Sharon's newest critic: Israeli army chief

The chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces has added his voice to those criticizing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hard-line policies for dealing with the Palestinians.

Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, in remarks published this week that were initially attributed to "IDF officials" but later revealed as having been spoken by him, said that "in our tactical decisions, we are operating contrary to our strategic interest."

The IDF was quick to assert that "uniformed officials did not voice criticism against the Israeli government," but the top-story coverage in Israel's newspapers Thursday conveyed the opposite impression. "Sharon irate," began one front-page headline in the mass circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

In recent weeks, says strategic analyst Mark Heller, "there's been growing public dissatisfaction with Sharon." But the good news for the prime minister, Mr. Heller adds, is that "there is even greater dissatisfaction with everyone else and every possible alternative."

In a "background" briefing given to three of Israel's top political commentators, General Yaalon sought to describe an ongoing debate within Israel's military establishment over how to handle the conflict.

According to Nahum Barnea's account in the Wednesday edition of Yedioth Ahronoth, Yaalon said many officers favored easing a strict "closure" on the Palestinian territories because the restrictions ultimately exacerbate tensions.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Yaalon's boss and a former chief of staff who was himself known for airing his criticisms of government decisions, has reportedly favored maintaining the tight closure imposed after a suicide bombing in Haifa in early October.

Yaalon also outlined the frustration that many senior officers apparently feel about the government's policy toward former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Abbas stepped down in early September, saying he had been undermined by Israel and the government's call for the removal of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, which has served to reinforce the Palestinian leader's popularity among his people. The chief of staff also relayed criticism of the route planned for the "security barrier," which Israel is building to prevent terrorist attacks by walling in the Palestinians.

"Failure is an orphan," says Martin Van Creveld, a prominent historian of Israel's military, in suggesting that Yaalon might have spoken out in order to distance himself from an unsuccessful strategy.

Uniformed officers in Israel - as in many other countries - are supposed to keep their views on policy to themselves, but here political and military affairs are sometimes hard to distinguish from one another. Also, Israel has a tradition of turning to military leaders for political leadership - Sharon and Mofaz are both former generals - meaning that officers quickly learn to think like politicians.

In Thursday's coverage of the controversy, military officers were quoted supporting Yaalon's view. "Yaalon felt a public duty to warn and to bring to the public's attention the sense that many commanders feel, which is that the IDF is putting the Palestinian people into a pressure cooker that is liable to blow up in our face," said one unnamed officer quoted in the Maariv daily.

The IDF did announced a slight easing of closure on Wednesday - allowing 4,000 Palestinian merchants to enter Israel, another 1,500 workers to enter an industrial zone controlled by Israel, and the resumption of Palestinian public transportation in the West Bank. But these measures seemed to fall short of the easing that Yaalon and others recommend.

Professor Van Creveld, author of a history of Israel's military, says Yaalon was not necessarily out of line in sharing his views. "I would be inclined to think it is rather the duty of the chief of staff to speak out," he says. "I'm a bit disappointed that he's done it only now."

Other commentators saw some irony in the source of the criticism. "[T]his is an army, which for the last three years has been determining our view of reality, and is now complaining about how it looks," wrote Ofer Shelach in Thursday's Yedioth Ahronoth. Like Mofaz and Sharon, Yaalon is a considered a hardliner who has backed aggressive actions to counter the Palestinian uprising of the past three years.

Heller, principal research associate at the Jaffee Institute for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, says that Yaalon's comment about tactics undermining strategy makes sense if the strategy is to bring about a return to negotiations toward a two-state solution.

But, he continues "if the strategy is to compel the Palestinians to sign on to a political deal which is acceptable to people who control the [Israeli] government now then [current tactics are] not necessarily counterproductive."

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