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Israel's Chief of Staff says Palestinians pose existential threat to Israel
Ha'aretz (www.haaretzdaily.com) has an excellent interview with Moshe Ya'alon, Israel's current Chief of Staff:
Question: Are you saying that despite what appears to be a war of the oppressed against the oppressors, of the occupied against the occupiers, the Palestinians actually have a sense of strength and power?
Excluding the extreme left (see the democracy page for details), I am guessing pretty much every Israeli agrees with Moshe Ya'alon. When the Palestinians and their supporters understand that violence and terrorism leads them nowhere we might have a chance for peace.
I copy the full interview below, it's well worth the read.
The enemy within
Ya'alon himself doesn't understand what all the fuss is about with respect to his remarks. On Monday, he sounded agitated, aggressive - pouring fire and brimstone on his critics and, above all, absolutely certain he had said nothing wrong. He sees the furor he generated as additional proof that something has gone haywire in this country.
First of all, he was astounded that comments he made in a closed forum were taped and leaked to the press, on top of which what he said was distorted, he maintains. Attacking a chief of staff is grist for the media's mill, he says, and Israel will pay a price for it. The Palestinians will exploit it for their purposes, to claim that the army has a policy of its own.
More substantively, Ya'alon feels that it is his duty to express his professional opinion and to describe precisely the way the Arabs perceive various moves made by Israel. He does not think he trespassed on the political arena; he has never come out against the government of Israel and he has never publicly criticized the political echelon.
He was especially incensed because political elements are manipulating what he said in order to excoriate the army and him personally. Experience has shown him that when he says things that are consistent with the interest of one political side, that side defends him as a devoted professional officer. The moment he offers a different description of the situation, the other side labels him unprofessional and political. He finds this pattern of behavior intolerable, and considers it a serious obstacle to the possibility of conducting a serious strategic debate in the public arena.
The chief of staff thus sees the whole episode as reflecting an ethical void and a general moral crisis in Israel. A wide gap exists between Ya'alon as he was portrayed this week in the headlines, and the Ya'alon who is familiar to those who work with him. While in the media, Ya'alon was perceived this week as lacking caution and displaying dubious judgment, the military and personal Bogey is known as judicious, thorough and solid.
The source of the disparity may lie in the fact that Ya'alon is a direct person whose speech is equally direct. The new chief of staff lacks even rudimentary diplomatic skills or the ability to stage images. He was the one who introduced the concept of a war to shape consciousness, but he himself is a very unsophisticated fighter in that battle.
When he speaks, he speaks. He says whatever is on his mind. And what's on his mind is controversial, even if Ya'alon will not admit it: Let the Israel Defense Forces win. The fences and the withdrawals can wait. They are perceived as weakness and capitulation. The victory, from his point of view, begins with the resilience and staying power of the civil society. The IDF will deal with the rest.
Even though Ya'alon's skepticism about Oslo and his recent statements have created the impression that he is right-wing, people who know him well are convinced that his basic worldview has not changed since his youth. He is not a party-political person in the narrow sense, but his basic values are those of the historic Labor Movement.
In the following interview (which was conducted last week), he describes himself as "a humanist, a liberal, a democrat and a seeker of peace and security." He is a tall, smartly turned out, very orderly officer. The word is that he is intelligent but not brilliant. Tough but not cruel, demanding but not macho. Fastidious, thoroughgoing, a bit square. He is frequently accused of being endowed with the naivete of a group leader in a youth movement, but nearly everyone agrees that he is extraordinarily persistent. The eyes of many of his former subordinates shine when they talk about him. Their impressions repeat themselves: Bogey's personal example, Bogey's integrity, his courage.
"In my eyes he is an iconic Israeli," says the former platoon commander and current Speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg. "A person of purity without an iota of arrogance. Like a precious metal. A nature reserve of Israeliness."
In his first seven weeks as chief of staff, Ya'alon read two poems to the General Staff forum. One was Natan Alterman's posthumous poem about the rightness of the way, "Then the Devil Said"; the other was "For This," the famous poem about war crimes that was written in late 1948, during the War of Independence.
Indeed, after the Black Hawk helicopter lands at the Samaria Brigade base and Lieutenant General Ya'alon takes his place at the head of the traditional IDF U-shaped table around which are seated the brigade's commanding officers, the discussion he conducts with them ranges between the same two poles: the rightness of the way and war crimes. How to crack the hard core of Hamas in Nablus without visiting a humanitarian catastrophe on the city; how to uproot the terrorist infrastructure in the casbah without turning the severe distress in the city into actual hunger.
At first, he says hardly anything. He listens. He asks the name of every junior officer, patiently hears out the situation appraisal of a battalion commander. He takes copious notes on his yellow pad, like a well-disciplined, diligent student. Then, quietly, he begins to expound: Every commander must know the names of the wanted terrorists in his sector. Every commander must take firm action when he encounters improper behavior by soldiers. The local population must be made to understand why it is suffering, though ways must also be sought to relieve the situation where possible. It is out of the question for there not to be dairy products in Nablus. It is out of the question for there to be problems supplying water and medicines. He does not electrify or excite his audience, but displays a kind of restrained leadership, of calm control of the situation.
Cancer calls for chemotherapy
Lieutenant General Ya'alon, of all the threats surrounding the State of Israel, which disturbs you the most? Are any of the threats of an existential nature?
"When I look at the overall map, what disturbs me especially is the Palestinian threat and the possibility that a hostile state will acquire nuclear capability. Those are the most worrisome focal points, because both of them have the potential of being an existential threat to Israel. We have good answers for all the other threats. We have a good answer for what Hezbollah can do and for what the Syrians can do. We also have a good answer for what the Iraqis are liable to do."
There is something surprising in the fact that you see the Palestinian threat as an existential threat.
"The characteristics of that threat are invisible, like cancer. When you are attacked externally, you see the attack, you are wounded. Cancer, on the other hand, is something internal. Therefore, I find it more disturbing, because here the diagnosis is critical. If the diagnosis is wrong and people say it's not cancer but a headache, then the response is irrelevant. But I maintain that it is cancer. My professional diagnosis is that there is a phenomenon here that constitutes an existential threat."
Does that mean that what you are doing now, as chief of staff, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, is applying chemotherapy?
"There are all kinds of solutions to cancerous manifestations. Some will say it is necessary to amputate organs. But at the moment, I am applying chemotherapy, yes."
Describe for me the present campaign between the Palestinians and us: Who is against whom, and for what, in this campaign?
"The campaign is between two societies that are competing for territory and, to a certain degree, for existence. I don't think that there is an existential threat to the Palestinian society. There is an existential threat to us. In other words, there is asymmetry here, but it is reversed: Everyone thinks we are Goliath and they are David, but I maintain that it is the opposite."
Are you saying that despite what appears to be a war of the oppressed against the oppressors, of the occupied against the occupiers, the Palestinians actually have a sense of strength and power?
"Of course. They feel that they have the backing of a quarter-of-a-billion Arabs and they believe that time is on their side and that, with a combination of terrorism and demography, they will tire us out and wear us down. There is also an additional reverse asymmetry here: We do not have intentions to annihilate them and we have also expressed readiness to grant them a state, whereas they are unwilling to recognize our right to exist here as a Jewish state."
Do you not see the war of the Palestinians against us as a campaign to end the occupation?
"If the term 'occupation' had any relevance at all, it lost it, as far as I am concerned, in the year 2000, when the State of Israel put a certain proposal on the table that was supposed to resolve the problem. That proposal was supposed to get the Palestinians off our back, but instead they started to stab us. They stayed on our back, attached to us and stabbing us. That is the reality. Therefore, without getting into a political discussion of what the solution should be, I maintain that the story is not occupation. The story is non-recognition of the right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state."
Are you saying unequivocally that the Palestinian struggle is not aimed at liberating the territories that were conquered in 1967?
"Of course not. Of course not. The Palestinians have three stories. Their narrative in Arabic is one of mobilization for a war of jihad and non-recognition of Israel's right to exist. That narrative rejects any attachment between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, and it mobilizes the Palestinian people for a war with the goal of bringing about Israel's collapse. In English, the story is different: occupation, colonialism, apartheid. Those are completely irrelevant terms, which are intended to furnish the Western world with familiar terminology that clarifies who the good guys are here and who the bad guys are.
"In Hebrew, they have a third story: the peace of the brave. But I know the details and I say that [Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser] Arafat is taking the name of Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory, in vain. He saw Oslo as a Trojan horse that would enable the Palestinians to enter Israel, and September 2000 as the moment of emerging from the belly of the horse. Today, too, the ideology of Fatah is to bring about Israel's disintegration from within. What they are after is not to arrive at the end of the conflict, but to turn Israel into a Palestinian state."
In other words, the goal of Arafat and of Fatah is to liquidate Israel by stages?
"Of course. Not to reach an agreement and not to arrive at the end of their claims, in order to preserve the conflict and to let time run its course according to the phased theory."
If so, you would say that the Oslo agreement was a mistake?
"We can't talk in terms of a mistake or not a mistake. If you ask me personally, in terms of the rightness of our way, I find the situation far more convenient today. When I move, in the end, to fight against what the Palestinians are creating, I think that after what we went through in the past nine years, I have fewer question marks and more exclamation marks. For me, moral clarity has emerged here."
The spider-web theory
Do you see Arafat himself as a strategic threat to the State of Israel?
"Today he is greatly weakened. He has lost much of his strength and his legitimacy. But the answer is yes: Arafat does not recognize Israel's right of existence as a Jewish state and his game plan is to bring about Israel's disintegration by means of a combination of strategy and demography. Even today, in his weakened state, he believes in the spider-web theory. That is why he persists in using terrorism.
What is the theory of the spider web?
"It is a theory that is attributed to [Hezbollah secretary-general] Hassan Nasrallah, which holds that Israel is a military power, but that its civil society is a pampered consumer society that is no longer willing to fight and struggle. The Israeli army is strong, Israel has technological superiority and is said to have strategic capabilities, but its citizens are unwilling any longer to sacrifice lives in order to defend their national interests and national goals. Therefore, Israel is a spider-web society: It looks strong from the outside, but touch it and it will fall apart.
"Yasser Arafat maintains that he and not [Hezbollah secretary-general Sheik Hassan] Nasrallah is the father of this perception of Israel. He is right. That's why he does not want to put a stop to the terrorist pressure. Even at low points, he is constantly looking for the cracks in the Israeli wall. Time after time, he promises his people that Israeli society is about to break."
Does he really see himself as Saladin?
"Yes. But his strategy is complex, a strategy of entanglement. He believes that the more he entangles the situation, the more he will be needed. He is trying to be both the problem and the person to solve the problem: both the pyromaniac and the firefighter, both the person who lights the fire and the fireman. Even now Arafat is trying to achieve escalation. Even though he could stop the confrontation, he is not doing so."
Do you consider him an illegitimate leader?
"[U.S. President George] Bush's speech [on the Middle East on June 24] was strategically decisive and normatively decisive. He defined things very clearly: Anyone who is tainted by terrorism is not legitimate. Therefore, Arafat can no longer be the decision-maker on the Palestinian side. There is nowhere to go with him. The Americans made it clear that they are not going to liquidate him, but that if the Palestinians want to see light at the end of the tunnel, they themselves should neutralize him. That is an unequivocal statement: Arafat will not be the decision-maker. He will not be."
What will happen if he is reelected in democratic elections?
"The alternative Palestinian leadership has to be elected democratically on the model of Germany after World War II. Anyone who was a member of the Nazi Party was not allowed to be a candidate in the elections there, and anyone who is tainted by terrorism cannot be a candidate here."
Is it your assessment that Israel is approaching victory in the struggle against the Palestinians?
"Since Operation Defensive Shield [the Israeli army's operation in the West Bank last April following the suicide bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya on Passover eve], and in the past two months especially, signs of cracking have appeared on the Palestinian side. The situation is completely different from what it was in March. But caution is needed. It's like in judo: Sometimes you think you're throwing your opponent, but in the end, you're the one who's thrown. And with the person in the Muqata [Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah], extra caution is needed. He has been eulogized and eulogized all his life, and he returns like the phoenix.
"The key point here is the staying power of the Israeli society. That is the most important factor that is being put to the test at this time and will continue to be put to the test in the near future. That is what the campaign is about. When the Palestinians initiated the confrontation, their evaluation was that Israel would not be able to withstand even a few dozen casualties. They were surprised. Operation Defensive Shield showed them that they were dealing not with a spider web, but with a tiger. But if they see cracks and a chance of [Israel's] disintegration, a prospect of Israeli capitulation, that achievement will be erased."
Do you have a definition of victory? Is it clear to you what Israel's goal in this war is?
"I defined it from the beginning of the confrontation: the very deep internalization by the Palestinians that terrorism and violence will not defeat us, will not make us fold. If that deep internalization does not exist at the end of the confrontation, we will have a strategic problem with an existential threat to Israel. If that [lesson] is not burned into the Palestinian and Arab consciousness, there will be no end to their demands of us. Despite our military might, the region will perceive us as being even weaker. That will have an impact not only on those who are engaged in the violent struggle, but also on those who have signed agreements with us and on extremists among the Arabs in Israel. That's why this confrontation is so important. There has not been a more important confrontation since the War of Independence."
It's that critical?
"Yes. I have no doubt that when this period is viewed historically, the conclusion will be that the War of Independence was the most important event in our history and this war was the second most important event."
Even more important than the Six-Day War or the Yom Kippur War?
"Of course, of course. Because we are dealing with an existential threat. There was an Israeli attempt to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by means of a territorial compromise, and the Palestinian reply was war. So this brings us back to the confrontation of the pre-state period, the partition proposal and the War of Independence. The facts that are being determined in this confrontation - in terms of what will be burned into the Palestinian consciousness - are fateful. If we end the confrontation in a way that makes it clear to every Palestinian that terrorism does not lead to agreements, that will improve our strategic position. On the other hand, if their feeling at the end of the confrontation is that they can defeat us by means of terrorism, our situation will become more and more difficult. Therefore, I say that we must not blur the weighty meaning of this confrontation. When you grasp the essence, it's clear to you what you have to do. You have to fight for your life."
Does that mean that any move involving unilateral withdrawal before the confrontation is resolved and before the violence ends is dangerous?
"Of course. That would give a push to the struggle against us. Even if tactically it appears right to withdraw from here or from there, from the strategic perspective, it is different. That was my argument when the question arose of withdrawing from Joseph's Tomb [in Nablus]. It was clear to me that leaving the tomb would be an incentive for the Palestinians, whereas others thought that leaving the site would neutralize a point of friction. But those who thought in those terms were thinking like Israelis, not like Palestinians."
So that means that in the present situation, leaving settlements would be a mistake with potentially catastrophic implications?
"Of course. I'm not talking about the political solution. I am not saying what will be right and what will not be right after the violence ends. That's not my affair. When asked, I will give my security recommendation. But today, any such departure under terrorism and violence will strengthen the path of terrorism and violence. It will endanger us."
In other words, as chief of staff, you are saying that even if you need a battalion to hold an isolated settlement, if we leave it we will need a great deal more?
Back to 1948
What are the implications of the separation fence that is being built? Will it, too, not be interpreted in the same way?
"It is liable to be interpreted like that. But the route that was chosen may offset the strategic threat it entails. There is also a tactical improvement in that you succeed in preventing infiltrations. But I don't think the fence will solve all the problems."
So you are not an admirer of the separation fence?
"It's complex and it's in the political arena, so I am very careful here. If I were given that money, I would invest it elsewhere."
Can we sum up by saying, without getting into the political question, that your professional opinion is that concessions that are made under fire are dangerous? Is it your view that any possible Israeli concession can be made only after the confrontation is decided and the violence ends?
If so, and if the position of the Palestinians is as you say, where is all this leading? What will the end be? How long are we to live by the sword?
"I would refer people who ask what the end will be to a well-known quotation of Moshe Dayan. When he was asked, in 1969, what the end will be, his reply was, `Do not fear, my servant Abaraham' [sic - should be Jacob, Isaiah 44:2]. Dayan said that the emphasis should be on the path and not on the final goal, on the process of the struggle and not on the final destination. As human beings, we want a solution now. Now. But in the situation of Israel, nowism is false messianism. Nowism is the mother of all sins. And it makes no difference whether to the word `now' is added `messiah' [thus, `messiah now'] or something else now.
"We live in a very complex neighborhood, in which our right to exist has not yet been recognized. We have been living for a hundred years in crisis management. Therefore, we have to maneuver it into directions that strengthen us. And we have to win in this confrontation. Otherwise, the next war will not be far off."
Are you saying that we are entering a basic, existential situation again, that we have to understand that the confrontation is an inseparable part of our lives, but that if we are strong, we will reduce and control it?
"Do we have a choice? We must understand: The Palestinians have returned us to the War of Independence. Today it is clear that the State of Israel as a Jewish state is still an alien element in the region. It will take generations until various elements in the region accept its existence. Therefore, we have to go back to the ethos of standing fast, not because I am enamored of that ethos, but because there is no choice. It is an ethos of no choice.
"At the same time, there is no reason for gloom. We are a power. Even though we are only 6 million, we are a power: a military, economic, cultural and scientific power. Nor do I think that there is any sort of decree from heaven here. In Islam, there are waves that rise and fall, sometimes in the direction of extremism and sometimes in the direction of moderation. The Muslim world is not monolithic. It is possible that over time, the region will see processes of Westernization, democratization, a joining of the global village. But as long as we are under attack, Israeli society must show staying power. True, it is difficult, but when I was a boy, it was more difficult. And true, people are sad. But we should look at things in perspective: After 54 years, we are truly a power. Therefore, at bottom, I am truly optimistic."
No sleepless nights over Iraq
You said that the second existential threat to Israel was the nuclearization of the Middle East.
"If a hostile state acquires nuclear weapons, that will have three implications. First, it will be able to use them against Israel. Second, it will be able to make use of biological and chemical weapons without fear, in spheres where we have so far achieved deterrence. Third, under a nuclear umbrella, a hostile state will certainly also dare to act in additional - conventional - areas. The appearance of hostile nuclear weapons will also violate the balance that exists today in the region between moderates and radicals."
Is your conclusion that Israel should adopt the Begin doctrine of using operational force in order to prevent hostile states from going nuclear?
"I will not go into that."
Let me put it another way: Is it in Israel's supreme interest to prevent hostile nuclearization in any way?
"Yes. Unequivocally. All efforts have to be made so that no hostile state will achieve nuclear capability."
Are you not concerned about the possibility that in the event of an American attack on Iraq, Saddam Hussein will attack Israel with nonconventional weapons?
"If Iraq feels its survival is under threat, it may definitely want to demonstrate force against Israel along the lines of `Let me die with the Philistines.' However, Iraq's capabilities are shallow compared to what they were in the Gulf War. They are not capabilities that give me sleepless nights."
Iraq today does not constitute an existential threat to Israel?
"No. Obviously, we have to prepare for the possibility that they will launch a missile or a plane. But we have good answers to that threat, and the threat itself is limited. It might be unpleasant, but not terrible."
And the situation on the northern border, where Hezbollah has deployed thousands of rockets, doesn't disturb you either?
"The situation in the north cannot not be disturbing. But Israel will never say die. The problem there is less severe than in the Palestinian arena."
Is the threat from the north more serious or less serious than it was before the withdrawal from southern Lebanon?
"The potential that exists today in Lebanon is far graver than it was in the period when we were in the security zone [an Israeli-controlled strip on the Lebanese side of the border]. Hezbollah, together with the Syrians and the Iranians, has created a strategic threat to the north of the country, which consists of a combination of rockets of various types and various ranges that are threatening Israeli population centers in the north."
How tangible is that threat?
"If the Hezbollah potential is unleashed against us and we meet it with an appropriate response, it is possible that the response will, in fact, have the effect of strengthening Israel's deterrent capability. If it is unleashed and our response is inadequate, it will hurt us. So, if the threat materialized, we will have to exact a heavy price from those who are responsible for its development."
Who are they?
"First of all Syria, then Lebanon, Hezbollah and the Iranians in Lebanon."
What you are saying, then, is that if there is a significant rocket and Katyusha rocket attack from Lebanon, we will have to react against all those parties?
"We have to confront them with a price that will make the realization of the potential not worthwhile: not for them and not for anyone who is thinking about using similar weapons against Israel in the future."
But isn't it the case that a reaction of that kind could bring about a general deterioration in the north?
"What is a general deterioration? There will be a certain period - not very long - in which we will have to learn to be on the receiving end, but then immediately to set a price that will make them understand that it is not worthwhile. All told, we have a crushing answer to Hezbollah. And if the Syrians try to take us on in the field of army versus army, we have a crushing answer to that, too - they know it and that's what deters them. Therefore, I do not think that a confrontation in the north is inevitable. But if they decide to escalate, we will be obliged to exact a very heavy price from all the bodies I mentioned."
Is Bashar Assad really more adventurous than his father was?
"As the Arabs wrestled with the problem between agreements and the armed struggle, Hafez Assad sat on the fence with both his legs and both his hands in the direction of a settlement. Bashar Assad is sitting on the same fence with both his legs and both his hands on the side of the armed struggle. There is a dramatic difference between the father and his son."
Does that mean that Syria is turning toward confrontation with Israel?
"Syria is turning toward support for terrorism. It is not interested in an army versus army clash - under no circumstances. Part of the difference between Bashar Assad and his father is due to the fact that Bashar's formative experience is not the military defeats of 1967 and 1973, which his father experienced personally. Bashar's formative experience is the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, which occurred shortly after he assumed power. His conclusion from that was that terrorism is victorious.
"Bashar Assad understands our advantage in the face of his army, but he sees a possibility of vanquishing Israel by means of terrorism and guerrilla warfare. As a result, he is daring to do things that his father never dared: He is arming Hezbollah and directly supporting Palestinian terrorist organizations. Recently, as a result of Operation Defensive Shield and the effects of September 11, he is showing signs of restraint, but the element of risk he embodies is far higher than it was in Hafez Assad."
Strategic Achilles heel
Do you think the withdrawal from Lebanon was a mistake?
"Leaving Lebanon was a matter of time. The question was when and how to leave. We have to investigate this: Was the timing of the departure correct when we knew that the process with the Palestinians would be completed in September 2000, or should we have restrained ourselves for another half a year? It is also right to ask whether there was a way to execute the withdrawal in a manner that would not strengthen Hezbollah and the Iranians. Today the withdrawal from Lebanon is perceived in the region as the major success of the export of the Islamic revolution. That is why it has a strategic price. It had implications for the Palestinian arena and in the long run, it also has implications with regard to the Syrians. It greatly reinforces the theory of the spider web."
Why do you attribute such a decisive weight to this perception?
"After the Six-Day War, we succeeded in burning into the regional consciousness the fact that it is impossible to destroy Israel by military means. Our ability to withstand the harsh opening conditions of the Yom Kippur War only reinforced that regional impression. That was the root of the tendency toward settlements with Israel - the peace with Egypt and the peace with Jordan.
"However, since our first withdrawals from Lebanon after Operation Peace for Galilee [the official name of the 1982 Lebanon War], that accomplishment was increasingly eroded. For nearly 20 years, the feeling developed in the Middle East that even though the Israeli army is strong, the unwillingness of the Israeli society to make sacrifices is creating a strategic Achilles' heel.
"That perception affected all the process of armament and the military and terrorist thinking in the region. The conclusion was that because it is impossible to cope with the Israel Defense Forces, ways have to be found to get around its might in order to strike directly at Israeli society, which is incapable of absorbing casualties. Hence the emphasis on surface-to-surface missiles and hence also the emphasis on terrorism. The assumption was that a direct strike at Israeli society would set processes in motion. And it worked.
"That is what happened, first in 1983-1984, and then in the Jibril deal [the exchange, in May 1985 - following negotiations with Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command - of three Israelis taken prisoner in the Lebanon War, for 1,150 terrorists who were imprisoned in Israel], and then in what was interpreted as Israel's bending in the face of the stones and terrorism of the intifada. It continued after Oslo and South Lebanon, when it appeared that Israel was unable to bear a situation of 20 to 30 [army] deaths a year.
"Therefore, in terms of the person who is supposed to provide security, I can say that whereas in the sphere of army versus army, and in the nonconventional sphere, we created effective deterrence, we did not succeed in creating that kind of deterrence in the face of the surface-to-surface rockets or terrorism. Israeli society was marked by many in the region as a target which, if struck at, could bring about Israel's capitulation."
Blaming the media
Some people say that you have become right-wing.
"One of the problems that is making our public debate shallow is the tendency to label people and not listen to them. Personally, I see myself as a Jew, an Israeli, a humanist, a liberal, a democrat and a seeker of peace and security. But I know that I am facing a cruel reality and that I have to defend myself. In the face of cancer, one has to defend oneself. It worries me that when it comes to the Palestinian question, people here are constantly going back to the argument about the narrative and the diagnosis. Despite everything that has happened, people are still arguing about the diagnosis. And without agreeing on the diagnosis, there is no chance that the prognosis will be correct."
Do you see in Israel, over the past decade, that people are locking themselves into a conception the way they were on the eve of the Yom Kippur War 29 years ago?
"I think the problem of the conception is far more severe today. There is a deep psychological problem here: Because it is difficult for people to apprehend a reality that they do not control, it is more convenient to blame the Israeli side. Or the army. Or the chief of staff. Or whoever is reporting to them that the reality is not exactly the way they would like it to be. In addition, there are people for whom the conception has become their whole world, so they entrench themselves in it and refuse to let it go.
"I have to say that I am concerned about the part played by the media in creating this conception. Before the Yom Kippur War, the media were less investigative and more engaged. Today, the media seem to be investigative, open and safeguarding democracy, yet they are nevertheless part of the conception. Even though they are seemingly not engaged, the media had a major part in building the conception. They led the process."
Were there years in which you felt alone because of the gap between your perception of reality and the perception of the media, the political echelon and a large part of the public in Israel?
"I don't want to praise myself unduly. I only punctuated Arafat's intentions with an exclamation mark a month after the Sharm el-Sheikh conference - a month after the outbreak of the present confrontation. Before that, since August 1995, I had thought only in terms of question marks. But I remember that when I appeared before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the beginning of October 2000, people asked me whether the peak of the confrontation was already behind us. Suddenly, I understood the gap that exists between the world I live in and the world they live in. Because, since November 1999, I saw the confrontation taking on flesh and bones and I tried to prepare for it.
"I also remember a meeting with a group of American researchers in July 2000, in which I said that we are headed for war, and I saw from the look in their eyes that my interlocutors thought I had gone out of my mind. They looked at me and listened to me and thought I was a warmongering general who doesn't know what he's talking about. But it's not just a matter of being alone. Sometimes it's worse. You stand and try to contain [the other side], but they are shooting at you from all directions, and people from your side come and undermine you. Absolutely undermine you. That is frustrating. Very frustrating. Sometimes it drives me crazy."
Can you give me an example of some particular thing that drives you crazy?
"The incident of Salah Shehadeh was a tragic event in the context of harming innocent people [referring to the death of 15 civilians, many of them children, when a one-ton bomb was dropped on a building in Gaza in order to kill Shehadeh, a top Hamas activist]. There is no question of that. There was a hitch here, a serious hitch, and that is something that must not be allowed to happen to us. But to come and say that the attack on Shehadeh torpedoed a cease-fire that was supposed to come into effect is to take half-truths and build a lying narrative out of them. Simply lying.
"There was a discussion about a cease-fire, I don't deny that. But it was decided in the negative by Hamas on July 15, a week before the bombing. It was decided in the negative by the Tanzim four days before the bombing. The decision of the Palestinians was not to embark on a cease-fire, because they understood that Arafat didn't want it. Whereas here, a story was built up to the effect that the army torpedoed a cease-fire, and those who built up the story were not Palestinians. It was Israelis who conceived the idea of accusing us of `torpedoing' a cease-fire. That is an Israeli idea that the Palestinians took a ride on afterward."
Is there an Israeli pathology at work here?
"Of course there is a pathology. You have to understand that we are in a combined campaign - military, political, civilian, media, economic. In order to build a defensive wall, all those elements have to work in synergy. You have to understand that if you build a military wall but there is no political wall, then there is no wall. If you build a wall of the Shin Bet [security service] but there is no publicity wall, then there is no wall. And it is absolutely clear that there is no wall if Israelis come along and break it or undermine it."
A happy childhood
Lieutenant General Ya'alon, where do you come from? What are the sources of your Israeliness?
"I suppose it begins with my parents. My father fled Bolshevism in 1925. One of his brothers was murdered because he was a Jew and another brother was arrested for Zionist activity, and then their father decided to pack up the property and the factory in Ukraine and come to this country. My mother is a Holocaust survivor. She fled the Nazis and survived. She joined the Partisans and, in the end, reached Italy and from there came here after the war and was imprisoned [by the British] at Atlit, but she managed to get away from there, too.
"Our home was a typical one in Kiryat Haim [a Haifa suburb]: an Israeli-Zionist-workers' home with all that Kiryat Haim of the 1950s and `60s reflects. My father was a worker in the Shemen factory [which manufactures cooking oil and soap] and we lived a very modest life. At the time, I didn't understand that we were poor, but today I understand that we were poor. But I didn't feel any lack; I had no idea that there was any other kind of life. [There was] no bicycle, no car, not even a telephone in the house. Once every few months, we had felafel. Most of the time, we drank water and ate black bread because it was cheaper. Everything was on a modest scale. Our good time was the beach. Still, for me, it was a happy childhood."
Was there a sense of the Holocaust in the background?
"It wasn't talked about. But there was no [extended] family. Nearly the whole family on my mother's side was murdered. Finally, you understand that even though no one talked about it, it was a formative experience. You understand that you imbibed it."
You are a person who is constantly demanding of yourself, with a deep feeling of being engaged and committed - is that right?
"Yes, absolutely. I was active in the Noar Ha'oved [left-leaning youth] movement. It was clear that one had to go on to self-realization: to settle the Arava [desert] was part of Zionism as far as I was concerned. I took the whole thing about equality and humanism very seriously. And also making the desert bloom. The hold on the land. I take all that seriously today, too."
Do you still feel yourself to be a kibbutznik?
"It is not only a feeling. I am a kibbutznik. And I am very proud of it. If you ask me where I am from, I am from Kibbutz Grofit [north of Eilat]."
A military life
Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon was born in 1950 in Kiryat Haim, a suburb of Haifa. He was drafted in 1968, serving in the airborne unit of the paramilitary Nahal brigade. Within the framework of the "self-fulfillment" doctrine of his youth movement, he joined Kibbutz Grofit, north of Eilat, of which he is a member to this day.
In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, he fought as a reservist in the Paratroops and took part in the conquest of the Suez Canal. Returning to active service after the war, he completed an officers' training course and served in command posts in the Paratroops. Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg and others who served under Ya'alon remember especially that company commander Ya'alon's wife, Ada, would come to the base on the weekend and stay with him in a pup tent.
In 1978, Ya'alon was the commanding officer of the Paratroops' sayeret (reconnaissance unit), taking part with it in Operation Litani in southern Lebanon. He spent the next three years in the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit and then was appointed commander of a battalion in the Paratroops. He was sent to England for advanced studies in 1986 and, on his return, was named commander of Sayeret Matkal. He rehabilitated the unit in the wake of a series of crises it had experienced and, among other operations, led it in the liquidation of Abu Jihad. His next appointments were as commander of the Paratroops Brigade (1990), commander of the West Bank Division (1992) and commander of an armored division (1993).
In June 1995, Ya'alon was appointed director of Military Intelligence and already then began to have doubts about Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, arousing the wrath of Shimon Peres. In May 1998, he became head of Central Command, where he prepared the command's units for the violent confrontation with the Palestinians that he foresaw. He was appointed deputy chief of staff in September 2000, and on July 9, 2002, took over as chief of staff. For the past few years he and his wife have lived in a small community in the center of the country, even though they are both still kibbutz members. They have three children. (U.S.)n
Was the Shehadeh affair hard for you?
"The dead children are hard for me."
Explain to me what happened.
"We went to attack a person who was unprecedented in that he was the commander of the terrorist arm of Hamas both in Gaza and in Judea-Samaria. This is a person who is responsible for the killing of hundreds of people. He systematically clung to the civilian population because he understood our sensitivities. In quite a few cases, we avoided attacking him because his wife was with him, or his daughters. Shehadeh had six daughters. More recently, we made things easier for ourselves and said that even if his wife is with him, we will attack him. Moreover, a discussion began about whether it would not be right to attack him even if his daughters were with him. But we made a decision against that. We decided that we would not harm his daughters.
"On the Saturday evening before the attack, we held a discussion. It was clear to us that in order to knock down the building, we would need a ton [of explosives], and the question was whether we would use one bomb of a ton or two of half a ton. Our experience was of dropping 160 bombs in the Palestinian arena without a single innocent civilian being killed, but the concern was that two bombs raised the statistical risk of a miss.
"So I sent the air force to do its homework and they came back to me with the answer that a one-ton bomb was more certain. The assessment was that the result would be the destruction of Shehadeh's house and damage to the empty neighboring building, and shattered windows in the area and tin siding that would be sent flying from the tin shacks. People wounded, not killed. In retrospect, though, it turned out that the neighboring house was not empty. The execution of the air force was perfect, but the intelligence gap in regard to the neighboring house caused a hitch. Six children were killed in that house."
And how did you feel?
"This is not my first day in the arena. I have been in the profession for 34 years - not by choice, but by necessity. I work constantly with the resolution of a surgeon's scalpel so as not to hurt innocent people. So what do you imagine I feel? I feel that something very heavy fell on my head. It is not pleasant. It is extremely unpleasant."
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