Saturday, January 24, 2009

Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi: Commander in Chief

Leading by example, shying away from the media and avoiding taking a public stand, IDF Chief Gabi Ashkenazi has done everything he can to become the antithesis of his predecessor

Amir Shoan and Amira Lam - YNet

IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi is Israeli society's new consensus de jour. A man who enjoys public admiration not seen, it seems, since Yitzhak Rabin led the IDF and Israel to victory in the Six Day War.

Though hailed for his part in Operation Cast Lead, history will probably remember Ashkenazi, 54, first and foremost as the man who took over from Dan Halutz.

Last week, unbeknown to anyone, Ashkenazi drove down to the Gaza Strip. Even IDF Spokesman Brigadier-General Avi Benayahu was kept out of the loop. Normally, such a visit would make headlines and be accompanied by scores of shutterbugs, but not this time. The Israeli offensive in Gaza has Ashkenazi preoccupied with things other than public relations.

The Friday before the ground incursion into the Strip Ashkenazi drove south, gathered the troops and briefed them on the situation. He was assured that the change he has been trying to introduce in the army since he took office was indeed taking hold, when the senior officers in the field told him they would be leading the troops in, personally. "He has to be in the field," said Deputy Defense Minister MK Matan Vilnai (Labor-Meimad). "He is doing things we have forgotten must be done."

Leading by example

Ashkenazi's belief in leading by example is anything but hype: He spent every single day of the Gaza offensive wearing his field uniform, gun in holster, and sleeping in his office at the IDF Kirya Base in Tel Aviv. At night, when the roads are empty, he can make it back home to Kfar Saba in about 15 minutes; but then again, as he said, the commander of the Golani Brigade has not been sleeping in his own bed lately, either.

"Ashkenazi fits Israeli society like a glove," a senior officer deployed to Gaza said. "That might not have been the case in the past, but now, after the Second Lebanon War, after a chief of staff who was all about hubris and technology, we have a guy that says 'listen up – this is war and we have to be brave, we have to charge forward, we have to lead.' This is the kind of thing they teach you about."

The Gaza offensive has Ashkenazi living by "warfare time": He starts his day with a security briefing held in the Kirya bunker, goes on to a strategy forum, where he authorizes targets and give his top officers their daily orders; and then has two separate situation briefings. He goes out to the filed as often as he can and makes sure to speak with the hospital administrators treating the wounded soldiers, daily .

He kept his cool, we were told, upon hearing of the deadly friendly fire incident, which took place in the northern Gaza neighborhood of Jabalya and claimed the lives of three soldiers, leaving 24 wounded. The message was clear: You do not let success go to you head any more than you let failure stop you in your tracks.

The soldiers love him. "When he's with the troops, you see a guy that is all about the field; not someone that just drops in, says 'Hi, how are you' and give a lecture about his latest conversation with the prime minister," said a senior officer. "He talks about what needs to be done and people admire him for that, for speaking to them at eye-level.

"Personally, I think that what changed the most is the fighting spirit. It's exactly what the military needed and you can see it run through the entire chain of command."

The difference between the IDF of 2006 and that of today is noted in more than just the newfound spirit: "The military readiness is exceptional," said Major-General (Res.) Danny Rothschild. "The home front, equipment wise, warfare tactics – you see it in almost every aspect."

Learning from the best

The most noted change has to do with the so-called "LCD culture": "We all remember the brigade commanders in the Second Lebanon War, sitting at their computers while their men were in the field," said Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee member and Minister of Pensioner Affairs Rafi Eitan. "Now they are the first in the field. Ashkenazi understands modern warfare, but he has re-infused the military with indispensable spirit. "

Ashkenazi, despite the responsibility he now shoulders, has stayed in the field: "He took an active part in some of the pre-war operations," said Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee member MK Isaac Ben-Israel (Kadima). "The primary quality a chief of staff must have, is the ability to focus on what's really important, to understand the gist of things, often in the midst of a lot of hustle and confusion. That's a quality Ashkenazi has in abundance."

Ahead of the military campaign, Ashkenazi "enlisted" the help of Uri Sagi, Eyal Ben-Reuven, Yom-Tov Samia, Yoram Yair and several others – all retired IDF generals with dozens of years of filed experience between them. "He is willing to listen, learn and take advice, and he lends that tone to his officers," said Yair. "The experience men who have seen past wars have is priceless, and being open to it is very important."

He also spends time – too much time if you ask him –meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and other members of the National Security Cabinet.

Those close to Ashkenazi say he sits in the cabinet meetings with obvious reluctance, estranged to the political territory. Nevertheless, prior to launching the Gaza offensive, he spent hours in the cabinet, ensuring the ministers understood every last detail; so that he would not be held solely responsible if the campaign failed, some said.

The chief of staff is not a favorite among politicians and scarcely appears before the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "There is a feeling he looks down on the committee," said one of its members. "He's this great commander who doesn’t really answer to anyone, and he tends to be blunt... Maybe the situation makes him nervous."

Ode to ambiguity

The past several months have seen Ashkenazi reluctant to take Gaza's Palestine Square. "He's very cautious. Loosing soldiers is a very sensitive matter as far as he's concerned," said a fellow General Staff officer. "He lost men before, his son is with the Egoz Brigade and ordering a ground incursion was not easy for him, although he ended up supporting the move."

Once the operational strategies of a surprise air raid on Gaza were decided on, the details made their way out of the cabinet meeting, prompting Hamas heads to go underground. Ashkenazi lobbied to postpone the offensive, saying he "will not strike at real estate." Along with the political echelon, he then devised a series of decoy maneuvers meant to lead Hamas into a false sense of security: IDF forces went on leave and Barak suggested Israel will reopen the crossings. The move, however, proved only partially successful as only some of Hamas' officials took the bait.

The more complex the Gaza situation became, the more ambiguous Ashkenazi's opinions seem to get. When Barak advocated holding fire, when Livni said it was time for a unilateral ceasefire and when Olmert was adamant to forge on, Ashkenazi kept silent. He said the military should be kept out of the political discourse and presented the government with data, contingencies and operational options; but ultimately, he left the final decisions up to them.

Some say it is a case of him internalizing the lessons of the Winograd Commission, others say he operates with the next commission of inquiry in mind: "It's like he's saying 'I will not be the one making decisions for you. I work for you – tell me what to do and I'll do it'," said a source close to Olmert. "His message in very clear and very different from Halutz', who always had an opinion about everything."

Some, however, see Ashkenazi's constant evading as being overly cautious: "No one expect Ashkenazi to pull chestnuts out of the fire for anyone, but when the chief of staff has a clear point of view it has a different impact than a minister's one, because a minister will always be seen as someone who has a political agenda, something the chief of staff is free of," said a source in the Defense Ministry. "Maybe it’s the trauma caused by the outcome of previous wars, where the chief of staff was always made to be the scapegoat, that's making him be so guarded."

Politics of war

Waging war with an election looming is not as easy task. Ashkenazi himself has been heard saying, jokingly, that he would not recommend to any of his peers – chiefs of staff around the world – to begin a military campaign during election time.

Shortly before the Gaza offensive began, Barak forbade him from meeting Olmert. Olmert "retaliated" by not sending Mossad Chief Meir Dagan to Defense Ministry meetings. Ashkenazi said nothing. His private meeting with Olmert resumed a month ago.

Unlike the relationship Olmert and Halutz had in 2006, the one the prime minister has with Ashkenazi is far more formal; but Olmert still holds Ashkenazi in high regard and appreciates the chemistry he has with Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin.

Ashkenazi's relationship with Barak is far more intense. Cabinet and Defense Ministry meetings aside, they meet once or twice a day, privately, atop several phone conversations, all in an effort to present a united front. This harmonious relationship, said people familiar with the inner workings of the defense establishment, is a rarity: "There is absolutely no tension between them, they pose no threat to one another and they see eye to eye on things," said a security source.

Mr. discipline

Some, however, say there is more to the situation than meets the eye: "Ashkenazi is completely dismissive of Barak," said an aide to Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu. "He doesn’t let him have a say in nominations and promotions within the military, even though it is up to the defense minister to shape the military's top echelon. Ashkenazi manages somehow to keep Barak away from such things… On top of that, his generals are afraid to speak directly with the defense minister, because they would seemingly be going over his head if they did that. It can't be good if the senior officers are afraid to speak their mind."

Ashkenazi is indeed considered a strict disciplinarian. "The subject of discipline is very important to Gabi," said Brigadier General (Res.) Giora Inbar. "Even his deputy,

Major-General Dan Harel salutes him when he enters his office. Some would say that that's the way things should work in the military, but other think that at that level things would be a little friendlier."

Sources in the General Staff admitted that all the senior officers, Harel included, do salute Ashkenazi, "but only in the presence of strangers," never when they are alone. It is sign of respect, not fear, they said.

A senior officer, recently discharged, offers a different perspective: "He's brutal, he's impatient and he shuts you up. He's also unpredictable and he holds a grudge, that's why everyone is scared."

Battle scars

Normally, he reserved the weekends for his family. The Ashkenazis lead a modest life, and own an apartment in Kfar Saba. When he was named chief of staff, Ashkenazi gathered all of his neighbors and apologized in advance for any inconvenience they might experience. He shies away from glitzy parties and fancy restaurants, and goes hiking as often as he can, usually in northern Israel - a terrain he is vastly familiar with form his days as GOC Northern Command.

Ashkenazi is one of the few senior officers in today's General Staff to have taken part in the Yom Kippur War, as well in operations Litani and Entebbe. He later became commander of the Golani Brigade and later still head of the IDF's Operations Branch under then Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and in 1998 was named GOC Northern Command.

In 1999, then-Prime Minister Barak tasked him with pulling the Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon, and gave him 48 hours to complete the mission. Ashkenazi delivered in half the time. The withdrawal's afterglow came to an end 18 month later, with the October kidnapping of staff sergeants Adi Avitan, Omar Souad and Benny Avraham by Hizbullah at the Mount Dov sector; which took place after Hizbullah blew up one of the sector's gates and ambushed the three.

A subsequent inquiry report, complied by former Head of the Northern Command Yossi Peled, cleared Ashkenazi from any direct operational responsibility and noted that he was the one who warned his superiors that the gate might be compromised. The Report did, however, fault him for inaccurately marking the sector's boundaries, as far as Division 36 and Division 91 – the two manning it – were concerned. "Everyone is trying to play it down, but the truth is that three soldiers were abducted under his command," said a recently retired senior officer. "That was not a simple thing and it stayed with him."

The ambiguity seems to be working so far. With the exception of three Israeli reporters who were granted limited access to the battlefield, the only images emerging from Gaza are those taken by the IDF Spokesman's Unit. Operation Cast Lead has been represented in the media almost solely by IDF Spokesman Benayahu, and Ashkenazi's silence is perceived by the public as a wise move meant to serve the IDF's interests.

"He has a reason for not giving any interviews," said a senior member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "He doesn’t like the feeling of not having any control on his surrounding. Once you keep quiet, people see is as a sign of intelligence. The media doest say anything because anyone he criticizes him won't be given any information. The IDF has everyone by the balls."

"When he finally does give interview, everyone will see just how articulate he is," said Inbar. "It's just that right now, he knows the public doesn’t expect the chief of staff to babble. Everyone talked during the Second Lebanon War and most of it was utter nonsense, so now (the IDF) is going in the opposite direction."

Resistance is futile

But not everyone is a member of the Ashkenazi fan club. The Left claims that he has crossed every red line conceivable in his shelling of Gaza.

"This has been the most inhumane fight in the history of the IDF," said prominent leftist persona Uri Avnery. "Ashkenazi strikes me as the kind of man who only looks at the technical aspects of things and allows for no human consideration. I see him as war machine… It wouldn’t surprise me if when all this is done, the world will demand he be tried at The Hague."

The word in Gaza, said a Palestinian reporter, "is that he is incapable of making his own decisions; that he is Olmert and Barak's lackey and that he is only following orders. They say he is a quiet man, but I think he just hates Arabs."

Ashkenazi was considered as a possible chief of staff back in 2005, after then-Chief Moshe Yaalon was dismissed, but then-Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz ended up choosing IAF Chief Dan Halutz.

Shortly after Amir Peretz took over the Defense Ministry he decided to name Ashkenazi director-general of the ministry. The two formed a solid working relationship, which prevailed over their disagreements – the most notable of all involving the Iron Dome project: Peretz pressed for the anti-missile system project, meant to protect Israel against short-to-mid range rockets; but Ashkenazi thought that at $50,000 per-interception, it was a colossal waste of money, but nevertheless tackled the mission, full steam ahead.

"That's one of his better qualities, maintaining professional integrity. He'll fight for his point of view, but once a decision is made, he will give it his all," said a security source.

In the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War and once Halutz tendered his resignation, Peretz named Ashkenazi IDF chief of staff. "Working with him only increased my admiration for him," said Peretz. "You can see his motivation stems from a sense of responsibility for the State. In knew he was the right man for the job."

When the going gets tough

Ashkenazi set out to revolutionize the IDF. As soon as he took office he began overturning his predecessor's decision, forming new division and reinstating the Logistics Directorate.

He came up with a five-year plan meant to restore the IDF's might. When he brought it before the cabinet, it was so important to him that the ministers become verse in its details that the meeting took 12 hours.

Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee member MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud), however, tried to temper the enthusiasm: "We cannot allow for euphoria over the success in Gaza," he said. "We have to give the IDF credit for being able to beat Hamas with a relatively small number of casualties, but it says nothing about our ability to deal with Hizbullah or Syria."

"None of the brigade, division or company commanders is euphoric, I can promise you that," said a source close to the chief of staff. "No one will try to portray Gaza like another Six Day War. Gabi is the last one to rest on any laurels and the last one to cut anyone any slack.

"The military, this operation will undergo the same scrutiny and inquires as the failed excursion in Lebanon."