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Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz surprised Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon and some other generals last week when he announced he was stripping the IDF planning branch of its strategic division that, among other things, dealt with the issue of negotiations with the Palestinians and strategic relations with other countries. Mofaz is moving those missions to the defense ministry - the civilian part of the defense establishment.

Among the surprised ones was Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, head of the recently established political-security branch in the defense ministry, who will become responsible for the strategic division. In addition, many of the functions of the IDF's external relations department will move to the defense ministry.

Taking the political negotiations with the Palestinians and responsibility for strategic relations with other countries out of the hands of the army is a genuine revolution - although it does not necessarily guarantee a more moderate political-security regime and might even bring the opposite.

From his position as minister, Mofaz must see things he did not as chief of staff. Seven years ago, he headed the planning branch in the general staff and as a major general was in the Israeli delegation to the Wye Plantation where Israel negotiated with the Syrians. The branch he headed even dealt with water issues and prepared a map of Israeli interests in Judea and Samaria. The strategic division was established three years before Mofaz reached the planning branch, and since then four brigadier generals have headed it.

In principle, Mofaz was right in his decision to take the negotiations with the Palestinians and relations with foreign countries out of the hands of the army. Military officers should be security advisors to the civilian politicians who conduct negotiations or strategic dialogue with the U.S., India and other countries. In those areas, elements associated with the security industries have more influence.

Undertaking missions that naturally belong to civilians was not the result of a willful takeover by the military, but a result of the weakness of the civilian level that serves the defense minister and the prime minister. The army filled vacuums, or it was sucked into them without planning for it.

The army is best at organized staff work. It usually has experienced systems and manpower for such purposes. Only rarely are there experts at such high levels in the civilian world. The ministers found it more convenient to work with the professional systems in the IDF until they suddenly found themselves shackled to them. Even now, when Mofaz decided on the political-security branch in the Defense Ministry, he had to ask Amos Gilad to leave the army and turn in his uniform.

One of the results of this situation that has developed over the years is that IDF officers began meeting political levels on the other side, including presidents and prime ministers. Yitzhak Rabin, for example, made up his first delegation to the secret negotiations with the Palestinians with civilians only, but then forced Amnon Lipkin Shahak, then deputy chief of staff, to continue the negotiations with them. Ehud Barak gave former Military Intelligence chief Uri Saguy the job of conducting the secret negotiations with the Syrians.

It is therefore not enough just to uphold the correct principle separating the army from such direct political involvement as creates an impression that the IDF is the supreme authority in the country. There is also a need to develop a balanced professional civilian system that serves the political policy makers. When the National Security Council sought to fill that space, internal wars and personal rivalries at the top prevented it.