1. Confirmation of the kill
Senior NCO Yitzchak Taito, the longest-serving career man in the Israel Defense Forces, was last week called upon to head a mission that is becoming increasingly routine. Taito, the commander of the Officers' training base, is the pillar of the succession ceremonies held at the foot of the towers of the Kirya (the Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv). His right palm, which salutes and congratulates, gets the most handshakes in the IDF.
In the past two years, Taito has led the cadets of the Bahad 1 [training camp] four times in such ceremonies, in which three chiefs of staff and three defense ministers have come and gone: Moshe Ya'alon, Dan Halutz, Gabi Ashkenazi, Shaul Mofaz, Amir Peretz and Ehud Barak.
No sooner does Peretz bring in Ashkenazi than Ashkenazi escorts Peretz out. Barak stuck close to Peretz, almost gluing himself to him, until the very moment when the outgoing defense minister entered the car that would drive him away. This was not a supreme act of politeness by Barak; it was confirmation of the kill.
Officers serving in hot sectors allowed themselves a sigh of relief. A custom of respect for the appointing echelon, as long as it possesses the power to appoint, or fear of its revenge, as long as it possesses the ability to exact revenge, has so far prevented them from expressing themselves freely. Now they are calm. There is a boss, one of the family, someone who will know how to repair the sputtering military vehicle and turn it into the black Mercedes of Entebbe once again.
The problem is that this will require a lengthy stay in the garage, and Barak doesn't have the time. He doesn't have 100 days of grace, because he has barely 100 days until the publication of the full Winograd Committee Report on the Second Lebanon War and the realization of his commitment to leave the cabinet it Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will insist on continuing to head it and his Kadima faction does not remove him. Should Barak try to evade that commitment, he will have a serious credibility problem on his hands.
Still, the conclusions of Judge Eliyahu Winograd are relatively far off, while those of attorney Eran Shendar are close. In a few weeks, the outgoing state prosecutor is expected to sign off on an indictment of Olmert over the privatization of Bank Leumi. Last week, the investigators were scheduled to report on the status of the case to Yohanan Danino, head of police investigations and intelligence. As things now look, it's unlikely the police will recommend that file be closed. In the background two more investigations of the PM are awaiting the starter's pistol of Attorney General Menachem Mazuz: the Small Business Authority and the Investments Center.
Seven years ago, as prime minister, Barak received secret intelligence reports from the police. In the contest between Shimon Peres and Moshe Katsav for the presidency, even as Peres was collecting vows of support in the Knesset, the eavesdropping on criminals picked up three conversations with MKs who agreed, not exactly of their own free will, to cast their votes for Katsav behind the screen.
Even if his sources dried up after his loss in the 2001 elections, and Barak now relies on open information, he has to prepare to formulate his public position ahead of Olmert's indictment. Barak confidants proudly quote his vigorous statements two years ago about the corruption in Ariel Sharon's family. The price, the confidants say, was a Sharon family veto against inviting Barak to join Kadima or to being given the defense portfolio.
The law does not oblige a prime minister to resign at the indictment stage, but only after the completion of a process in which he is convicted of an opprobrious offense. The question, though, is not what Olmert will do but what Barak will do if Olmert does nothing. Obviously, Barak will confront Kadima with a razor-sharp choice: if Olmert is in, my party and I are out.
Barak is entering this game with a weak hand. He is not an MK and so he cannot form another government in the present Knesset, and his threat to work for early elections is not convincing. He has semi-dormant allies in Kadima - Tzipi Livni, Meir Sheetrit, Avi Dichter - who have spoken out against corruption to one degree or another and might also gain from Olmert's downfall. But if he is to spur them to more successful action than the mini-revolt fiasco Livni staged the day the Winograd Committee submitted its interim report, Barak has to turn himself quickly into a strong card that will be hard to resist. That is why he rushed into the cabinet without waiting for negotiations on the filling of other portfolios; that is why he has to impress the Israeli public with his performance so convincingly that Kadima will understand that he is essential to the party's survival.
In practical terms, this means a clear political vision and an effective military performance. Barak's influence over the army's achievement is limited. He can peruse a plan submitted to him with an experienced eye, rule out or polish and improve the opening conditions of an Israeli-initiated operation or readiness to deal with a hostile initiative, but the final result is determined far below the level of the defense minister, the chief of staff or the territorial GOC.
As for Barak's political vision, it was Barak who devised what Olmert later called the "convergence," or "realignment" in the West Bank. As Barak put it in a closed briefing in 2002: "Israeli-initiated unilateral security separation, implemented gradually, into two separate political entities living side by side." Barak viewed this option as a way out of the dead end of the Oslo process, which he described as the failed hope to convert "some of the assets we hold" into time, during which the Palestinian Authority receives "powers, means and opportunities to prepare itself to become the government of a future state, a full-fledged member of the commonwealth of nations."
What happened in Gaza, as a second edition of Hezbollah's takeover of southern Lebanon following the Israeli evacuation in 2000, undermines the logic of going unilateral. Barak's challenge will be to conduct a renewed conceptual effort in the light of the flaccidity of the leadership in the West Bank. In every territory seized by Israel in its wars, the process is one of deterioration, from bad to worse. Before the occupation: bad; the occupation: very bad; after the occupation: worst of all.
2. More deployed and more hated
Since the end of the 1970s, it has been proven time and again that relatively friendly regimes in the Middle East, from Iran to Palestine, lean on military forces that are large numerically but rotten qualitatively. With or without agreements, what happened in South Vietnam following the sudden assault by the Vietcong and North Vietnam, will happen also in Iraq after the Americans withdraw. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hinted a few months ago at the alternative the Bush administration is preparing for the Palestinian Authority. The Oslo Accords, on the basis of which the PA was established - half of which has now been taken over by Hamas, courtesy of Bush and Rice - were signed with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is chairman of the PLO even before he is chairman of the PA. With Israel's agreement, the PLO will dismantle the PA and create a new, prestate framework. It's an interesting trick, but it can't solve the problem of the lax leadership of Abbas & Co.
The Hamas activists who are running wild in Gaza are despicable murderers, irrespective of their religion and their attitude toward Israel. One of the Fatah men who this week fled from Gaza explained to an Israeli officer the difference between the two primary forces in the Palestinian community: "We attacked their activists. They lined up dozens of members of a whole tribe against the wall, randomly picked out elderly people and girls, and killed them. We shoot them in the knees and sometimes they are hit and limp, sometimes not. They shoot us in the knees from behind, so that the kneecap flies out, causing certain crippling."
In the new situation in Gaza the enemy is clearer, more deployed in a semi-military structure, more hated by the population. During the years in which Hamas leaders (Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi) were targeted by Israel, senior Palestinians complained to Avi Dichter, then the head of the Shin Bet security service, "It is impossible to understand your policy. Why not also Mahmoud a-Zahar?" Zahar is now the political leader of the extreme wing of Gaza-based Hamas. More central and more vital than Zahar is the military chief, Ahmed Jabari. Barak, one can assume, will not hesitate to authorize the IDF and the Shin Bet, and recommend to Olmert, to target Jabari and the circle of commanders around him. Thousands of armed Hamas activists easily defeated Fatah but will constitute quite an easy target for the IDF if it can hit them without getting entangled in a ground offensive.
Be that as it may, the operational space of the IDF commanders in the south has been enlarged to include forays into Palestinian territory - "Fight Club" was the first operation in the Barak period, as compensation for the absence of strategic depth on the Israeli side of the fence. If precise information is obtained concerning Jabari's whereabouts, a more difficult operational decision will have to be made: whether to assassinate him or to arrest him and obtain Gilad Shalit, the abducted Israeli soldier, in exchange for him.
The negotiations for Shalit, under Egyptian mediation, were frozen on the eve of the Fatah-Hamas war due to disagreement over the prisoners to be released by Israel. Apparently, 350 prisoners will be released in return for Shalit's transfer to Egypt, and another 100 when he is returned to Israel from there. The list of prisoners submitted by representatives of the kidnappers is unacceptable to Israel, and changes will have to be made, but the familiar forumula of "blood on the hands" will not be an obstacle. The defense establishment has drawn up a scale: at the top level are individuals who have committed murder with their own hands and those who sent suicide bombers who successfully carried out their mission - they will not be released.
At the bottom level are those who were junior accomplices to terrorist attempts and are serving long sentences. The longer a prisoner has been incarcerated, and the closer he is to completing his sentence, the more the blood on his hands loses its color.
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