Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi: A Balance Sheet

By February 13, 2011

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 129

This Perspectives Paper was written before the publication of the conclusions of the State Comptroller’s investigation of the Galant affair, including the Chief of Staff’s role, if any, in the matter.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi’s greatest achievement is the restoration of Israeli public faith in the IDF as an effective fighting force after the failures of the Second Lebanon War. An overall assessment of his tenure, however, also points to shortcomings in areas such as IDF battle doctrine and commanders’ education.

With Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi’s term as Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff coming to an end, a balance sheet of achievement can be drawn up. It can be said that Ashkenazi’s greatest accomplishment is the repair and renewal of the Israeli public’s faith in the IDF’s highest echelon. He has been perceived both by IDF troops and the Israeli public as a forthright fighter and commander who rebuilt the IDF’s operational effectiveness after the 2006 Lebanon War misfortunes. Improvement in IDF performance was clearly evident in Operation Cast Lead in 2009, an operation perceived by many as a successful military campaign.

Ashkenazi also has been a very cautious and taciturn Chief of Staff, not given to grandiose statements or bombast. Some of his critics have interpreted this, wrongly, as a lack of offensive spirit and audacity.

Under Ashkenazi, the IDF has improved upon several areas of weakness by reinstating old practices. These include: a lot of training; a more balanced military buildup which recognizes that the ground forces have not become obsolete; greater logistic autonomy and sustainability in the combat units (a lesson learned from the failure of a centralized logistics system during the 2006 war); and the renewal of division and brigadier level commanders courses. For the first time, ground forces, navy and air force officers have studied together in the Command and Staff College in order to strengthen their ability to carry out joint operations.

In recent years, the IDF Ground Forces Command doctrine department has been very active in distributing doctrinal materials to commanders at the regiment and brigade level, and commanders at these levels have been given mandatory professional reading lists.

Greater emphasis also has been placed during Ashkenazi’s term on training officers in the rules of war and international law, as part of officer training courses for commanders at the company, battalion and brigade levels. The IDF and Foreign Ministry have also been cooperating closely with foreign governments and international organizations to ensure the legality of all IDF operations. Furthermore, Ashkenazi has taken a firm stand on commanders’ ethical behavior as highlighted by his dismissal of two outstanding brigadier generals whose integrity had been stained. He has done all of this with a semi-hostile defense minister breathing down his neck.

Ashkenazi also has worked methodically in preparing a military option vis-à-vis Iran.

Four issues, however, cast a shadow on his tenure. The first issue concerns the IDF’s so-called operational doctrine. The Winograd Commission criticized the operational concept that had been crystallized under former Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, due to its heavy reliance on firepower (especially airpower) and its underestimation of the need for ground forces maneuverability. Ashkenazi seemed to be the right man to formulate a new operational concept.

When one observes his behavior on this important matter, however, one discerns two contradictory attitudes. On one hand, in 2008 Ashkenazi expressed unequivocal commitment to quick battlefield decisions in any type of confrontation the IDF engages in. But battlefield decisions usually require employing a significant number of ground forces. Is that really what the general staff is planning to do in the next war?

Declarations by Northern Command Chief Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot leave us confused as to what the IDF’s real operational concept is. In an interview with Yediot Aharonot in August 2008, Eisenkot said that in the next war the IDF would reapply the so-called “Dahiyya strategy” in response to rockets and missiles launched against Israel, though this time with even greater destructive force and without hesitating to use disproportional firepower against civilian targets in Lebanon, and if necessary in Syria. He described the hunting down of missile launchers by ground forces as “sheer nonsense.” Eisenkot made clear that this was not merely his personal view but a strategy that had already been adopted by the highest military echelons.

Another area where Ashkenazi has been sending contradictory messages pertains to commanders’ education. In 2007, in reaction to a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee report, which pointed to lacunae in that field, he declared that he considered commanders’ education as something elementary whose importance was self-evident. He also pointed to several steps he had already taken in order to improve commanders’ education.

At the same time, however, he left in the position of Chief of the Military Colleges an officer who continuously expressed opinions that were detrimental to serious professional education. Maj. Gen. Gershon HaCohen, the college commander, openly stated in late 2007 that he did not see any benefit in studying military theory and history – two basic, core topics in every serious professional military education in the developed world. (HaCohen said that, like love, until one experiences war personally one cannot understand what it is all about.)

In his 2006 report, the State Comptroller also pointed to certain gaps in the officer corps’ education and training process, such as the lack of sufficient knowledge at the brigade and division levels, the lack of sufficient skills and experience on the part of military instructors at the National Defense College, and a preference on the part of senior commanders to attend academic programs that provide them with managerial skills rather than military and security knowledge relevant to their profession. According to the report, most IDF senior commanders were not National Defense College graduates.

Despite the few improvements in commanders’ education during Ashkenazi’s term, neither the State Comptroller nor Ashkenazi seem to have been aware of the fact that military issues are hardly studied at the National Defense College. In other words, even if more senior commanders had graduated from the college, they probably would not have improved their understanding of the military field.

A third shortcoming of Ashkenazi’s tenure as Chief of Staff concerns the increased reliance on legal advice during military operations. The Winograd Commission expressed concern over the growing reliance on legal advisers in the course of military operations – a phenomenon that has been coined “judicialization.” The Commission rightly warned against shifting the responsibility from commanding officers to advisers, which might divert commanders’ attention from their operational challenges. But instead of focusing on educating commanders to operate under moral and legal constraints, in January 2010 it was reported that Ashkenazi had issued an order requiring consultation with the army’s legal advisers not only in the planning stage of an operation but even while the military mission is underway. In order to prevent legal advisers from disrupting combat, however, they were authorized to work only with divisional headquarters rather than with brigade or battalion headquarters, as is common in some Western armies.

A fourth cloud that hangs over Ashkenazi’s head has to do with his performance during the Mavi Marmara flotilla affair. The IDF, under his command, deviated from the practice of planning for the worst plausible case, preparing instead for a best-case scenario. Israeli commandos lacked basic intelligence on the passengers on board, many of whom were radical Islamists prepared to die in confrontation with IDF troops. Furthermore, despite the delicate and complex situation, Ashkenazi did not personally run the operation, leaving this task instead to the IDF naval chief.

Generally speaking, Gabi Ashkenazi has been a good IDF Chief of Staff. He leaves behind a much stronger IDF that is better placed to deter Israel’s enemies and fight against them. While Hizballah and Hamas weapons pose a greater threat than ever to the Israeli home front, Israel’s ability to punish these enemies painfully in a next war has grown exponentially as well. Ashkenazi can take credit for this improvement in IDF operational capabilities, and he has effectively forced Israel’s enemies into a corner: they will suffer mightily if they use their rockets or missiles against Israel. This is something that the next IDF Chief of Staff will have to develop further.

However, in ‎two very important areas – the IDF’s operational doctrine and commanders’ education – ‎Ashkenazi has spoken in two different voices, and his legacy in these areas remains unclear.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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(Photo Credit: IDF)

Prof. Avi Kober
Prof. Avi Kober

Prof. Avi Kober is an associate professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.