Akiva Eldar / Both Peace and War Pose Massive Challenges for New IDF Chief

The next IDF chief will have to deal with the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian talks, overseeing either a historic agreement - or the next war.

The short  time that elapsed between Defense Minister Ehud Barak's announcement that Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant will be the next Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's announcement of the upcoming peace summit in Washington is obviously completely accidental. But if the direct negotiations surprise everyone by producing a peace agreement with the Palestinians, the new army commander's main challenge will be to replace the IDF's hard disk - and, first and foremost, his own.

The officer who has seen the Palestinians only through a gunsight will have to talk to their generals as an equal. Galant, who has been in charge of the combat zone along the Gaza border, will have to prepare his soldiers for the big withdrawal from the West Bank.

Yoav Galant - Amos Biderman - Aug 24 2010
Amos Biderman

The uproar that arose in the wake of the plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip (which Galant, as then-prime minister Ariel Sharon's military secretary, was involved in preparing ) and the evacuation of the Gaza settlements (orchestrated by GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant ) will seem like a walk in the park compared to the withdrawal from Hebron. But on the other hand, if the Washington summit ends like all the previous ones, Galant will have to deal with either the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state (according to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's plan ) or the reoccupation of all the territories following the Palestinian Authority's disintegration.

Either way, Galant won't find a single senior Military Intelligence analyst who thinks the "no peace, no war" situation can be sustained by a policy of conflict management until the end of his term as chief of staff. If he is not the chief of staff who reconciles with the Palestinians, he will be the one commanding the battle on the eastern front. And perhaps not only on this front: Galant will find urgent files on his desk labeled Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and global jihad. An agreement, or a crisis, with the Palestinians would greatly influence each of them.

As has become clear more than a few times in the past, chiefs of staff, and even more junior officers, do not always make do with carrying out government policy in the occupied territories. Sometimes, the spirit of the commander in the field is stronger than that of the defense minister, or even than that the prime minister. Thus, for example, an overreaction to the firing of Qassam rockets from Gaza led to an escalation along the Gaza border just when the government was interested in removing the blockade of the Strip from the front pages of foreign newspapers and calming the diplomatic scene.

A study released at the end of last week by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA ) offers some clues about the next chief of staff's tendencies. This wide-ranging study, based on 100 interviews and focus groups, dealt with the implications of Gazans' increasingly limited access to the area near the border with Israel and to fishing areas along the Gaza coast.

Since the end of 2008, IDF forces under Galant's command have barred Gaza residents from coming within 1,000 to 1,500 meters of the border. The army enforces these restrictions with live fire at people entering this area. While in most cases these are "warning shots," the researchers found that since Operation Cast Lead in Gaza ended in January 2009, the IDF has killed 22 civilians who entered the forbidden area and wounded 146.

Not only does this method of enforcement not comply with international humanitarian law on firing at civilians, the report stressed, but the Israeli authorities have not even informed residents of nearby neighborhoods (178,000 people, 12 percent of Gaza's population ) where the boundaries of the no-go zone lie. This IDF policy affects access to schools - seven of which are located in the area that is off-limits - as well as the security of students and staff, the quality of education and the level of academic achievement.

The IDF Spokesman' Office did not deny the facts. Instead, as quoted by The New York Times, Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich blamed Hamas for sending terrorists into the border area and thereby endangering the lives of its residents. According to Leibovich, whoever chooses terror must live with the consequences.

It's so simple. You understand, don't you, commander?

The wheels of justice

In late December 2009, then-attorney general Menachem Mazuz ordered Police Commissioner David Cohen to promptly carry out a court order to evacuate and seal Beit Yonatan, a house in the East Jerusalem village of Silwan illegally occupied by Jewish settlers. "This is a grave case of ongoing disrespect for a court order and cannot continue," Mazuz wrote at the time.

That same day, State Prosecutor Moshe Lador wrote Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat that "each additional delay constitutes a serious blow to the values of the rule of law."

And yet, the house still stands.

From time to time, this reporter checks with the Justice Ministry's spokesman as to whether current attorney general Yehuda Weinstein has dealt with this "grave" case and what prosecutor Lador has done to defend "the values of the rule of law." In June, I was informed that "the matter is being dealt with by the relevant parties."

On Monday, I received the following bizarre response: "The court has ordered that Beit Yonatan be sealed and the ruling must be implemented forthwith."

So it seems this situation of senior public officials showing grave disrespect for court orders and contempt for the values of the rule of law may continue - for a long, long time.