Israel's military, government in policy war over defense cuts

Special to World
Friday, October 31, 2003

TEL AVIV Israel's military and government have become engaged in a policy dispute regarding the stalemate in the insurgency war with the Palestinian Authority.

The rift developed over the last year but has been exacerbated by the deep cuts in the military budget for fiscal 2004. The two most prominent parties in the feud are Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon.

Military and government sources familiar with both men say the dispute has regarded the future of the Palestinian insurgency. Ya'alon has warned that the Israeli military cannot keep a lid on the insurgency amid a sharp decrease in the defense budget, Hizbullah threats from the northern border, deteriorating Palestinian economic conditions and the rising support for Hamas.

"The military's argument is that the government can't maintain the status quo," a military source said. "There are not enough troops to stop Palestinian terrorists and the territories are about to explode. The government must be pro-active instead of just waiting for things to happen."

Military sources said the primary dispute regards U.S. pressure on Israel. The sources said Ya'alon has bristled under orders by Mofaz to ease or tighten security restrictions on the Palestinians in accordance to the level of U.S. pressure on Jerusalem.

Instead, Ya'alon said such a move should be decided according to security considerations. A similar argument was presented by Ya'alon's predecessor, Mofaz, appointed defense minister by Sharon in 2002.

"The military has the greatest interest in what takes place in the territories," [Res.] Col. Moshe Elad, a former Israeli military governor, said. "There used to be others with interests in easing restrictions from the territories such as construction companies but that is no longer the case."

The General Staff has drafted scenarios of massive Palestinian infiltration into Israel, Palestinian riots in Israeli prisons and unprecedented recruitment of suicide attackers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Both the military and the Defense Ministry's Office of the Coordinator for the Territories have concluded that the Palestinian Authority has abandoned responsibility over the West Bank and parts of the Gaza Strip and in many cases control has been seized by insurgency groups and criminal gangs.

Mofaz has argued that Israel cannot revise its policy of constant pressure on Palestinian insurgency groups and their patrons in the PA. The defense minister believes that a power struggle to succeed the increasingly frail PA Chairman Yasser Arafat has begun and that both the ruling Fatah movement as well as the Islamic opposition regard attacks against Israel as a leading element in winning Palestinian support.

The defense minister has been supported by the Israel Security Agency, responsible for internal security. The ISA has determined that Palestinian insurgency groups would exploit any easing of restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to launch a new wave of suicide attacks.

"There has always been pressure between chiefs of staff and defense ministers in accordance with their different roles," Danny Rothchild, a former Israeli government coordinator for the West Bank and general, said.

"Over the last few years, the military usually pushed for curfews, siege and the division of the Gaza Strip while the defense minister moderated these demands. Today, the situation is reversed."

In a rare move, Ya'alon agreed this week to meet three leading newspaper columnists and advocate measures to ease restrictions on the Palestinians. During that meeting, the chief of staff suggested that the restrictions, particularly the closure of cities in the West Bank, have lost their deterrence as Muslims could not attend Ramadan prayers in Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque, farmers were unable to harvest crops and children could not attend school.

"In our tactical decisions, we are operating contrary to our strategic interests," Ya'alon was quoted as saying.

Mofaz and ISA director Avi Dichter were said to have agreed in principle with Ya'alon. But they wanted to delay the lifting of security restrictions until November, after the Jewish holidays and municipal elections.

"There are different views regarding this issue," Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said. "The chief of staff is not a clerk. He is extremely responsible, serious and measured. If he feels something, he should express it in a suitable manner."

On Thursday, Israel announced the lifting of restrictions on Palestinian movement and the entry of laborers and businessmen into Israel. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also said he seeks to renew talks with the PA.

But military sources said the government move was tactical and did not resolve the dispute with the military. They said that until 2002 Ya'alon was vigorously advocating that Israel destroy the PA and insurgency groups. But Ya'alon stopped voicing this position more than a year ago when he concluded that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would not take such a step because of U.S. opposition. Instead, Ya'alon searched for alternatives that would ensure Israel's security while maintaining some stability in the PA-controlled areas.

Ya'alon's advocacy of easing military pressure on the PA became more pronounced in August as the government was considering deep cuts in defense spending. Ya'alon said a new government policy was required to ensure stability in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as the military could no longer afford to maintain large amounts of troops in these areas.

In his briefing, Ya'alon said Israel had responded too slowly to Palestinian developments. The chief of staff called for the lifting of most restrictions from such West Bank cities as Bethlehem and Jericho.

During the government of PA Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Israel should have transferred all or most of the cities in the West Bank to PA control in one step rather in stages, Ya'alon said. Abbas left his post in September and his successor, Ahmed Qurei, has also been mulling resignation. Military sources said Ya'alon has expressed alarm that Qurei's departure would significantly increase the pace of disintegration and chaos in the Palestinian areas.

"The feeling of Ya'alon is that Mofaz, and by extension Sharon, wants to have their cake and eat it, too," a military source said. "The military has been given all of the responsibility and almost none of the authority to fight the Palestinians and maintain security. That has to change."

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