New Israeli military chief's appointment in peril

A government watchdog investigation into an alleged land grab by Israel's incoming military chief could threaten the appointment of the decorated general, a justice official said Monday.

After winning an internal battle to become Israel's top soldier, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant must now answer the state comptroller's inquiry into how he expanded his already large property in northern Israel. A hearing is scheduled next week.

The affair has sparked new infighting within Israel's top military brass, and dominated media coverage in recent days. The front page of a Thursday newspaper featured an aerial photo of Galant's sprawling, castle-like home, surrounded by trees and access roads.

Galant, who led Israel's 2008-2009 Gaza offensive as head of the military's Southern Command, is slated to take over from the current military chief, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, on Feb. 14. He has not commented on the issue.

Justice Ministry spokesman Moshe Cohen said the appointment could be delayed, or even shelved, depending on the watchdog's investigation.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who selected Galant, said he expects the appointment to go ahead as planned.

The story first emerged two years ago in a newspaper investigative report that cited alleged zoning and construction offenses at Galant's home on a communal farm in northern Israel. His neighbors claim he carved roads, built a parking lot and planted trees on land that did not belong to him.

After Galant's appointment as military chief in August, Israeli environmental groups petitioned against the appointment and a government minister pressed the government to look further into the allegations.

Cabinet Minister Michael Eitan, who voted against Galant's appointment, said the government should have investigated the matter more fully before appointing him.

"The process should have been open, not superficial and hasty while ignoring suspicions," he said in a statement.

Galant's associates say the matter is a minor dispute among neighbors that has been blown out of proportion by his opponents.

Galant's formal appointment in August followed a scandal over a leaked memo that appeared to spell out a scheme to smear his rivals for the job. Police later deemed the document a fake and cleared Galant of involvement.

But the scandal damaged the image of the military, traditionally Israel's most revered institution, as his challengers were implicated in the matter.

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.