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Israel’s Pick for Army Chief Will Apply Lessons of War with Hezbollah

It’s back to basics for Israel’s armed forces.

The nomination this week of Maj.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi as the next chief of staff signals the country’s desire both to live down the failings of last summer’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon while preparing to win the next showdown with the terrorist group.

Ashkenazi, 52, is a soldier’s soldier, just the figure many Israelis want right now to succeed Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, who resigned last week amid allegations that as a former fighter pilot and Air Force chief, he could not handle a classic guerrilla threat.

Beginning his career in the Golani infantry, Ashkenazi went on to fight in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. But it was in Lebanon, first with the Israeli invasions of 1978 and 1982, and then between 1998 and 2002 when he served as Northern Command chief, that the stocky trooper gained vital expertise.

A statement by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz said they were confident in Ashkenazi’s abilities to fulfill the role successfully and implement the lessons of the Lebanon war.

The quick nomination surprised many, given that the Winograd Commission investigating last summer’s 34-day war is expected to deliver interim findings imminently, and some feel no major moves should be made until the commission speaks.

But unlike his two closest rivals for the chief of staff position, Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinski and Maj.-Gen. Benny Ganz, Ashkenazi can claim to be free of “command culpability” for the war, as he was not in uniform at the time.

Ashkenazi was deputy chief of staff in 2005 when he lost out to Halutz in the race for the top post. He retired and was appointed Defense Ministry director-general, which gave him a familiarity with the civilian side of Israel’s strategic planning.

“This is the first time in the Israel Defense Forces’ history that a general who already lost the race for chief of staff is called back from civilian life to take the post,” Ma’ariv correspondent Amir Rappaport wrote. “On the other hand, Gabi Ashkenazi filled a number of posts that made him a worthy candidate.”

Rappaport added that for Ashkenazi, the priority now is “to get back to the basics of the military profession, to discipline, to the principles of warfare that were forgotten in the Lebanon War in lieu of a baseless preconception about the ability of achieving victory from the air.”

Then there’s the looming threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, something many independent analysts believe may necessitate pre-emptive military action by the United States, Israel or both.

But on at least one front, Syria, Ashkenazi may prove to be surprising.

Alon Ben-David, Israel analyst for Jane’s Defense Weekly, noted that Ashkenazi has spoken recently in favor of Israel responding positively to recent peace overtures from Damascus, even if the ultimate cost is that Israel ends up handing back the Golan Heights.

Ashkenazi also is believed to favor easing conditions on the Palestinians as much as possible, while pressing the fight against West Bank and Gaza Strip terrorist groups.

“Ashkenazi has a forceful style, but he’s no militant,” Ben-David said.

The nomination must be vetted by a judicial committee, followed by a Cabinet vote.

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