The Bottom Line in the Harpaz Affair

What should have been clear all along – to the State Comptroller, and to the representatives of the media – is that the responsibility for the state of affairs in the defense establishment rests squarely on the shoulders of the defense minister.

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By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on January 16, 2013.)

Finally, the State Comptroller’s report on the Harpaz affair is out. It seems we have been waiting for it for years. Now who has the time and patience to wade through the hundreds of pages of the report, to find out just who said what to whom, who insulted and who was insulted, who leaked what to the media, and, bottom line, who is the guilty party – Gabi Ashkenazi or Ehud Barak.

Not since the “Lavon affair”, involving the then Minister of Defense, Pinhas Lavon, and the then Chief-of-Staff, Moshe Dayan, have we witnessed so much mudslinging and recriminations between two men holding the most senior positions in the defense establishment of the country. And the media have been having a field day in anticipation of the report, each reporter choosing his favorite target, and now they can spend a few weeks analyzing the report, proving that they were right all along, and apportioning the blame.

Those who managed to wade through the report will find that the accusations leveled at Ashkenazi for the past few years that he had tried to organize a “putsch” against his civilian superior, the defense minister, were baseless. Whew! Relax, you can put your mind at rest. The civilian echelon in Israel continues to reign supreme.

The soldiers take orders from the civilians and not the other way around. In the final analysis the civilians call the shots. That is as it should be.

What should have been clear all along – to the State Comptroller, and to the representatives of the media – is that the responsibility for the state of affairs in the defense establishment rests squarely on the shoulders of the defense minister. The chief-of-staff is responsible to the defense minister, but the defense minister is responsible to the public. Responsible for everything going on in the defense establishment. For the state of readiness of the IDF, for military operations, for the state of morale, for everything. He gets the credit when credit is due and he takes the blame for things that have gone wrong.

There is no symmetry in the relationship between the defense minister and the chief-of-staff. Blame cannot be directed at the chief-of-staff or at both of them when it comes to a breakdown of the relationship between them, which is bound to negatively affect the security of the state. The responsibility, for better or for worse, rests solely with the defense minister.

It is the defense minister who appoints the chief-of-staff by recommending him to the government. It is not the chief-of-staff who appoints the defense minister. If the defense minister finds it impossible to work with the chief-of-staff it is up to him to bring the situation to the attention of the government and recommend that he be dismissed and replaced by someone else.

It is true, that Ehud Barak did not appoint Gabi Ashkenazi to the post of chief-of-staff. He inherited him from his predecessor, the much maligned Amir Peretz. But he worked with him for a period of four years, enough time to get to know him and determine whether he can work with him effectively. Ashkenazi seems to have done an excellent job of restoring the combat effectiveness of the IDF after the catastrophe of the Second Lebanon War.

Nevertheless, if Barak found that he could not work with him, and was reduced to “punishing” him by withholding for months approval of appointments of senior positions in the IDF, or harassing him in public statements, he should have informed the government of this situation and recommended a replacement for Ashkenazi. That was his responsibility and everything else is secondary. That is the bottom line to the whole affair, as far as the relations between Barak and Ashkenazi are concerned.

We did not need the State Comptroller’s report to find that out.

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