Israel: the military in charge?

Tanya Reinhart
23 May 2002

In understanding the current conflict and in assessing the dangers ahead, the role of the army in Israeli politics deserves special attention.

During the Oslo years, it seemed that the conflict between two conceptions which characterised the political world existed also in the army. Thus, Amnon Shahak, who replaced Ehud Barak as chief of staff, was known as a supporter of the Oslo process. The same is true of Amy Ayalon, then head of the Security Service (Shin Bet), who came out openly with critical views of Israel’s policies after he retired, and is currently a leading voice in the call for immediate withdrawal from the occupied territories.

But gradually, such voices were silenced. A dominant figure emerging during these years is Major-General Moshe Ya’alon, who is also known for his connections with the settlers. As head of the military intelligence – Am’an – between 1995 and 1998, Ya’alon confronted the chief of staff, Amnon Shahak, and has consolidated the anti-Oslo line which now dominates the military intelligence view.

Contradicting the position of Ayalon and the security services (who praised the security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian authority), Ya’alon claimed in a cabinet meeting in September 1997, and later, that “Arafat is giving a green light to terror” (see Amira Lam and Avner Hofstein, “Profile: The Deputy Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Moshe (Bugi) Ya’alon”, Yediot Aharonot Weekly Supplement, 1 June, 2001).

During Barak’s days in office, Ya’alon became one of his closest confidants in the restricted military team which Barak assembled (Amir Oren, Ha’aretz, 17 November, 2000). He was appointed deputy Chief of Staff at the outset of the Palestinian uprising, and has recently been appointed as the next chief of staff.

The rule of the army

The army was fully eager and ready, right at the start of the uprising, not only with all military means, but also with the political plans and propaganda themes. Already in early November 2000, Guy Bechor, a senior security analyst in Yediot Aharonot wrote: “Day after day, we read in the press assessments by IDF Intelligence about Arafat’s status as a partner, the utility or futility of continuing talks with him, attacking or holding back on an attack on the PA. It is doubtful that the army has a mandate to deal in these kinds of political issues but, in any case, the IDF presents a clear thesis here: Arafat initiated the wave of riots, he controls them absolutely, with the push of a button he can stop them. Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon even openly jeered at anyone thinking otherwise” (Yediot Aharonot, 7 November, 2000).

The military and the political systems in Israel have always been closely intertwined. According to a US ‘congressional source’, “in Israel, unlike the United States, the setting of national strategies and priorities is a consensus issue, not carried out by bodies headed by political appointees, but by men in uniform… All previous Israeli governments have given ‘a tremendous amount of attention’ to suggestions by the military because they represent the ‘permanent government,’ this source said” (Richard Sale, Washington, UPI, 1 March, 2001).

Still, never had the army such a dominant role in Israel’s politics as it has since the period of Barak and Sharon. It is often clear that the real decisions are made by the military rather than the political echelon. This is visible even externally – in all television coverage of meetings of the Israeli government or cabinet, one sees at least an equal number of uniformed representatives of the various branches of the army and the security forces, as politicians. The army seniors brief the press (and capture at least half of the news space in Israeli media); they brief and shape the views of foreign diplomats; go abroad on diplomatic missions; outline political plans for the government; and express their political views on any occasion.

Guy Bechor continued, in the same article of 7 November 2000: “When the prime minister is also the defense minister and there is no healthy dialogue between them as there should be; when cabinet meetings take place at the Defense Ministry; when ministers say amen to almost any military whim, the outcome can be disastrous… The press should play a balancing civilian role but in its patriotic attitude, it is usually a military choir… The government and the decision-makers, the Knesset, the press, the State Attorney’s Office and the other civil and economic institutions follow the military piper from Hamelin. Not that there are no exceptions, but that is what they are – exceptions… It should be hoped that the militarization process that is taking over our agenda be curbed, and that the army retreats to its natural position. But before that, all the civil institutions must take up their roles again: the government as a molder and not a follower of policy, the Knesset as a critical factor, the State Attorney’s Office charged with the civil interpretation of the rule of law, and the media as a factor that uses rational thought and the general public in contributing its common sense”.

No one, of course, took this advice, and the military’s rule in Israel only got further established during Sharon’s time in office. The army, particularly chief of staff Mofaz, gets occasionally into vocal and public clashes with the political system, even with Sharon, whom, with all his ‘glorious’ past, they consider a bit outdated.

One such big clash was in October 2001, when Sharon, pressed by the US to go more slowly, required that the army withdraws temporarily from the Abu-Snina area in Hebron, which it entered after the assassination of Israeli right wing minister Rehavam Zeevi. But Mofaz refused because “he knew we will get back there… according to the comprehensive military plans” (Alex Fishman, Yediot Aharonot, 19 October, 2001).

In the driving seat of power

It was reported that another source of conflict between the army and the government has been the army’s insistence that Arafat should be assassinated and not just removed from power. (Peres disclosed this several times; for example, “Peres accuses the army of a mud-slinging campaign to undermine him and said that Maj-Gen Ya’alon would like to physically eliminate Mr Arafat” (The Daily Telegraph, London, 2 October, 2001).) This is something that the US has not approved of, so Sharon has not agreed, so far, to that part of the plan to topple Arafat’s rule.

Richard Sale, in the article quoted above, reported that “what worries Washington policy makers is that Mofaz last November [2000] led a rebellious party of Israeli generals, who wanted ‘harsher measures’ taken against the Palestinian insurgents, including assassinating president of the Palestine Authority, Yassar Arafat, according to US government officials. One US congressional source described the blow out as ‘the most severe crisis of civilian authority in the history of Israel.’ This source explained the conflict centered on ‘the extent of the government’s ability to disregard the Israeli defense establishment and the estimates of intelligence chiefs in the pursuit of policy’ ”.

The army is the most stable, and most dangerous, political factor in Israel. It will stay in power even after Sharon falls. As Amir Oren put it, Mofaz is wrongly perceived as “someone who prefers Likud to Labor. In fact… he does not care who is the prime minister and the defence minister, as long as they don’t last long in their office. In the last six years, since October 1995, there were five prime ministers and six defence ministers, but only two chiefs of staff” (Ha’aretz, 19 October, 2001).

As the army is the driving force behind Israel’s politics, it is appropriate to wonder what they are really after. What can they have in mind as a replacement of the Oslo arrangements? The present declared goal is to reinstitute Israel’s military rule in the territories. But as we saw, the Oslo arrangements were conceived precisely because the military occupation could no longer work. The burden of policing the territories was much too heavy on the army, the reserves and Israeli society, and the IDF’s success in preventing terror was, in fact, much lower than that of the Palestinian Authority in later years.

No matter how “successful” the present ethnic cleansing is, as long as the occupation continues, the Palestinian resistance will continue as well, and as everyone knows, nothing can stop desperate people from turning to terror. After the Lebanon experience, and after the seven years of Oslo, during which Israeli society got used to the idea that the occupation comes for free, with the Palestinian Authority taking care of the settlers’ security, it is hard to imagine that anyone believes a pre-Oslo arrangement can be reinstalled as a long term solution.

‘Transfer’: from the lunatic fringe to the centre of debate

A serious danger that should not be ignored is that these fanatical generals really mean it when they speak about “the second half of 1948”. Those pushing for the destruction of the Oslo infrastructure may believe that under the appropriate conditions of regional escalation, it would be possible to eventually execute the transfer plan – mass evacuation of the Palestinian residents, as happened in 1948 (Sharon’s old vision of Jordan as the Palestinian state).

Indeed, the transfer idea is plainly on the table in Israeli political discourse. What was until a short while ago the lunatic right-wing of the Rehavam Zeevi school, is now becoming the political center. Ha’aretz of 23 March, 2001 reports a conference at the Herzliah center of about 300 “prominent personalities from the core of Israel’s political and defense establishment” – the center of the center.

The conclusions of the forum were solemnly presented to the president of Israel, and what they suggest there is the transfer-solution: “It will be necessary to find some place for resettlement outside the State of Israel (perhaps to the east of the Jordan) for the Palestinian population of the territories”. Israeli Palestinians would be deprived of their citizenship by “transferring them to Palestinian sovereignty.” The state’s resources should be invested in “fostering quality” that is, in the “strong population”, and not in the “non-Zionist population”, which includes “Arabs, ultra-orthodox Jews and foreign workers”, whose natural increase is a source of concern.

This danger may seem far-fetched. Unlike the daily ethnic cleansing that Israel has been carrying out, a full scale transfer, with masses of refugees, is not simple to execute, even in today’s setting of ‘new world order’. The only way it could become feasible is under the umbrella of an extensive regional war.

Some evidence has accumulated, however, that Israel has been preparing for such war, awaiting US approval. Specifically many voices in the Arab world have warned for quite a while that Israel is preparing for war with Syria. Since 11 September 2001, Israeli military and diplomatic delegations are openly lobbying in the US to extend the war to targets on the Israeli agenda.

In a more recent conference of the Herzliah center, Major General Uzi Dayan, one of the participants in these delegations, “identified what he called the appropriate targets for the next stage of the global campaign: ‘The Iran, Iraq and Syria triangle, all veteran supporters of terror which are developing weapons of mass destruction.’ He said that ‘they must be confronted as soon as possible, and that it is also understood in the US that Hizbollah and Syria have good reason to worry about the developments in this campaign’” (Aluf Ben, Ha’aretz, 18 December 2001).

Israel’s eagerness to open a new front has apparently found US hawks with open ears, particularly in the circles of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz. The Observer (London) reported already towards the end of September that “the plans put [by Rumsfeld] before the President during the past few days involve expanding the war beyond Afghanistan to include similar incursions by special operations forces – followed by air strikes by the bombers they would guide – into Iraq, Syria and the Beqaa Valley area of Lebanon, where the Syrian-backed Hizbollah (Party of God) fighters that harass Israel are based” (Ed Vulliamy, 30 September, 2001).

Of course, so far these are just plans representing one pole in US politics, but according to the Israeli press, concrete pressure on Syria began in December. “US officials have informed the Syrian and Lebanese governments in recent days that they must stop playing host to terror organizations. According to information that has reached Israel’s security establishment, as the final stages in the Afghanistan war effort draw near, the Americans intend to step up pressure against the activity of terror organizations in Syria and Lebanon. US emissaries visited Damascus and Beirut last week, and submitted their country’s demands” (Amos Harel, Ha’aretz, 24 December 2001).

Some analysts warned even long before 11 September about the dangers of war in the Middle East – a region loaded with non-conventional weapons. Israel is led now by lunatic, megalomaniac generals, who keep their plans secret even from the full forum of the government. These are the generals authorised also to unleash Israel’s nuclear arsenal. This is not a risk the world can take.

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