Can Israeli ex-warriors lead peace?

New premier Barak creates a negotiating team with military background.

Israel is in the midst of a military coup.

Martial law won't be installed, but Israel's future is about to be determined by what would best be described as a peace junta: a phalanx of former generals riding in on the coattails of moderate Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak.

Mr. Barak, a former army general and chief of staff, is Israel's most decorated soldier - a fact that aided his landslide victory in last month's election.

Now, while still trying to put together a coalition government from members of Israel's 15-party parliament, the new powerbrokers of Middle East peacemaking are crystallizing as a corps of Barak associates with credentials from the army and intelligence services.

Barak is planning to appoint a "peace administration," made up of three former generals, to head three tracks of the Middle East peace process: one in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians, one with the Syrians, and one with the Lebanese.

Coordinating among these three divisions and reporting directly to Barak will be his chief of staff: Maj. Gen. Danny Yatom, a reservist who was until recently head of the Mossad, Israel's secret intelligence agency.

Barak's foreign policy adviser will be Brig. Gen. Zvi Stauber, who retired from 25 years of army service as the head of the Strategic Planning Division of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Wary Israelis say this concentration of power in the hands of an elite few couldn't be good for democracy. Others say it is simply a product of Barak's management style and the fact that his lifelong army colleagues are the only people he really trusts.

A traditional career move

Either way, most observers point out that a clique of generals - especially a dovish one like the group he intends to install - might be best-equipped to help sell security-conscious Israelis on a peace deal with their Arab neighbors.

"Especially on the Palestinian track, there are problems that touch on issues of identity, history, culture, that are not strictly strategic issues," says Ari Shavit, a leading columnist for the left-wing Haaretz newspaper in Jerusalem.

"I have my doubts whether the generals understand the depth of it, and whether they can go beyond the issues of where the tanks will stand," he says.

The military has always played an influential role in Israeli politics, but generals have rarely made a beeline for politics, as did Barak. Barak's mentor, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was also a war hero, but did not surround himself solely with other military experts when he struck a peace deal with the Palestinians in 1993.

Two Haifa University academics fathered the idea of the Oslo Accords and were responsible for bringing Israeli and Palestinian negotiators together in secret. Two key architects of the interim deal with the Palestinians, Uri Savir and Labor politician Yossi Beilin, represented the Foreign Ministry and didn't boast impressive military records.

Their influence, some say, made life difficult for Mr. Rabin. Members of the military establishment felt left out of the initial breakthrough accord.

"Barak is not going to repeat the mistakes Rabin made, and Rabin admitted he made mistakes," says Avraham Tamir, who served as the army's chief policymaker from 1974 to '83. "Oslo's academic source - people like Beilin and Savir - was not the right source to lead a peace based on security values."

Mr. Tamir, a member of the Council for Peace and Security, a group of senior IDF reserve and retired officers in favor of territorial compromise coupled with security guarantees, says Israel has since its inception relied on advice from military leaders, and little has changed.

But critics say Barak will be surrounded by more former senior army officials than ever before - many of whom were his subordinates - and that the hierarchy of military life doesn't necessarily make them the best candidates for the delicate work of diplomacy.

"I think that their place is not in politics," Mr. Shavit says. "You take the illusion of someone with experience, and their old qualifications are not always relevant. It's a different ballgame."

Shavit argues that Rabin later realized he needed to keep the army more informed of negotiations and began to realize the benefit of the public seeing their role. "It was very easy to market the peace process through the generals," adds Shavit. "It was a mistake, because the military stopped being the military and started being political.

"The campaign was very pluralistic, all this stuff about the mosaic of Israel, and at the end of the day you have a very monolithic sect running everything," says Shavit.

Author Yossi Melman, who specializes in military and security affairs, strikes a similar chord. "Israel is breeding a class of military people, with all the traits of a class with vested interests," he says. "But Barak is absorbing some input of civil society, and he's much more aware nowadays that military thinking and organizational methods are not always good for solving problems that are very complex," he adds.

Some special qualifications

Many Israeli industries are headed by senior military officials who were courted for jobs upon retirement. Some are given positions in business and politics on the basis of loyalty, Mr. Melman says, not competence.

Some observers say the army's top brass appears more eager to make concessions for peace than the populace.

And even critics caution against generalizing about the generals. Commentators say Maj. Gen. Uri Saguy, who will head negotiations with the Syrians, is a talented expert with experience in Syrian affairs. There is less enthusiasm surrounding Mr. Yatom, who masterminded a botched attempt to assassinate a Hamas leader in Jordan in 1997.

Dr. Stauber, the new foreign policy adviser, says the Israeli army is hardly a place that breeds rigid thinking, compared with other armies.

"On the contrary, the discussions in the military are much more open than ones I've seen in academia," says Stauber, who is leaving his vice presidential post at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba to join Barak's government. "There's nothing wrong with generals," he quips. "Some of them are creative; some are not." Under Rabin, Stauber was involved in negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians.

During that time, he became friendly with one of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's chief security advisers, and has maintained social relations with him and other Palestinians. Indeed, Barak's victory means the return of at least some officials with whom senior Palestinian figures have developed a rapport.

"I haven't met an Israeli in negotiations so far who isn't a military person," says chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, in reference to Israel's mandatory military service. "It's the government that counts. Negotiators are not decisionmakers. They carry out instructions." And those, it seems, will come down from the top.

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