A newspaper expose about a three-year-old tragic military accident is causing headaches for Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, who is widely believed to be appointed Israel’s next interior minister.
Barak, who retired as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force earlier this year, said Yediot, Achronot, Israel’s largest newspaper, lied when it accused him of abandoning wounded soldiers during a military training accident.
The report, which prompted a political firestorm in Israel, could put Barak’s nomination as interior minister on hold and affect his political future, observers believe.
Vehemently denying the account published July 7, Barak, 53, told reporters: “It is untruthful, distorted, mistaken and very harmful for me and all of the army.
“It’s absurd,” he added.
Barak was among three top-level IDF officers who were present at the IDF’s Tze’elim training and practice area in the Negev on Nov. 5, 1992, when a military exercise went awry, killing five Israeli soldiers and wounding six others.
During the practice operation, a live missile was fired accidentally, causing the fatalities. The accident was subsequently known throughout Israel as Tze’elim-2, because two years earlier another fatal training accident had happened at the same location.
According to a report in the London Sunday Times, published in January 1994, the exercise was a rehearsal for an operation aimed at assassinating Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
In October 1994, an Israeli military court found two mid-level army officers guilty of negligence in the training accident.
But while convicting the unnamed major and captain, the court absolved of responsibility Barak and the other two top officers — the recently retired IDF chief of intelligence, Maj. Gen. Uri Saguy, and Maj. Gen. Avraham Levine, who was in charge of the training exercise.
Levine was named the IDF commander in charge of the northern sector, which includes operations in Lebanon, in November.
In its July 7 story, Yediot probed the events that led to the accident, the reaction of the military’s top echelon to it at the time and the accident’s aftermath.
The article, which painted a grim picture of the IDF’s top command, alleged misconduct on the part of some of the top commanders present at the incident.
According to the article, Barak was among those who stood by in stunned paralysis while other generals did their best to assist the wounded.
The report also alleged that Barak flew off in his helicopter and left the area without taking any of the wounded soldiers with him.
The article, casting doubts about the army investigation that followed the training planned by at least one of the commanders involved.
According to the paper, threats and pressure were employed by top army brass to hide or change certain facts and evidence was tampered with. The report also alleged that the officers who stood trial refrained from divulging the whole truth about the incident.
Along with Barak’s vehement denials of the newspaper’s charges, the IDF responded to the report by stating that much of it was “recycled old material and that some of the arguments made are misleading.”
The army, after holding consultations with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, also put a gag order on all those involved, effectively preventing anyone involved in the training accident from commenting on the report.
The chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Ori Orr, last week questioned the timing of the report.
Orr said he viewed the Yediot story as an attempt to prevent Barak from becoming the country’s next interior minister.
Knesset member Binyamin Begin of the opposition Likud Party also attacked the report, which he described as a scandalous smear campaign and malicious character assassination of Barak.