EACH morning this week, three men in suits walked into separate meetings in Cairo, Washington, and the Egyptian resort of Taba, sat down with their Palestinian negotiating partners, and hammered out the shape of Palestinian self-rule.
Aside from being the heads of the Israeli delegations to the talks, the three men have something else in common, suggested only by their bearing. They are all generals in the Israeli Army.
To many Israelis, there is nothing strange about the leading role that the military has taken in the peace talks. ``When problems of security are so predominant in any of the negotiations, it is quite natural,'' argues Shlomo Gazit, a retired Army general.
But in recent weeks, a chorus of criticism has made itself heard. ``It is very strange and unconstitutional that generals should be heading the delegations,'' says Haggai Merom, a Knesset (parliament) member from the ruling Labor Party. ``Most of the issues being dealt with are political, not security questions.''
Critics of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's reliance on his old Army comrades include some of those comrades themselves. ``In a good, normal democracy, it is unacceptable'' that soldiers should lead negotiating delegations, complains Aharon Levran, a former deputy head of Israeli military intelligence.
``Military people should be consultants, and nothing should be done without them, but they should not be formally responsible for things,'' he adds.
As it is, Maj. Gen. Amnon Shahak, the deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), heads the team negotiating security aspects of the plan to give Palestinians limited autonomy in the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip. Brig. Gen. Gadi Zohar is in charge of handing over authority in civilian spheres, and in Washington, Maj. Gen. Danny Rothschild is mapping out a broader plan for the whole of the West Bank and Gaza.
The appointments of these three generals prompted Army chief Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak to send out a circular to all senior officers about the military's role in the peace process. ``We must be careful ... not to reach a situation where we are trying to dictate a political agreement to the government under the guise of security issues,'' he warned.
Those words of caution did not stop the respected daily Haaretz from wondering in an editorial whether ``the danger about which he [Barak] is warning is already present.'' Critics of Mr. Rabin's approach say the problem goes deeper than the delegation heads.
Even though Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has been carrying out the highest-level negotiations, with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat, ``Rabin is the decisionmaker, and his advisers are not Cabinet ministers but Army officers,'' points out Mr. Merom.
Rabin's closest adviser is General Barak, whose political aspirations are an open secret and almost a military tradition. If Barak does go into politics when he retires from the Army at the end of this year, he will be the fifth of the last eight IDF chiefs of staff to take that route.
Meanwhile, he has the prime minister's ear. Rabin, who was chief of staff during the Six-Day War, ``thinks like a general, and feels more comfortable with the military,'' says Yoel Marcus, a political commentator with Haaretz, than with philosopher-politicians such as Mr. Peres, who has never worn a uniform.
RABIN'S apparent mistrust of Peres and the other Foreign Ministry officials who first negotiated the secret Oslo agreement with the PLO, General Gazit suggests, is what has prompted him to give so much responsibility now to the Army. ``I am sure the prime minister wants to have people he can trust completely,'' he says. ``From this point of view, comparing the civilians and military officers who come under him, he feels much more comfortable with military officers.''
Senior IDF officers, angry that they were kept in the dark about the Oslo negotiations and highly critical of the agreement that emerged from them, have been eager to play the role Rabin has allotted them.
``What is happening is a blurring of the line between the military and politics,'' worries General Levran. ``The military is more and more involved in politics.''
Other observers dismiss such concerns. ``There is nothing new here,'' Gazit insists. ``IDF officers have been involved in negotiations from 1948 onwards.''
But for Mr. Merom there is a difference between the cease-fire negotiations and disengagement talks after each of Israel's wars and the current situation. ``Here, we don't have talks about separating military forces,'' he points out. ``We are talking about autonomy, about civilians, and elections.''
For the Israeli public in general, however, the sight of IDF officers rather than politicians shaping the peace accord is reassuring. The average Israeli will judge peace with the Palestinians by one criteria - personal security - and ``the public feels better if security arrangements are negotiated by generals rather than by [Deputy Foreign Minister] Yossi Beilin,'' Mr. Marcus says.
``Every politician has an ax to grind,'' Gazit says. ``The military doesn't, unless the ax is security.''
That ax, however, has cut the feet from under Israel's elected civilian politicians in setting the tone for the peace talks. ``That is the problem,'' comments Marcus, ``when you have a chief of staff with political ambitions, and a prime minister who was once a chief of staff.''