In Israel, Too Much To Leave To the Generals
By Aluf Benn
Sunday, August 18, 2002; Page B01 (Outlook Section)
TEL AVIV - Back in 1955, Israel was swept by a wave of terror attacks from Gaza and the West Bank. As it does today, the government debated its response. Moshe Sharet, then prime minister, opposed the military's recommendation of massive retaliation. However, Sharet could not withstand pressure from Gen. Moshe Dayan, then the military chief of staff, and Col. Ariel "Arik" Sharon, who led a paratrooper battalion that carried out frequent reprisals. "Time and again I have prevented disasters, but also strained [my position] vis-à-vis the military and the public. If I say 'no' this time, it might lead to [an] explosion," Sharet confided to his diary after one bloody attack on a Jewish village.
Sharet was particularly worried about the attitude of Sharon's paratroopers. "[Whenever I] defer a retaliation proposal, rage and depression prevail in the battalion, and it becomes full of incitement and slander against the civilian authorities," Sharet wrote. "This battalion has become the state's collective tool of vengeance . . . and it constantly demands to be employed." Ultimately, the militant line prevailed. Sharet lost his job, and David Ben-Gurion, taking the country's reins for a second time, followed a path of retaliation that led to war in 1956.
Almost 50 years later, Israel's military still plays a huge role in decisions with political dimensions. Too huge. It distorts and constrains the political process, too often favoring the tactical over the strategic. Against a backdrop of almost two years of conflict with the Palestinians, the Israeli government is facing the same dilemmas Sharet once described, even though "Arik" now sits in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem. Unlike Sharet, Sharon has no qualms about using military force. But even he, the quintessential Arab-fighter, has been pushed by Israel's military brass toward a tougher line. Like his predecessors, Sharon has a hard time saying "no" to military proposals for retaliation , which in turn has led to more terrorist attacks and further escalation.
The most recent example was the July 22 killing of Salah Shehada, head of the military wing of Hamas. A subgroup of Israel's cabinet, the Security Cabinet, had earlier approved counterterrorism measures, including the assassination of Hamas leaders. Next, a smaller group of ministers, the "kitchenette," received a list of terrorists marked for killing. But the final go-ahead for killing Shehada, who starred high on the list, came during a late-night meeting of military and intelligence chiefs at Sharon's residence where the prime minister was the only civilian in the room. He approved the military's suggestion to drop a 2,000-pound bomb on Shehada's hideout in a densely populated area of Gaza City. There was one more delay because of concern over civilian casualties, then Sharon gave a last-minute okay over the phone. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer gave his consent from London, where he was on his way to the airport.
The F-16 hit its target, but from a political point of view the operation backfired. Though Shehada was killed along with another Hamas operative, so were 16 civilians, including 10 children, triggering international outrage and sabotaging efforts by some Palestinian groups to agree on a cease-fire declaration.
Israel's political leaders were quick to blame the military for feeding them the wrong assessments about collateral damage, but the problem is more fundamental: Israeli leaders exercise only limited control over the military. While Israel is a democracy with a tradition of army subordination to civilian authority, the country's almost continuous war with its Arab neighbors has given the military leadership an outsized prominence in policy-making. During crises, military and intelligence chiefs play an even more dominant role.
Traditionally, retired generals have been the hottest political commodities in Israel, and they lead the main political parties. The smell of battle gives them credibility in a country under siege. This is particularly true of the Labor Party, where leaders with civilian backgrounds (Shimon Peres, Yossi Beilin, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Abraham Burg) have lost out to ex-military types (Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ben-Eliezer). Labor's latest hero is Haifa mayor and retired tank general Amram Mitzna, a new contender for the party leadership.
While the military has always had enormous political clout, how it wields that influence has profoundly changed. Nothing shows this better than the two rounds of Israeli-Palestinian clashes. During the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, between 1987 and 1993, military leaders concluded there was no military solution and eventually pushed the government to seek a political compromise with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization. During that time, the army prosecuted many servicemen, up to brigade commanders, who abused Palestinians. Somewhat grudgingly, the military leaders supported the Oslo peace process. They advocated peace with Syria, and restrained Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing government during the 1990s.
By contrast, during the current round of hostilities, the military has advocated and implemented a harder line. Why? The social composition of the army has changed in the last two decades, as the upper classes shunned military careers and left the combat ranks to members of religious and settler groups and more right-wing-oriented Jews of Mideast origin. Following years of declining budgets and the humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, the Israel Defense Forces' fight against the Palestinians also became a matter of recovering prestige. Moreover, the military, like much of Israeli society, views the current conflict as "existential." Unlike the 1982 Lebanon war and the first intifada, there has been no dissent in the command echelons and the IDF is imbued with a sense of mission.
Once viewed as exemplary, the conduct of Israel's military has been a central issue from the very beginning of the current troubles. When violence broke out in late September 2000, after the breakdown of the Camp David peace conference and after Sharon's controversial visit to the Temple Mount, Israel's security forces were trigger-happy and responded fiercely to Palestinian demonstrations and shootings. Rather than quelling the new intifada, the strong military reaction only provoked a stronger resistance. Gilead Sher, top negotiator for then-prime minister Barak (and a reserve colonel), argues that while Barak's government stumbled over last-ditch peace efforts, the IDF, under the then-chief of staff, Gen. Shaul Mofaz, "strayed" from political directives to calm the situation. "The aggressive approach that the Palestinians should be subdued by using more and more force took hold in too many IDF centers," Sher wrote in his memoirs. Under Mofaz, the military handling of human rights abuses was lax, too. Criminal investigations became the exception.
When Sharon took office in March 2001, the war's political context changed. The prime minister vowed "never to negotiate under fire." During most of 2001, as the conflict dragged on, both sides raised the ante -- the Palestinians with recurring suicide attacks and Israel by seizing territory from the Palestinian Authority, assassinating suspected militants and using air power.
But even that wasn't militant enough for Mofaz, who wasn't shy about letting his views be known. When Sharon tried to reach a cease-fire with Arafat, Mofaz wanted nothing of it. From the outset, Mofaz and his fellow generals wanted to "bring the conflict to a decision" and promoted measures such as declaring the Palestinian Authority "an enemy," dismantling its institutions, reconquering its cities and expelling its leader, Arafat. Sharon's directives to ease the plight of ordinary, non-terrorist Palestinians were largely disregarded. Sharon and Ben-Eliezer, finding it difficult to control their general, had to publicly reprimand him, with little effect.
By the end of 2001, a fragile cease-fire, negotiated by political leaders, took hold. And then on Jan. 14, the military assassinated Ra'ed Karmi, a leader of the Tanzim militia associated with Arafat's Fatah movement, and all hell broke loose. That was the war's turning point. In the weeks that followed, an unprecedented wave of suicide attacks killed dozens of Israelis, until the government allowed Mofaz to launch the West Bank offensive for which he had longed. Eventually, Sharon took the blame for the Karmi operation, calling the cease-fire a sham. But Ben-Eliezer regretted the killing and Gen. Giora Eiland, the IDF chief of planning, while not mentioning the incident, has acknowledged that "our actions" -- the military's actions -- contributed to the escalation.
There are also institutional reasons why Israeli leaders have trouble standing up to the uniformed choir calling for the use of greater force. Israel's prime ministers have no equivalent of the U.S. National Security Council to serve as a policy coordinator. Attempts to create such a body in Israel have failed. The foreign ministry is weak, and the defense ministry has no civilian policy staff like the Pentagon's. Therefore, there is no counterbalance to the opinions shaped in the IDF's planning and intelligence branches. That enables the military to make vital policy decisions behind closed doors, using secret information, under little or no public scrutiny.
Gen. Eiland, the planning chief, recently rejected the "theoretical distinction" between civilian and military echelons. Both, he said at a Hebrew University conference in June, "share an intimate dialogue" in wartime. The dialogue between the military and Sharon is particularly intimate. Recognizing his need to co-opt the uniformed brass, the current prime minister struck an unspoken deal with them. He would give them a freer hand to use force and supply them with a diplomatic umbrella through his contacts with President Bush while the IDF would remain silent over the future of isolated settlements and the guarding of virtually empty outposts, a politically controversial mission that places a burden on the overworked forces.
With the recent change in command at the IDF, the military tendency toward a hard line and political involvement continues. On July 9, Gen. Moshe ("Bogy") Ya'alon took over the military command from Mofaz, who is widely expected to join the Likud and become the next defense minister. Ya'alon opened his tenure as chief of staff on an aggressive note, seeking the expulsion of the family members of suicide bombers and demolition of their homes as a deterrent against future attacks. Then he ordered the Shehada bombing and carried out more assassinations.
In his overall strategy, however, Ya'alon differs from his predecessor. Unlike Mofaz, who strove for "decision," the new chief talks about "a war of attrition" to be won by scoring points as opposed to a knockout. "Bogy" believes that gradually this will cause the Palestinians to forsake their current leadership and lose their will to keep fighting.
In the face of Arab rejectionism and hostility, there has been an element of necessity in the prominent role of Israel's military. Nevertheless, this role has also exacted a tremendous cost. Military solutions and considerations have taken center stage, pushing aside other alternatives. The two historic breakthroughs toward peace, with Egypt at Camp David and the Palestinians in Oslo, became possible only after the military debacles of the 1973 war and the first intifada, which ended in stalemate. In both cases, Israel's political leadership negotiated the peace deals in secret, behind the military's back and over its vocal objections.
Despite the deep crisis it finds itself in, Israel needs a more balanced government, with a clear separation of powers between military and civilian authorities and better political oversight over the IDF. This could be achieved through the creation of strong nonmilitary bureaucratic power centers, and by promoting civilian leaders to the senior political positions at the Defense Ministry. The current system, where the military isn't second-guessed and the army is a perfect springboard for political careers, offers no incentive for the military to change course. But for the sake of its democracy, Israel should put its generals where they belong, under strict civilian control and oversight.
Aluf Benn is the diplomatic correspondent of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.