Musical Outposts

This week Ben-Eliezer played the lead role in the "Dismantling the Illegal Outposts" show. Light entertainment for the entire family. The musical.

Richard Myers loves the story of the crow and the rabbit. Myers, a U.S. Air Force general, is the highest ranking American in uniform, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. The crow, Myers says, was sitting on the highest branch of a tree all day long, doing nothing. One day a rabbit sees the crow and calls up to him, "Hey, Mr. Crow, you sit there all day doing nothing. Can I sit here all day and do nothing?" The crow said, "sure, if that's what you want." So, the rabbit sits under the tree for a couple of hours and along comes the fox, who gobbles up the rabbit. "And the moral of the story," Myers likes to say, "is that if you sit and do nothing, you better be very high up."

And that goes for both military might, through air superiority, and politics. Junior or mid-level officials, officers, or politicians have to be energetic and busy, so their superiors notice them and promote them. When they finally get to the top of the ladder, they can sit down to rest, to watch their rivals and commit as few mistakes as possible, in other words, do as little as possible.

Myers' counterpart in Israel is Shaul Mofaz, who is leaving office this week, but his political superior remains. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, chairman of the Labor Party and minister of defense, missed his opportunity to be the exact opposite, chairman of the security party and minister of labor. After 16 months in office, he hasn't left his mark on the defense establishment. It's as if he had never been there. In private conversations, high-ranking officers and officials sigh about him or are openly contemptuous. There's not a single significant decision in his report card, not a single decision that shaped the face of the army, the military industries, or relations with the Palestinians.

And he compounds his errors by reminding his subordinates that he's an old war horse, a brigadier general and a former military governor of the West Bank. "I know the ground like the back of my hand," he bragged recently looking out at Jenin. One of the officers on the scene couldn't help himself and muttered under his breath, "For his hand's sake, I hope he really does know it, because the ground changes here every week."

This week Ben-Eliezer played the lead role in the "Dismantling the Illegal Outposts" show. Light entertainment for the entire family. The musical. Ben-Eliezer playing a song and dance man, as empty trailers rock and roll from one hilltop to the next and the audience applauds. A firm stance against the settlers could have positioned Ben-Eliezer as Mr. Security and not Mr. Expansion, sharpening the difference between Labor and Likud. But he denied reports about the outposts, then reversed himself only when he felt the tickle of the political sword at his throat. There's no need for him as another version of Ariel Sharon.

Ben-Eliezer has the authority but he's afraid to order the army to dismantle the outposts in the absence of a deal with the settlers, which would put Sharon on the horns of a dilemma (namely, whether to regard the issue as reason to break up the government and to take the risk that Washington would be reminded of his extremism). After President Bush's speech, Ben-Eliezer could focus on a return to the pre-intifada military lines of September 28, 2000 - and an end to the cycle of Palestinian violence and retaliatory raids in the territories, sticking to the Camp David principles.

Peres under Rabin, Weizman under Begin and Mordechai under Netanyahu proved it's not good to be defense minister and a No. 2 man contending for the crown of the party. Ben-Eliezer's case proves how important a defense minister can be when he is an extra-party rival to the prime minister, afraid of losing to him. He prefers to sit and do nothing rather than to do something and lose his seat.