Most people outside of the security establishment heard the name Yair Golan for the first time this week. As the Deputy Chief of Staff (COS) of the Israel Defense Forces he is the #2 soldier in Israel.
In late 2014 he launched an unexpected candidacy for the IDF COS position while he was running for the Deputy COS position. He lost the COS job, but he did win the Deputy position. Like many #2s before him, including his predecessor in the Deputy spot, current COS Eizenkot, he is unknown to many in the public for now as he goes through the grooming process for higher office. He is expected to be one of the leading candidates to replace Eizenkot when his term ends.
Let’s get political for a minute. Ten of the last seventeen Deputies dating back to 1982 were promoted to the position of COS. Two former COS became Prime Minister; five became Defense Ministers (DM), eight served as ministers and nine as MKs. Many of the seven deputies who did not reach COS had distinguished political careers afterwards as well.
What is clear is that, whether Golan planned it or not, he entered the political spotlight earlier than he probably desired. It really doesn’t matter where you stand on Golan’s statements. It was the current politicians who colored his statements with political colors. Golan is now going to be in the same basket of defense officials the center-left likes, and the right dislikes, such as Ashkenazi and Gantz. The difference is that he is still in uniform and the others are not. Golan might not have asked for it but there will be people who will look back a decade from now and decide that this was the start of his political career.
Everyone in the security establishment was expecting the battle for the 21st IDF COS to take place between the two people to hold the Deputy position under the 20th IDF COS Benny Gantz – Deputy COS Yair Naveh (2010-2013) and Deputy COS Gadi Eizenkot (2013-2014). Rafael Eitan was the last non-Deputy COS to become COS in 1978, at a time when the deputy position was temporarily vacant. It was a surprise to many when Yair Golan’s name came up as a third candidate for the position.
The previous time around Netanyahu tried to appoint non-Deputy-COS Yoav Galant, but he was forced to walk it back due to legal troubles that arose for Galant after the appointment was announced. This time, another non-Deputy-COS, Golan, who was in the process of securing the Deputy position away from Sami Tugerman, was suddenly under consideration to leapfrog over Eizenkot.
Eizenkot was the leading candidate and Yaalon’s preference. He was the former military secretary to PMs Barak and Sharon, had great relationships with the international community, and was educated in the US Army War College. At the time Eizenkot was the third oldest Major General and had the support of many Major Generals.
Naveh, who was the older and more experienced candidate, was an intriguing alternative. The national-religious Major General of Central Command that had carried out the disengagement in 2005 of four settlements around the Jenin area. Netanyahu designated Naveh as the stopgap COS during Galant-gate before it was decided that Gantz would replace Ashkenazi. Golan worked very well under Naveh when Golan was the Judea and Samaria Division head, and the thought process was that it would be a successful COS-Deputy combo.
Just 12 people, over the course of 15 years, from 1999-2014 held the top three defense positions (DM, COS and Deputy COS) in the country. Two of them, Eisenkot and Naveh, were running for the 21st COS. Defense Minister Yaalon held consultations with the other nine as part of his selection process. Yaalon was actually the only person to hold all three positions during that period: 16th DM (2013-present), 17th COS (2002–05), Deputy COS (1999-2002).
Yaalon spoke with: Shaul Mofaz 14th DM (2002-2006), 16th COS (1998–2002), Ehud Barak 12th DM (1999-2001/2007-2013), Gabi Ashkenazi 19th COS (2007-2011), Deputy COS (2002-2004), Dan Halutz 18th COS (2005-2007), Deputy COS (2004-2005), Benny Gantz 20th COS (2011–2015), Deputy COS (2009-2010), Binyamin Ben-Eliezer 13th DM (2001-2002), Amir Peretz 15th DM (2006-2007), Dan Harel Deputy COS (2007-2009) and at the time the Defense Ministry’s Director-General, and Moshe Kaplinsky Deputy COS (2005–07).
Following Yaalon’s consultations and Netanyahu candidate interviews the joint decision was made to let Yaalon have his man Eisenkot, Golan would stay on as his #2, and Naveh would stay retired. Eisenkot has worked well with Golan as his Deputy. Yaalon has also been very pleased with the pair. Netanyahu, who once considered Golan for COS, seems to have a change of heart.
Reports leaking of clashing between Netanyahu and Yaalon over Golan’s statements could lead to problems for Golan in the future. Yaalon and Eisenkot are not going to listen to right-wingers who tell them to fire Golan. However, if Netanyahu and Yaalon are sitting in the same positions when it is time to appoint the next COS, it is possible that Netanyahu will not allow Yaalon to have his man. If the center-left is in power, well, they might have just found their man.
Will the relationship between the Prime Minister and Defense Minister suffer because of statements made by the IDF’s #2 soldier? Perhaps the center-left are too quick to embrace Golan? How does all this change the race between the four current candidates (Tugerman, Alon, Kochavi and Eshel) to replace Golan as Deputy next year? There are many questions ahead.
The curious case of Yair Golan has just begun.