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About a year ago, shortly before he assumed command of a division called Utzbat Ha'esh (fire formation), Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi met with his officers at divisional headquarters to discuss a question that has no answer: How far does the state's responsibility extend, and who in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is supposed to implement that responsibility?

Kochavi was referring to the absence of a clear decision. Israel is ostensibly responsible for its emissaries, both those in uniform and others. It secures its legations and its planes, and therefore groups and individuals that happen to be in those places are under its protection. But as soon as an El Al passenger leaves a foreign terminal and steps onto foreign soil, the state releases itself from the obligation to protect him - along with the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who live in or visit the Diaspora, not to mention the millions of Jews.

Kochavi, a former commander of the Paratroops, is soon to head the planners in the IDF's Planning Directorate. After that, he will be a leading candidate for territorial commander or directorate chief. He raised a question that has been suppressed in the Israeli consciousness since the last echo of the Entebbe operation faded away, but which has again become acute in the wake of the Sinai terrorist attacks.

A capsule reconstruction of the 1976 Entebbe operation would go something like this: It involved a brigadier general (then Dan Shomron, today maybe Kochavi, tomorrow somebody else), four Air Force "Rhinos" (Hercules transport planes), a Sayeret Matkal commando unit, more forces (paratroopers, the air force's Shildag commando unit, antitank weapons) and hovering above all of them a command aircraft aboard which are the deputy chief of staff and air force, intelligence and operations officers. All that's required for that is a constant refreshing of an operations file and the periodic training of the units and command posts. However, any such operation will be only an offspring of decisions that have not yet been made, concerning the circumstances in which it is fitting to make use of military capability to rescue Israelis abroad, or to prevent an impending terrorist attack against them.

This time, in Sinai, the issue was saving lives after a terrorist incident, because the clumsy behavior of the locals in the first hours after the event led to wounded people bleeding to death. Next time it might be a hostage-taking event or the creation of an anti-Israeli terrorist cell in a foreign country. The IDF and the Mossad espionage agency are already deploying for the battle over responsibility for that kind of operation.

In Entebbe, the Mossad's assistance was essential and even fateful for the decision to carry out the operation - without a guaranteed stopover in Kenya on the way home, the government would not have approved the lift-off of the Rhinos. The Mossad has worldwide connections and a certain ability, but only the IDF has air, sea and special forces in sufficient numbers for a large-scale operation.

The Taba event sharpened the issue, because it involved at least three different aspects, under the responsibility of associated but competing arms of the intelligence community. There was global terrorism - Al-Qaida/Global Jihad - the monitoring of which, and in this case the failure to monitor, is the duty of the Mossad. There was, or at least so it was suspected at first, a Palestinian connection, probably to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which is the target of the Shin Bet security service; and there was Egypt, the neighbor, which has made peace with Israel but is building up its army according to a scenario of a confrontation with the IDF, and is therefore a client of Military Intelligence.

Severe dilemmas

Four years ago, a former IDF major general who took part in battles against Egypt - in the form of reprisal raids and in four wars - said the following: "Israel is a singular country. You can place it on the horns of severe dilemmas without a single bullet being fired. The neighboring countries, with logistic steps alone, by moving troops from one place to another, can place Israel in difficult situations. Let's suppose for a moment that something in that sphere happens, to which no Israeli government is capable of not reacting. The Arab states will not be able to stand idly by, especially if the Israeli reaction is a serious one. Egypt moves forces into Sinai. From Egypt's point of view, that's a logistical move. From Israel's point of view ... it means going to war, yet it is clear to everyone that it's impossible to send the nation to war, that everyone wants to avoid a war, at a time when not one shot has been fired. The smaller the moves, the greater Israel's dilemmas."

This insight into his line of thought, at a time when he was free of the limitations of a state position, was provided by Ariel Sharon (at the Herzliya Conference of 2000). Today Sharon would not allow himself to go public with these views - if they haven't changed since then. He needs Egypt to provide the finishing touches to his Gaza evacuation plan.

Egypt is vital, because even if half-tacit understandings between Israel and Palestinian elements are reached, they will be like road shoulders that invite a crash. An immediate example is provided by Operation Days of Penitence in the Gaza Strip. In August the commander of the Gaza Division, Brigadier General Shmuel Zakai, reached an understanding with his Palestinian counterpart, General Abdel Razek Majaida, and with the chief of Palestinian general intelligence in Gaza, Moussa Arafat, who is Yasser Arafat's nephew and who last week escaped an assassination attempt. The understanding, which was ratified by Arafat and by the external leadership of Hamas, was quite simple: if no Qassam rockets were fired at Sderot, the IDF would not raid launch sites of the rockets in Beit Hanun and Jabalya.

The Palestinians did not promise to desist from other forms of terrorism and the IDF did not promise to desist from targeted assassinations - and, indeed, in the last week of September air attacks were launched against an activist in the "resistance committees" in Khan Yunis and against the offices of the Nasser Association in Gaza City, which funded terror.

The Palestinian response was to shell Sderot with Qassam rockets that killed two small children and sent the IDF, like a starter's gun in a race, into the Gaza Strip for an ongoing operation.

No serious discussion preceded the operation and no reasonable dimensions or achievements that would make it possible to gauge its level of success were set. This laxness in the work of the state establishment is not accidental. From this point of view, the event in Sinai also characterizes the negligence in prior preparedness for crises. After all, one can assume that the need for a new version of Entebbe will arise and that it would be useful to utilize the time available now to ready for that eventuality. The operational cooperation between those who digest the information and those who squeeze the trigger is excellent. The problem lies at the highest level.

In the fifth year of the confrontation with the Palestinians, and with Al-Qaida and Egypt, Iran and Hezbollah in the background, there is as yet no conceptual routine that turns the parts of the puzzle into a whole. The functional weakness begins with Prime Minister Sharon. He works with the equivalent of a palace court, not a headquarters, without clear demarcation and coordination. His advisers in his bureau and in the National Security Council are doubles who compete with one another. Like Menachem Begin (with Moshe Dayan and the Mossad) in the peace contacts with Egypt, like Yitzhak Rabin (with Shimon Peres and his emissaries) in the Oslo process, Sharon leaped into his disengagement plan without thorough preparation and without prior consultation with those involved in security, intelligence and planning. His main partners to the secret were his aide Dov Weisglass and Brigadier General Ibal Giladi, then the head of the strategic section in the Planning Directorate.

For the most part - though not on that occasion - Giladi was close in his positions to his commanding officer at the time, Major General Giora Eiland, who in any case left the Planning Directorate and the IDF to accept Sharon's offer that he head the National Security Council. Giladi persuaded Sharon that in the absence of a Palestinian interlocutor, and given the need to move out of the deadlock, it would be best to initiate a departure from an area whose fate would be sealed in any case whenever the negotiations might be renewed. Eiland agreed that a political initiative was needed, but objected to both the content of Sharon's proposal and to the procedure for preparing and presenting it. With a heavy heart, as a public servant, he worked loyally for the idea's implementation.

But if the jolts to the political system don't cause a freeze of the disengagement plan, it will be difficult for Eiland to remain in his post as head of the National Security Council and to continue to be occupied with the central item on the agenda of the prime minister, who is not bothering to draw him into the inner circle.

Games people play

Ego and prestige games, both personal and organizational, are sabotaging the system's functioning. That is nothing new: angelic relations never reign in politics and security, and in Israel the residues are murkier, in the absence of an alternative. The players remain and only the roles change. The representation of the Foreign Ministry in forums that consider military operations but which are also supposed to consider diplomatic aspects suffers from Sharon's attitude toward the foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, and from an old grudge that the defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, still has against the foreign minister.

It turns out that in 1996, deputy defense minister Shalom invited the head of the Planning Directorate, the silent major general, Shaul Mofaz, for a get-acquainted meeting. Mofaz diligently studied the important points, came down from the 12th floor in his high-rise office building, walked over to the adjacent building, went up to the deputy minister's office, which was then on the third floor, took a seat across from him and prepared to brief the young deputy of then defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai. Hardly had Mofaz opened his mouth when the mobile phone in Shalom's pocket rang, and then another phone, and then the first one again. Mofaz took offense and embarked on a path that will yet lead him into a duel with Shalom.

Sitting around Mofaz's desk in his situation appraisal meetings are officers, ministry staff, senior officials subordinate to the prime minister (the head of the Mossad; the head of the Shin Bet; the head of the National Security Council) and representatives of the Public Security Ministry. The Foreign Ministry is not invited. The idea of switching aides between the two ministries - a diplomatic aide for the defense minister in return for a military aide for the foreign minister - never had a chance. Mofaz didn't want an official who would immediately report to Shalom.

The discussions held by Sharon and Mofaz are no substitute for orderly staff work. Prime ministers always suspect defense and foreign ministers of harboring political aims, and the prime minister "stands on a soccer ball and devotes 80 percent of his time and energy to an effort not to fall off it," in the words of an officer who has observed Sharon and his predecessors.

Two former intelligence brigadier generals, Danny Arditi from special operations and Elkana Har-Nof from research, are behind the anti-terrorism unit's warnings about terrorist attacks against Israelis in Sinai. Har-Nof kneaded warnings about three different potential cells, two Palestinian and one Egyptian-global, into one dough of risk to Israelis in Sinai. The paradox of the warning is that proof of its credibility depends on refusal to believe it. If Israelis had heeded the warnings and not gone to Sinai, the terrorist attacks might have been postponed until the warning was called off and the Israelis returned.