Focus / Unity of vision at the top By Aluf Benn
One of the main sources of Ariel Sharon's strength as prime minister is his excellent relationship with the heads of the defense establishment. Unlike his predecessors Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu - who squabbled with the Israel Defense Forces and the intelligence community and consequently suffered from criticism and leaks - Sharon has succeeded in harnessing the top ranks of the military and intelligence establishments to his positions. His habit of listening attentively at meetings, asking questions and giving participants the feeling that they are helping to shape policy has contributed to this success.
The discussions held this week at the Herzliya Conference on National Security, which was sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Center, highlighted the ideological unanimity that now exists between the prime minister, the defense minister and the highest professional levels of the defense and intelligence establishments. All agree that Israel must continue the war with the Palestinians until Yasser Arafat and his colleagues have been replaced by a new Palestinian leadership with which it is possible to discuss a diplomatic solution to the conflict. They also all expect an American attack on Iraq to serve as an engine for far-reaching strategic changes that will weaken the Arabs and strengthen Israel.
The speeches by IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon and National Security Adviser Ephraim Halevy offered professional justifications for Sharon's policies: refusing to negotiate under fire, and instead gritting his teeth and continuing IDF operations in the territories in the expectation that the enemy will break first.
Ya'alon said that Israel's war aim must be a decisive victory in which the other side recognizes that it has no chance of achieving anything via terror. Until this occurs, he said, Israel must keep up its military pressure on the terrorist infrastructure, alongside "differential humanitarian" abatements to make life easier for the Palestinian civilian population, in order to encourage the process of second thoughts now taking place among the Palestinians. Halevy also spoke of the growing opposition to the intifada and suicide attacks by Palestinian leaders who fear that their national movement will be destroyed if the terror continues.
Ya'alon said he opposed evacuating isolated settlements such as Netzarim in Gaza "under pressure from terror," viewing this as an expression of weakness that would strengthen the armed struggle against Israel. Ya'alon said his reasons for this stance were military and security-related, "not political or diplomatic." But it is hard to ignore the political impact of his opinion at a time when Sharon's main opponent for the prime ministry, Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna, has made a pledge to unilaterally evacuate the Gaza settlements the centerpiece of his campaign.
Both Mitzna and Labor's elder statesman, Shimon Peres, see the conflict with the Palestinians in local terms. They believe that in order to end the terror, Israel must resume negotiations with Arafat and strive to end its occupation of the territories. But Sharon, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Ya'alon and Halevy have a different world view: They see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as merely one front in a global culture war between the West and fundamentalist Islamic terror. "Never before has there been such a convergence of goals between Israel and the U.S.," Halevy said, adding that Israel must formulate its policies with maximum consideration for American interests and needs.
With the Likud on the verge of choosing its Knesset slate, the defense minister opted for caution, giving a statesmanlike speech rich in quotations from David Ben-Gurion. But the speech did contain some tentative criticisms of the prime minister's cautious approach, consistent with the positions Mofaz advocated in his previous role as IDF chief of staff. "Sooner or later we will have to ask ourselves whether it is right to continue with a policy of standing firm over time, or whether we should perhaps switch to a process of political-military decision," he said.
Like Ya'alon, Mofaz believes that victory will be achieved incrementally rather than with a knock-out blow and that it will not be achieved solely by military means. And the solutions and methods he proposed were also identical to those offered by other speakers at the conference. Like them, Mofaz also awaits "the disappearance of the current Palestinian leadership from the stage of history" so that Israel can negotiate with its successors. And until then, he believes that Israel must continue to fight terror "everywhere," work to delegitimize Arafat and other supporters of terrorism and try to mobilize international aid for the civilian residents of the territories.