Israeli military's disarray adds to fears over Egyptian uprising

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 2, 2011 

JERUSALEM — Israel's top military leadership was in turmoil Wednesday, lacking an army chief or even the prospect of an early appointment as the Arab world continued to erupt in upheaval around it.

Israelis awoke to discover that overnight, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, the incoming chief of staff, had been dismissed, and that feuding between various branches of government had led to an indefinite hiatus for the post. The impasse came as Israelis nervously watched events unfold in Egypt, their neighbor to the south.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Wednesday for "bolstering Israel's might" in response to the turmoil that's unfolding in Egypt. Speaking to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, he repeated Israel's concerns that Egypt could adopt an Islamist regime after President Hosni Mubarak leaves office.

"The basis of our stability, our future and for maintaining peace or widening it, particularly in unstable times, this basis lies in bolstering Israel's might," he added, in his toughest response yet to the week of protests in Egypt.

Netanyahu's speech appeared aimed at soothing worried Israelis, who have closely watched the unfolding events in Egypt.

On Wednesday night, Israel's two leading television news broadcasts led their programming with images of protesters in Egypt chanting anti-Israel slogans. The four-minute segment highlighted anti-Israel fervor among some protesters; a second report showed the clashes Wednesday between Mubarak's backers and his opponents.

"It's frightening. They make us feel like Egyptians are going to come marching over the border and attack us as soon as they are done overthrowing Mubarak," said Dan Oved, a 25-year-old student in Tel Aviv. "Then I watched Al Jazeera English and it was a very different picture."

Al Jazeera is available in Israel for free, though viewers have to request it from their cable companies. An Israeli cable provider said there'd been a huge surge in Israelis calling to request the channel since the upheaval in Egypt began.

"Other TV stations make it seem like the protests are mostly about Egyptians wanting a better life. In Israel, there is an undertone that they want to get us, too," Oved said.

The gap in the top military leadership added to Israel's concerns. .

Late Tuesday night, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak surprised many in the security establishment by announcing that they'd canceled the appointment of Galant — who was to assume the post of Israel Defense Forces chief in about two weeks — after Galant was accused of misappropriating land to build his house.

The move has thrown the IDF into turmoil, as Barak also refused to extend the term of the current IDF chief, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi.

"There is no one to helm the ship," said one Foreign Ministry official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he hadn't been authorized to talk to journalists.

He said Israel's political leaders were at odds with the Defense Ministry, and both were at odds with the IDF.

Since December, Israel has appointed new heads to the Mossad intelligence agency and military intelligence. The high turnover has made many military experts nervous, more so since events in Egypt sparked demonstrations in other Arab countries.

Compounding the nervousness was the revelation that the events in Egypt caught Israeli intelligence by surprise.

"The process of the last few months hurt the IDF, the chief of staff, General Galant, Chief of Staff Ashkenazi and the entire government's status," said Moshe Ya'alon, deputy prime minister and former IDF chief of staff. He said the decision had left the IDF in a "state of insanity."

That sentiment was echoed by Shaul Mofaz, a member of parliament and a former defense minister. In light of the "strategic changes taking place in the Middle East ... the government should have acted differently," Mofaz said.

"Ego and personal considerations made the decision not to extend the current chief of staff's term," added Mofaz, as a direct blow to Barak and Netanyahu.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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