No Way to Go to War

Going to war was scandalous, the ground force operation was a catastrophe; the PM should resign, Halutz should resign, the defense minister should be replaced. Arrogance and corruption are the existential threats to Israel, says former chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon and no, he still does not intend to enter politics.

Moshe Ya'alon is ensconced in a small room on the second floor of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem's Greek Colony neighborhood. His year at a research institute in Washington hasn't changed him. He lets his proud and tough integrity say its piece, as in the past. Because, after all, he is entirely as he was. He is entirely that uncompromising moral roughness of a native of Kiryat Haim. A son of historic Mapai, the forerunner of Labor; the son of poor Ashkenazim, working-class Holocaust survivors, who sent their son to the land-settlement movement, to the security sphere and the building of the country. To self-fulfillment without vested interests, without a sense of humor and without winks and manipulations.

At Doron's Falafel they like Boogey, as Ya'alon is known. When he sits at the Formica table with tehina dripping from his half-pita, he looks different from any other contemporary Israeli public figure. His Spartan modesty is now working in his favor. At the midway point between the house on 29th November Street and Cremieux Street the former chief of staff somehow seems to embody a different moral thrust. Jerusalem Likudniks who have had their fill of Olmert and know every shtick of the Tricky Dicky who grew up in their city are looking to the colorless kibbutznik who, for his part, seems to be trying to obscure his presence and to shrink his stature.

Will he enter politics? Ya'alon continues to deny it, but the denial sounds less cogent and more hesitant than in the past. The person who removed the chief of staff of the Al-Aqsa Intifada prematurely in order to replace him with Halutz and Kaplinsky sowed in this village teacher a seed of ambitious bitterness that every so often lights a burning fire in his eyes. The person who managed the second Lebanon war in the way it was managed let the seed sprout and produce fruit. If he were not labeled as being responsible, to a certain extent, for the blunder of the six years that preceded the war, Ya'alon would already now be leading the postwar protest movement.

If he were not also controversial, Ya'alon would already now become the Moti Ashkenazi of 2006 - the person who sparked the post-Yom Kippur War protest movement. Still, even so, even though he knows that people are lurking in ambush for him, Bogey appears determined to make waves and foment storms. Those who did not want him as chief of staff will get him as a key figure in the new public life of the political era that is about to open.

The IDF failed in the second Lebanon war. As the person who was deputy chief of staff and chief of staff for five of the past six years, don't you bear responsibility for this failure?

Ya'alon: "I support the establishment of a state commission of inquiry. I propose that I be the first person to be questioned by the commission. I have nothing to hide."

You froze the Nautilus project and thereby exposed the North to Katyushas.

"I am not the one who stopped the Nautilus project. But I did have doubts about it. It was extremely expensive and of limited result. It could only have protected a city here and a city there. If Israel invests a fortune to sew a protective suit for each citizen and turn itself into a bunker state, it will not survive economically."

You also neglected the active defense systems for tanks against anti-tank missiles. Because of you the tanks were not protected.

"As chief of staff I assigned priority to creating intelligence capabilities and attack capabilities. In my opinion that was a correct approach, which proved itself. I would not have used the tanks the way they were used in this war."

You shared the conception that gave excess weight to the air force and to precision munitions.

"The air force and the precise munitions proved themselves both in the Palestinian arena and in the Lebanon fighting. I did not count solely on aerial combat. I prepared an option of ground combat and prepared the appropriate forces for that. The problem in the war was not the air force but the unrealistic expectations about what the air force could achieve."

You accepted the stagnation of the reserve units.

"Even before I became chief of staff we made the decision to take a risk in this regard. We made it clear to the political echelon that in a war it would take four days to prepare the reserve units. Even now I think the risk we took was reasonable. In 2002 Israel faced a danger of economic collapse. The IDF has to understand the constraints of the budget and adjust itself accordingly. I continue to battle today against an excessive increase of the defense budget. Israel's economic soundness is a central element in its national security."

You said that we had to let the rockets rust.

"True, and I stand behind that statement today, too. I did not suggest that we sit idly by until the rockets rusted. I proposed that we act politically and in a limited military fashion so that in the end Hezbollah would disarm. I understood there was no military action which could smash or pulverize Hezbollah. I understood that there is no way to uproot Hezbollah from the hearts of the Shi'ites in Lebanon. I also understood that there is no gimmick that will remove the Katyusha threat instantly. Accordingly, I proposed that we take combined political-military action in order to contain Hezbollah, to constrict its maneuvering space and in the end to bring about a situation in which the organization would be perceived as illegitimate in Lebanon itself."

Did you favor negotiations with Syria?

"Yes. In the summer of 2003 I suggested to prime minister Sharon that he accede to the requests of Bashar Assad and enter into negotiations with him. I thought that the very existence of negotiations with Syria on the future of the Golan Heights would crack the northern alignment of Iran-Syria-Hezbollah and perhaps also cause its dismantlement. Sharon rejected my suggestion outright. He preferred the disengagement."

Would you be ready to cede the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria?

"I never sanctified any piece of ground. If a territorial concession will bring about true peace and full recognition of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, I am not against that. However, even if we did not reach a land-for-peace agreement, the very fact of the renewal of the dialogue channel with Syria would have distanced it from Iran and would have weakened the northern alignment, which I defined as a strategic threat."

Nevertheless, the rockets kept piling up and you did not take action against them.

"You have to understand the limitations of power. Those who do not understand them must not be in command of power. At this moment Syrian missiles are aimed at Israel. Why don't we attack them? Why don't we attack the Iranian Shihab [missiles] already today? One could argue that we should also attack the Egyptian missiles. Egypt has a large army and many missiles, so why shouldn't we attack them now, because who knows what will happen 10 years down the line?

"You have to understand that the use of military force is a last resort. You don't use it offhandedly. And in order to use military force a legitimate strategic context is required. There was no such context regarding Hezbollah. However, beyond all that, it was clear to me that Hezbollah is a rooted phenomenon and will not be eradicated by military action. It was also clear to me that there is no unequivocal military solution against the rocket deployment. I therefore encouraged political activity, which in the end would lead to the disarming of Hezbollah as a result of an internal Lebanese process, and concurrently I drew up a military plan intended to address a scenario of a Hezbollah offensive that would oblige us to deal with the organization militarily."

What were the plan's basic assumptions?

"That the IDF must act in a way that would set in motion a political process that would lead to the disarming of Hezbollah, the removal of the Iranians from Lebanon and perhaps also the imposition of sanctions on Syria and Iran. In a scenario of the abduction of soldiers, exactly as occurred on July 12, the IDF was supposed to respond with an aerial attack and the mobilization of reserve divisions, which would act as a threat to the Syrians and to Hezbollah and would encourage Lebanon and the international community to take action to achieve the desired goal. If the threat itself did not achieve the goal, a ground move would have begun within a few days aimed primarily at seizing dominant terrain as far as the Litani River and the Nabatiya plateau.

"The ground entry was supposed to be carried out speedily, for an allotted time, without the use of tanks and without entering houses or built-up areas. Because of our awareness of the anti-tank missile problem and our awareness of the bunkers and of the fact that the routes are mined, the intention was to activate the IDF in guerrilla modalities. That was the operational idea, that was the plan and that is how the forces were trained."

If so, why was that plan not implemented?

"I don't know. That is one of the questions that the state commission of inquiry will have to investigate. In my opinion, the aerial offensive was correct. The air force delivered the goods. In a few areas it even provided favorable surprises. But the activation of the ground forces was a catastrophe. There was no defined goal. There was no required achievement. They jumped from one idea to the next and introduced new missions all the time without any logic."

So you argue that the IDF was prepared for the war but that its management was a failure.

"Exactly so. In the debriefings that are now under way in the IDF the tendency is to go below. To talk about a crisis at the tactical level. To cast the responsibility on the battalion and brigade commanders. But I maintain that the problem is not there. Our pilots are excellent. The company commanders are excellent. They fought excellently in Operation Defensive Shield [in the West Bank, in spring 2002] and they overcame the Palestinian terrorism and also carried out the disengagement optimally. And they have not changed since. In this war, too, when they were used correctly they operated correctly. There were units that liquidated about 50 terrorists without sustaining one casualty. So the allegation that the army is basically flawed is not right. Nor do I accept the claim that the IDF did not prepare for this campaign but for the last war. That is simply not true. What we had here was a management failure at a very senior level by those who are responsible for activating force in Israel. The failure in this campaign was one of management."