Artist and Master – the double duty of Israel’s Aman Chief
By Amir Oren
In five weeks, Israeli voters will elect their representatives to the 120-member Knesset. This is certain, or at least as one can be certain in the age of the unpredictable COVID-19, now in its third year and any number of variants. In Israel’s history, only the Yom Kippur War put off an election, for two months, as a quarter of the electorate was still in uniform and away from polling stations.
Much less definite is what comes next – will the Knesset manage to mobilize a majority behind a new government, or will the nation be thrown into a fifth election campaign in about 30 months. There are three options – Binyamin Netanyahu presiding over a new coalition, his rivals forging an alliance to oust him and an interim government under Netanyahu in power until the next election (or the one after that, etc.)
Whoever is in charge come spring, however, there will be a major reshuffle at the top of Israel’s Defense and Security establishment. Whether Netanyahu clings to power or not, there are going to be new faces at the Defense and Foreign Affairs Ministries, with respective civil servants, Directors-General, running day-to-day operations (though the highly regarded Amir Eshel, a former Air Force Chief and retired Major General who came to Defense with Benny Gantz, may be asked by any successor to Gantz to stay on for professional continuity).
More importantly, there will be new heads at all three Intelligence Community services – the military (Aman), external (MOSSAD) and internal (Shabak) ones. By the end of the year, unless an extension is requested for – not by – Shabak Chief Nadav Argaman, all of them will be gone with the experience accumulated by them and inevitably gained only after a year or so on the job, regardless of previous ones, as opposite numbers or number 2’s understudying their chief.
MOSSAD’s Yossi Cohen was supposed to retire last month but was asked by Netanyahu to delay his departure till June – a telltale sign, last Autumn, that Netanyahu was planning early elections for March. Cohen’s designated successor, publicly known only as D until he emerges in office, has yet to be confirmed by the cabinet. The Attorney General has ordered the entire process frozen pending the formation of a new government free to reaffirm D’s choice or prefer someone else. This may be a lesson from 1996, when the Shimon Peres government confirmed a MOSSAD Chief prior to the election, with the full expectation that Peres would beat Netanyahu and keep the Premiership. When Netanyahu won and the about-to-be-incoming Chief did not ask for a renewed mandate from the new political boss, he was allowed to serve, but Netanyahu pushed him out after two short and turbulent years.
Yet the Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, who also happens to be the chief Law Enforcement Officer and charged Netanyahu with bribery and other offenses, allowed the Police Commissioner General, an even more sensitive position under the domestic circumstances, to be appointed and take office. Netanyahu’s associates say the Prime Minister does not have to consult with anyone, nor get the ministers’ approval, when he chooses a MOSSAD Chief who is going to be his direct subordinate. It is enough for him to report his choice to the cabinet. It cannot be appealed, repealed or outvoted.
Presumably, this is also Netanyahu’s intention if he is still Prime Minister, even a caretaker, when time comes to appoint Argaman’s successor. His wish to elevate to this delicate position his confidant, Meir Ben Shabat – Israel’s MBS, according to iDF wits – is widely known and has already elicited anonymous threats of en masse resignations by former colleagues of Ben Shabat at Shabak, who deem him too politically connected and not enough professionally adequate. If it comes to that, this will not deter Netanyahu, but another Prime Minister will appoint anyone but Ben Shabat.
Spy fiction – and non-fiction – aficionados relish MOSSAD tales of derring-do and agent running, but the most important of the three is the vast Intelligence collection, production and assessment empire of Aman, the Directorate of Military Intelligence, which in American terms would be the Joint Chiefs of Staff J-2, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, Cyber Command and (partly) Joint Special Operations Command, all rolled into one branch, arm and headquarters. In Hebrew, the acronym, Aman, stands for both Master and Artist – a fitting description for what is expected of the leadership there.
As has been described here recently (“The Sounds Of Silent Sirens”, October 11, 2010; “The Double Deposit”, February 11, 2011), Aman caters to all levels of Intelligence consumers, from the Private soldier approaching a Hezbollah compound to a Prime Minister torn by doubts regarding the enemy’s intentions. It is a unique position, with at least two superiors, a direct one, the IDF Chief of Staff, who outranks the Aman Chief (but for bureaucratic reasons not the heads of the smaller MOSSAD and Shabak), and the Prime Minister. If the latter does not also hold the Defense portfolio, there is also a third link in the chain of information, though not of command.
Intelligence is exciting. Deep secrets flow to the top and are closely held. Clandestine operations are run with no clue to their Arab or Iranian targets or the Israeli public – unless it is in the personal interest of politicians or MOSSAD Chiefs to splash them all over TV screens. Fighter pilots’ ambition is to head the Air Force. Combat commanders dream of becoming IDF Chiefs. But even General Officers from other branches who did not aim for Aman’s top spot from the outset are smitten by it once exposed to its temptations.
Major General Aharon Haliva, who will take over Aman following a thorough transition period, has never held an Intelligence position, but comes highly qualified for the most challenging one, having served in the two key staff positions in the General Staff’s Operations Branch, or Amatz – Aman’s most intimate partner, J-3 to its J-2.
Aman was once consider a graveyard for promising military careers. The first four Military Intel Chiefs in young Israel’s first dozen years ended their tours as failures. It took a very senior officer, Meir Amit, to make Aman a success and its leadershio a coveted post – for a while. When he went on to lead MOSSAD, after being passed over for IDF Chief (the job went to the deserving Yitzhak Rabin), Amit maintained an excellent relationshio with his successor and former deputy, Aharon Yariv. Amit, who planned the 1956 Sinai Campaign as Operations Chief for Moshe Dayan, forged a strong bond between the organizations and with Yariv personally. Yariv’s biographer noted that though their offices were only five minutes away from each other, as long as the secretive Isser Harel was in charge of MOSSAD (and Shabak, to boot), and saw Aman chiefs as rivals, relations between their subordinates were also tense. As soon as Amit moved over and Yariv replaced him, an intercom was for the first time set up between them, each only an amicable button push away from the other.
Amit and Yariv – curiously enough, Friend and Foe in Hebrew (born Slutzky and Rabinovitch, respectively; Prime Minister Ben Gurion, born Grin, insisted all senior officials Hebrize their names), were the best duo Israeli Intelligence has ever known. Yet they, too, failed to foresee the Six-Day War. They were nevertheless considered highly successful, because they provided the winning forces accurate Intelligence.
But later Aman Chiefs, in charge during the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars, were not so lucky, and Commissions of Inquiry recommended to the governments their ouster – an offer the politicians refused to refuse. The position of Aman Chief, while still sought by 1-Star officers eyeing promotion, was shunned by promising 2-Stars fearing it as a career graveyard. Pressure had to be put on the likes of Ehud Barak and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, both universally known as IDF Chief timber, to take the job prior to becoming Deputy Chiefs. They relented, went on to get the top Military spot and gave the next generation of up-and-coming Generals a role model.
Haliva follows in the footsteps of Aviv Kochavi, whose career stops included leading the Paratroopers, commanding an elite Airborne Division and heading Operations for the General Staff before getting Aman.
In the Israeli system, the ground forces are more equal than the Navy and Air Force. With one exception, all IDF Chiefs came up through the Army’s ranks, and they exercise direct command over the Territorial Commands (Northern, Central, Southern and Homefront) as well as the Air Force and Navy. Thus, Intelligence is joint, serving all military activities and organizations.
Had Haliva wanted to be assigned to the Southern Command, whose occupant is to move up to Deputy Chief, he would be first in line, having already served in two 2-Star positions as Branch Chief – Logistics and Operations. At 53, with a realistic shot at IDF Chief no earlier than five to six years from now, and knowing that even with the acceptance of creeping age (until the ‘60 IDF Chiefs were in their 30’s, later 40’s and then 50’s, but none so close to age 60, grandfathers to draftees) his chances would not be great, he prefered Aman.
A similar choice was made 20 years ago by MG Gabi Ashkenazi, when following the withdrawal from Lebanon and the prospect of a quiet period on Israel’s various fronts he assessed his chances to become IDF Chief in two moves close to nil. Ashkenazi, a favorite of the Defense Minister, then asked for the job, but was turned down for an unrelated reason, with the Minister promising him – and making good on it – an immediate promotion to Deputy Chief, where from he could compete for Chief. The assumption is that Aman is unlike any other Command, where Generals can be shifted in and out quite frequently according to circumstances. Kochavi announced he is moving a recently appointed Head of Central Command to Army Headquarters – not a Wartime Command – because he needed a senior General there to oversee other officers of equal rank. In Aman, once there and climbing the learning curve, the Chief is expected to stay at least three years, hopefully five. Yariv lasted nine, refusing a nominal promotion which would have led him nowhere.
The outspoken, outgoing Haliva managed the near-impossible task of being close to three different personalities as IDF Chief – Gantz, Kochavi and between them Gadi Eisenkot – who saw him as a key player in the complicated game of a “Campaign between the War”, Israel’s series of strikes against Iranian and other forces in Syria and elsewhere. Kochavi succeeded where some of his predecessors, who were rebuffed by their Ministers, failed – Gantz did not forced another Aman candidate on him.
As Aman Chief, Haliva will be at the nexus of three senior groups – the General Staff, the Intelligence Community (where he might edge his MOSSAD and Shabak rookies for seniority) and the decision-making security Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister, identity unknown so far. Just as his officers and enlisted personnel carry on their duties in the dark, few will be familiar with much of his output. All the more reason to pay attention when he does make his data and views public, on Iran’s Nuclear project, the Palestinians, prospects for war with Hezbollah or any other subject – even the pandemic. As the first Aharon on the job since Yariv, he has quite a