Israel’s Top Military Brass Is Marching Away From the Prime Minister

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published January 05, 2011, issue of January 14, 2011.
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A year after Israel’s military brass was briefly jolted by scenes of banner-waving recruits protesting against settlement evacuation, there’s another round of political murmuring emerging from the ranks.

This rebellion couldn’t be more different from the last one, though. These soldiers aren’t speaking out against compromise with Israel’s Arab neighbors — they’re endorsing it. And they aren’t new recruits, but some of Israel’s most renowned military leaders.

They’re only a handful, but they include some of the most familiar names in the Israeli defense establishment, including a couple that you’d never expect to see joining the peace camp. And it’s been made clear that others are preparing to follow them.

The first surprise came from Dan Halutz, whose last public position was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. On December 2, the first day of Hanukkah, he joined Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party.

There could hardly be a more unlikely recruit to Livni’s cause of peace processing and Palestinian statehood. An ace pilot and former air force chief, Halutz has an outsize reputation for ruthlessness. He’s considered the architect of the controversial practice of aerial assassinations of terror suspects. To most Israelis, he’s best remembered for his forced resignation as chief of staff, less than halfway through his term, after the hugely destructive but indecisive Second Lebanon War of 2006.

Among doves, though, he’s perhaps best-known for the 2002 bombing of a Hamas leader’s home that killed the target and 14 civilian neighbors, mostly children. It was that incident that ignited the still-ongoing wave of European war-crimes indictments against Israeli leaders. Asked by an interviewer after the raid what it feels like to drop a 1-ton bomb on a residential building, Halutz memorably sneered: “I feel a slight bump in the wings when the bomb is released.”

None of that came up when Halutz appeared before news cameras and ceremoniously signed his Kadima membership form. “The Kadima party is suited to my political views,” he simply said. “I believe that Kadima is the party that will lead the State of Israel in making the right decisions.”

Following Halutz into Kadima three weeks later, on December 26, was an even more unlikely recruit: Alik Ron, former northern district commander of the Israel National Police. Ron was forced out of uniform in 2003 by an investigative commission probing the deaths of 12 Arab Israeli citizens in October 2000, killed when Ron’s police fired on rioters with live ammunition.

Ron didn’t speak about Kadima’s platform when he joined, but about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mishandling of the Carmel forest fire and the government’s “apathy and inaction.” There was no escaping the larger message. Most in Israel’s security establishment — hard-liners included — worry that continuing to rule over the West Bank, with its 2.5 million hostile Palestinians, is more dangerous than Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu claims to agree, but his Likud doesn’t, and he seems unable or unwilling to budge. As Israel grows more isolated, its defense chiefs grow more alarmed and impatient.

Even more significant signs of rebellion among the brass came on December 31, in a pair of articles that appeared in the Friday edition of Haaretz. One was an interview with Benny Gantz, who recently stepped down as the army’s deputy chief of staff after losing a bitter three-way race for chief of staff. The other profiled the incumbent chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, who steps down in February.

Gantz spoke scathingly of the poisonous feuding within the army’s General Staff in recent years, and of the short-sighted strategic vision of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. He also acknowledged — the first of the principals to do so — that Barak’s selection of Yoav Galant as the next chief of staff instead of Gantz or fellow candidate Gadi Eizencott was not just personal but philosophical — or, as Gantz put it, over “basic strategic matters.”

The essential rift within the Israeli brass is not between doves and hawks but between activist and cautious factions. Both factions favor trading land for peace. The activists, including Halutz and Galant, back increased use of air power against terrorists, cutting the risk of Israeli losses but increasing the risk to the other side’s civilians. And they tend to favor a military strike against Iran, while the cautious group, including Gantz, Eizencott and Ashkenazi (plus Mossad chief Meir Dagan), favors diplomacy mixed with covert action.

Recently, though, the activist faction has been reinforced by growing numbers of settler and pro-settler officers, who generally oppose any territorial compromise. Hence the growing sense of urgency among older officers in both factions. They’re worried that Israel will stall on making a peace deal until it’s too late — until the not-one-inchers on both sides are firmly in control. They worry that Netanyahu’s stalling will bring on a disastrous and pointless war.

Nothing demonstrates the urgency more plainly than the second Haaretz article, which focused on Ashkenazi’s views and intentions. It was not explicitly acknowledged as an interview — there were no direct quotes and no acknowledgement that he and the writer had spoken. Instead, reporter Aluf Benn described in his own words precisely what Ashkenazi is thinking and planning for the months ahead. Nobody thinks Benn was mind-reading or guessing.

Ashkenazi is generally expected to challenge Barak for leadership of the Labor Party, but Benn says he won’t have time to enter the upcoming primaries. In the meantime, he intends to organize a national campaign for peace negotiations with Syria. He views peace with Syria as the surest protection against the Iranian nuclear threat. In exchange for the return of the Golan Heights and improved ties with the West, Ashkenazi believes, Syria would break with Iran, leaving the mullahs isolated, and cut off aid to Hezbollah. That’s a view shared unanimously by the heads of Israel’s intelligence agencies.

Most knowledgeable Israelis have at least an inkling of how the defense brass thinks. It’s not uncommon for active-duty generals to give interviews in which they let policy disagreements slip out. It’s never done by a sitting chief of staff, though. And it’s never done in Haaretz or The Jerusalem Post, where their words will appear in English. Instead they keep it in the family by talking to Yediot Aharonot and Maariv, which don’t translate their printed copy. This time the silencers are off. This is, to quote Joe Biden, a big &*@$! deal.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at www.forward.com


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