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Mark Brilakis, a brigadier general in the U.S. Marine Corps, visited Israel this week at the head of a team of U.S. officers. They spent their time at the army base in Ramat Aviv, where the Israel Defense Forces orchestra and the liaison office with foreign armies are peacefully dwelling. Brilakis, an operations officer at the U.S. Army European Command (EUCOM), was there to conduct Juniper Falcon, a desk and computer exercise for the emergency provision of weapons and equipment to Israel. (In Hebrew, the exercise is known as "harish amok" - literally, deep furrow.) Opposite Brilakis, at the head of the Israeli team, sat officers from the planning and logistics divisions of the General Staff. At the same time as Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak were landing in front of the cameras in Sderot, Brilakis was preparing to return to his offices in Stuttgart.

Like many weeks in Israel, it was an American week, with McCain and his friends Senators Joseph Lieberman and Lindsey Graham; with Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, General Michael Moseley; with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney; and with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - some of whom have already come and gone, and others who are keeping the establishment busy with preparations for their arrival. The treatment of the senior officials overshadowed the routine exercises.

Since the mid-1980s the two defense establishments have been working on cooperation between them, to the point where few people still bother to keep track of the lengthening series of exercises, which have included Juniper Stallion (the deployment of American F-16 squadrons to the Nevatim air base and their training in Israel Air Force firing ranges), Noble Shirley (the Marines' live-fire training exercises in Tze'elim and Shivta, in the South) and Juniper Cobra (training with batteries of Patriot missiles).

The relations between the armies were once shrouded in mystery, but now have a routine of ordinary procedures. An entire generation of U.S. officers and officials has learned the terms "Yakinton" (literally, "hyacinth," used to refer to military-to-military contacts) and "Givon" (a joint liaison center in times of emergency). The regular training and the mutual acquaintance will help to reduce the friction between the armies if they have to work together. But the original reason for strengthening the ties disappeared with the Soviets. Russia no longer threatens the supply lines of the Sixth Fleet in the eastern Mediterranean, nor is it preparing to assist a Syrian attack against Israel; and Juniper and EUCOM and the Marines have yet to prevent even a single Qassam from hitting Sderot.

Two years ago, when he commanded the Marines' advanced training exercise, Brilakis published an article in the monthly of the U.S. Naval Institute, in which he wondered whether the Pentagon was investing too much in ostentatious and threatening weapons systems and too little in basic soldiering. Brilakis wrote facetiously that "there aren't any aircraft that can currently defeat the plane the Raptor is replacing. So just what is the Raptor going to take on - or even deter - in the next 10 years? I suppose we want to be ready if the Martians show up in the future. Boy, are they in for a surprise!" His article, "Martian Alert," was decorated with a drawing of a confused green alien, above whom looms a tough guy in an admiral's uniform. "Who is the enemy?" asked Brilakis.

Iran, the present mutual enemy of the Americans and the Israelis, does not belong to EUCOM's area of jurisdiction. It is in the IDF Central Command, CENTCOM, whose commander, Admiral William J. Fallon, was forced to resign last week after a magazine article presented him as humanity's hope for checking the trigger-happy U.S. President George W. Bush. Fallon, who has spoken little in public since his resignation, is convinced that he was a victim of a plan by Bush's rivals to use him to batter the White House.

In the article that brought him down, which ran in Esquire, Fallon volunteered - though he never had a chance - to transfer Israel and the Palestinian Authority, in the wake of Syria and Lebanon, from EUCOM to CENTCOM. Such a change is vital for operational coordination. In the two American wars in Iraq, which also is in the purview of CENTCOM, the IDF was forced into awkward coordination with EUCOM, and even more so with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, in other words, through mediators rather than directly.

We can expect that in advance of President Bush's visit to Israel, in honor of the country's 60th anniversary celebrations, officials from both sides will try to create a festive document that will ratify the diplomatic, security and economic cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem, and will be signed with great fanfare by the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister. That is what Yitzhak Shamir and Ronald Reagan did, albeit separately, on Independence Day 40, when the strategic cooperation signed between the two countries was still fresh and interesting.

Embroiled in conflict

Although the circumstances have changed greatly in the two decades since then, the relations between the Pentagon and IDF headquarters at the Kirya, in Tel Aviv, were designed for a "major" war, particularly a war of Israel versus Syria, rather than Israel's "minor" wars against Hezbollah and Hamas. And if earlier the U.S. generals and admirals used to serve inside their familiar tanks, planes and sailing vessels, now they are sent on political assignments, in a manner that embroils the men in uniform in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Within seven years, Israel has been besieged by former generals: Anthony Zinni (the special envoy of former secretary of state Colin Powell), William Nash (the head of the abortive United Nations committee for the study of Israeli- Palestinian fighting in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield), and James Jones (a super-liaison for regional security) and the generals in active service: William Ward, Keith Dayton and now William Fraser as well. They all became embroiled, because the goals demanded of all of them dragged them into pressuring Israel to do more and to forgive the Palestinians for doing less.

Last week the Americans were angry about Ehud Barak's refusal to participate in a three-way meeting, with Fraser - the navigating officer of the road map - and the head of the PA government, Salam Fayyad. They did not consider the replacement sent from the Defense Ministry, Major General (res.) Amos Gilad, to be sufficiently high ranking. Two days ago, the newsletter of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, which focuses on the ties of Israel and the U.S. Jewish community with the U.S. security establishment, revealed the background to Barak's absence. The bulletin reported that one of the American generals leveled criticism at the IDF and at Barak personally, during a meeting with the staff of the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem. Barak was quoted as saying that the complaints should be delivered to him directly, not to officials who are not involved in the talks, and which include some people who are openly hostile to Israel.

The generals' frustration is understandable. The small details are not important, the main thing is to move ahead, to create an appearance of progress. Fraser's direct superior, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained once again in an interview last week how eager all the countries in the region are for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He just doesn't know how exactly to accomplish it.

Especially unclear is the role of former general Jones, an old friend of McCain and Rice. Jones, the former commander of EUCOM and of NATO forces, is well aware of how difficult it is to build a system of regional security in the Middle East. Which of the countries would join it? How would consultations be held and decisions made? Who would send foreign forces to keep the peace and who would be their source of authority? Jones is sufficiently experienced to know that raising the questions will not produce answers, but that it does enable those who sent him to buy time.

Israel is not the only American ally in the region. Egypt, whose post-Mubarak future is not clear, has been very important to the U.S. since the time of Anwar Sadat, who gave them Soviet-made MIGs for aerial combat training (in a secret operation called "Constant Peg") and bases for the abortive rescue of the hostages from Tehran, in 1980; it is Arab, Muslim, African and part of CENTCOM.

The biannual and multinational exercise in Egypt, Bright Star, receives far more emphasis than the small exercises in Israel. The threat of the infiltration of local networks of Al-Qaida into North Africa is one of the Americans' biggest nightmares. As part of the efforts to prevent it, the African Command, AFRICOM, was established, headed by the same General Ward who failed as an Israeli-Palestinian security liaison.

Israeli duality

Like the two faces of Washington, one working with the IDF of the major wars and one working with the Israel that is confronting the Palestinians, there is Israeli duality as well: The training being done with the Americans, for example Juniper Falcon, is divorced from the training, also this week, in the Southern Command, called "Kfitz Daruch," in preparation for a possible conflagration in Gaza (against the Palestinians). That training took place just dozens of kilometers from the Aviv base.

In fact, it's the same General Staff, which understands that a limited operation that begins in one sector is liable to escalate in other sectors into a major clash that may end with a possible need for emergency assistance.

The American calculation is simple: to help Israel defend itself, so that it won't feel that it is isolated, besieged and obliged to attack, but also to prevent it from having cadres that are liable to tempt it to embark on a deliberate attack, as if there were no tomorrow. The American commitment to provide emergency equipment, which saves the security budget billions of shekels in the acquisition of shells that would be devalued in inventory, is conditioned on the American approval of the accuracy of Israel's grave-situation assessment. Being equipped with defense systems against steep-trajectory weapons will reduce the pressure for a belligerent operation from the air or the ground against the launching areas of those weapons. The Americans impose the same rule on themselves: Russian opposition to their plan to deploy missiles against the Iranian missiles will increase the risk of American bombing in Iran. That is the logic underlying U.S. assistance in the funding of the Arrow missile, and we can assume - certainly in the wake of John McCain's visit to Sderot - that the American establishment will make an effort to speed up the development of the systems to bring down Qassam, Katyusha and Grad rockets.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who flew McCain to Sderot and heard professional compliments from him that made him blush, was impressed by his expertise, his stability and his modesty. McCain made sure to present himself only as a senator, not as a potential president, and resisted the temptation to scatter promises that may someday have to keep, but there was no mistaking the significance of the comparison he made between the border town (and Marine base) Yuma, in his own state of Arizona, and Sderot. Barak introduced McCain to the commander of the Southern District of the police, Uri Bar-Lev, whom he described as a leading expert in clandestine anti-terror combat, who had previously helped him, in the Central Command, to set up the Duvdevan unit. There was a message in that too: Until Israel has those same anticipated anti-rocket systems, the IDF, with the help of the Shin Bet security services and the police, will continue with preventive operations and with raids into the area.