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The "partner" is the General Staff's egalitarian name for them, evoking the time when Orde Wingate, an officer of the British Mandate authorities, was "friend" and when Stalin was "comrade." It's a partnership similar to the one that someone who purchases one share of Microsoft stock maintains with Bill Gates, so he can throw a vexatious question at him at the annual shareholders' meeting.

The boss-man called "partner" is the United States administration, and the prime minister of Israel - from whatever party - knowing the political, security and economic facts of life, willingly defers to the administration. Awareness of this is especially intense on November 29. This is not only the anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly partition resolution in 1947, but also marks the day in 1983 when strategic cooperation began between Washington and Jerusalem - at the time, the Reagan administration with the government of Yitzhak Shamir.

The supremacy of the American point of view is blatant in the position in which Ariel Sharon finds himself. In fact, he found the American file awaiting him on the prime minister's desk. Sharon is following in the footsteps of all his predecessors, who were always compelled - and all the more so ahead of and during wars - to show consideration for the position of the most influential of the world's powers.

The Israeli need for an American umbrella was not eliminated along with the disappearance of the counterweight power, the Soviet Union, which gave protection to the Arab states. The bitter discovery has been that even without a cold war between the world's blocs, the building and maintenance of a military structure able to cope with the threats facing Israel from afar is greater than the country's independent capability. Israel's freedom of action, and perhaps its freedom from being attacked, is necessarily limited by its membership in the alliance that is led by the White House. Sharon is only a small faction in George Bush's party.

The Labor Party's departure from the government exposed Sharon's true face. Concretely, as opposed to verbally, he makes decisions as though his former partners are still by his side, because of his justified fear of the partner across the seas. Shimon Peres and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer were no more than Sharon's alibi. It was not they, in their wisdom, who restrained him, but his desire for them to remain in the government, to help it endure; and their absence is not felt in his decisions, because George Bush is still president.

Holy writ

This week the defense establishment talked about the "partner" in three interrelated contexts: the Iraqi crisis, relations with the Palestinians and the financial shortfall. Ahead of Iraq, the chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, has gone to Washington to renew acquaintances from his previous visit, made when he was deputy chief of staff. At the same time, the missile defense directorate in the Pentagon sent their counterparts in Tel Aviv a request to be part of the next test of the Arrow antimissile missile at the Palmachim site on the Israeli coast. At the corner of 16th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the window of Condoleezza Rice, the directors of the Finance Ministry and of Sharon's bureau stood like beggars at the interchanges of the Ayalon Freeway; and in the General Staff's Planning Branch, as in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, warnings were sounded that the road map leading to Bush's vision is being primed for action like a previously inactive Al-Qaida cell.

Bush himself has so far made do with articulating a general vision. The road map is a product of his State Department, whose spokesmen describe it as a "living document." That is the description the Americans use for the revered constitution they granted themselves some 215 years ago, seeking to depict it as one of the holy scriptures, though not sealed with wax but open for amendments necessitated by the passage of time - perfect, but amenable to emendations.

The road map is being handled at a rather low level, by Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs William Burns and his deputy, David Satterfield (as well as an official of the National Security Council). In Israel, they were shunned by Sharon and other ministers and received for talks only by the head of the Planning Branch in the General Staff, Major General Giora Eiland, and by the acting director-general of the Foreign Ministry, Yoav Biran. On the one hand, an Israeli expert reflected, the map is bad but junior-level; on the other, he added, it is junior-level but bad. What the Palestinians want - "an end to the occupation of 1967" - is stated explicitly, whereas what the Israelis need, "the end of the conflict and of all claims," is not mentioned, on the dubious grounds that this is well known and self-evident, etc., etc.

One possibility is that while attending the victory event on the White House lawn after Saddam Hussein is toppled, Sharon will huddle with Bush and persuade him to consign the bad drafts of the road map to the National Archives. That will also depend on the political recommendations of presidential adviser Carl Rove, the chief planner of the Republican's triumph in the midterm elections earlier this month. Rove will stake out the path by which Bush and his party are to retain all three houses in November 2004 -the one for the president and the two in Congress. To that end, the Republicans are making efforts to win over large groups of voters that traditionally supported the Democrats, including blacks who reached the comforts of the middle class after much hard toil, Hispanics - which is why Bush wants to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants from south of the border - and Jews.

The political map may overcome the road map, but it's too soon to bet on it, because in Europe, the road map is being dealt with by senior levels, toward whom Burns and his colleagues are only too pleased to commit themselves. Retraction of the road map will require an investment of presidential prestige, which is not easily wasted and not without an Israeli quid pro quo.

Game of deterrence

The representatives of the defense establishment who met (in Tel Aviv and in Washington) with Admiral James Metzger, the assistant to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the chief liaison officer with the IDF and the defense minister during a war with Iraq, were not overly impressed. Metzger is still better informed about the Far East, where he served until recently, than he is about the Middle East morass. He will man the supreme level of the liaison chain; below him, books of procedures and standing orders on operational and technical subjects are piling up. On the Israeli side, the liaison will be carried out by a reserve unit of the external relations division in the Operations Branch, headed by Alex (his surname may not be published), a colonel in the reserves and a school principal in civilian life.

Even before its official start - though some describe it as a war that has been crawling for some time - the Iraqi conflict is influencing the IDF's force-building for years to come. Until about two weeks ago, the Planning Branch was working on changes of direction and emphasis in the multi-year planning process. This was supposed to be, and might yet be, Ya'alon's army, resting on the infrastructure of his predecessors but more up-to-date than them. The process was blocked on the very eve of the plan's approval, until it becomes clear how many billions of shekels the IDF will have at its disposal in the coming year and afterward. In the absence of information, and perhaps in the absence of money, too, the General Staff is rethinking Israeli megalomania. The "second circle" - the Iraqi range - is supposedly going to be eliminated from the map of threats by the American strike, and therefore it is worth waiting for a few months to examine whether the requirements in the "third circle" - Iran range - will necessitate vast but unnecessary expenses, because an Iranian threat capable of endangering Israel might also bring about American treatment.

Two months ago Iran announced that it had successfully tested a new surface-to-surface missile, "Fatah 110," that carries a warhead of 515 kilograms and has a range of 250 kilometers and a range of accuracy of 250 meters. This would seem to pose a problem for Iran's immediate neighbors rather than for Israel, which Iran can reach with the Shihab 3 missile, which has a 1,300-kilometer range. The point, however, is that the new Iranian missile, which is fired from a static launcher of the obsolete surface-to-air missile SAM-2, reflects a developmental and production capability, inspires the scientists and engineers involved (two organizations, one engaged with solid fuel, the other with liquid fuel, are competing with each other) and heightens confidence in the military. A missile of this kind, if sent to reinforce the Hezbollah units in Lebanon, will escalate the game of deterrence now being played there between Israel, Syria, Hezbollah and Iran.

The wait for the implementation of the Bush doctrine of a relentless war - political, economic, intelligence and, if there is no other way, military - against errant regimes and organizations has placed the IDF at a crossroads. The army can be likened to a citizen wondering whether to pay an advance now, at a special rate, for a family trip at Passover, or to wait for the spring and pay more; it's also possible that they will then have too little money and will have to cancel the trip and pay a fine. One way or the other, the hope in the Defense Ministry is that the American grant, if given, will include not only dollars for purchases there but also aid for the war against terrorism here - and thus will free up resources for other activity. The IDF does not have enough money to acquire all the materiel against all the targets at every range all the time. Its generals say that it doesn't have NIS 80 million to purchase bullet-proof vests that would save soldiers' lives - and without a vest like that for every soldier, there are commanders who refuse to be protected behind their troops and because of that, endanger themselves, the mission and the entire unit.