In his first week back in the Defense Ministry, Ehud Barak could have been mistaken by an outside observer for being the latest member of a silent order of monks. He skipped the usual trek made by new ministers, from the tour of the northern border to the talk with soldiers stationed on the Gaza border. Instead, he focused on getting through his personal reading list and meeting with senior figures in the military and intelligence establishment. In the second week he took advantage of commencement ceremonies at Mitzpeh Ramon (for officers) and at Hatzerim (for pilots) to speak publicly to the army and the civilian population.
In present-day Israeli politics, Barak is perhaps the most veteran advocate for withdrawing from territories conquered in war, even without an agreement with the party that will be responsible for the territory that is evacuated.
As head of Military Intelligence in the 1980s, he opposed the creation of the security zone in southern Lebanon. As prime minister and defense minister in 2000, he spearheaded the withdrawal from Lebanon, which did not result in quiet on Israel's northern border as he had hoped. The commanders of that withdrawal are now leading members of the military hierarchy: the GOC Northern Command at the time, Gabi Ashkenazi, and his divisional commanders Moshe Kaplinsky and Benny Gantz are now the Israel Defense Forces' chief of staff, deputy chief of staff and GOC Army Headquarters, respectively.
Notwithstanding the criticism of the implementation and the consequences of the Lebanon pullout, Ashkenazi and his officers were praised for carrying it out without a single IDF casualty. This pattern was repeated in the next withdrawal, from Gaza, under the leadership of then GOC Southern Command Dan Harel (next in line, after Kaplinsky, for deputy chief of staff); and in the withdrawal from northern Samaria, overseen by division commander Tal Russo, now a major general and head of the Operations Directorate. If Barak plans any further withdrawals, he has a cadre of partners with unparalleled experience.
Barak's map of the West Bank following a withdrawal was charted in a conversation held in his office in February 2001, on the eve of his removal from the Defense Ministry at the behest of the electorate. That map anticipates preservation of six or seven settlement blocs, "which combined, cover about 10 percent of the area of Judea and Samaria but contain more than 80 percent of the settlers." This is also, more or less, the map drawn by Barak's successors as prime minister, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
In addition to the settlement blocs, Barak aspired to retain a security zone in the Jordan Valley and "a few control and intelligence sites on the [West Bank] ridgeline." He explained that whereas with a negotiated withdrawal, "one can take very high calculated risks and leave a small number of deployment platforms in a small number of stations," in the absence of an agreement "the ability to take calculated risks is considerably reduced, particularly against the eastern front, and a broad security zone is needed."
These remarks were made before the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime led to the removal of Iraq from the list of Israel's active enemies and caused the disintegration of the eastern front - for the next several years, and, if Barak can forge a peace with Syria, beyond. In addition, in the intervening period, Israel's aerial alternatives to hilltop early-warning stations have been upgraded.
In 2001, Barak said that "sooner or later, when the right time comes, it will be necessary to identify isolated settlements that are not inside the settlement blocs or adjacent to some of the sites in the security, control and intelligence zone, and transfer them to the settlement blocs or to inside Israel." If the evacuation is not done at Israel's initiative, Barak warned, Israel is liable "to be dragged into this as a consequence of a development that calls into question our endurance and the operational ability to provide protection for isolated settlement or their access roads." The withdrawal, Barak said, is more necessity than choice: "Life will lead us exactly to that development."
Barak may have changed, as he has promised, but not so much that he has ceased to believe that life will bring him and his nation to other places. It follows unavoidably that he intends to use the position he has recaptured not only to retake the territory that dominates the premiership, but also to bring about and lead that which he believes is inevitable. But will Barak, who as a senior officer shied away from confrontations with settlers and who as prime minister and defense minister did not evacuate a single settlement and left behind more settler outposts than he inherited from Benjamin Netanyahu, now follow the Sharon precedent and evacuate dozens of settlements and tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank?
Two years after the Gaza withdrawal, it is clear that it failed, apart from the success of the actual evacuation of the settlements. The failure, as predicted, was caused by the decision to evacuate the Philadelphi route and dominant military sites without handing them over to a responsible authority that would prevent terrorism, shooting and smuggling. In addition, within less than a year after the disengagement, Sharon and Olmert yielded to ill-advised U.S. pressure to let Hamas take part in the parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority.
In contrast to the failure in Gaza is the successful evacuation in northern Samaria of the evacuation of the settlements of Ganim, Kadim, Homesh and Sa-Nur. The IDF controls that area, preventing terror attacks and indirectly also preventing Hamas from overcoming PA and Fatah security forces units. If Barak's declared approach is taken at face value, this is the correct model for future withdrawals.
Within the defense establishment, however, Barak may encounter a bitter surprise - opposition. This impression stems primarily from an internal study undertaken by the General Staff's Center for Behavioral Sciences (CBS), "The IDF, the Disengagement and Israeli Society," which presumably reflects the opinion of the CBS superiors in the Personnel Directorate. After reading the study and its conclusions, one is unlikely to expect the IDF's senior officer corps to help Barak evacuate settlements in the West Bank the same way it helped Sharon evacuate Gaza settlements and bases in 2004-05.
The study quotes Dan Harel as warning company and battalion commanders at the time, "The implication of non-implementation [of the evacuation decision] is the beginning of the end of the State of Israel. This democracy will no longer exist." Four months before the withdrawal, he described it as "a genuine Israeli tragedy ... a trauma for us, the soldiers, too."
The study attributes the successful implementation of the evacuation to a lengthy dialogue with the settler leaders and to its being a "unique, one-time" mission. Unique, in that it deviated from regular military activity, which is aimed at an enemy; and one-time, meaning that there will not be another such evacuation, or, in the words of CBS, "The IDF functioned as an executive branch implementing a government and Knesset decision, but a question arose on more than one occasion about executing similar operations in the future. The perception of the mission as a one-time operation provided a partial answer to this question. In addition, it was understood that if similar missions are imposed on the IDF in the future, their execution will not look or be similar - the political context and the disagreements will be different, and the modes of operation will necessitate a change." Beneath this quasi-scientific language lurks a dictate of the military echelon to the political echelon: Do not assign us a mission like this ever again.
To remove any doubt, the study concludes with a warning emphasizing the difference between politicians and officers. "The declared approach of the IDF with regard to transparency and the absence of manipulation, deceit and surprise vis-a-vis the settlers, alongside much dealing with the symbolic sphere and the 'visibility' aspects within the framework of the mission, raises a cardinal question concerning a repetition of similar principles of operation in future events. Can what looked successful last time, and brought about the hoped-for result, be implemented the same away again? Two important elements have to be considered - questions regarding the legitimacy in a democratic regime of the use of the IDF to implement 'non-military' missions in a different political situation, and ensuring that the various societal bodies, including the IDF, learn the events of the disengagement in the summer of 2005. On the basis of this understanding, it can be conjectured that the 'next attraction' will be different."
It is not yet clear whom Barak will try to evacuate, but it is clear who is sending him a message not to request assistance in that matter.
The IDF is for Netanyahu
Iddo Netanyahu, author of "Yoni's Last Battle: The Rescue at Entebbe 1976," spoke last week to IDF cadets in order to teach the young generation about the country's battle heritage. It didn't take long before the audience realized that Netanyahu had come to market the private battle narrative of the Netanyahu family regarding Entebbe. This family history contradicts the conclusions of the IDF investigations; of Dan Shomron, the operation's commander and later chief of staff; and in particular of Muki Betser, Yonatan Netanyahu's deputy in the operation. No one invited Betser, or any other officer, to present his account, lest anyone dare think it might be a little closer to the truth than that of the Netanyahu family. Betser decided not to ignore the scandalous oversight. He is waiting for an explanation from his friend, Barak, and from Ashkenazi.
When it comes to Yoni, who was killed in the operation 31 years ago next week, Benjamin Netanyahu, his other brother, loses control and denies the truth - two qualities that undermine his ambition to recapture the premiership. He was outraged last year when this writer published a quotation from the chief of staff at the time of the Entebbe operation, Motta Gur, confirming that on the eve of the operation, Yonatan Netanyahu was about to be removed as commander of Sayeret Matkal, the elite commando unit. The Netanyahu family launched a counterattack and recruited witnesses, none of whom refuted the report of the impending removal.
The Netanyahu family is trying to change the subject: The question is not whether Yoni was a hero, but whether Bibi is capable of facing up to the truth, however painful.
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