JWR Wandering Jews

Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2002 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763


United State

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | About 18 months ago, when Israeli soldiers entered the village of Beit Hanoun, several hundred meters over the Gaza border, the Bush administration forced them towithdraw in disgrace within 24 hours. But last week, in pulling back several hundred meters from Yasser Arafat's devastated Ramallah compound after 10 days of siege, Ariel Sharon won praise not only from George Bush but from Vladimir Putin and even the UN's Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen. The distance between Beit Hanoun and Ramallah is a measure of how far Israel has come - and how far it's willing to go - in its war against terror.

Few here are denying that the siege was a fiasco. Arafat was able to once again play the role of survivor, while Israel was forced to rescind its "non-negotiable" demand for the surrender of terrorists hiding in his headquarters. The decision to besiege Arafat and ignore America's diplomatic needs resulted from a rare relapse into recklessness by Sharon and a less rare display of cowardice by Labor Party ministers afraid to challenge the prime minister even when they suspect he's wrong. But it also resulted from a more positive impulse: a growing determination by the army to win the war against terrorism.

During the first Intifada, in the late '80s, then-Chief of Staff Dan Shomron established what became the IDF's military doctrine: A politically divided Israel cannot win against a popular Palestinian uprising. That conclusion was partly responsible for the decision by the army's general staff to endorse the Oslo peace process and even participate in quasi-political negotiations with the Palestinians.

Now though, a relatively united Israel is confronting not a popular Palestinian uprising but a terrorist war. And the army is challenging Israelis to back its new agenda: victory. The army doesn't define "victory" in purely military terms. While there have been unmistakable successes - the rate of terrorist attacks have substantially dropped since the first reoccupation of the territories six months ago, and the army now claims there are more explosives belts available than suicide bombers -none of the senior commanders believe it's possible to end all attacks by military means. Even Sharon acknowledged, in an interview this month with the Jerusalem Post, that there can be no ultimate military victory against the Palestinians, only a political solution. Instead, the army has come to see victory in terms of shaping that political solution - convincing the Palestinians, through military pressure, that Israeli society can't be defeated or coerced and that terror will produce no tangible gains.

"There is no knockout blow, but there is an accumulation of small military victories that can create the conditions for a political victory," says Dan Schueftan, a Middle East expert close to the military establishment. "The end goal is Palestinian acknowledgment that they've endured all this suffering for absolutely nothing. The interim goal is to make the terrorists realize that there is nowhere to hide."

The IDF's new chief of staff, Moshe "Boogie" Ya'alon, who assumed command three months ago, defines the process as a battle for the restoration of Israeli deterrence, which has been gradually eroded over the last two decades by a series of Israeli military stalemates and defeats. Ya'alon has declared war on the "spider web" theory - the notion, propounded by Hizbollah's secretary-general Sheikh Hassan Nassrallah, that Israel, like a spider web, appears sturdy but is in fact fragile because its people have lost the will to fight.Ya'alon warns that failure to defeat that perception, encouraged by Israel's flight from southern Lebanon two years ago, will expose the Jewish state to ongoing terrorist blackmail and endless Palestinian demands and make peace impossible.

Restoring deterrence, he argues, depends on strengthening Israeli resolve against the temptation of easy solutions, such as unilateral withdrawal from the territories. And so rather than leave public opinion to the politicians, Ya'alon has thrust himself into a political debate that until now had been off-limits to generals. In a series of media appearances, he has warned that uprooting settlements under fire - a position supported by part of the Labor Party and the parties to its left --would prolong the terrorist war by convincing Palestinians that Israelis are on the run. Ya'alon, a kibbutznik who grew up in the Labor Zionist movement, has also attacked the left's impatience for peace as a defeatist threat to Israeli security. "'Nowism' is the mother of all sins," he recently told the liberal newspaper, Ha'aretz."And it makes no difference whether to the word 'now' is added 'messiah' [as in the Lubavitcher Hasidic slogan, 'messiah now'] or something else" - as in the left-wing "Peace Now."

Not surprisingly, Ya'alon has been denounced by leftist politicians and op-ed writers for politicizing the IDF -one of the most serious accusations that can be leveled against the chief of staff of a people's army. But Ya'alon's critics fail to understand the army's new thinking: The staying power of Israeli society is no longer just a political issue but a strategic one as well - indeed, as Ya'alon insists, the strategic issue.

It's a sign of the new post-Oslo sobriety that most Israelis have accepted his critique: In ordinary times, there might have been calls for removing a chief of staff who dared to attack a legitimate political movement like Peace Now. But today, not only have there been no demands for Ya'alon's removal; he has actually found support in the peace camp. "At first I felt I was alone in a corner," says Ha'aretz journalist Ari Shavit, whose powerful op-eds have demanded that Israeli liberals defend their society against mortal threat rather than continuing to invoke a failed peace process. "But now this war is seen even by many on the left as existential. And it's no disgrace to say that an existential war has to be won." Indeed, lamented left-wing op-ed writer Rafi Mann in Ma'ariv, "I've discovered to my surprise that many of my friends on the left have been taken in by the charm of Chief of Staff Ya'alon, and warmly embrace his dubious approach."

Those new left-wing hawks insist that victory over terrorism is now a prerequisite for an eventual Israeli withdrawal. Meir Pa'il. Who for decades defined the far-left fringe of the peace camp and is now associated with the left-wing Meretz Party, has gone so far as to urge a complete reoccupation of the territories - including Gaza - to be immediately followed by an Israeli offer of total withdrawal in exchange for an end to Palestinian terror and the demand for refugee return to pre-1967 Israel. "It's the only way I can think of to outmaneuver our enemies and motivate them to come to the table," he says.

So far, the first part of Ya'alon's strategy - firming up Israeli resolve - appears to be working. The new fortitude has been particularly evident since the Passover eve massacre last March, when the national mood abruptly shifted from despair to defiance.According to a Haifa University study, 63 percent of reservists two years ago said they would serve even if the draft were abolished; this March, that number rose to 88 percent. At the beginning of 2002, Israelis were becoming a nation of shut-ins. But during the Sukkos (Tabernacles) holiday, many thousands ignored warnings of imminent terrorist attacks and went on a pilgrimage to the Western Wall, strolled through downtown Jerusalem and crowded the wine, olive-picking and music festivals around the country.

While Israelis' faith in every national institution from the Knesset to the police has declined, their faith in the army has risen. Israelis are hardly convinced the army is winning right now, but when asked last month by another Haifa University study whether they believe the army is capable of winning the war, 90 percent answered yes. No less telling is that 84 percent - compared to 78 percent two years ago - believe Israel can meet all its future challenges, both military and civil. While the increase is relatively small, it's astonishing given the escalation of violence over that period. "In unequivocal terms, the public today believes in Israel's ability to withstand problems more than it did at the beginning of the Intifada," concludes Haifa University researcher Eran Zaidise.

When it comes to the second component of the army's strategy -convincing Palestinians that terrorism is backfiring - the evidence is mixed. On the one hand, leading Palestinians - such as possible Arafat successor Abu Mazen and former West Bank head of preventive security Jibril Rajoub -now publicly admit that resorting to terrorism, at least within pre-1967 Israel, has been a strategic mistake. Former Palestinian Cabinet Minister Nabil Amer went further, publishing an open letter to Arafat in a Palestinian newspaper that denounced him for rejecting the Camp David offer of statehood. That Palestinians are openly doubting the efficacy of suicide bombs and telling Arafat he should have taken what was offered to him at Camp David in July 2000, represents a potentially dramatic change. Still, polls show that a majority of Palestinians continue to support the suicide bombers and believe violence has helped the Palestinian cause.

Sharon's disastrous Ramallah siege has probably reinforced that perception - though, based onprecedent,Arafat's renewed public support will quickly dissipate, and the image that will likely linger among Palestinians will not be of Arafat emerging triumphant from the ruins but of the ruins themselves. More worryingly, Israel's failure to foresee the negative American reaction that the siege produced could embolden the Israeli left to oppose the army's activism and threaten the unity government by encouraging a revolt within the Labor Party against further cooperation with Sharon.

But the siege was a failure of policy, not of Israeli resolve to beat the terrorist threat. Indeed, the day after the Israeli pullback, the army laid siege to a house in Ramallah and extracted a terrorist suspect who had fled there from Arafat's headquarters. The message: Despite humiliating setback, the victory process - which six months ago didn't even exist -is still on track.

Yossi Klein Halevi

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JWR contributor Yossi Klein Halevi is the Israel correspondent for the New Republic, from where this column is reprinted, and a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report. He is the author of "Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist (Little, Brown) and, most recently, of "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for G-d with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land." Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, The New Republic