Friday, April 15, 2005

Israel Looks East

There will be an important change at the top of Israel's military hierarchy later this summer, as Major General Dan Halutz becomes the new Chief of Staff for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Normally, the appointment of a new Israeli Chief of Staff doesn't merit much attention, except at the Pentagon and (perhaps) the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. But the appointment of General Halutz is significant, for a couple of reasons.

First, Halutz is the first Israeli Air Force (IAF) officer to serve as Chief of Staff, equivalent to our Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman. Since the IDF's inception in 1948, an Army officer has typically held the top military job, reflecting the primacy of the Israeli Army as guarantor of state security.

Appointment of Halutz suggests the IAF is now the most important branch of the IDF, and recent history tends to support that assertion. IAF fighters staged the successful strike that destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. Fourteen years later, they mounted a daring raid across the Mediterranean, striking PLO Headquarters in Tunis (and nearly killing Yasser Arafat). More recently, IDF Apache helicopters have been instrumental in eliminating leaders of the Intifada, and reducing the terrorist threat. Intelligence support for those missions has been provided, in part, by IAF reconnaissance UAVs, which helped identify and track terrorist leaders.

Halutz is also one of the few Israeli officials who have openly discussed the possibility of an air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. During his tenure as Israeli Air Force Commander, Halutz supervised the integration of the F-15I into the IAF inventory. The Israeli version of the USAF F-15E Strike Eagle, the F-15I was acquired specifically to deal with long range threats, such as Iran's nuclear facilities and ballistic missile force. Halutz has confirmed that the IAF has the capability to stage long-range strikes against Iran, although the scope and intensity of those attacks might be limited.

The ascendancy of Major General Halutz signals a potentially significant shift in Israeli defense policy. With the intifada now essentially under control, the "security fence" nearing completion, and Israelis leaving the Gaza Strip and selected settlements in the West Bank, the IDF is now concentrating on more distant (and potentially menacing) threats. With General Halutz as Chief of Staff, Prime Minister Sharon believe he has a man with the background and expertise to deal with the Iranian problem, if the need arises.

General Halutz is not without controversy. After an Apache strike that killed a terrorist leader and his family, Halutz said he "slept well at night," a remark that struck liberal members of the Knesset as insensitive and inflammatory. A number of politicians and reserve IDF officers actually petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to block his nomination as Chief of Staff. Their request was denied.

Halutz is, by most accounts, a brillant and charismatic leader. He is also (reportedly) a favorite of PM Sharon, a man who has, in the past, favored decisive action to deal with emerging threats. General Halutz begins his tour as Chief of Staff in July, as Iran approaches "the red line" in its nuclear weapons development effort. At that point, it will be up to General Halutz to recommend a course of action to the Prime Minister. If his record is any indication, Halutz will not shy away from a decisive option.

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