Tel Aviv, Israel 61321
|Meeting The Israeli General Staff|
"From the Mud to the Bunker"
By Yoav Keren, 'Saturday Supplement', Maariv, 28 July 2006, p. 12-13 & 30
The reference in the title is to the "mud" of Lebanon - the 'Vietnamization' of the Lebanese conflict of 1982-2000, and of its influence on the members of the current General Staff.
translated from Hebrew with comments and minor editing by Historama.com
Their first baptism of fire most of them experienced around the Litani River and on the way to Beirut. In recent days many of them appear on the television screens but the public almost doesn't recognize their faces. Who are the members of the General Staff who today manage the second Lebanon War? A group portrait
At one-thirty in the afternoon the Hizballah stonghold fell. The terrorists, fortified inside bunkers and trenches and armed with heavy machine guns, displayed intense resistance until the last moment. Mortar fire was directed from Shiite positions from outside the Lebanese village, and hand grenades were thrown from the windows of one-story houses. The commander of the 202nd paratrooper battalion encountered a terrorist who appeared suddenly before him with an armed RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] rocket launcher. They both pressed on the trigger. The battalion commander was faster.
"We fired artillery, we were enthusiastic. This was our first time in a war", recalled afterwards 2nd-Lieutenant Aharon Khaliba, commander of the mortar platoon in the supporting company. "The fear began when they fired artillery back on us". In the battle, which lasted eight hours, 40 Hizballah members were killed. The IDF lost three of its fighters, among them the company commander Captain Zion Mizrachi. The operation was crowned a success. The price was heavy.
This took place on 4 May 1988, in the village of Meidun, which was north of the security zone, on the way to Jezine. The commander of the mortar platoon, Khaliba, is today a colonel - commander of the 'Ephraim' brigade, of the Judea-Samaria Division. The battalion commander of the 202nd, who brought the force into the depths of Lebanon, has since changed the red beret with an orange one. Today he is commander of the Home Front Command, and is called Yitzhak Gershon, although everyone knows him as Jerry.
This week, 18 years after the battle at Meidun, fought the soldiers of the Golani infantry brigade, the paratroopers and the armoured forces in the streets of Bint-Jabel. For most of them this is their first time in Lebanon. When the IDF hastily evacuated the command post of the eastern brigade which was located in that same town, they were still students in junior high school. But the generals of the General Staff who are managing now the fighting grew up in Lebanon. For them, this war is another chapter in the continuing romance with this crumbling country, a romance which has known ups and downs and a lot of blood and tears.
WITHDRAWAL AFTER WITHDRAWAL
If there's something in common between the officers of the General Staff of today, it's the Lebanon experience. She was burned into them when they were young soldiers in Operation Litani in 1978, company commanders in the "Peace for Gallilee" campaign , battalion commanders in the long years of wallowing in the mud, and brigade commanders during the withdrawal [May 2000]. "I entered Lebanon as the platoon commander's signal operator in Operation Litani, with paratrooper brigade I reached Juniah in the north, and returned from there with small steps, withdrawal after withdrawal, until I exited through the gate for the last time", recounted once the commander of the ground forces, Major-General Benny Ganz, who was the commander of the Liaison Unit for Lebanon during the withdrawal [of 2000] and who locked Fathma Gate with his own hands in May 2000, with the hope tht no one would have to open it again.
The Lebanon war was their first war. Only three from amongst the members of the General Staff participated in the Yom Kippur War . The Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz, aged 58, was a student in flight school during the Six-Day War , and a 'Phantom' pilot during the War of Attrition [1968-70] and in 1973. The head of the Intelligence Directorate [called 'Aman' in Hebrew - from the words "Agaf ha Modi'in"], Maj-Gen. Amos Yadlin, aged 55, completed flight school a short time before the Yom Kippur War, and participated in it as a young pilot. When the Air Force attacked the nuclear power plant in Iraq, in Summer 1981, Yadlin was one of eight F-16 pilots who dropped the bombs. The commander of the Navy, Maj-Gen. David Ben-Basat, aged 56, was in 1973 a deputy commander of a missile boat, and participated in the naval battles which are considered to be one of the big victories of the war. It's possible to imagine that the pictures from those days crossed his mind when, two weeks ago, he received the reports on the Iranian missile which hit the missile boat across the coast of Beirut.
The rest of the generals of the General Staff were recruited after the Yom Kippur War, and underwent their first baptism of fire in the land of the cedars [i.e. Lebanon]. The officer who is identified more than any other with the continuing fighting in Lebanon is the Deputy Chief of Staff, Maj-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky (Kaplan), aged 49. When the IDF launched Operation Litani, he was a squad commander in the Golani squad commanders' course. Reserve Colonel Khai Morad was then the company's deputy commander. The deputy commander of the course was Yeremi Olmert, the brother of the Prime Minister. "There was very fierce fighting in the central sector, a full night against terrorists who were fortified in trenches", recalls Morad. "Kaplan was a real shackle, displayed cool nerved. People followed after him in the trenches. The title of exceptional student which he received in the squad commanders course justified itself".
In the Summer of 1982, two weeks before Operation "Peace for Gallilee", Kaplan was appointed to be the commander of 'Sayeret Golani' [the special/reconnaissance force of the Golani brigade]. He was wounded in the first moments of the battle to conquer the Beaufort Fortress, and his place was taken by his predecessor in the role, Major Goni Hernik. Goni was killed on the Beaufort. Two of Kaplan's best friends themselves also fell in Lebanon: Lieut-Col. Amir Mitel and Brigadier Erez Gerstein, commander of the Liaison Unit for Lebanon. Kaplan was commander of the Golani brigade at the height of the fighting in the security zone, and at the time of the withdrawal served as commander of the Galillee Division.
Other generals are also pretty familiar with Lebanon. They learned her through their legs, from above the turret of a tank, and through the cover of a fighter-plane, and now they are meeting with her again through the screens of the control and supervision systems in the high command post, in the control post of the air force and in the naval command post, in the "bunker" of the military complex [the "kirya", meaning 'complex'; in Hebrew it's also nicknamed the "bunker" or "hole"] in Tel Aviv. But for the chief of Northern Command, Maj-Gen. Udi Adam, aged 48, who is currently managing the fighting on the ground in south Lebanon, Lebanon is much more than a personal experience. His father, Maj-Gen. Yekutiel "Kuti" Adam [the Deputy Chief of Staff] was killed at the gates of Beirut at the start of Peace for Galillee, two days before his appointment to be the head of Mossad [the intelligence agency].
It's difficult to estimate how much the Lebanon experience influences the generals of the General Staff also today, when they're sitting in situational evalutations and thinking groups and discussing the possibilities of entering large ground forces instead of pinpointed operations. This must not cause the mistaken application of force against the Hizballah, warns the former chief of Southern Command, Maj-Gen. Doron Almog, who thinks that they should have begun with a substantial ground movement already in the first two days of the current campaign in Lebanon. "The trauma of Lebanon still exists", says reserve General Almog, "but the way to deal with it is not to cut off the force on the ground. The head of "Aman" [military intelligence] spoke this week on the deepening of our deterrent capabilities, but what kind of message are we sending when we're afraid of ground warfare?"
But the long years of warfare in Lebanon aren't just a scar, but also a practical experience. In spite of the fact that command over a company is not similar to running a campaign from the position of a manager of the fighting, in the "bunker" (a position which is filled alternately filled by the Deputy Chief of Staff Kaplinsky, the head of the Operations Directorate, Maj-Gen. Gadi Eizencott, and the head of the Operations Division, Brigadier Sammy Turgeman), the combat experience and the command experience have no small importance.
Officers who know Eizencott from the period when he was commander of the Judea-Samaria Division say that when he reconnoitered the territory he would tell his company commanders: "train like you're in Lebanon, because we may perhaps need to return there". To the officers of the armoured corps he would say: "Put a tank in the battalion and train on it, because one day perhaps we will return to Lebanon". The Lebanon experience was therefore always there, in the background. Also when the fighting centered on Judea, Samaria and Gaza.
GENERAL STAFF WITH WINGS
"In order to be a Chief of the General Staff and to approve an operation on the scale of a battalion, brigade or division, it's important that you have practical experience", says reserve Maj-Gen. Giora Eiland, who was until recently the head of the National Security Council and served in his last military position as the head of the Planning Directorate in the General Staff. "But this also has a price: you're liable to be drawn into memories of the past and to manage the wars of the past instead of the wars of the present". The former Chief of Staff, reserve Lieut-Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shakhak: "The experience which people acquired in Lebanon influences them positively. When people are familiar with a sector of fighting and are familiar with the enemy in an intimate way, this helps to reach the right decisions".
But in the end just one man makes the decisions and decides what will be the military's recommendations to the policy-makers. And for the first time in the history of the IDF this man is a pilot and not a "ground" person. Next to Chief of Staff [Dan] Halutz sit in the General Staff two more pilots: the head of the Intelligence Directorate, Yadlin, and the commander of the Air Force, Maj-Gen. Eliezer Shakedy, aged 49. In the near future will join them another general in blue uniform: the former head of the Air Force Staff, Brigadier Idan Nekhushtan, who will replace Maj-Gen. Yitzhak "Khaki" Harel as head of the Planning Directorate.
The three senior pilots who competed amongst themselves two and a half years ago for the position of head of the Air Force will find themselves around the General Staff table at whose head sits the formed head of the Air Force. Nekhushtan still doesn't hold an official position in the forum of the General Staff, but a source who is familiar with the forces at work says that he is close to the ears of the Chief of Staff, and that the latter greatly values the other's ideas. The things are correct, says another source, also as regards Brigadier Ami Shafran, an Intelligence Corps-man, who was until lately the head of the Defense Minister's staff, and expected to rise in rank to Maj-Gen. and to compete to be the head of the Communications Directorate, which includes the areas of communications and computers.
Is the fact that the Chief of Staff and two of his generals wear pilot wings the reason that for ten days the fighting in Lebanon focused on airborne operations? The answer is not unequivocal. There are those who claim that Air Force men are afflicted by the over-estimation of the achievments that can be reached through an air campaign. Also reserve Maj-Gen. Almog believes that there exists a connection between the military origins of the Chief of Staff and the manner of his application of force.
"Halutz and Yadlin, who come from the air arm, were aware of the application of air forces with new effects and an unusual intensity of fire", says Almog. "The Hizballah sustained an extarordinary strategic blow, but it's not enough, and the question is why is the employment of ground forces taking so much time". A person who knows Halutz well said once that he "looks through bincoulars which look from the top on down".
A former senior officer adds that in the reality in which the Chief of Staff is a pilot, the regional commander has to be a very dominant figure in order to push for a broader ground operation. "It's possible that if the identity of the regional commander was different, so too would the application of force be different", says the officer. A source who is knowledgeable in the work processes of the General Staff of Halutz says that Deputy Chief of Staff, Kaplan, and the head of the Operations Directorate, Eizencott, are trying to pull in a direction of more ground operations, but do this "gently", as he puts it. "Kaplan and Gadi have confidence in the ground forces and they know them well", he says. "Even the head of Northern Command, who wants to achieve victory and conclusion, is trying to pull in this direction and with that also the commander of the ground forces, Benny Ganz, who was before then the head of Northern Command".
But reserve Lieut-Gen. Lipkin-Shakhak doesn't think there exists a connection between the military origins of the Chief of Staff and the manner of the fighting. "I'm not sure that a different Chief of Staff would have used the Air Force less", he says. "In Operation 'Rendering of Accounts' and 'Clouds of Anger' (during which Shakhak served as the Chief of Staff), most of the application was that of the Air Force. A different Chief of Staff would have used the force in a very similar manner. The airborne abilities developed greatly in the last decade, and it's a mistake not to make use of them".
This way or that, those who carry out the directives of the Chief of Staff and of the politicians are the members of the General Staff - heads of directorates, heads of the branches, and regional commanders - and of 17 generals who sit around the table at the meetings of the Staff forum, 14 of them are ground forces people. Three of them sport brown berets [of the Golani brigade] and served in the past as commanders of the the Golani brigade: Kaplan, Eizencott and the commander of Central Command, Yair Nave. Four other generals grew up in the paratroopers: the commander of the ground forces, Ganz, the head of the Home Front Command, Gershon (Jerry), the head of the Human Resources Directorate, Elazar Shtern' and the president of the military Appellate Court, Yishai Bar. To them we must add the military secretary to the Prime Minister, Maj-Gen. Gadi Shamni.
Five generals are graduates of the armoured corps: head of Northern Command, Adam, the head of the Planning Directorate, Harel, the head of the Logistics and Concentration Directorate, Avi Mizrakhi, the head of the Communications Directorate, Udi Shani, and commander of the colleges Gershon HaCohen (the last two also serve as corps commanders). The coordinator of field operations, Maj-Gen Yosef Mishlav, began his career in the 299th Druze battalion, and the head of Southern Command, Yoav Gallant, was the commander of Flotilla 13 ["Shayetet 13" - the naval commando unit].
We're not talking about a General Staff of celebrities like the General Staff of the Six-Day War, whose members starred on the covers of good year greeting cards and celebratory victory albums. Far from it. Some of the names that have been recalled here are people almost completely anonymous to the general public, and few will identify them in the street. The pictures of the generals Avi Mizrakhi or Yitzhak Harel appeared in the paper only a few times.
Three of the central officers of the General Staff, apart from the Chief of Staff himself, are in their positions less than a year and a half, and were appointed after the appointment of Halutz as Chief of Staff: Deputy Chief of Staff Kaplinsky, head of the Operations Directorate Eizencott (whose first position as a general this is), and the head of the Intelligence Directorate Yadlin. Reserve Maj-Gen. Almog doesn't see a problem in this. "This General Staff is older and more experienced than those of the past", he says. "Moshe Dayan was 40-plus as Chief of Staff, so too also Dado [David Elazar] and [Yitzhak] Rabin. Halutz, by contrast, is 58 years old. The IDF has a process of maturation. At the age of today's company commanders, I was already a battalion commander. Perhaps there are generals who are in their position less than a year and a half, but they come with a case full of experience".
One like that in the opinion of many is the Deputy Chief of Staff, Kaplan. In the framework of his position he deals mostly with the building of the army (or in the IDF jargon: the building of the force), in the organizational changes that are taking place in the IDF and in special tasks like the separation fence and the area of the demarkation [between Israel and the Palestinian territories]. He's also one of the three managers of the fighting who man the high command's post since the beginning of the confrontation in the north, and of course stands in for the Chief of Staff during his absences. But beyond his official duties Kaplan enjoys a special standing in his being the most senior ground forces officer in the IDF (there are those who nickname him "Mr. Ground", next to the unofficial title "head of the Golanchik tribe" ["Golanchik" - a member of the Golani brigade] which he inherited from Maj-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi). Before then also his great experience in field assignments, in warfare against the Palestinians and as head of Central Command and in the national and political arena as the military secretary to Prime Minister Sharon. However he is not the only one in the General Staff who served as a military secretary: also Eizencott and Galant passed through the aquarium of the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem.
Kaplan, a product of Sharon's cultivation, is equipped with a promise from Halutz to serve as deputy for four years, until the Chief of Staff completes his tenure. This was supposed to promise him the position as the next Chief of Staff. "I awarded Kaplan the rank of corporal", says reserve Col. Khai Morad. "We have an agreement amongst ourselves: when he receives the last rank I'll be there at the ceremony to shake his hand. He once told me that he's not sure this will happen, but I promised him that he will be Chief of Staff".
In the era after Sharon, it's not certain that Morad's promise will come to be. It is possible that the next Chief of Staff will be actually the commander of the ground forces Ganz, one of the young officers of the General Staff. He is aged 47, but possesses great experience in a variety of field commands. The competition between him and Kaplan for the position of the next Chief of Staff is in the background all the time, nevertheless sources who know the two claim that the issue doesn't taint the atmosphere in the corridors of the General Staff.
As the commander of the ground forces, Ganz oversees ten corps, among them the adjutancy, logistics and ordnance, which were brought over to his responsibility at the start of the year in the framework of the organizational reform which Halutz announced. He's entrusted with the training and placement of 60 percent of the IDF's soldiers and 30 percent of the budget. But his formal responsibility is for the building of a ground force and he is not responsible for its activation and operation in wartime. This responsibility in Lebanon is placed in the hands of the regional commander [north] Adam and the Chief of Staff above him.
In actuality Ganz has no small influence on the operational processes. His ideas are heard in the meetings of the General Staff, in situational evaluations and in the more intimate thinking groups, and the Chief of Staff does not disregard his former experience as head of northern command and as commander of the Liaison Unit for Lebanon. Ganz is also counted among the smaller group of senior officers who present on television on a nightly basis the progress of the fighting and from time to time joins Halutz in tours of the sectors of the fighting.
Ganz has been thought of as a rising star already for a number of years, but there are also in the General Staff other stars whose radiance dulls with the changing of the leaders. One of them is Shtern, head of the Human Resources Directorate, who earned much appreciation from the part of the former Defense Minister and Chief of Staff, Shaul Mofaz. Between the two is a personal friendship, and when the Mofaz-es come to the north, they make a point of visiting the Shtern family in Mitzpe Hoshiah. There are those who claim that the changes in the Defense Minister's office don't bode well for his standing of Shtern in the General Staff.
By contrast, there is a series of relatively young officers who are not members of the General Staff but are known to have much influence in the circle around Halutz. One of the prominent among them is the assistant to the Chief of Staff, Col. Ronni Noma, who entered his position just a few months ago. Before then he was commander of the Nachal infantry brigade, commander of the Ramallah brigade and commander of the Air Force's "Shaldag" [special] force, where he first met Halutz.
"Noma is a super 'cannon' [a "great fighter/person"]", says an officer in one of the directorates of the General Staff, "he's the most suitable person next to the ears of the Chief of Staff. It's very important that an Air Force man have a person next to him who knows well the ground situation, a field man who is also a thinking person. All the senior people go through him, and he decides which issues will come up for treatment by the Chief of Staff and which ones will be dealt with by himself. He relieves the Chief of Staff of a lot of issues". By Noma's side is the head of the Chief of Staff's office, Lieut-Col. Yaron Finkelman. He is also a ground forces person, who developed in the paratrooper brigade.
And we mustn't forget one other officer, who was appointed just yesterday as the General Manager of the Ministry of Defense, and contributes from his great experience to the Minister Amir Peretz. The former Deputy Chief of Staff and head of Northern Command, Maj-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi hoped to be appointed Chief of Staff, but Halutz overtook him in the race. Now he returns to the arena and it remains to be seen how the "Golanchik" and the pilot, who both grew up in the moshav of Khagor, get along together in the glass tower of the "Kirya" in Tel Aviv.