter and ugly."

After Galant's disgrace, Barak named the officer slated to be deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, as caretaker chief for two months.

Naveh could be confirmed in the post but even he has run into legal challenges.

Left-wing groups petitioned the High Court to prevent him taking command pending investigation of his involvement in the killing of three Palestinian militants while he was head of the Central Command. The court rejected the petition Wednesday.

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