An Israeli General Takes the Fall

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Eric Sultan / AP

Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz speaks at a briefing for Israeli military correspondents in Tel Aviv, January 2, 2007

The political response to the resignation of Israel top military man, Lt. General Dan Halutz, is a portent about a coming shakedown in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet.

The Prime Minister reacted with gentlemanly relief, praising the outgoing Chief of Staff as "brave and courageous" even though Halutz was the strategist behind Israel's ill-conceived summer war in Lebanon, since which the public had been clamoring for his ouster. Ministerial sources told TIME that Halutz tendered his resignation to Olmert on Sunday but didn't bother informing his immediate superior, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, until late Tuesday night. Peretz's office promised secrecy to allow Halutz time to break the news to his troops, but then immediately leaked the news.

Halutz's bypassing the defense minister was a sign of his disdain for Peretz, these sources said. Olmert shares the general's disdain for Labor Party leader Peretz, a former trade unionist and neophyte in security matters. The prime minister pointedly declared before choosing a new military chief, he would consult with retired and active generals — not with his defense minister.

Halutz, who has a reputation for being blunt to the point of arrogance, was clinging to his job until two weeks ago, when he realized that the armed forces were no longer with him. Serving and retired officers told a Knesset committee that they wanted Halutz removed. "Halutz looked behind and saw that none of his troops were following him into battle," said one military source.

Olmert must have been grateful for the timing of Halutz's resignation because it took over the front page from an embarrassing story about criminal investigations of Olmert — possibly three of them — over allegedly fraudulent deals that occurred while he was finance minister.

In contrast to the prime minister's kind words, Peretz remained silent about the Chief of Staff's resignation, leaving it to an anonymous official to mutter to Israeli journalists that "Halutz needed to do this a long time ago."

Critics say Peretz's inexperience in security matters showed during the Lebanon war, when the defense minister issued conflicting orders of advance and retreat to his generals. By now, Peretz should have learned the first rule of military strategy: never leave your flank exposed. But that is exactly what Halutz's departure has done: With the general gone, Peretz will be next in line to take a bullet for the Lebanon fiasco. Olmert will be glad to see him go; according to an opinion poll last week, Peretz's approval rating hit bottom at 1%, a fallout over the military's inconclusive war against the Lebanese Shi'ite militia, Hizballah. (Olmert's own approval rating, of course, is only 14%.)

Peretz now stands to lose both his job as defense minister and his position as leader of the Labor Party, the main coalition partner of Olmert's Kadima party. Peretz, too, may choose to resign instead of waiting to be sacked. Most likely, says one Peretz aide, he will wait until after the official inquiry into the Lebanon debacle, the Winograd Commission, is completed next month. If the report blames Peretz, he will then resign or consent to be moved to a lesser cabinet post, his aides say. The defense portfolio would most likely go to one of Peretz's two challengers as Labor leader, either ex-Prime Minister Ehud Barak or Ami Ayalon, who both have strong military and security backgrounds.

Gen. Halutz may have left, but the political battle has just started. Meanwhile, from Lebanon, Hizballah's televison network gleefully reported Halutz's resignation as proof of the militia's victory against Israel.