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The members of the world club of heads of Central Command exercise a reciprocal influence on one another: the results of the activity carried out by the American commander, General Tommy Franks, are changing the situation that faces the Israeli commander in the West Bank, Major General Moshe Kaplinsky.

After - and without - Iraq, the enemies of the Israel Defense Forces' Central Command exist almost exclusively inside the country, west of the Jordan River. With the possible evacuation of cities that will be transferred to the control of the security forces that will show obedience to Abu Mazen and Mohammed Dahlan, Kaplinsky is readying to thin out the Israeli forces in the region.

The Judea and Samaria Division, which since Operation Defensive Shield a year ago has been the Samaria Division only, will again assume responsibility for the entire West Bank, while the Judea Division, which was enlarged in order to carry out ongoing activity in the Hebron and Bethlehem sectors, is like to return to its previous size. In itself, this change will only have the effect of reducing the number of headquarters, but will not yet reduce brigades and other forces.

In these circumstances, when the IDF is shrinking and starting to adjust itself to a new political, security and budget reality, one might have thought that it would show greater generosity to the patron from Washington, who needs the 900 troops that are stationed in Sinai as part of the multinational force there - or at least some of them - for other missions. But no, it turns out that the IDF needs the American battalion, whose mission is subsumed under the category of "security and stabilizing operations," and not in the category of combat operations, as though it were a battalion in the Golani or Givati Brigade.

The next head of Southern Command, Major General Dan Harel, hasn't yet taken over there, so he has no updated position on the question of how essential the multinational force is - it monitors the movements of the Egyptian and Israeli armies, and reports on violations in the (partially) demilitarized zone that extends from the east of the border in the Negev to the Suez Canal.

Harel, who until last month was head of the General Staff's Operations Branch, is among those who is against reducing the American infantry battalion that constitutes the core of the multinational force, alongside representatives of Australia, Canada, Colombia, Fiji and six other countries.

In the past two years the Pentagon has repeatedly asked Israel to agree to a reduction in the combat level in Sinai, which is needed for other missions, from Bosnia to Afghanistan and Iraq. But Israel insisted that the agreements that were signed after the peace treaty with Egypt and have been implemented since 1982 must remain unaltered, as no one knows what the future holds in Cairo, and what today appears to be routine and trivial could assume a different meaning if Hosni Mubarak is succeeded by a regime hostile to Israel.

The Americans, very upset, implored Israel to agree to the cut, explaining that to remove an infantry battalion from their order of battle for six months is tantamount to taking an entire brigade out of action. U.S. Army Secretary Thomas White stated that the force would be cut in half, and this was followed by an official announcement to that effect, but in the end it was not the force but White himself who was cut: He was fired last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whom he riled in another connection.

The commander of the American and British ground forces in the Iraq war, General David McKiernan, said last year, when he was still head of operations of the U.S. Army, that the Sinai battalion was on the "employment graph" of his forces until 2006. If it's there, it can't be elsewhere at the same time; and that elsewhere could be the Golan Heights.

Long way to Damascus

The issue of whether to deploy American forces on the Golan comes up anew, in a revised version, whenever there is a flicker of light in the process of bringing about peace, security and withdrawal between Israel and Syria. This week it was perhaps the most sensitive issue within the top levels of the defense establishment, but none of the few sharers of the secret dared to admit that the documents in the Planning Branch that analyzed the aspects of this subject nine, seven and four years ago are again about to be aired out, refreshed and updated.

This silence will not allow the IDF to ignore the issue of whether U.S. troops should be stationed on the Golan Heights, because the subject is pending by virtue of the expressed desire of President George W. Bush to achieve peace between Israel and its neighbors - Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Saudi Arabia.

Peace with Syria will require the return of the Golan Heights, which appears on the maps of the U.S. administration - with scornful disregard for the unilateral legislation passed by the Knesset - as occupied Syrian territory. In the evaluation documents of the Central Intelligence Agency, in an effort to refrain from the boring repetition of the term "Israel," the synonym used is "Tel Aviv." Facts that were created on the ground in the past 36 years, or in the 29 years since the partial withdrawal from the Golan Heights after the 1973 Yom Kippur War - in the form of settlements - will not present an obstacle to Bush, any more than the 45 years of rule by army generals and the Ba'ath Party in Baghdad did.

In the General Staff, the word this week was that the way to Damascus was still long, even after the talks held by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell with top officials of the Assad government and his admonition to the Syrians that they had better start showing good behavior, of a kind that contradicts the threatening fusion of tyranny, terrorism and chemical and biological weapons.

According to Israeli Military Intelligence, before the Syrians accept an invitation to the guest room, they will have to pay the fee for coming out of the deep-freeze in which they stuck themselves with their exploits on behalf of Saddam Hussein. President Bashar Assad, whose defiant declarations in response to Bush were intended to create an aggressive image of an Arab nationalist, is still more Saddam than Sadat: His current moves to restrain his anti-Western provocations and to defuse the tension with Washington are being seen as a ploy.

Bush has no intention of letting up, but Assad, who attributes existential importance to his struggle to block forces that are imposing change on him, hopes that something will persuade the Americans to relent in their pressure on his regime. If not, he will certainly demand the return of the entire Golan as a precondition for resuming negotiations with Israel.

This assessment sounds like an Israeli suppression of the looming resurrection of the Syrian channel, whether because of concern about its price or because everything is now focused on the Palestinian channel. Military Intelligence is skeptical - "low probability, less than 50 percent" - of Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen's chances of overcoming the alliance of those who are out to trip him up, from Yasser Arafat to Hamas and Iran. Arafat's demand for freedom of movement for himself, as the price for Abu Mazen to visit Washington for political talks, is described as a "meta-obstacle."

There is nothing inevitable about Abu Mazen's fall, and the international community can assist him in creating a "basis for the effort to fight terrorism, as a necessary first step in the process that will end this violent chapter in the confrontation."

But Abu Mazen and Mohammed Dahlan are far from being about to launch an internal version of Operation Defensive Shield against the terrorist organizations. On the horizon, Military Intelligence says, even if Abu Mazen and his supporters take everyone by surprise by daring and triumphing, it would be wrong to leap to the conclusion that a deal with them will be easy to get. Abu Mazen, a senior officer said on Wednesday, is more pragmatic than Arafat in his methods, but is not more moderate than him in his demands; his approach shows less compromise than that of Sari Nusseibeh, for example.

Palestinian hawk, Syrian dove

As for the chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon, he is a typical combination of a senior Israeli army figure in the era of disappointment with Oslo: Palestinian hawk and a Syrian dove. This is a simplistic description that somewhat distorts the nuances of the army's approach to the arenas of the territories and the north, but it contains a basic truth: the premise is that, in contrast to the multilayered conflict with the Palestinians, the dispute with Syria can be resolved at a known price, which consists mainly of land, and which the government will ultimately pay when it musters the courage and does what the Begin, Shamir, Peres, Rabin, Netanyahu and Barak governments were afraid to do.

According to the positions they took in the previous round of Ehud Barak's indirect talks with Hafez Assad, neither Ya'alon nor his deputy, Major General Gabi Ashkenazi, will be party to an attempt to thwart a settlement with Bashar Assad on the basis of security arguments, should Prime Minister Ariel Sharon try to make use of the IDF for that end. Sharon was careful this week not to torpedo the prospect of a renewal of bargaining with the Syrians, but if he puts forward tougher views than Barak when the talks become serious, he will, unlike his predecessors, encounter an American dictate.

The most outspoken opponent of withdrawal from the Golan Heights among the senior security level is the head of the Mossad espionage agency, Meir Dagan, who was formerly one of the heads of the lobby that fought against such a withdrawal. But even retired major general Dagan will find it difficult to cope with the clout of the officers who bear responsibility in practice.

Some of the arguments against withdrawal will be couched in positive terms (the importance of the dominating territory for intelligence warning and to block an invasion), others in negative terms (denying Syrian armor and artillery a staging ground). The bite of these arguments was blunted by the manner in which Iraq was defeated twice, from the air and with precision guided munitions. The commanders of the Israeli armored forces, fighting a rearguard battle, noted in the past few days that an American division is far larger and more powerful than a comparable Israeli division, so that it cannot be inferred from the fighting in Iraq that armies can make do with the five Western divisions that were sent into action there. But they, too, admit that the new military technology has created alternatives and supplementary capabilities in place of tanks.

The same applies to early intelligence warning. Brigadier General (res.) Dov Tamari, who was chief intelligence officer when that position was first created in the IDF in 1975, once related that just two weeks after his appointment he was summoned urgently to a meeting with the chief of staff, Mordechai Gur, and the director of Military Intelligence, Shlomo Gazit. The subject: Was the early-warning station on a mountain in western Sinai, at Umm Hashiba, so essential to Israel that it should thwart the American initiative for an additional separation of forces agreement between Israel and Egypt?

Gur, displaying somewhat problematic logic, said that without Umm Hashiba Israel would not have early warning about a war, so it was justified to go to war for Um Hashiba. Tamari, who had little experience in his field, dared to mention possible alternatives in other places and by different means. Within a few months it turned out that thanks to "flexibility, imagination and money," in Tamari's words, such alternatives were in fact found, and as a lesson of the evacuation of the facilities in Sinai, intelligence officers have not set up permanent bases in the territories.

Without the stations on Mount Hermon and on the Golan Heights, intelligence early warning will be more difficult and more expensive, but nevertheless feasible in the age of satellites and sophisticated airborne systems. And, it must be asked, early warning against what, when a land attack from the north will lose its motivation and become no more probable than a sea or air attack from the west, or an attack of any kind from the south or the east.

If the multinational force in Sinai, with which the IDF has fallen in love and refuses to part with, is meant for a scenario of a military coup or a fanatic religious regime that will threaten to resume hostility against Israel, it follows that a similar force, with an American basis, will also be effective on the Golan Heights, maybe far more so, as a bridge over chasms of suspicion.

Ya'alon said this week that in Iraq, and perhaps elsewhere as well, hostile organizations were liable to try to perpetrate large-scale attacks against American forces, in the hope of killing hundreds of troops, as in Beirut in 1983, and forcing the Americans out under pressure of public opinion. To ensure that nothing of the sort occurs, but even more as a result of the Bush administration's policy, the Americans will work aggressively and relentlessly to disarm the militant Lebanon-based Hezbollah organization.

The American supporters of Israel who are against a withdrawal from the Golan Heights will mount a scare campaign based on scenarios of attacks against the United Nations observers of the disengagement agreement. That attempt will fail: There have not been any attacks on UNDOF (U.N. Disengagement Observer Force) in its 29 years of existence, harsher warnings than that have not been realized in Iraq, there will be no American force on the Golan unless Syria requests this, among other reasons in return for its activity against terrorist organizations, both Lebanese and Palestinian, that are under the influence of Iran and Al-Qaida.

Agreement at the top

The opponents of an American military presence on the Golan Heights - Republicans whose voices were heard loudly in the Clinton administration period - have a problem: Their colleagues won in the elections and find themselves in positions of power in Washington. It's easier to thwart moves from outside, through activity against the rival party. As governor of Texas, on the brink of seeking the Republican Party's nomination for president, Bush flew to the Golan with Sharon and nodded in assent to Sharon's arguments against an Israeli withdrawal. Now, circumstances have changed, opportunity beckons, responsibility obliges.

In the internal bickering in the top levels of the Bush administration, the going rate for Israeli-Palestinian peace is less in dispute than other subjects. To achieve the president's declared goal - getting Syria to destroy its chemical and biological warheads, drop its patronage of the terrorist organizations that are based in its territory, and neutralize Hezbollah - even the militant circles around Rumsfeld will agree to work to bring about an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and to put in place an American buffer, made up in part of a fighting force and in part by U.S.-manned early-warning stations.

Nearly three decades ago, in the Ford administration, Rumsfeld was already defense secretary in a similar situation, when, after the withdrawal from Umm Hashiba the "Sinai field mission" was established to install Americans in the facilities that Israeli Military Intelligence evacuated. Then, too, Rumsfeld's adversary in the administration was the secretary of state - not Colin Powell but Henry Kissinger. But Kissinger, unlike Powell, also drew on the national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, who was Kissinger's former deputy at State. Today, out of the administration but still a security and intelligence adviser to it, Scowcroft (who held the same position in the administration of the first President Bush) belongs to the stream that is identified with Powell's reservations about the war in Iraq.

Against the background of the debate over the Iraq issue, the rare agreement in the top ranks of the Republicans about the usefulness of an American force on the Golan is highly significant. Back in January 2000, at the height of the Assad-Clinton-Barak contacts, Scowcroft came out of the shadows to write an article for the New York Times in support of an American military presence, and not merely a presence, not a "symbolic force" or an unarmed force that will be easily brushed aside in a crisis, but American combat units, equipped and ready to use force against any attempt at armed infiltration of the border.

Yes, Scowcroft admitted, this will be expensive and will mean that U.S. forces will be deployed at a world flashpoint for an indefinite period. Nevertheless, he concluded, the price in financial and human resources is justified, if by this guarantee of security Israel and Syria decided to agree on a settlement. The American "national interest" makes this obligatory, Scowcroft wrote.

Israel likes to give the impression that it is not interested in having foreigners look after its security and shed their blood in its defense. This noble image, which is intended to preserve Israel's freedom of maneuver in activating the IDF, was concealed in previous wars, when combat squadrons and naval vessels from France protected Israel's coast in 1956, and when American Patriot missile batteries were deployed here in 1991. This year the missile units returned and, more important, the Americans (and the Australians, in an operation codenamed "Falconer") operated in western Iraq to foil a strike at Israel using surface-to-surface missiles.

If the uniformity of agreement between the leaders of the present administration, the Democrats from the Clinton period and the Republicans from the Scowcroft group is maintained, the probability of persuading Congress to accept this element will increase, and so, accordingly, will the prospect of achieving an agreement. The Israeli contribution, in addition to on the ground (and on the shore of Lake Kinneret) will have to be a certain generosity in Sinai, to enable the reduction of the size of the American unit in the multinational force. With divisions in Iraq and battalions on the Golan, a company in Sinai will be enough.