JERUSALEM – The commander of the Israeli military on Tuesday appointed his deputy to oversee Israel's battles in Lebanon, a dramatic mid-offensive shift sidelining the head of the northern command.
The military announced the appointment of Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski in a statement on Tuesday. Israeli media linked it to plans to intensify the offensive in Lebanon as well as to mounting public criticism of the army's handling of the conflict with Hezbollah guerrillas.
The military denied it was a shakeup, but the naming of a top commander during the Lebanon fighting represented a highly unusual move.
Writing in the Haaretz daily, veteran military analyst Zeev Schiff said the new appointment signaled serious command problems.
"Clearly, the change in the command leadership is not good for Adam personally," he wrote, referring to the head of the northern command, Maj. Gen. Udi Adam. "But it also sends a negative signal to the army and the public at large."
The last time a similar switch was made was during the 1973 Mideast war, when generals in the army reserves, including former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, were sent to the southern command to effectively take over from the general in charge, Shmuel Gorodish, in the battle against Egypt.
Israel has lost 36 civilians and 65 troops since the fighting with Hezbollah began on July 12. Despite the 28-day offensive, rockets continue to pummel northern Israel. According to the Israeli police, 145 rockets exploded in Israel on Tuesday alone.
Criticism of the conduct of the war has concentrated on the slow progression from the air campaign to a ground offensive and the failure of the military to sweep through Lebanon in a matter of days, as it did in 1982.
However, much of the criticism has been aimed at the political leadership — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz — because the Security Cabinet they head has failed to approve the military's plans to push forward more quickly.
The Security Cabinet, made up of senior ministers, was to meet Wednesday to consider approving an expansion of the Israeli offensive northward to the Litani River, about 20 miles from the border.
Though most analysts expect the political body to remove its restraints from the military following the relentless barrage of Hezbollah rockets, Olmert indicated he may want time to examine a Lebanese proposal to post 15,000 of its own troops in the border region.
The army statement said the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, retained "complete confidence" in Adam, and the military would not comment further on the reasons for Kaplinski's appointment. But Adam was clearly dispirited by the news.
Asked by Israel TV whether he would resign, Adam said he did not intend to quit while the fighting still raged, but said he would "consider his position" if it became clear he was being supplanted.
"At this stage, one has to rise above it," he said. "I have to keep my head clear for the war. There are soldiers in the field who are fighting with courage ... soldiers are being killed, I don't think I can abandon them now."
Adam's father, Maj. Gen. Yekutiel Adam, who served as deputy chief of staff, was killed during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the highest-ranking Israeli soldier killed in combat.