Israelis' faith in military tarnished by scandal over top post, pollster finds

JERUSALEM (AP) — Public confidence in the Israeli military — traditionally the country's most revered public institution — has been tarnished by a spat over the army's top post, according to an opinion poll published Thursday.

The scandal erupted two weeks ago after Israel's Channel 2 TV said it had obtained a memo in which a leading commander spells out his strategy for becoming the next chief of staff by smearing his rivals.

The current military chief, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, will end his four-year term in February. Three top generals are vying for his post.

The memo, printed on the letterhead of a leading public relations firm, appeared to implicate one of the three generals outlining tactics on how to ruin the reputations of the other two and also Ashkenazi, who is believed to favor one of the contenders.

The affair captivated Israelis, eager for a glimpse into the army's internal machinations.

The police said Thursday they had determined the memo was a fake, and they are now trying to figure out who was behind it. They have interviewed a number of top commanders, including Ashkenazi, as well as workers at the PR firm. No charges have been filed.

But more than 20 percent of Israelis interviewed in a survey said their faith in the military has diminished because of the affair. The pollster, Maagar Mohot institute, questioned 501 Israelis by telephone and gave a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

Just three months ago, opinion polls showed Israelis lined up behind the military in its decision to violently stop an international flotilla headed to the Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish activists were killed in an Israeli commando raid, drawing widespread international condemnations.

That support for the military could now be in jeopardy.

"This affair harms us all," Ashkenazi said Wednesday. "From now on we will bear a double burden — to continue our mission to provide security for the citizens of Israel, and at the same time to prove that we are worthy of this trust."

Spats between generals are nothing new but rarely have the battles been so public in Israel, where the military has served as a traditional breeding ground for future prime ministers and Cabinet members.

"The public is seeing that the military is not what it thought it was," said Reuven Pedatzur, an Israeli military analyst. "This is bad for the military and bad for the country."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, himself a former military chief, has remained silent about the affair.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chimed in for the first time Wednesday, calling on all involved to stop their squabbling and return to focusing on Israel's immense security challenges. Parliament's powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has called a special session next week to discuss the matter.

The three top contenders for Ashkenazi's post are his deputy, Maj. Gen. Benny Ganz; head of the southern command, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, and the head of the northern command, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.

Galant, who appeared to be the one implicated in the memo, has said he was not involved. The PR firm has also denied involvement.