Less Damaging Than a Pelican Hitting a Cockpit

In the days when he was defense minister, Ezer Weizman used to get angry every day at the articles and opinion pieces that appeared in the morning newspapers or on the radio.

In the days when he was defense minister, Ezer Weizman used to get angry every day at the articles and opinion pieces that appeared in the morning newspapers or on the radio. When he cooled off, he'd calm himself down by saying to himself and anyone in his captive audience that "It doesn't matter, as long as Yedioth and the TV are with me, I'm okay."

Weizman's already 79, but there's no age limit on signing petitions. And as a senior pilot in the air force, he also has the right to threaten to refuse to participate in this or that type of sortie, if he doesn't like the governmental or operational policy.

Yiftach Spector is a decade-and-a-half younger than Weizman, and at 63, other than in an extremely grave emergency, it is difficult to imagine him being called up to active service as a pilot. His strength is in his reputation from the past. As a combat pilot he stood out in both his performance as a pilot and his critical thinking. "Spector" became a brand name in the air force, and it says something to someone in the air force to this day, as well as to people who heard of his father, Zvi Spector, one of the 23 Yordei Hasirah (boat men) who volunteered on a combat sabotage mission in Lebanon under British command, and were lost.

Brigadier General (res.) Yiftach Spector is the commander of the 27 Yordei Hamatos (air men) who signed the letter yesterday. He's not officially their commander, but rather the most senior officer among them, like in a POW camp. And they didn't go on an operation but a media production, with TV and Yedioth.

The refusenik pilots, or more precisely, the pilots who announced they would refuse in the future, are not draft dodgers. They are fighters who decided to turn their wings into axes they can politically grind.

If wisdom and sensitivity were derivatives of military ranks and courage under fire, Major General Ariel Sharon and Brigadier General Effi Eitam would be the gurus of the age. Air crews don't have any advantage over other soldiers, and pilots in reserves have no characteristic that makes them better than other citizens. To a well-known extent, the opposite might be true. Pilots tend to be more disconnected, more spoiled. Up until the rank of lieutenant colonel, they tend to command only themselves or their more talented navigators. Their deliberations over matters of combat morality are not more noble than that of an artilleryman or the commander of a reconnaissance patrol. They just get back to the debating club faster.

The consciences of these 27 woke up somewhat belatedly. Among the 27 are participants in at least two grave and unhappy incidents: the attack on the USS Liberty, which killed U.S. sailors and cast suspicions that Israel conspired to do so, eroding relations with Washington, and the downing of a Libyan passenger plane when it flew off-course over Sinai, the negligent and lethal execution of a hasty and possibly illegal order. Spector did not object to taking part in the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, which was tainted with its own political timing - a few days before an election, with Israel initiating publicity about its responsibility, all to the benefit of Menachem Begin. It wasn't theoretical then, and the shock could have led to a resignation. But none of those events apparently bothered the pilots so much.

They are bothered by the occupation. Apparently, though there's no sign as much, it isn't the occupation and annexation of the Golan or the occupation and annexation of East Jerusalem that bothers them, but only the occupation of the West Bank (though it is impossible to know where it begins with them) and Gaza.

Spector and his generation contributed to that occupation in June 1967; they should have thought of it back then and refused to go out on operation Moked to destroy the Egyptian, Jordanian (Spector happened to bomb a civilian plane of the Jordanian airlines in one sortie), and Syrian air forces in their bases.

Why didn't they understand that the politicians would take the military victory - which went far beyond the government's instructions - and do what they wanted with it, especially in the wake of the Arab refusal to make peace with Israel? But that mistake does not free them of the responsibility for those conquests in the Six Day War, even through negligence if not maliciousness.

Politically, the 27 pilots share the views of those who objected to the Labor Party taking part in the first Sharon government, demanding it drop the defense portfolio and through it, their ability to check and balance Sharon. They are the flying version of Amram Mitzna, who when he didn't like the game anymore, got up and walked out. They are against the current policy and against translating it into operations, and in fact against the system of government in Israel, which serves as a supreme court above the Supreme Court on the legality of military orders.

They did not bother to put the orders to the test with a complaint to the police or the state attorney against a commander - for example former chief of staff Shaul Mofaz - when he gave problematic orders to senior officers. In the absence of a complaint, investigation, indictment and conviction, there is no illegal order (which doesn't prevent any of them refusing what they personally consider a blatantly illegal order, and then bearing the consequences).

The pilots are playing at innocence. They never had the chance to find out what harm their bombs would cause to innocents. Attacks on infrastructure - electricity, a bridge, a dam - can all harm civilians. During the Yom Kippur War, Moshe Dayan considered doing everything, even the wildest things imaginable, including bombing Damascus, and David Elazar was going to order the air force "to take four Syrian cities, and destroy them - Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and Latakia - until Syria should gevald, stop!" The pilots didn't object then. According to one account, some even bombed Damascus on their own initiative. But those weren't their Palestinian neighbors but rather the evil Syrians, who were being cruel to pilots who were downed and captured.

If Ehud Barak had come back from Camp David in the summer of 2000 with orders to increase the use of force in political bargaining and ordered the air force to bomb Ramallah for no reason, he would have encountered strange expressions on the faces of the pilots, and refusals, of course. The person who decided to start bombing, with his limited means, was Arafat.

The mainstream in the army believes this is a justified war being conducted with justified means, an irreproachable necessity, even if many in the army share a similar view of the final peace agreement that the petitioners have. The current command of the air force, commander Major General Dan Halutz, chief of staff Brigadier General Eliezer Shakdi, Chief Squadrons leader Brigadier General Ido Nehushtan, and the one circling overhead at the National Staff College, Major General Amos Yadlin - is unified in its combative approach. Their judgment is not always brilliant but they are not sealed off and stupid, the way some are trying to depict them.

Yadlin, in an article in the force's newsletter, "Mahshavot Ba'avir" (Thoughts in the Air) wrote about the deliberation between two moral duties - to protect Israeli citizens from the immediate danger from terrorists and at the same time avoiding harm to innocent Palestinians.

Until the mega-attack that changes the perception of the terrorist organizations into a "terror army," therefore leading to a counter-attack that is as massive as if it is against an army, Yadlin summarized, "Nobody is to be harmed personally for revenge and punishment. The rules of the decision will be according to the principle of proportion, to minimize the damage so that it is clearly a lot less than what can be expected to be done to Israelis by the `ticking bomb.'"

After the Yom Kippur War, Weizman said the ground-to-air missiles "dented the wings" of the air force. The petition, despite its supersonic boom in the press, barely scratches the metal surface. A pelican hitting a cockpit does more damage. Meanwhile, the two who will most benefit from the affair will be Halutz, whose chances to win the chief of staff appointment from Sharon now will rise precisely because Halutz was attacked by the petitioners, and the unmanned plane in development, because it's not suspected of having embarrassing political views or friends in the media.