Al-Ahram Weekly – 21 March 2002
The man who commands Israel’s powerful military machine, Chief-of-Staff Shaul Mofaz, has never shied away from the cameras. So it came as no surprise when, the weekend after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the army to withdraw from Ramallah, Mofaz accepted an invitation to appear on Channel Two’s “Meet the Press” television show.
His public duties on this occasion, it might be assumed, would include defending the prime minister’s decision against the condemnation being heaped upon him by the international community for the 13 Palestinians killed and more than 100 injured in the three-day invasion of the Palestinian Authority’s temporary capital.
Mofaz joined the critics instead. Not, however, those accusing Sharon of going too far. In fact, Mofaz blamed him for not going far enough.
“We should have taken further steps in Ramallah to complete [our] control over the city,” he said on the programme. “The army’s plan was to reach the centre of Ramallah and arrest more terrorists and murderers.”
In the pressure-cooker world of Israeli politics, such comments can significantly raise the temperature. Sharon has been under a barrage of fire from the right wing, including cabinet ministers in his own Likud party. His detractors claim that he is not being brutal enough with President Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Mofaz is a seasoned media personality. He has tried to dictate terms to the politicians before, using the media to promote his hawkish agenda. In fact, he has made it something of a habit.
He attacked the government over its decision to withdraw from the West Bank cities invaded after the killing of right- wing Israeli tourism minister, Rehavam Zeevi. It was he who coined the phrase “terrorist entity” for the Palestinian Authority, before the term became politically acceptable. And he once embarrassed Sharon with pre-emptive remarks, hinting that the capture of the Karine-A weapons ship should force a policy rethink from the government.
Though there is only a hair’s breadth separating Mofaz’s and Sharon’s political instincts, the chief-of-staff is subject to none of the diplomatic pressures that, at times, restrain the prime minister.
Mofaz’s policy of trying to set the government agenda rather than implement it has made him enemies in the cabinet.
In October, relations between Mofaz and the defence minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, to whom he is officially answerable, hit rock bottom when Mofaz publicly criticised a decision to pull out of two areas of Hebron. Ben-Eliezer briefly considered sacking him.
In the end the chief-of-staff survived, but only after he agreed to make a humiliating apology on national radio in which he said his original statement had been “poorly phrased.”
Mofaz is due to retire in July and expects to follow in the footsteps of many other Israeli generals by using his military career as a launchpad for a Knesset career. To this end, he has been courting Sharon’s Likud party.
He has every reason to believe he will be successful. There are currently four cabinet ministers who are former generals, including Sharon and Ben-Eliezer. Three of the last four prime ministers had formerly been generals and two of them, Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin, were chiefs of staff.
The line between the military and political realms is so blurred in Israel as to be virtually erased.
But although previous chiefs of staff sometimes stepped into the grey area between military and political decisions — and clashed with the politicians — Mofaz, supported by his senior staff generals, has pushed the boundaries in his efforts to undermine cabinet instructions.
In many circles, there is more than a suspicion that he is electioneering while still in uniform. Baruch Kimmerling, a professor of sociology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a critic of Israel’s “militaristic society,” says the link between the military and politics is so strong that “sometimes you don’t know who are the real decision-makers in this country, the civilian elected leaders or the generals.”
The considerations driving Mofaz in the final days of his tenure may not even be political, let alone military.
The chief-of-staff has been having a bad war of late. Two tanks blown up by makeshift Palestinian bombs, five cadets killed at a military academy in Gaza by a lone gunman, the rising death toll of soldiers in checkpoint attacks and the continuing flow of suicide bombers through the army’s cordon sanitaire have dented his reputation.
The last thing Mofaz wants is to step down and begin his political campaign at a time when he appears weak or ineffective. The motivation of seeming more hard-hitting than his political rivals may, in part, be spurring his calls for still-tougher action as he recites the mantra that Israel “cannot blink in its war on terror.”
A nation that indulges its military leaders by allowing them to make such private calculations is playing with fire, according to Kimmerling. “A chief-of-staff with an adventurous personality and excess of personal ambition can bring tragedy to the state, and the region as well.”
Mofaz’s successor was announced last week. He is the chief-of-staff’s loyal deputy, Moshe Yaalon , who was the choice of both Mofaz and Ben-Eliezer. Yaalon , who beat three other candidates, is described in the Israeli press as the “continuity” option.
So the change is likely to mean more of the same, both in terms of hawkish attitudes and naked politicking.
Yaalon, 52, is credited with being the architect of what is termed as the “stonewalling strategy” against Arafat, increasing the pressure on the Palestinian leader on all fronts: military, economic, diplomatic and political. As far back as September, Yaalon was publicly arguing that the time had come to remove Arafat.
The comment was one of several that prompted Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the cabinet’s stalwart defender of the Oslo peace process, to remark that Yaalon was the general who least understood the conflict.
“We have to appear not as the oppressors of the Palestinians, but as the oppressors of terrorism,” Peres said. “We have to ease up on the Palestinians and ‘Boogie’ [Yaalon ] doesn’t understand this.”
An interview with the in-house newsletter of the intelligence services in January also offered an insight into the thinking of the Israeli Defence Forces’ next commander.
In it, he stood by the policy of “targeted killings” — using death squads to assassinate Palestinian terror suspects — and argued that Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 had given the Palestinians a “fighting spirit.”
And in a sign that he will follow the path beaten by his boss, he also entered the political arena, arguing that it was time “to return to the territories that we withdrew from in the Oslo accords.”