Israeli security forces wrestle over settler policing
Barak orders IDF to cut ties with yeshiva; rabbi told students to defy orders to evacuate settlements.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the Israel Defense Forces on Sunday to sever ties with the Har Bracha yeshiva in the West Bank, whose dean urged his students to defy military orders if they are told to evacuate settlements or halt settlement construction while serving in the army.
The move came after Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the dean of the religious seminary, refused to report for a meeting with Barak to discuss his support for resisting army orders.
Barak did not want this confrontation and did everything he could to avoid it. When the General Staff first leaked its recommendation to remove Har Bracha from the hesder program, in which soldiers are allowed to combine their military service with religious studies at certain yeshivas, Barak's office was reluctant to respond. Barak evaded direct questions from reporters on the issue. When the Defense Ministry finally decided to summon Melamed to a hearing, under pressure from the army, Barak at first handed off the matter to his deputy, Matan Vilnai.
So why did Barak announce that Har Bracha would no longer be considered a hesder yeshiva? One reason is that Melamed simply left the defense minister no choice. Barak tried to let the rabbi beat a retreat, but Melamed refused to take the hints. From the moment that a direct (and highly publicized) confrontation was created, it was Barak, ironically, who was unable to back down. Melamed barely agreed to meet with Vilnai and refused to retract his statements when he did so. He rejected Barak's invitation on Sunday on the ground that "the rabbi does not work for the defense minister."
Then there are the political considerations. Barak is in crisis in terms of his public image. He had not yet recovered from the scandal surrounding the expensive hotel suite he stayed in while attending the Paris Air Show when it was revealed that his housekeeper isn't legally allowed to work in the country. The settlement construction freeze helped him scrounge up a point or two among what was left of his voters, but he spoiled it for them by his contortions over the Golan Heights referendum and his belated opposition to redrawing the national priorities map to benefit the settlements. In such circumstances Barak cannot be seen as being less resolute than Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who passed the hot potato of Melamed to him.
Barak, like the entire defense establishment, was not always so decisive when it came to enforcing cabinet resolutions in the West Bank. A good example of this is the fierce argument between him and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch at the cabinet meeting two weeks ago at which the construction freeze was discussed. Barak tried to get Aharonovitch to agree to shift police manpower from the north and south of the country to the West Bank, to protect the inspectors bringing the freeze orders to the settlements.
Aharonovitch refused, saying the IDF is responsible for the West Bank. It has at its disposal 4,000 Border Police officers deployed throughout the West Bank and 1,200 Israel Police officers. Barak and Ashkenazi can deploy them at will, Aharonovitch said, "but beyond that I will not add a single police officer."
Aharonovitch's argument is simple: Recently, partly due to the improved security situation, the police are free to do much more in the way of traditional policing. The result, when combined with the extensive efforts to curb organized crime, is a significant decrease in crime, particularly property offenses. Deploying additional officers to the West Bank will cause an immediate rise in crime within the Green Line.
But in the background lurks a much deeper and more protracted debate. Ashkenazi has expressed his disinclination to put the IDF in the vanguard of the confrontation with the settlers. This is connected to Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, as well as to the large proportion of religiously observant officers and soldiers in combat units.
Ashkenazi has told the political leaders more than once that the army will carry out its appointed mission in this area but will not volunteer to spearhead the battle. The police, he argued, must be in the front line. It seems he is not content to stop at that. About a year ago the previous public security minister, Avi Dichter, was surprised by the well-reasoned argument put forth by his successor as the head of the Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, for why the police, and not the IDF, should lead any future evacuations of settlements or outposts. It is dangerous to the army, he argued, to pit soldiers against civilians.
Senior figures in the Public Security Ministry saw the Shin Bet's position as having been coordinated with the chief of staff, and found the argument difficult to accept. Not only because the IDF is the sovereign authority in the West Bank, but also because only it has enough personnel to allow the army to be responsible for a more extensive measure in the future. If dealing with the settlements is to be a police mission, all the police officers stationed within the Green Line would have to be deployed to the West Bank.
This is not an isolated or incidental debate. It appears that no one is eager to implement cabinet resolutions that involve settlers. Although the police did provide security for the freeze inspectors, they didn't rush to follow up with investigations or arrests. In the more extreme cases, it is the settlers themselves who will dictate the conduct of the establishment. The most prominent example of this is the burning of the mosque in Yasuf last week. When it comes to an event whose potential consequences are so serious, the police as well as the Shin Bet pitched in to investigate and to capture those responsible.