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Defending Withdrawal Plan, Sharon Aims at Top General

TEL AVIV — While Israel and the world community try to guess just what Prime Minister Sharon means when he speaks of his “disengagement plan,” Sharon himself has begun lashing out at the plan’s critics, choosing as his first target an unlikely — and quite unsuspecting — opponent: Israel’s military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon.

Sharon’s attack came in the form of a report by Channel 2 Television’s popular commentator Amnon Abramowitz, quoting unnamed sources but clearly reflecting a message from Sharon himself. “Ya’alon is trying to influence cabinet members to vote against the plan,” the sources were quoted as saying. “His remarks have caused great damage.”

Sharon was reported to be “enraged” at comments made by the chief of staff during a visit to the Erez checkpoint, along the border between Israel and Gaza. “If we evacuate a settlement under fire and terror,” Ya’alon had said, “we will definitely not solve the problem.”

Despite their seemingly innocuous sound, Ya’alon’s words echoed loudly in Jerusalem. As Sharon knows, far harsher criticisms have been voiced by ranking army officers, who speak frequently and freely with journalists but are rarely quoted by name. Those familiar with General Staff thinking say the army feels left out of the prime minister’s planning process. The fleshing out of Sharon’s disengagement plan has been assigned to the newly appointed head of the National Security Council, Giora Eiland, without direct input from army brass. Eiland and Sharon’s bureau chief Dov Weisglass visited Washington last month to present an early version of the disengagement plan, without the participation — customary in such situations in the past — of army officers.

In addition, some generals complain in conversations that the disengagement plan jeopardizes what they see as the army’s considerable achievements to date in the war against Palestinian terrorists, especially since the de facto re-occupation of most of the territories in Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002. “We are winning this war, several times each day,” said the outgoing commander of the army’s Gaza Area Division, Brig. Gen. Gadi Shamni, only a day before Sharon’s attack on Ya’alon. Many officers share his view, and say they cannot understand why the prime minister acts — or promises to act — in a way that contradicts this view. Ya’alon himself has been quoted several times saying that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal, without matching concessions from the Palestinians, would be seen by terrorist groups as a victory and would “add wind to their sails.”

Despite the grumbling, Sharon’s attack caught Ya’alon off guard. The general was attending a show in Tel Aviv when Abramowitz’s report aired, and cell phone calls from his senior officers tipped him off.

It not quite clear why Sharon chose to confront the chief of staff, traditionally one of Israel’s most popular public figures. Ya’alon’s recent public comments have not been particularly inflammatory by Israeli standards. The head of the Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter, was much more blunt in his criticism of the disengagement plan during a visit to Washington this week, reportedly telling officials during a briefing that, “anyone who thinks the disengagement plan will lead to a reduction in Palestinian motivation to conduct attacks is wrong.”

Besides, Sharon is hardly the right person to criticize generals for overstepping their boundaries. In the course of a long military career, he was one of the most outspoken and irrepressible generals in the army’s history.

The Prime Minister’s Office issued a denial of Abramowitz’s report, although few knowledgeable observers took the denial seriously. Politicians right and left mostly sided with the chief of staff. “He isn’t Sharon and [Defense Minister] Mofaz’s yes man,” said Labor lawmaker Ophir Pines.

The growing debate had the effect of intensifying the fog around the prime minister’s real intentions. Military and political figures alike complain that foreign leaders know more about the disengagement plan than the army or the Shin Bet, much less ordinary Israeli citizens. Versions of the plan have been presented not only to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in Washington, but also to the American envoys who visited Israel recently, Elliot Abrams and Steven Hadley of the National Security Council and William Burns of the State Department. Mofaz presented it to senior French officials during a recent visit to Paris, and Sharon personally briefed the head of Egypt’s state security services, Brig. Gen. Omar Suleiman, during a secret meeting this week. All this while the General Staff of the Israeli military has yet to see a definitive map or timetable, or even to receive clear instructions as to its expected day-to-day behavior during the current waiting period.

This frustration, critics say, is one of the factors behind a series of large-scale operations carried out by the army in Gaza in recent days, claiming the lives of numerous Palestinians including gunmen and some civilians. Two days before Sharon’s fighting words against Ya’alon, the army launched a day-long offensive in the Al-Bureij refugee camp, killing 15 people, four of them civilians, including children. The army said that the attack and others like it are necessary to prevent terrorist activity, but critics saw them as indicating the army’s determination to maintain the upper hand while making an exit, if it is forced to do so.

The present conflict has been marked by periodic flare-ups between the army and its civilian commanders. In the first few months of the intifada some of Ehud Barak’s ministers complained that the army was carrying out “its own version” of orders — for example, lifting a blockade imposed on the Palestinian Authority’s airport at Rafah, but closing all the access roads. Later, then-chief of staff Mofaz openly criticized Sharon’s decision to pull the troops out of the Abu Sneina ridge overlooking Hebron, for which he was harshly rebuked by the defense minister at the time, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. Then, last November Ya’alon himself complained that the government’s lack of generosity toward the erstwhile Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, had helped bring about Abbas’s downfall.

The current clash between Sharon and Ya’alon may not last long, but it indicates the prime minister’s willingness to confront anybody, no matter how popular, who stands in his way. Where Sharon’s way will lead, and just how he plans to get there, is something that most Israelis are still asking themselves.

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