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The General Staff was this week hosted by the central information gathering unit of the Intelligence Corps, Unit 8200 - a convenient background for the presentation of the draft of the annual national intelligence appraisal, which was formulated by the research division. The document contained no major surprises: The basic assessment is that ultimately, things might be good and that the end, years down the road, may be closer than it appeared to be a year ago. But before that, things will continue to be bad, because all sectors - from Palestine to Iran, from Syria to Iraq - are problematic.

Military Intelligence was taken by surprise in a completely different sector, in its rear, in the form of the contention this week by the chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, MK Haim Ramon (Labor), that intelligence information about a Palestinian cease-fire initiative was concealed from the political echelon.

Ramon did not repeat this comment the next day, in a closed meeting of the subcommittee on the secret services. At the political level, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is a ranking consumer of intelligence material, only slightly less than the prime minister and the defense minister. Ramon, who did his military service as an air force intelligence officer, is the adversary of Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who himself sometimes overdoes the external use of internal information, such as in the affair of the three Israeli soldiers who were taken captive by Hezbollah. The difference between the two officials is small: One makes use of the product of Military Intelligence, the other of the manufacturer.

Ramon's statement made him a partner in a tremendous effort by "non-Palestinians," as Military Intelligence officers termed them in understatement, to fool the Israeli public by creating the impression that the key to paradise was already turning in the lock, until Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his retainer, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, and the insensitive warlords of the General Staff came along and smashed lock and key to smithereens.

The fine print

There are two versions of events pitted against one another here, and the basic question is whether to believe Yossi Beilin, a heavy investor in the Oslo bubble, or the head of the research division in Military Intelligence. So far, it's true, most of Brigadier General Kuperwasser's skeptical evaluations have come true, whereas most of Beilin's rosy predictions have proved false. The material that has been published shows that no agreement had been reached, but rather, at most, a manifesto permitting attacks on the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces and on settlers, while urging that civilians in Israel not be attacked. But trust the Israelis not to bother reading the fine print and to tell themselves that there is no smoke without a cease-fire.

Among the Palestinians, the fomenters of the terrorist attacks do not want to let up, and those who regret the violence are not part of the terrorist chain of command. There is in fact a process of soul-searching going on, or being renewed, within the Palestinian community, about what benefit has been gained from the blood and fire of the past two years. A similar debate took place in the period between the IDF's withdrawal from Lebanon and the outbreak of violence in the territories, in which the victor was the school of brute force, up to and including Yasser Arafat. The realistic stream, which was right and was defeated, came back to life about half a year ago. A large minority of the population, perhaps even a majority, identifies with its conclusions, but neither group - the masses and the realists in the leadership - is capable of imposing its will on Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the Tanzim militia.

Two months ago the head of the Tanzim met with the adviser to the defense minister. The result was an intriguing headline and perhaps a promising shift, but for the time being without any influence on the terrorist attacks. Since the arrest of Marwan Barghouti, one of the founding fathers of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), has been the head of the Fatah movement and of its Tanzim militia in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. An impressive title. And he was a personal Arafat appointee, one of the first to engage in secret talks with Israel, with former Military Intelligence chief Shlomo Gazit and former top Shin Bet security service agent Yossi Ginossar, in the early 1980s. But even founding fathers eventually find themselves in old-age homes. That is where Hassan was plucked from when Arafat needed a barrier between himself and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades of the Tanzim.

At the end of May, after enduring ordeals at the Ramallah checkpoint, Hassan and his colleague Abd-al Munam, who also bears the title of assistant to Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, met at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem with a few Israelis: retired major general Gazit; Prof Emmanuel Sivan, an expert on the Middle East; Brigadier General (res.) Yizthak Segev, a former military governor in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; Avinoam Brog, a pollster and organizational psychologist and also the brother of Ehud Barak; and Colonel (res.) David Hakham, Ben-Eliezer's adviser on Arab affairs. Segev, who meets frequently with Hassan, organized the meeting, and Hakham, formerly Segev's subordinate in the army, took notes and reported to his superior.

It was to a large extent a lament by Hassan about the death culture that has made deep inroads among Palestinian youth - who, if they are not deflected from this line of thought, will be lost to the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement and be pulled to the extremes. One of those present was reminded of two similar phenomena, the mode of suicide that swept Romantics in Europe after Goethe published "The Sorrows of Young Werther," and the success of instructors in a fanatic Islamic organization in Algeria to perpetrate terrorist attacks from which they would have no avenue of escape. What will life be like after death, or after the victory, the suicide candidates asked (many of them changed their minds and surrendered to the authorities)? Like in the telenovellas, the instructors promised; not like in the Koran - like in the telenovellas.

Hassan's interlocutors reflect a soft security-oriented approach, more or less the line of the Council for Peace and Security. On the other side, the nonexistent equivalent Palestinian Council would consist of Hassan, Prof. Sari Nusseibeh and others - dignitaries, believers in the good, but people with little influence. The warnings they sounded are coming true before their eyes: The occupation has returned, the Palestinian Authority has disintegrated, the world is indifferent, the population is suffering (it is in "distress," Military Intelligence emphasize, though not in "crisis," not in an Africa-like state of starving children with bloated bellies). The point of equilibrium in the Palestinian system changes slowly, too slowly, more slowly than the rate of terrorist attacks. But, as yet, Arafat has not yet been subjected to intolerable pressure by Israel or the United States to drop out of the presidential race. If Arafat is a candidate, there will be no elections, and the rehabilitation of Palestine from its ruins will be further delayed.

Israelis who converse these days with Hani al-Hassan, or with the on-paper commander of the security forces, Nasser Yusuf, are talking to the Palestinian past, but - who knows? - maybe to the future, too. One of them could become the Palestinian Yitzhak Shamir - though better the person, not the policy. Shamir, formerly the commander of Lehi, the pre-state underground organization, was a marginal politician in his party in the spring of 1977 but by the fall of 1983, was prime minister. Generals and confidants - Ezer Weizman and Ariel Sharon, Dan Meridor and Yoram Aridor, rose and fell, but when the moment of retirement came for Menachem Begin, Shamir got the nod almost by default and ruled (with half a break of two years, during the period of the national unity government) for almost nine years.

Flying west, thinking east

"The older I get, the more my past exploits are upgraded," Lieutenant Colonel A., the commander of an F-16 squadron at the Hatzor base, observed sarcastically of air force veterans, whose battle legends are the envy of many young pilots. The quip did not have a personal motivation. A., like many others in the younger generation of air crews, is the son of one of the past commanders of the air force. He was disturbed, he wrote in an internal bulletin, by the "wild-flight culture that used to exist," which encouraged pilots to ignore restrictions, orders and rules, and brought about the loss of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of pilots and aircraft.

A. attributes the revolution, thanks to which the air force recently marked two rare years without a fatal accident, to stricter obedience to orders and to technological advances; video recordings of the films taken in drills of dogfights, which render it impossible to obtain victory by unilateral violations of the regulations. Today's pilots, A. said in defense of the generation of the sons of the major generals of the past, are bad-mouthed as being too "square," lacking the spirit of creativity and mischievousness to the point where they have lost the instinct for victory. In fact, they are the product of mature education.

Mishaps, as a phenomenon, are unavoidable, though they can be minimized, and the chain that turns a minor hitch into a major disaster can be broken. In more silent periods, mainly the successes were played up. A new study by the History and Information Branch of the air force, which focuses on the attack of the American espionage ship "Liberty" in June 1967, notes that during the Sinai War of 1956, Israel Air Force planes attacked Israeli armored and other ground forces on seven different occasions. A decade went by, the lessons ought to have been learned, but in the 1967 Six-Day War - the war that brought the air force glory for destroying Arab air power - "there were 18 incidents in which air force planes attacked Israeli troops, mainly because of the absence of contact with ground forces and mistaken identity of forces in the field."

The research of the "Liberty" event does not contain much that is new, though it spells out the interesting grounds cited by the military advocate general of the time, Meir Shamgar (later the president of the Supreme Court), in his recommendation to the chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin, to accept the conclusions of an investigating judge not to try any of the air force and navy officers who were involved in the episode, whether at headquarters, in the air, or at sea. The decisive factor, the investigating judge (Lieutenant Colonel Yeshayahu Yerushalmi), noted, was "the test of the behavior of reasonable officers during wartime operations with all those involved taking into account the mission of preserving the country's security, to identify any enemy who is undermining that security, to attack him swiftly and destroy him. The criterion for reasonable behavior in these conditions will perhaps be different from what it is in a period of calm. I found no departure of any sort from the level of reasonable behavior that would justify placing anyone on trial."

Two pairs of planes attacked the "Liberty," at the request of the navy: two Mirage aircraft from another squadron, and after them two Super Mysteres from the squadron at Hatzor, which in its current incarnation, as a squadron of two-seater F-16s, is commanded by A. The majority of the air force's aircraft are now two-seaters - pilot and navigator - to meet the complexity of the missions: the pilot is busy flying the plane and operating the systems; the term "navigator" is actually obsolete, and if it still has any meaning it refers to the navigation of the armament - missile or bomb - rather than the navigation of the plane. The two-person crew is intended to help divide the work, but it turned out that many accidents, more than the expected relative proportion, occur precisely in two-seater planes. The new generation of air-to-surface missiles ("JDAMs," in American parlance) will restore the glory of the one-seater plane: the pilot will launch the missile from a safe distance and it will then cruise independently to its target.

The affair of the "Liberty" is no longer disrupting the working relations between the Israel Air Force and its U.S. counterpart (in fact, the Americans have four air fleets: The U.S. Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine Corps). By chance, the call signal of the navy for the attack on an enemy ship in June 1967 was "11-9."

The joint war on terrorism has tightened the cooperation of the Israeli and American air branches. This month, for the first time, Israeli pilots will take part, in their aircraft, in a battle exercise on the West Coast of the U.S. To move six F-15 aircraft from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to the place where the exercise will be conducted - a 15-hour flight in a fast passenger plane - required a complicated operation of piloting, fueling and control. The immediate gain in flying with Americans (and with others in NATO, who are also taking part), as in the long flights in Turkey, is only a small part of the fruits of the Nellis maneuvers. There is no need for a computer - a compass will do - to know that anyone who can fly this distance westward, is also likely to succeed when flying in other directions. Since the decision was made to acquire the F-16 Thunder planes in the early 1990s, during the tenure of Herzl Bodinger as commander of the air force, the Iranians have claimed that this strategic bomber is aimed primarily at them.

No illusion

The senior officer corps of the air force is considered particularly militant both in the larger conflict, with the Arabs and the Iranians, and in the smaller confrontation, with the Palestinians. In other places, people believe more in conciliation, maybe because of a sense that in an emergency they can count on the air force; but the air force, which knows the truth behind the legends, are more careful and want severe security multipliers.

The air force command is under no illusion that it has the ability to deal by itself with the missile threats from Iraq and the rockets from Lebanon. On the contrary: they remember that in October 1973 it was necessary to use armored forces to capture the missile base west of the Suez Canal. The moral could be the need to send in ground forces to seize the launch sector of Hezbollah rockets at the "04" dialing area, which stretches south of Haifa, too, and also perhaps - if the Americans decided to send in troops from the direction of Jordan - to seize control of western Iraq.

The scale of the Iraqi threat is mired in controversy, because the critical question is not how many missiles Saddam Hussein has, not even whether they have chemical or biological warheads; the critical question is whether the missiles' fuses will enable them to be detonated above-ground and scatter their lethal payload in the air; or whether they will only dig a small crater in which the gases and the bacteria will be concentrated, in which case their damage will be small.

There is no doubt about Saddam Hussein's readiness to attack Israel when his back is against the wall in an American operation to topple him. In February 1998, during the panic of the biological attack that didn't happen, Saddam informed prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, through the Russian deputy foreign minister, Victor Posovaluke, that he did not intend to fire; and Netanyahu replied that if so, Israel would also restrain itself. It was the Bill Clinton era: If Clinton had ordered an attack on Saddam, or a preemptive strike on Osama bin Laden, he would have been accused of trying to divert attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal, so Saddam sat comfortably in his presidential chair. Saddam's prospects of surviving until the end of President George Bush's term of office are slim, and if he thinks his end is nigh, he will follow regional custom and launch a suicide attack.

The air force, whose current crop of senior officers in 1991 held central staff posts in planning an Israeli response to Scud missiles, or were in the cockpit, ready six and seven and eight times for a mission order to Baghdad, believe that even if the Arrow system succeeds in intercepting many missiles, Israel must not restrain itself again in the wake of an Iraqi attack, and that both the cessation of missile launches and the restoration of Israeli deterrence will be achieved faster and better by striking at national assets that are important to the Iraqi regime and nation. When all the lights are on at a time when blackout is called for, there is no point in trying to smash them one at a time; it's best to go, or fly, straight to the main switch.