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"Our big missed opportunity was at the end of Operation Defensive Shield," a senior officer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said this week, and proceeded to explain: "We should have done something far-reaching for the Palestinian population, both substantively and also in order to shift the burden of proof to them. For example, we could have lifted all the sieges and removed all the checkpoints and then announced that we were expecting a cessation of violence within 48 hours. In principle, I know it's right and proper to differentiate between terrorism and the innocent civilian surroundings, but that knowledge isn't being translated into sufficient operational activity on the ground.

"One of the reasons that we let the opportunity of Operation Defense Shield slip by was that the operation did not have a sharp, clear end - the bits and pieces of the siege on the muqata in Ramallah and on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem were left over, and there was also the battle to thwart the United Nations' commission of inquiry into the events at Jenin. Maybe next time."

Even as he spoke, and as though to confirm that there would in fact be a "next time," a suicide bomber blew up a bus near Gilo in Jerusalem. The number of victims in the terrorist attacks is equal to the number of days that have gone by since September 2000, when the confrontation with the Palestinians began. Many people are asking: If Operation Defensive Shield was as successful as it was said to be at the time, why will it have to be repeated? One of them, a journalist, also received a reply: "If the paper you put out today is so successful, why publish another one tomorrow?"

Never has there been such an abundance of intelligence information, but there is simply too much to be sifted through, or to turn the polished nuggets of gold into operational jewels. Intelligence consists of communications interception, observation and human sources; but it all depends on a columnar process involving a speedy transfer from decoder to control center and from there to a preemptive force. Sometimes the lives of dozens of people rest on the young soldiers of an intelligence gathering officer. The success of the forces in Gaza in stopping many terrorist squads before they can reach a settlement, or before they can cross the line into Israel, is due in large measure to cool and sharp-eyed women soldiers stationed far from the arena of battle, who serve as look-outs, see the armed, bomb-carrying Palestinians approaching their target and guide the ambush, the patrol or the tank to open fire on the enemy "who is to your right, behind the third building."

The failure to prevent the bus bombing in Jerusalem shows again that intelligence, however efficient it may be, is only one element in a complex system. The IDF is today the military arm of the Shin Bet security service, so much so that in the annual meeting of the General Staff and the division and brigade commanders in the territories with the heads of the branches and regions in the Shin Bet - the meeting took place in the dining room of the Defense Ministry about two weeks ago - the commander of the Golani infantry brigade, Colonel Moshe Tamir, snarled, "What do I need an intelligence officer for? The Shin Bet is my IO."

Brigadier General Yossi Kuperwasser, the head of the research section in Military Intelligence, volunteered to respond to the question. The Golan Brigade, he said, like the entire IDF, has other fronts and tasks in which military intelligence remains in the forefront. And in the territories, too, when an infantry or armored brigade arrived to carry out an operation in a particular sector, the officer who hosts them and maintains intelligence continuity is the intelligence officer of the territorial brigade.

Still, whether it's provided by the Shin Bet or by Military Intelligence, intelligence as such is raw material. The manufacturer is the commander and above him the political captain - and the latter prefers, even if he does not admit it explicitly, the balance generated by a passive, frozen, energy-conserving posture, like the survival of a bear during its winter hibernation. Were it not for the victims of terrorism and the undermining of the economy, the politicians would be satisfied with the situation, which would be better than all the alternatives that demand a decision.

This is something of a twilight period in the IDF: The chief of staff, Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz, is shaking hands with officers who are taking leave of him (his tour of duty ends next month), though he may yet have time to deliver one more ringing blow before his last bow and before Moshe Ya'alon takes over. Reality, though, doesn't deign to wait for successors. Rafael Eitan was the designated chief of staff in 1978 when Operation Litani, in southern Lebanon, was launched by Mordechai Gur just weeks before his tour of duty as chief of staff concluded; and Ehud Barak was the designated chief of staff in 1991 when the Iraqi Scuds slammed into the waning days of Dan Shomron's watch. Two kings do not share a crown; in the army, unity of command must be maintained at all times, and when it is flawed, as in the Jerusalem sector, there is no one in charge.

Mofaz is still the one making the military recommendations. He is not the sole arbiter - the state systems are replete with checks and balances - but to some degree it is the case that the chief of staff, on the very eve of his departure, before the consequences that his successor will have to deal with become apparent, is enjoying the dream of every manager: authority without responsibility.

Even among the critics of Mofaz in the General Staff, some of whom engaged in persistent whispering campaigns against him for years and some of whom have emerged recently like forced converts in remote communities, there are those who say that something of an injustice was done to Mofaz: He wasn't understood properly. He expresses his professional judgment, which can also be congruent with his private worldview, but rests on the learned evaluations of the intelligence and planning branches: As long as Yasser Arafat rules the Palestinians, there will be no settlement with them. That is an evaluation, not a recommendation, and at this point it is up to the government to decide what its preference is. The answer is not self-evident - for example, the government can decide that it doesn't want an agreement and thus take action to allow Arafat to remain in power.

The defense establishment doesn't know what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon really wants, though officers who take part in discussions that he chairs have praise for his openness and his willingness to listen and change his opening position if he hears well-reasoned counter-arguments. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer does not come in for the same praise.

In an analysis that is devoid of a recommendation, the General Staff gave Sharon and Ben-Eliezer three alternatives for Israeli initiatives:

l The political initiative: The proposal of a new formula - or rewrapping an old formula - to thaw the freeze that the Palestinians' violence has imposed on the political process.

l The military initiative: A wide-scale operation throughout the territories of the Palestinian Authority and possibly against Arafat himself.

l The security initiative: Unilateral separation along the line of the "fence" that is not exactly a fence - but is also deliberately not a wall - which is not expensive to build but could symbolize permanence. The fence, deliberately, is a wall with large holes through which a different horizon is visible.

As expected, no decision was made and no alternative was preferred. A bit was taken from here, another bit from there, without order and without constancy - from all the possible initiatives but in fact from none of them. The great initiative that was chosen was to wait for an initiative by others: waiting for Saddam Hussein to be moved out and for George Bush to move ahead. No one was biting his fingernails ahead of Bush's purported "temporary state" speech, as the assumption was that underlying the intriguing title the president would only recycle already recycled ideas.

Nor has the "other Palestinian leadership," the one that's supposed to spring up and take command, appeared yet, though in this connection conservative appraisals sometimes prove wrong: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the shah in Iran are two major examples of a surprise in pace, if not in trend. The official formulators of the situation appraisal in Israel say that the cracks in the Palestinian leadership are widening, in contrast to governmental stability in Jerusalem.

As in the IDF, there were guffaws in the Palestinian leadership at the announcement by Mohammed Dahlan that he was resigning as head of Preventive Security in the Gaza Strip in favor of the title of national security adviser. Dahlan's Palestinian buddies are now calling him "Condoleezza." Dahlan's success in consolidating himself financially by means of his ten fingers - especially the trigger finger - is cause for hope among the poverty-stricken masses, too. Dahlan is already behaving like former prime ministers in Israel. At one of the trilateral meetings, in the presence of the Central Intelligence Agency station head in Tel Aviv, the head of Southern Command, Major General Doron Almog, congratulated Dahlan on his new acquisition. "He bought Rashad a-Shawa's house for $600,000," Almog told the CIA agent, referring to the home of the late mayor of Gaza. "That's not right," Dahlan growled, "it was $400,000."