Israel's Ashkenazi: former army chief turns top diplomat

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Israel's incoming foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, is the son of a Holocaust survivor and served as a special forces commando, spending nearly four decades in the military before entering politics.

A member of the centrist Blue and White Alliance, he has had his differences with right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but is now poised to be his top envoy.

Ashkenazi, 66, a veteran of major combat operations and several high-profile commando missions, served as Israel's army chief from 2007 to 2011 -- a term that overlapped with Netanyahu's second stint as Israeli premier from 2009.

He was replaced as army chief by Benny Gantz, now Netanyahu's alternate premier, and then spent several years in the private sector leading an oil and gas exploration company.

When the married father of two entered politics last year, he declared his opposition to Netanyahu -- who faces multiple graft charges, which he denies -- saying that "leadership is about setting an example".

"How can you be prime minister when you have been indicted three times?" he said.

Gantz's decision to seek a coalition with Netanyahu, following three inconclusive elections in less than a year, fractured Blue and White.

While two of Blue and White's top leaders -- Yair Lapid and Moshe Yaalon -- broke with Gantz accusing him betrayal, Ashkenazi remained in the alliance, a decision that set him up for a prominent position in the unity government to be sworn on Thursday.

- Decorated soldier -

Ashkenazi, the son of a Bulgarian Holocaust survivor and a Syrian-born mother, grew up in a lower income family in central Israel before earning degrees from Haifa University and Harvard Business School.

He joined the army in 1972 and fought in the Yom Kippur war a year later.

He also took part in Operation Entebbe, a daring Israeli commando raid to rescue hostages from a plane that had been hijacked by Palestinian and German militants and diverted to Uganda's main airport.

Netanyahu's brother Yonatan was killed in the operation.

Ashkenazi went on to take part in or lead a series of high-profile and sometimes controversial operations.

Turkey put Ashkenazi and three other Israeli military leaders on trial in absentia in 2012 over the deadly 2010 storming of a Turkish activists' ship that had been bound for Gaza.

He was army chief during Israel's war with Hamas in Gaza in 2008-2009.

- Annexation question -

In Ashkenazi's new role, military credentials may prove less immediately relevant than his stance on Israel's possible move to annex Jewish settlements and other territory in the occupied West Bank.

The Oslo peace accords of the 1990s gave the Palestinians self-rule in parts of the West Bank. But some 60 percent of the territory remains under full Israeli civil and military control, with Jewish settlements in those areas considered illegal under international law.

The terms of the Netanyahu-Gantz agreement allow the government to begin legislative action towards annexing those areas from July 1, in accordance with provisions laid out under Trump's peace plan.

Trump's initiative has been rejected by the Palestinians and criticised by much of the international community. Any moves to implement it will likely cause massive diplomatic uproar, notably from the European Union.

A month after Trump's plan was announced in January, in the middle of Israeli election campaign, Ashkenazi described it as "an opportunity to make history and realise the vision of the State of Israel".

However, former US president Barack Obama's ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, told AFP this week that he believes Ashkenazi is "lukewarm on annexation, at best".