Watchdog finds hostility, mistrust and paralysis at top of Israel’s security establishment

Watchdog finds hostility, mistrust and paralysis at top of Israel’s security establishment

Harpaz investigation, which could now prompt criminal charges, shows utter breakdown of relations between former IDF chief and defense minister in 2009-11, faults Barak but lays principal blame with Ashkenazi and his top aide; Netanyahu rapped for not intervening

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, near Gaza, in 2008 (photo credit: David Buimovitch-JINIPIX/Flash90)
Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, near Gaza, in 2008 (photo credit: David Buimovitch-JINIPIX/Flash90)

A 26-month, state-funded investigation into the sordid relationship between the defense minister and the former commander of the army — a kindergarten-style spat with potentially life-threatening implications — reveals a staggering breakdown of trust in 2009-2011 between Israel’s political and military leaderships.

The state comptroller’s report, released on Sunday afternoon, faults both sides to the crippling dispute, but lays the lion’s share of blame at the feet of the former chief of the General Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, and his most senior personal aide, Erez Weiner, for failing to internalize that they were answerable to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and not the other way around.

Some of the findings of the report have been transferred to the IDF Advocate General, and some to the Attorney General’s Office, and could lead to criminal investigations.

The report exposes bitter and profoundly debilitating enmity between Ashkenazi and his boss Barak that delayed over 150 senior IDF appointments, impacted the process by which Ashkenazi’s successor was chosen, and preoccupied both the chief of staff’s office and that of the defense minister for well over a year — a period that included Israel’s Operation Cast Lead assault on Hamas and the escalating effort to grapple with Iran’s nuclear program.

The comptroller, using an understated tone, nevertheless describes a “most worrying” state of affairs, indicates deep dismay with both sides’ behavior, and at one point also blames Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not intervening long after it was clear that the hostility and mistrust between the defense minister and the chief of staff was harming the national interest.

Defense ministers and their chiefs of staff have had innumerable disagreements and fallings-out over the decades, the comptroller notes, but never has the relationship deteriorated to such lows, with Boaz Harpaz, a former officer acquainted with the chief of staff, scandalously conducting an extensive and possibly criminal search for dirt on the defense minister and his staff.

Lt. Gen. (res) Gabi Ashkenazi shaking Barak's hand with visible discomfort on his last day in uniform (Photo credit: Michael Shvadron: IDF Spokesperson's Office/ Flash 90)
Lt. Gen. (res) Gabi Ashkenazi shaking Barak’s hand with visible discomfort on his last day in uniform (Photo credit: Michael Shvadron: IDF Spokesperson’s Office/ Flash 90)

The crux of the dispute revolved around a mid-2010 attempt to influence the appointment of the successor to Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi.

As chief of the General Staff from February 2007 to February 2011, Ashkenazi is found by the report to have acted in “a manner unworthy” of a senior officer in his collaboration with Harpaz, an ex-officer who sought to besmirch Barak. “The matter is especially grave,” State Comptroller Yosef Shapira writes, “in light of the fact that Minister Barak is of the legislative branch, to which the chief of the General Staff is directly subordinate.”

Ashkenazi’s personal aide, Col. Weiner, who was the primary point of contact to Harpaz, is also found to have acted in a manner unbecoming a senior IDF officer, an ongoing comportment that revealed “a mistaken understanding on his part of the boundaries between the permissible and the impermissible.”

Col. Erez Weiner at the Supreme Court in June 2012 (Photo credit: Uri Lenz/ Flash 90)
Col. Erez Weiner at the Supreme Court in June 2012 (Photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Shapira issues a “stern rebuke” to Weiner and recommends that the IDF perform “a comprehensive and thorough examination” of his behavior.

Defense Minister Barak and his staff are cleared of suspicion regarding two damaged computer disks of recordings of conversations from his bureau chief’s office.

However, Barak is faulted for, among other things, refusal to authorize 92 percent of Ashkenazi’s 170 senior military appointments during their final year together at the helms of the army and Defense Ministry. “Stopping the process of appointments for the IDF’s senior staff for such a long period of time creates real difficulty and causes significant and unnecessary harm,” Shapira writes.

Barak is further rebuked for appointing a deputy chief of the General Staff — over Ashkenazi’s head and in violation of regulations — and for declaring, long before the investigation had been completed, that he would not extend Ashkenazi’s tenure on account of “ethical, normative and professional matters.”

Netanyahu comes in for criticism for his failure to resolve a spat that paralyzed normal working relations between the offices of the defense minister and the chief of the General Staff. In the spring of 2010, when it was already clear that Barak and Ashkenazi’s bureau chiefs had not been on speaking terms for months, and with escalating talk of a possible strike in Iran, “It was to have been expected of the prime minister to intervene without delay in order to solve the crisis, especially in light of the security challenges that faced and continue to face the State of Israel,” Shapira writes.

The investigation was sparked by a document meant to sway the appointment of Ashkenazi’s successor as chief of the General Staff. First revealed on Channel 2 News on August 6, 2010, and portrayed as an attempt to smear Ashkenazi, the police found within days that the author of the document was a former rear-echelon officer in the army’s special ops directorate, Lt. Col. (ret) Boaz Harpaz – “a family friend,” by his own admission, of Gabi Ashkenazi and his wife Ronit.

Harpaz told the state comptroller that he contacted Ashkenazi but then revised his statement and said that on October 22, 2009, the chief of the General Staff contacted him. Ashkenzi claimed it was the other way around. Regardless, both conceded that Ashkenazi had put Harpaz in contact with his aide, Col. Weiner.

Lt. Col. (ret) Boaz Harpaz outside his home in March 2012 (Photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/ Flash 90)
Lt. Col. (ret) Boaz Harpaz outside his home in March 2012 (Photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/ Flash 90)

The 294-page report is split into four parts: the Harpaz document and the environment in which it was created; the enmity between Ashkenazi and Barak and their respective bureaus; the process of nomination of the chief of the General Staff after Ashkenazi; and the manner in which classified information is protected, particularly regarding former army intelligence insiders.

Ashkenazi first met Boaz Harpaz in 1994 when he served as head of the operations branch in the General Staff and Harpaz was head of the logistical side of operations in the General Staff’s commando unit, Sayeret Matkal.

The report does not delve into the ties between them during those years. The investigative book “The Pit,” published in 2011 by journalists Dan Margalit and Ronen Bergman, and other accounts describe a power-hungry and highly intelligent officer adept both at his job and at playing the political angles. Col. Benny Lavi, the chief logistics officer in military intelligence’s special operation’s department during Harpaz’s tenure, told the authors of “The Pit” that Harpaz was a “monster” and said he had warned those above him in the chain of command, in writing, to be aware of his manipulations. (Harpaz is pursuing legal action against the authors.)

In 2002 Harpaz was ousted from the army after highly classified material was found on his private computer. Nonetheless, in April 2005 and December 2006, Ashkenazi, then a major general in reserves, testified on his behalf, saying that he was “exceptionally impressed” with Harpaz and that his ouster from the army was a “disproportionate” punishment, the comptroller’s report states.

The army commission temporarily reinstated Harpaz, enabling him to retire with a full, mid-level military pension.

By the fall of 2009, when Ashkenazi and Harpaz reestablished ties, the relationship between the chief of the General Staff and the defense minister was in the process of deteriorating from “reasonable,” as Shapira describes it, to what Weiner termed “an atmosphere of war.”

According to Shapira one of the first “essential factors” that led to the enmity was the appointment of a deputy chief of the General Staff, widely considered an essential stop on the path to the post of IDF commander. The appointment is made by the chief of the General Staff and approved by the defense minister. Ashkenazi advocated for Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. Barak preferred then-Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, a former naval commando whom Barak saw as a future chief of the General Staff.

The two were not able to reach an understanding and though Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz was eventually appointed deputy, Barak stuck with his candidate, Galant — straight from the Southern Command, with no hands-on management experience within the General Staff — as his preferred choice for chief of staff in 2010. [Galant was later disqualified for other reasons, and Gantz won the post.]

Complicating matters was a less central feud over the appointment of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, a general-rank position that, due to a disagreement between Barak and Ashkenazi, was not filled for over a year. Significantly, this included the period of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in winter 2008-09.

It was in the midst of this roiling tension that Harpaz contacted Ashkenazi’s wife, Ronit, and told her that the defense minister and his staff were planning “to harm” the chief of the General Staff.

Harpaz was referring to the coveted fifth year granted to certain IDF commanders. A 2007 government decision determined that a fifth year should be given to the chief of the General Staff “solely in a state of emergency.” The phrase, though, in a country like Israel, is open to interpretation and the fifth year is often seen as a bonus – one that Ashkenazi felt worthy of receiving after rehabilitating the army’s fighting spirit and capacity in the wake of the mishandled Second Lebanon War.

Nonetheless, in April 2010, some 10 months before the end of Ashkenazi’s fourth year, Barak announced that he would not be extending his term. “It is doubtful that this was necessary,” writes Shapira, who notes early on in the report that he will not be conducting “a psychological analysis” of the relationship between the two.

During this period, from February to August 2010, the report shows, a full seven percent of all the conversations on Weiner’s office line were with Harpaz.

If the repercussions of their actions were not potentially so severe — this feud played itself out during the fall of 2010, as tensions regarding Iran reached a peak — there might be something humorous about the nature of their ties. Shapira brings several of the Weiner-Harpaz conversations verbatim. The prime minister is referred to as “the Jerusalemite,” Barak as “the Tel Avivi,” and Ashkenazi as “the boss.” At one point, in March 2010, they spent several minutes discussing whether an IDF officer should be allowed to fly abroad on business class, despite the Defense Ministry’s refusal, and Harpaz assures Weiner that one of his sources, whom he trusts “one thousand percent,” has confirmed that someone close to the defense minister flew business not long ago – in violation of the regulations. “Can you arrange that for me?” Weiner asks, referring to proof of the flight. Harpaz promises to “dig around” in the Defense Ministry’s El Al computer for proof.

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
State Comptroller Yosef Shapira (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

At the same time, in the spring of 2010, Harpaz delivered what he described as written proof of Barak’s plan to sideline Ashkenazi and the officers Ashkenazi supported for promotion within the General Staff. The highly cynical, 19-point document carried what turned out to be a stolen logo from a leading Israeli PR firm and a bullet-point plan to besmirch Ashkenazi and promote Barak’s choice for successor, Maj. Gen. Galant.

The early declaration regarding the end of Ashkenazi’s term, the memo read, would help create “an effect of taking offense” – a stereotype relating to Sephardic Jews. “Develop the David Levy image,” the document counseled, referring to the Moroccan-born former foreign minister, whose ego and pride were said to need constant stroking.

Ashkenazi kept the document in his office drawer for months.

The state comptroller’s report faults Ashkenazi for not bringing it to the attention of the authorities, allowing other officers to see it and, even after it was exposed on the news, waiting several days before alerting the police that he had a copy of the document.

The state comptroller did not investigate Harpaz, a private civilian. Nor was he able to prove whether or not Harpaz created the document at the behest of the IDF commander and his staff or in collaboration with others.

Twice, in February and July 2011, a former general serving as the deputy director general of the State Comptroller’s Office asked the Shin Bet internal security service for “communications data” that could help clear the fog surrounding Harpaz’s connection to senior military sources. On both occasions he was turned down, by former and current chiefs Yuval Diskin and Yoram Cohen. Diskin said they felt it would be “an improper usage” of the means and authorities given to the organization. The state comptroller appealed to the attorney general, who backed the security chiefs’ reading of the request.

The police are still investigating Harpaz. The state comptroller passed other information on to the attorney general, who has yet to decide whether to proceed with criminal investigations. And Shapira has submitted several recommendations regarding the appointment of future army chiefs.

For now, though, despite the lingering questions and ongoing investigations, it seems that the report has fulfilled its primary mandate, as defined by the current chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Gantz: The investigation into the matter, Gantz said in 2011, has to examine not just the document and the manner in which it was created but the atmosphere that allowed its creation. “Otherwise,” he said, “it will be a carcass in the room that will continue to stink.”

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