A Lack of Respect For the Chief of Staff

The relations between Ehud Barak and Gabi Ashkenazi can serve as an example of how not to behave.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on February, 9, 2011.)

The breakdown of relations between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi provides an opportunity to review what relationship should exist between these two men who carry the responsibility of Israel’s security on their shoulders.

First: The chief of staff is subordinate to the defense minister. This relationship determines the civilian control of the military, the defense minister representing the government’s authority over the armed forces.

Second: The defense minister carries full responsibility for all military actions. There is no split of responsibility here between the minister and the head of the army. The chief of the Israel Defense Forces is responsible to the defense minister, and he in turn is responsible to the public. The buck stops at his desk.

Third: The defense minister must treat the chief of staff with respect, as he is Israel’s Number 1 soldier, the commander of the sons and daughters of Israel’s citizens. The chief of staff is more than the individual who happens to hold that position at any time – he is an institution, one of the most important institutions in the state. He therefore is to be treated with the respect accorded his position.

All this seems self-evident. But on occasion there have been significant deviations from these norms. Although in Israel’s history there have been occasional cases of military initiatives that were not authorized by the civilian leadership, these have been few and far between.

Civilian authority over the military seems to be well established. On the other hand, the overall responsibility that rests on the defense minister has on occasion been contested, while the chief of staff has not always been treated by the defense minister with the respect that is due him.

On more than one occasion when a defense minister testified before an inquiry committee regarding mistakes that had been made in military operations, the defense minister tried to shift responsibility to the “professional level,” i.e. the military. He would claim that he was only acting based on the advice he received from the military.

Thus Ehud Barak in his recent appearance before the Turkel Committee investigating the Turkish flotilla incident, explained that whereas he, as defense minister, was responsible for determining what was to be done, the military was responsible for how it was carried out.

Actually the defense minister carries the responsibility for both – the what and the how. This is the reason why any military operation of significance is reviewed down to the last detail by the defense minister, and generally by the prime minister as well, and then approved or rejected.

Once he has made his decision the responsibility is his. In this case Barak was following in the footsteps of others before him. Moshe Dayan, when appearing before the Agranat commission, attempted to shift the blame for mistaken decisions made during the Yom Kippur War on the military.

As for the degree of respect shown by the defense minister to the chief of staff, the relations between Ehud Barak and Gabi Ashkenazi can serve as an example of how not to behave. Making it obvious over an extended period of time that he had little confidence in Ashkenazi and leveling nebulous accusations against him in public can hardly be called respect for Israel’s top soldier. There is no need to explain the negative effect Barak’s behavior has on the defense establishment.

Here too, Barak was following in the footsteps of others. Ariel Sharon, who as prime minister in effect acted as defense minister and acting chief of staff all rolled into one, unceremoniously fired the chief of staff at the time, Moshe Ya’alon, who had led the IDF to victory in the second intifada, by deciding not to extend his tenure for a fourth year, something that had become accepted as a tradition for more than 20 years.

In any case, rules defining the relationship between these all-important positions – the defense minister and the chief of staff – need to be adopted by the government. Deviations from them are liable to harm the security of the country.

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