Of all the conflicts underway in the strife-torn Middle East, none is more riveting, to those who can follow it, than the quietly growing demurral of Israel’s senior military commanders from the direction in which their political leaders are taking their country. One after another a parade of current and former Israeli defense and intelligence chiefs has stepped forward in recent weeks to declare that Jerusalem’s policies toward its neighbors are shortsighted, that Israel is missing opportunities for peace, or at least greater calm, by ignoring gestures from the other side and failing to make gestures of its own. And, not least, that Israel’s actions play a partial role in fanning Arab and Muslim hatred of Israel and Jews.
It is a rebellion of the greatest delicacy, carried out through hints and inferences in newspaper interviews and the occasional lecture. The messages are always delivered in Hebrew, intended for Israeli ears. When a report reaches overseas audiences, it is usually partial and fragmented.
The subtlety is not accidental. The defense chiefs who are speaking out do so with obvious reluctance. They are committed democrats who abhor military interference in politics. One after another they have insisted that they do their jobs without question — and without apology — and that the views they voice publicly are meant merely as professional evaluations to guide policy-makers. The reason they go public, as a few former generals have told this newspaper in recent off-the-record conversations, is the growing sense in Israel’s defense establishment that the political leadership is ideologically incapable of hearing their warnings. And so they decide, one by one, to go to the public over their bosses’ heads.
The best-known was the joint interview in mid-November with four former Shin Bet security service chiefs, who warned that Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was leading the country to demographic and moral disaster. They were widely denounced for their impudence, mostly by critics far less qualified to evaluate Israeli security. But they were not alone. Days later the army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, told a group of reporters that unnecessarily harsh Israeli policies had undermined and brought down the failed Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, losing Israel a chance for diplomatic progress.
In the weeks since then the pace has increased, though barely noticed outside Israel. In early December the chief of the Israeli army’s central command, Major General Moshe Kaplinski, a confidant of Prime Minister Sharon, described to an interviewer his game-planning for a possible expulsion of Yasser Arafat; asked what he thought of the idea, he replied: “Disastrous.” Then came the current director of the Shin Bet, Avi Dichter, who in a rare public speech in mid-December called urgently for easing Palestinian living conditions and acknowledged that Israel’s policies for defending its citizens over the past three years — policies he had helped to implement — had been a failure. Dichter’s speech earned him a sneering accusation of “defeatism” in an editorial in the right-wing Jerusalem Post.
And Ya’alon has spoken out repeatedly since his infamous November interview. On several occasions he has spoken hopefully of what he believes is a strategic decision by Hamas to halt attacks against civilians inside Israel — contradicting those politicians on the right who insist the decline in attacks is solely due to the work of Ya’alon’s troops. Finally, Ya’alon gave a lengthy interview last week in which he affirmed the importance of recent decisions by Iran and Libya to end their nuclear weapons programs, suggesting that Israel now faces a changed Middle East in which its strategic threats are greatly reduced.
Underlying all these startling confessions is a deeper message that the generals have voiced only in occasional and unsourced comments to reporters: that Israel’s vaunted skill at detecting and deterring security threats must be matched by an ability, which it has so far failed to develop, to identify and exploit possibilities for peace. Israel, the generals are saying, needs to learn, however cautiously and judiciously, to take “yes” for an answer.
The generals’ insistence on sending their message in Hebrew shows admirable respect for Israel’s diplomatic vulnerability, as well as for the democratic process. The trouble is, it leaves an important player in Israel’s diplomatic and political processes, the American Jewish community, almost entirely in the dark. American Jews remain dependent for their political understandings — which play a crucial role in shaping U.S. policy — on the information passed along by Israel’s political leaders. As the generals themselves admit, that information is incomplete. We need to listen more closely.