JERUSALEM, Feb 1 (Reuters) - Israel
's top military ranks are in unprecedented disorder at a time of upheaval in neighboring Arab states and deadlock over arch-foe Iran's nuclear program.
Few Israelis see an imminent risk of war due to the power struggles in Egypt and Lebanon, or the stop-start international negotiations with a defiant Tehran. But a crop of untested generals and spymasters -- apparently caught off guard by the Cairo chaos -- have sapped confidence in national preparedness.
In the latest setback, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
and Defense Minister Ehud Barak
scrapped on Tuesday the nomination of Major-General Yoav Galant as chief of armed forces after criticism over his suspected misconduct in a property dispute.
While a substitute is sought, Galant's stand-in is current deputy chief of staff Major-General Yair Naveh -- himself the target of a court challenge given his alleged shoot-to-kill orders against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank
Since December, Israel has appointed new Mossad and military intelligence directors, a substitute for Galant as commander of Israel's southern frontier with Egypt and Gaza
, and brought Naveh out of retirement to become overall second-in-command. This high turnover of senior security figures comes at a sensitive time for Israel because of the dramatic changes in the Middle East, said Nir Dvori, defense correspondent for Israel's top-rated Channel Two television news.
Military intelligence chief Major-General Aviv Kochavi failed to predict Egypt's popular uprising in his first briefing to parliament a week ago. According to a spokesman, he said only that President Hosni Mubarak, who is now under heavy pressure to resign, faced no big threat from the Islamist opposition.
The security situation around us can change at any time. It is enough only to look at Egypt, the outgoing chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, said in a speech on Tuesday.
Dvori expected the dropping of Galant to prompt a slowdown in approvals for promotions and projects in the military. That, Dvori said, could breed an uncharacteristic lack of initiative-taking until the commanders find their feet.
Giora Eiland, an ex-general and former Israeli national security adviser, urged the Netanyahu government to impose order.
At stake here is an entire military here, which we cannot be sure won't find itself in a new reality a week from now, Eiland said. He noted a recent rash of rocket strikes from Gaza, the kind of attack that drew an Israeli offensive in late 2008.
Such assessments appear to have put paid to speculation that Israel might bomb Iranian nuclear facilities preemptively, a move likely to draw retaliatory missile salvos as well as cross-border attacks by Palestinian and Lebanese guerrillas.
Western governments fear Iran aims to produce atomic arms but Tehran says its uranium enrichment is purely peaceful. Talks on solving the dispute have made little or no progress.
Jahangir Arasli of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, a Dubai- and Beirut-based think-tank, said Israel's enemies might perceive a window of vulnerability worth exploiting by firing first.
In a Jan. 10 report, Arasli compared the situation with 2006, when the Iranian-backed Islamist group Hezbollah
seized upon the accession of untried politicians as Israeli premier and defense minister to abduct two troops on the Lebanese border. Israel responded with a costly and inconclusive war.
But Dvori said Israel has significantly improved military capabilities since, and that the second-term Netanyahu and ex-prime minister Barak had firmer grips on the nation's helm.
Hezbollah has also recently gained the upper hand in a political crisis in Lebanon, with the Shi'ite movement backing a businessman who is trying to form a new government. While the Lebanese frontier remains combustible, Egypt is bound by its 1979 peace accord with Israel and the attendant demilitarization of the strategic Sinai desert between them.
Still, Dvori noted that another rare Muslim ally of the Jewish state, Turkey, has scaled back ties over a series of confrontations culminating in Israel's bloody seizure of a shipload of pro-Palestinian Turks en route to blockaded Gaza.
Israel denied wrongdoing in the face of Ankara's anger, though it faulted its spies for not anticipating the resistance the navy would encounter aboard the Mavi Marmara
on May 31. (Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by David Stamp)