The generals’ confusion

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The past 10 days have been good for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He was able to take a pat on the back from George W. Bush and turn it into public declarations of support for his plan to turn Gaza and much of Samaria into safe havens for terrorists from his heirs apparent in the Likud – Ministers Netanyahu, Shalom and Livnat.

Additionally, Sharon this week has successfully silenced debate of his plan to uproot 25 communities in Gaza and Samaria and to turn the territory over to Israel's enemies. He maneuvered his way out of debating Minister without Portfolio Uzi Landau about his plan before the Likud rank-and-file vote on the plan in two weeks. As well, Sharon has worked to prevent debate of his plan in the Knesset.

 

 

The fact that Sharon chose a date for the Likud poll that follows directly after the holidays, when most Israelis pay scant attention to the headlines, also works to ensure that the premier's party faithful will go to the polls with as little information as possible about his plan.

 

In this goal he finds a willing accomplice in the media. Our mainstream media outlets are doing everything they can to silence debate on the merits of his plan. The press has paid minimal attention to the fact that, in the days since Sharon's meeting with Bush, Bush and his people have repeatedly denied a shift in US policy away from the Palestinians and toward Israel.

 

If our media was not firmly backing Sharon's plan, this would not be the case. After all, the entire rationale of moving ahead with Sharon's plan is that Sharon has claimed that the US has given Israel something in exchange for implementing it. And yet, over the past week, the US has made quite clear that it will give Israel nothing.

 

 

Last Friday Bush explained, "All final status issues must still be negotiated between the parties."

 

What this means, as Secretary of State Colin Powell and others have been keen to point out, is that although Bush did state that the US thinks it would be unrealistic to have the so-called Palestinian refugees overrun Israel in the framework of an agreement, Bush did not commit the US to preventing it from happening.

Likewise, in spite of the fact that it may be unrealistic to expect that more than 250,000 Israelis would be driven out of their homes in a peace deal, it is not for the US to say. If the media was not mobilized to support Sharon's plan, surely the fact that the US gave Israel nothing would be given more than passing attention.

 

The strategy that Sharon is carefully following in selling his plan is to personalize the battle. So it is that MK Omri Sharon makes the dubious argument that if the party votes against the plan his father will resign. Young Sharon goes on to argue that his father is more important than Likud and that if Likud rejects the plan, and thereby rejects his father, the party will lose the support of the public.

 

We have seen this before. Yitzhak Rabin used this strategy to sell the Oslo Accord to voters. Ehud Barak used the plan to sell both the retreat from Lebanon and the Camp David summit. Both were successful in their bids to gain confidence for radical policies by framing public debate as Sharon is now doing. In the case of all three leaders, their success was based on the fact that the public perceived them all as security hawks.

The public viewed these former generals as security hawks because that's what they were. All three had fought hard at various times to expand the Israeli communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. They did so not for political reasons, but for military reasons. All understood that the settlements are vital for fighting terrorism because they provide IDF forces with safe bases from which to launch operations. They provide soldiers with knowledge of terrain. They provide easy access to Palestinian workers who can be used to gather intelligence.

 

But what Rabin, Barak and Sharon knew as generals they forgot as politicians. Rabin brought about a disaster with Oslo and Barak brought about disaster in Lebanon. Now Sharon looks set to do the same. A retreat from Gaza will damage Israel's negotiating position and strategic posture for years to come. It will not, as Sharon claims, dampen US pressure to retreat to the 1949 armistice lines. On the contrary, it will encourage it.

 

Israel will have shown that our demands are negotiable while Palestinian demands remain firm and inflexible. We will accept the principle that a Palestinian state must be free of Jews. Withdrawal reinforces the view that Israel can live alongside a terror state, as we do with Lebanon. Finally, the plan formalizes the incoherent view that Israel's security will be improved by barring our soldiers from Palestinian population centers.

 

How are we to understand the pattern of behavior by our generals turned prime ministers? As military commanders, all three leaders were schooled in the Ben-Gurion view that there should be no politics in the army. As a result, with few exceptions IDF generals retire with little practical knowledge of how to operate in diplomatic and political circles.

 

The sense among our generals that there ought to be a separation between security and politics also leads to a distorted perception that the two are unrelated. War isn't just diplomacy by other means. Diplomacy is also war by other means. Both are ways of advancing a nation's interests. Yet each requires specific skills and each operates according to different rules. Expertise in one does not translate into expertise in the other.

 

Our three generals-turned-prime ministers have each made statements to the effect that political considerations outweigh security considerations. Again, these statements are a function of their backgrounds. If political leaders are above military leaders and politics and security are two separate entities, then politics would trump security. But of course, while political leaders are in charge of military leaders, politics and security are two sides of the same national interest. Any political policy that undercuts security concerns will fail because it ignores the fact that the primary duty of a state is to provide security for its citizens.

What all this shows is that, in electing "security hawks" to the prime minister's office, Israel gets neither the security it seeks nor the political acumen and diplomatic savvy it needs. In other words, Israel loses out twice. We lose because we elect these men expecting they will act as the security hawks, then get something else entirely. And we lose because rather than having a veteran security hawk in power, we are governed by a bad politician. In the search for new leadership, it would be better to avoid the army.

 

 

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

 

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