The change of chief of staff has changed the Israeli strategy toward the Palestinians. Shaul Mofaz wanted "a decisive victory" and preached toppling the Palestinian Authority and expelling Yasser Arafat from the territories. Moshe Ya'alon speaks of a "war of attrition," in which victory is won with points, in a series of limited operations that wear down the fighting spirit of the enemy.
In both cases, the political echelon - meaning Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer - accepted the army's case without any argument. The prime minister tried to avoid escalation but found it difficult to say no to Mofaz. Now Ya'alon is dictating caution while the public wants ruthless action and Sharon is challenged in the Likud. Ya'alon learned from the Salah Shehadeh episode that the politicians are always in a hurry to take credit for successes and will leave him alone with the failures. Now the IDF will be wary of spectacular actions that may get fouled up.
During the first intifada, then-chief of staff Dan Shomron ruled that "there is no military solution." In the current round, the chief of staff took a much more militant line and sought escalation. The army's prestige, which suffered a bad blow in Lebanon, rose again. But the IDF's tactical achievements, whether assassinations or incursions into the cities and refugee camps in the West Bank, were a cover-up for a strategic failure. Even with Israel deep inside the territories and the U.S. calling for Arafat to go, the Palestinians aren't giving up.
Arafat's strategy to avoid a frontal confrontation with the IDF and to maintain anarchy in the PA, meanwhile, has proved itself. The IDF pounds on a soft target with one fist and tries with the other hand to prevent hunger and collapse in the territories that would lead to renewal of the military government or the deployment of international forces.
The prime minister does not have his own staff that can counter-balance the army's recommendations. The National Security Council, established for that purpose, is irrelevant. The current adviser, Uzi Dayan, has been distanced from Sharon, and his heir-apparent, Ephraim Halevy, will be involved in secret diplomacy, not policy planning. The Foreign Ministry suffers from a historic inferiority complex, and the Defense Ministry does not have its own independent staff.
The army's planning division has taken the place of all those institutions. Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, head of strategic planning, explained in a recent lecture that in modern war it is impossible to distinguish between statesmen and soldiers, as in the theoretical model, and they must maintain "an intimate dialogue."
The IDF likes working with Sharon. Unlike his predecessor, he listens and is open to changing his mind. Sharon sometimes convenes the heads of the intelligence services for private brainstorming sessions and treats army proposals with respect. The deal between the two sides is simple: The defense establishment avoids leaks about the need for a political agreement, which would make life difficult for Sharon in the political arena, and in exchange, Sharon gives the army a free hand in the use of force.
A senior officer who said in a lecture a few weeks ago that a Palestinian state is an Israeli interest, hastened to request that he not be quoted by name. Proposals that have come up in the army for new withdrawals and dismantling isolated settlements have not been discussed seriously.
The understanding between Sharon and the IDF keeps things quiet between the political and military echelons, which is important for running the war, but does not create better policy. Without checks and balances, the government accepts military solutions and doesn't think about political alternatives. And the army has a hard time controling the overall picture, and its specific operations repeatedly raise the level of the flames. Finally, this problem could get much worse in light of the danger of an explosion in the north and the war brewing in Iraq.
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