The Enemy Within

The confrontation with the Palestinians is an existential, cancerous threat to Israel, according to IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon. In his first interview since assuming his post last month, Ya'alon attacks the Israeli pathology of self-blame, criticizes the media and accuses various elements of undermining him in the Shehadeh affair. No, he's not right-wing, just the same old kibbutznik at heart

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
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Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

Lieutenant General Moshe ("Bogey") Ya'alon has made two missteps since assuming the post of chief of staff on July 9: the first arising from the liquidation of Salah Shehadeh, and the second, from the controversial comments he made to a group of rabbis last Sunday. In the past, he has shown that he is capable of correcting mistakes. However, two key errors within such a short time are definitely cause for concern, raising serious questions this week even among those who are closest to the new chief of staff.

Ya'alon himself doesn't understand what all the fuss is about with respect to his remarks. On Monday, he sounded agitated, aggressive - pouring fire and brimstone on his critics and, above all, absolutely certain he had said nothing wrong. He sees the furor he generated as additional proof that something has gone haywire in this country.

First of all, he was astounded that comments he made in a closed forum were taped and leaked to the press, on top of which what he said was distorted, he maintains. Attacking a chief of staff is grist for the media's mill, he says, and Israel will pay a price for it. The Palestinians will exploit it for their purposes, to claim that the army has a policy of its own.

More substantively, Ya'alon feels that it is his duty to express his professional opinion and to describe precisely the way the Arabs perceive various moves made by Israel. He does not think he trespassed on the political arena; he has never come out against the government of Israel and he has never publicly criticized the political echelon.

He was especially incensed because political elements are manipulating what he said in order to excoriate the army and him personally. Experience has shown him that when he says things that are consistent with the interest of one political side, that side defends him as a devoted professional officer. The moment he offers a different description of the situation, the other side labels him unprofessional and political. He finds this pattern of behavior intolerable, and considers it a serious obstacle to the possibility of conducting a serious strategic debate in the public arena.

The chief of staff thus sees the whole episode as reflecting an ethical void and a general moral crisis in Israel. A wide gap exists between Ya'alon as he was portrayed this week in the headlines, and the Ya'alon who is familiar to those who work with him. While in the media, Ya'alon was perceived this week as lacking caution and displaying dubious judgment, the military and personal Bogey is known as judicious, thorough and solid.

The source of the disparity may lie in the fact that Ya'alon is a direct person whose speech is equally direct. The new chief of staff lacks even rudimentary diplomatic skills or the ability to stage images. He was the one who introduced the concept of a war to shape consciousness, but he himself is a very unsophisticated fighter in that battle.

When he speaks, he speaks. He says whatever is on his mind. And what's on his mind is controversial, even if Ya'alon will not admit it: Let the Israel Defense Forces win. The fences and the withdrawals can wait. They are perceived as weakness and capitulation. The victory, from his point of view, begins with the resilience and staying power of the civil society. The IDF will deal with the rest.

Even though Ya'alon's skepticism about Oslo and his recent statements have created the impression that he is right-wing, people who know him well are convinced that his basic worldview has not changed since his youth. He is not a party-political person in the narrow sense, but his basic values are those of the historic Labor Movement.

In the following interview (which was conducted last week), he describes himself as "a humanist, a liberal, a democrat and a seeker of peace and security." He is a tall, smartly turned out, very orderly officer. The word is that he is intelligent but not brilliant. Tough but not cruel, demanding but not macho. Fastidious, thoroughgoing, a bit square. He is frequently accused of being endowed with the naivete of a group leader in a youth movement, but nearly everyone agrees that he is extraordinarily persistent. The eyes of many of his former subordinates shine when they talk about him. Their impressions repeat themselves: Bogey's personal example, Bogey's integrity, his courage.

"In my eyes he is an iconic Israeli," says the former platoon commander and current Speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg. "A person of purity without an iota of arrogance. Like a precious metal. A nature reserve of Israeliness."

In his first seven weeks as chief of staff, Ya'alon read two poems to the General Staff forum. One was Natan Alterman's posthumous poem about the rightness of the way, "Then the Devil Said"; the other was "For This," the famous poem about war crimes that was written in late 1948, during the War of Independence.

Indeed, after the Black Hawk helicopter lands at the Samaria Brigade base and Lieutenant General Ya'alon takes his place at the head of the traditional IDF U-shaped table around which are seated the brigade's commanding officers, the discussion he conducts with them ranges between the same two poles: the rightness of the way and war crimes. How to crack the hard core of Hamas in Nablus without visiting a humanitarian catastrophe on the city; how to uproot the terrorist infrastructure in the casbah without turning the severe distress in the city into actual hunger.

At first, he says hardly anything. He listens. He asks the name of every junior officer, patiently hears out the situation appraisal of a battalion commander. He takes copious notes on his yellow pad, like a well-disciplined, diligent student. Then, quietly, he begins to expound: Every commander must know the names of the wanted terrorists in his sector. Every commander must take firm action when he encounters improper behavior by soldiers. The local population must be made to understand why it is suffering, though ways must also be sought to relieve the situation where possible. It is out of the question for there not to be dairy products in Nablus. It is out of the question for there to be problems supplying water and medicines. He does not electrify or excite his audience, but displays a kind of restrained leadership, of calm control of the situation.

Cancer calls for chemotherapy

Lieutenant General Ya'alon, of all the threats surrounding the State of Israel, which disturbs you the most? Are any of the threats of an existential nature?

"When I look at the overall map, what disturbs me especially is the Palestinian threat and the possibility that a hostile state will acquire nuclear capability. Those are the most worrisome focal points, because both of them have the potential of being an existential threat to Israel. We have good answers for all the other threats. We have a good answer for what Hezbollah can do and for what the Syrians can do. We also have a good answer for what the Iraqis are liable to do."

There is something surprising in the fact that you see the Palestinian threat as an existential threat.

"The characteristics of that threat are invisible, like cancer. When you are attacked externally, you see the attack, you are wounded. Cancer, on the other hand, is something internal. Therefore, I find it more disturbing, because here the diagnosis is critical. If the diagnosis is wrong and people say it's not cancer but a headache, then the response is irrelevant. But I maintain that it is cancer. My professional diagnosis is that there is a phenomenon here that constitutes an existential threat."

Does that mean that what you are doing now, as chief of staff, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, is applying chemotherapy?

"There are all kinds of solutions to cancerous manifestations. Some will say it is necessary to amputate organs. But at the moment, I am applying chemotherapy, yes."

Describe for me the present campaign between the Palestinians and us: Who is against whom, and for what, in this campaign?

"The campaign is between two societies that are competing for territory and, to a certain degree, for existence. I don't think that there is an existential threat to the Palestinian society. There is an existential threat to us. In other words, there is asymmetry here, but it is reversed: Everyone thinks we are Goliath and they are David, but I maintain that it is the opposite."

Are you saying that despite what appears to be a war of the oppressed against the oppressors, of the occupied against the occupiers, the Palestinians actually have a sense of strength and power?

"Of course. They feel that they have the backing of a quarter-of-a-billion Arabs and they believe that time is on their side and that, with a combination of terrorism and demography, they will tire us out and wear us down. There is also an additional reverse asymmetry here: We do not have intentions to annihilate them and we have also expressed readiness to grant them a state, whereas they are unwilling to recognize our right to exist here as a Jewish state."

Do you not see the war of the Palestinians against us as a campaign to end the occupation?

"If the term 'occupation' had any relevance at all, it lost it, as far as I am concerned, in the year 2000, when the State of Israel put a certain proposal on the table that was supposed to resolve the problem. That proposal was supposed to get the Palestinians off our back, but instead they started to stab us. They stayed on our back, attached to us and stabbing us. That is the reality. Therefore, without getting into a political discussion of what the solution should be, I maintain that the story is not occupation. The story is non-recognition of the right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state."

Are you saying unequivocally that the Palestinian struggle is not aimed at liberating the territories that were conquered in 1967?

"Of course not. Of course not. The Palestinians have three stories. Their narrative in Arabic is one of mobilization for a war of jihad and non-recognition of Israel's right to exist. That narrative rejects any attachment between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, and it mobilizes the Palestinian people for a war with the goal of bringing about Israel's collapse. In English, the story is different: occupation, colonialism, apartheid. Those are completely irrelevant terms, which are intended to furnish the Western world with familiar terminology that clarifies who the good guys are here and who the bad guys are.

"In Hebrew, they have a third story: the peace of the brave. But I know the details and I say that [Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser] Arafat is taking the name of Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory, in vain. He saw Oslo as a Trojan horse that would enable the Palestinians to enter Israel, and September 2000 as the moment of emerging from the belly of the horse. Today, too, the ideology of Fatah is to bring about Israel's disintegration from within. What they are after is not to arrive at the end of the conflict, but to turn Israel into a Palestinian state."

In other words, the goal of Arafat and of Fatah is to liquidate Israel by stages?

"Of course. Not to reach an agreement and not to arrive at the end of their claims, in order to preserve the conflict and to let time run its course according to the phased theory."

If so, you would say that the Oslo agreement was a mistake?

"We can't talk in terms of a mistake or not a mistake. If you ask me personally, in terms of the rightness of our way, I find the situation far more convenient today. When I move, in the end, to fight against what the Palestinians are creating, I think that after what we went through in the past nine years, I have fewer question marks and more exclamation marks. For me, moral clarity has emerged here."

The spider-web theory

Do you see Arafat himself as a strategic threat to the State of Israel?

"Today he is greatly weakened. He has lost much of his strength and his legitimacy. But the answer is yes: Arafat does not recognize Israel's right of existence as a Jewish state and his game plan is to bring about Israel's disintegration by means of a combination of strategy and demography. Even today, in his weakened state, he believes in the spider-web theory. That is why he persists in using terrorism.

What is the theory of the spider web?

"It is a theory that is attributed to [Hezbollah secretary-general] Hassan Nasrallah, which holds that Israel is a military power, but that its civil society is a pampered consumer society that is no longer willing to fight and struggle. The Israeli army is strong, Israel has technological superiority and is said to have strategic capabilities, but its citizens are unwilling any longer to sacrifice lives in order to defend their national interests and national goals. Therefore, Israel is a spider-web society: It looks strong from the outside, but touch it and it will fall apart.

"Yasser Arafat maintains that he and not [Hezbollah secretary-general Sheik Hassan] Nasrallah is the father of this perception of Israel. He is right. That's why he does not want to put a stop to the terrorist pressure. Even at low points, he is constantly looking for the cracks in the Israeli wall. Time after time, he promises his people that Israeli society is about to break."

Does he really see himself as Saladin?

"Yes. But his strategy is complex, a strategy of entanglement. He believes that the more he entangles the situation, the more he will be needed. He is trying to be both the problem and the person to solve the problem: both the pyromaniac and the firefighter, both the person who lights the fire and the fireman. Even now Arafat is trying to achieve escalation. Even though he could stop the confrontation, he is not doing so."

Do you consider him an illegitimate leader?

"[U.S. President George] Bush's speech [on the Middle East on June 24] was strategically decisive and normatively decisive. He defined things very clearly: Anyone who is tainted by terrorism is not legitimate. Therefore, Arafat can no longer be the decision-maker on the Palestinian side. There is nowhere to go with him. The Americans made it clear that they are not going to liquidate him, but that if the Palestinians want to see light at the end of the tunnel, they themselves should neutralize him. That is an unequivocal statement: Arafat will not be the decision-maker. He will not be."

What will happen if he is reelected in democratic elections?

"The alternative Palestinian leadership has to be elected democratically on the model of Germany after World War II. Anyone who was a member of the Nazi Party was not allowed to be a candidate in the elections there, and anyone who is tainted by terrorism cannot be a candidate here."

Staying power

Is it your assessment that Israel is approaching victory in the struggle against the Palestinians?

"Since Operation Defensive Shield [the Israeli army's operation in the West Bank last April following the suicide bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya on Passover eve], and in the past two months especially, signs of cracking have appeared on the Palestinian side. The situation is completely different from what it was in March. But caution is needed. It's like in judo: Sometimes you think you're throwing your opponent, but in the end, you're the one who's thrown. And with the person in the Muqata [Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah], extra caution is needed. He has been eulogized and eulogized all his life, and he returns like the phoenix.

"The key point here is the staying power of the Israeli society. That is the most important factor that is being put to the test at this time and will continue to be put to the test in the near future. That is what the campaign is about. When the Palestinians initiated the confrontation, their evaluation was that Israel would not be able to withstand even a few dozen casualties. They were surprised. Operation Defensive Shield showed them that they were dealing not with a spider web, but with a tiger. But if they see cracks and a chance of [Israel's] disintegration, a prospect of Israeli capitulation, that achievement will be erased."

Do you have a definition of victory? Is it clear to you what Israel's goal in this war is?

"I defined it from the beginning of the confrontation: the very deep internalization by the Palestinians that terrorism and violence will not defeat us, will not make us fold. If that deep internalization does not exist at the end of the confrontation, we will have a strategic problem with an existential threat to Israel. If that [lesson] is not burned into the Palestinian and Arab consciousness, there will be no end to their demands of us. Despite our military might, the region will perceive us as being even weaker. That will have an impact not only on those who are engaged in the violent struggle, but also on those who have signed agreements with us and on extremists among the Arabs in Israel. That's why this confrontation is so important. There has not been a more important confrontation since the War of Independence."

It's that critical?

"Yes. I have no doubt that when this period is viewed historically, the conclusion will be that the War of Independence was the most important event in our history and this war was the second most important event."

Even more important than the Six-Day War or the Yom Kippur War?

"Of course, of course. Because we are dealing with an existential threat. There was an Israeli attempt to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by means of a territorial compromise, and the Palestinian reply was war. So this brings us back to the confrontation of the pre-state period, the partition proposal and the War of Independence. The facts that are being determined in this confrontation - in terms of what will be burned into the Palestinian consciousness - are fateful. If we end the confrontation in a way that makes it clear to every Palestinian that terrorism does not lead to agreements, that will improve our strategic position. On the other hand, if their feeling at the end of the confrontation is that they can defeat us by means of terrorism, our situation will become more and more difficult. Therefore, I say that we must not blur the weighty meaning of this confrontation. When you grasp the essence, it's clear to you what you have to do. You have to fight for your life."

Does that mean that any move involving unilateral withdrawal before the confrontation is resolved and before the violence ends is dangerous?

"Of course. That would give a push to the struggle against us. Even if tactically it appears right to withdraw from here or from there, from the strategic perspective, it is different. That was my argument when the question arose of withdrawing from Joseph's Tomb [in Nablus]. It was clear to me that leaving the tomb would be an incentive for the Palestinians, whereas others thought that leaving the site would neutralize a point of friction. But those who thought in those terms were thinking like Israelis, not like Palestinians."

So that means that in the present situation, leaving settlements would be a mistake with potentially catastrophic implications?

"Of course. I'm not talking about the political solution. I am not saying what will be right and what will not be right after the violence ends. That's not my affair. When asked, I will give my security recommendation. But today, any such departure under terrorism and violence will strengthen the path of terrorism and violence. It will endanger us."

In other words, as chief of staff, you are saying that even if you need a battalion to hold an isolated settlement, if we leave it we will need a great deal more?


Back to 1948

What are the implications of the separation fence that is being built? Will it, too, not be interpreted in the same way?

"It is liable to be interpreted like that. But the route that was chosen may offset the strategic threat it entails. There is also a tactical improvement in that you succeed in preventing infiltrations. But I don't think the fence will solve all the problems."

So you are not an admirer of the separation fence?

"It's complex and it's in the political arena, so I am very careful here. If I were given that money, I would invest it elsewhere."

Can we sum up by saying, without getting into the political question, that your professional opinion is that concessions that are made under fire are dangerous? Is it your view that any possible Israeli concession can be made only after the confrontation is decided and the violence ends?


If so, and if the position of the Palestinians is as you say, where is all this leading? What will the end be? How long are we to live by the sword?

"I would refer people who ask what the end will be to a well-known quotation of Moshe Dayan. When he was asked, in 1969, what the end will be, his reply was, `Do not fear, my servant Abaraham' [sic - should be Jacob, Isaiah 44:2]. Dayan said that the emphasis should be on the path and not on the final goal, on the process of the struggle and not on the final destination. As human beings, we want a solution now. Now. But in the situation of Israel, nowism is false messianism. Nowism is the mother of all sins. And it makes no difference whether to the word `now' is added `messiah' [thus, `messiah now'] or something else now.

"We live in a very complex neighborhood, in which our right to exist has not yet been recognized. We have been living for a hundred years in crisis management. Therefore, we have to maneuver it into directions that strengthen us. And we have to win in this confrontation. Otherwise, the next war will not be far off."

Are you saying that we are entering a basic, existential situation again, that we have to understand that the confrontation is an inseparable part of our lives, but that if we are strong, we will reduce and control it?

"Do we have a choice? We must understand: The Palestinians have returned us to the War of Independence. Today it is clear that the State of Israel as a Jewish state is still an alien element in the region. It will take generations until various elements in the region accept its existence. Therefore, we have to go back to the ethos of standing fast, not because I am enamored of that ethos, but because there is no choice. It is an ethos of no choice.

"At the same time, there is no reason for gloom. We are a power. Even though we are only 6 million, we are a power: a military, economic, cultural and scientific power. Nor do I think that there is any sort of decree from heaven here. In Islam, there are waves that rise and fall, sometimes in the direction of extremism and sometimes in the direction of moderation. The Muslim world is not monolithic. It is possible that over time, the region will see processes of Westernization, democratization, a joining of the global village. But as long as we are under attack, Israeli society must show staying power. True, it is difficult, but when I was a boy, it was more difficult. And true, people are sad. But we should look at things in perspective: After 54 years, we are truly a power. Therefore, at bottom, I am truly optimistic."




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