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Rhetoric Escalates Over Pilots’ Rebellion

JERUSALEM — The shocking announcement by 27 Air Force pilots that they would refuse to participate in what they called “illegal and immoral” assassination attempts against Palestinian terrorists is hitting a raw nerve among army generals and reopening the bitter schisms in Israeli politics.

While described as an “insignificant minority” — most of whom no longer fly combat missions — the rebelling pilots managed nonetheless to dominate local press coverage for days and to bring down unprecedented vitriol from top government and military leaders. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the pilots were guilty of aiding and abetting terrorist groups. The commander of the Air Force, Major General Dan Halutz, accused them of “stabbing the Air Force in the back.” And the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee voted to condemn the pilots’ controversial letter as tantamount to “incitement to mutiny.”

The left, for its part, originally withheld support for the pilots’ cause but has now begun reacting with growing anger to what opposition leaders call the “totalitarian and insightful” nature of the defense establishment’s response to the pilots. Meretz leader Yossi Sarid described the concerted campaign against the pilots as a “cannibal hunt,” while his party colleague Ran Cohen called the Knesset’s intervention “insane.”

Although regular army officers have in the past designated themselves “conscientious objectors” against “immoral” army policy toward the Palestinians, this was the first protest to involve combat pilots. Long regarded as Israel’s fair-haired heroes and the jewel in the crown of the Israeli military, the pilots’ rebellion shocked the public and rattled the establishment. Another sacred cow, numerous commentators said, was being slaughtered.

Adding fuel to the political fire was a separate effort by a group of left-wing activists, joined by several noted authors, to petition the Supreme Court to order a criminal investigation into the July 2002 assassination of Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh. The raid against Shehadeh killed 15 Palestinians, including 11 children. The petitioners threatened to sue Israel in an international war-crimes court if an internal investigation is not launched.

The Shehadeh petition prompted the deputy minister of education, Zvi Hendel of the right-wing National Union party, to call for the works of all the “treasonous” authors who signed the petition to be purged from official school curricula, despite the fact that some of the authors — including novelist S. Yizhar and poet Natan Zach — are ranked among Israel’s finest.

Hendel, predictably, was promptly branded a “fascist” by enraged leftist politicians. Sarid, of the Meretz party, sarcastically quipped that “a boycott isn’t enough — their books should be burned altogether.”

The escalating rhetoric stood in stark contrast to the restrained, almost bland dialogue characterizing most exchanges between the two political blocs in the three years since the start of the intifada. It may be a sign of fraying nerves, at least at the extremes of Israeli political life, and of increasing exasperation at the diplomatic and military deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians. After three years of a more or less united front against terrorism, the hidden fault lines of Israeli politics may once again be emerging.

The signs are everywhere. Sharon has come under withering fire from the left for failing to initiate a dialogue with the new Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, also known as Abu Ala. Contrary to his warm attitude toward Qurei’s predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, Sharon is keeping his distance from Qurei, demanding he first “prove himself” by cracking down on terrorism. The distancing is more than tactical. If he negotiated with Qurei, who openly proclaims his allegiance to Yasser Arafat, Sharon would find it difficult to convince anyone that he is not negotiating with Arafat.

Sharon also angered the left this week by announcing that he will extend the route of the so-called separation fence to encompass the town of Ariel, deep inside the West Bank. Sharon has been trying hard to avoid an open confrontation with the Bush administration on this matter and has promised American officials that the Ariel portion of the fence would, for now, not be linked with the rest of the fence. Still, the move garnered worldwide criticism and further fueled political tensions at home.

Foreign Ministry officials believe Sharon decided to build the controversial Ariel segment after concluding that the increasingly tight American presidential campaign would reduce the odds of a harsh administration response. Indeed, many officials and commentators now believe that because of the American political timetable, the diplomatic process will lie dormant at least until November 2004, if President Bush is re-elected, or even mid-2005, if someone else takes over.

Conventional wisdom — which is also the official prognosis of Israeli military intelligence — is that the diplomatic stagnation will lead to continued terrorist attacks, especially if Arafat keeps calling the shots. But some Palestinian-watchers believe that Qurei, unlike his hapless predecessor, is carefully building his political base while trying to woo Hamas and Islamic Jihad into another self-imposed hudna, or cease-fire. Unlike the antagonistic Abbas, Qurei is trying to neutralize Arafat by courting him. “I am going to hug him so that I can pick his pocket,” Ha’aretz quoted Qurei as saying.

Some of Qurei’s Israeli fans, including those who negotiated with him during the Oslo process, believe he could craft a new cease-fire that will put Sharon under domestic pressure to renew a political dialogue with the Palestinian leadership and revive diplomacy under the American-sponsored road map. If Sharon fails to do so, liberals say, current political cracks will widen to re-create the schism that characterized Israeli politics before the intifada.

Liberals believe Qurei’s deft maneuvering is responsible for the relative quiet that has reigned on the security front over the last few weeks. Sharon, for his part, maintains that the lull, which probably won’t last anyway, is a direct result of the government’s attacks on Hamas leaders and its threat to expel Arafat. Army officers say that both Arafat and Hamas are running scared.

Ironically, it was the very lack of security-related news that enabled Israeli public opinion and the media to focus so extensively on the pilots’ letter. And it was the assassination policy — which, according to Sharon, secured the current lull — that spurred the pilots to protest in the first place.

Repeated polls have shown that most Israelis support the policy of “targeted killings,” even if, as has happened repeatedly, the bombs and missiles go off-target, killing hundreds of innocent civilians in the process. The murder of 867 Israelis in terrorist attacks in the last three years, and the maiming of thousands of others, have depleted what little sympathy Israelis had in the first place for “collateral” Palestinian casualties. All this has undercut whatever public support the pilots might have hoped to win.

Further hurting their support, the pilots muddied their protest against killing bystanders by laying the blame in their letter on the “corrupting and continuous occupation” of the Palestinians. That exposed them to the inevitable accusation that they were motivated by politics, not conscience.

Paradoxically, polls show that while the vast majority of Israelis support the policy of assassination, more and more share the pilots’ opposition to the “occupation.” In the long run, one of the pilots told the Forward this week, “our point will be made.”

The pilots did succeed in sullying the image of the Air Force chief, Halutz, who is seen as a leading candidate to become the next deputy chief of staff and hence a rising political star. Halutz’s tough response to the pilots has drawn attention to his hard-line views in general, bringing him under fire from the left and center. In one recent interview, Halutz dismissed concerns over unintended Palestinian casualties, saying, “I don’t feel a thing, except a slight bump in the airplane when the bomb is released.” Views like that, said Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, make Halutz “unfit to be a commander in an army of a Jewish state.”

Coupled with the ongoing economic crisis, which this week spurred yet another debilitating strike by vital government employees, the unprecedented onslaught against the commander of the revered Air Force, the stain on the sacrosanct image of combat pilots generally and the acrimonious and bitter debate about their letter only accentuated the general feeling that things are deteriorating across the board. Indeed, when asked in a Yediot Aharonot poll last weekend whether a “better future” was promised to Israel’s younger generation, Israelis by a crushing 73%-to-21% margin answered, “No.”

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