The Fire Next Time

The chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon, is outspokenly striving for a frontal clash with the terrorist organizations.

The chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon, is outspokenly striving for a frontal clash with the terrorist organizations. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Ya'alon, who spoke this week at a conference on low-intensity warfare in Tel Aviv, argues that in the confrontation between the army and terrorism, which operates from within a civilian environment, terrorism has the advantage, because the army can use only a small part of its strength against it.

To offset this advantage, the army has to take the initiative - "the offensive approach is still the best defense" - because only in those stages of the campaign "in which the army utilizes its capabilities with tremendous strength, which are of no value most of the time, is it able to realize its military superiority .... When needed, and especially after serious terrorist attacks, the character of the campaign can be changed for an allotted period, from a low-intensity confrontation in which the terrorists have a certain advantage, into a high-intensity confrontation, in which it is easier for a regular army force to bring its strength into play" - although this, too, is no guarantee of a decisive victory.

The most cogent Israeli example, Ya'alon says, is Operation Defense Shield. The meaning is clear and requires no deciphering of codes, because it has already been given expression by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who in May 2002 prevented the army from providing the Gaza Strip with a version of the same operation. What was then presented as half a job takes on an added thrust ahead of the withdrawal from Gaza and its transfer to the Palestinian Authority. The implication of this conception is that before the withdrawal, the Israel Defense Forces should enter in large numbers, lure Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the other organizations into a clash with the IDF, kill them in their masses, and only then pull out.

The idea takes on renewed validity - of a political character - with Ariel Sharon's initiative of breaking off contact with Gaza, but was not born in that context. It was tried last summer, but failed, because of the meagerness of the explosives that were used in the attempt to kill the entire top level of Hamas, with Ahmed Yassin at its head, in "Operation Anemone Picking." Israel thus made a triple decision: It is fighting Hamas and does not view that organization as a substitute for the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement; it is fighting the leadership of Hamas; and it is fighting Yassin personally. If Yassin and Hamas try to wear down Israel with terrorist attacks, Israel will respond with personal attacks, and if they draw more terrorist attacks and even greater threats, then ahlan wasahalan, Israel will have good reason to dust off the plans for the massive Gaza operation, just as the massacre in the Park Hotel in Netanya on the eve of Passover two years ago shattered the barrier that was blocking Operation Defensive Shield.

Ya'alon, Mofaz, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the head of the Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter, who is in favor of picking all the anemones - and whose portrayal this week as having reservations about killing Yassin illustrated how easy it is to turn a "Yes, but not only ..." into a "No" in the public perception - are agreed on one common denominator: If the Gaza Strip is to be evacuated of Israelis, that is best done after it has been freed (relatively and temporarily) of the terrorist networks, and Hamas especially. A confidant of Sharon's - Amiram Levin, as head of Northern Command and afterward as deputy chief of the Mossad espionage agency - espoused a similar idea in regard to Hezbollah during the controversy over the withdrawal from Lebanon.

The IDF, including the two generals who today hold the most senior positions in the General Staff - Ya'alon and his deputy, Major General Gabi Ashkenazi - were in favor of a Lebanon pullout, but not unilaterally. They wanted it to be done in an agreement with Syria, which would have rendered superfluous the operation Levin wanted. Without such an agreement, a fence on the northern border, which is mainly of political value, channels Hezbollah's hostile activity southward, just as the fragmented fence in the West Bank channels terrorist attacks to the sectors that are breached.

Sharon and his national security adviser, Major General (res.) Giora Eiland, with the support of the head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, and the head of the research division of Military Intelligence, Brigadier General Yossi Kuperwasser, are now leading the opposition to a renewal of negotiations with Syria (Dagan, preparing to run for the Knesset on the Likud list in the 2001 elections - which were ultimately not held along with the election of the prime minister - was assisted by the Golan Heights activist and former MK Yehuda Harel).

Sharon and Eiland think that an agreement with a weakened and isolated Syria is at this time not worth the certain price of evacuating the Golan. If talks with Syria resume, Israel will posit two conditions that were not part of its earlier demands: dismantling Syria's chemical and biological weapons and its missiles, and formally settling in Lebanon and Syria the Palestinian refugees who reside in those countries.

In its unilateral character, the withdrawal from Gaza resembles the withdrawal from Lebanon and not the withdrawal-that-never-was from the Golan Heights. As with the tension that the evacuation of Lebanon generated between the prime minister and defense minister at the time, Ehud Barak, and the chief of staff, Mofaz, the planned withdrawal from Gaza is souring relations not only between Sharon and Ya'alon, but also between Eiland and his successor as head of the IDF's Plans and Policy |Directorate, Major General Yitzhak Harel. Harel was surprised and embarrassed to hear from foreign military attaches that their ambassadors had already been given a briefing by Eiland that the General Staff has yet to hear. Eiland and Brigadier General Ibal Giladi, who was the head of strategic planning under Eiland, saw the ties they had with Sharon and with his bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, as a channel for bringing the IDF's influence to bear on the prime minister. Ya'alon insisted on looking through the other side of the binoculars, viewing the contacts of officers from Plans and Policy with Weisglass as a possible opening for the exploitation of the IDF by the political level.

After Yassin's death, and in contrast to other senior figures in the Hamas, the assassinated sheikh was promoted to the rank of moderate. This is a phenomenon that has long been part of Israel's relations with the Palestinians, whose senior figures are positioned on the continuum between moderates and extremists. It's a pointless classification, because Hamas does not accept Israel's existence even within the borders of June 4, 1967, but if Yassin's heir tries to outdo his mentor and escalate terror, he will be playing into the hands of Sharon, Mofaz and Ya'alon. They will turn the escalation into a springboard for a large-scale invasion of Gaza - an incursion for the purpose of departing, true, but nevertheless a hard campaign of blood and fire. In the past year, Southern Command has examined scenarios that are supposed to conclude with a major military operation in Gaza, which will call for large numbers of troops; now, though, Southern Command, which has trimmed its forces, will have to import units. The prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of staff appear to have reconciled themselves to, and are even welcoming, the idea of a large-scale, direct and costly clash. It's hard to live with medium-scale fire that sometimes erupts in the house. It's more convenient to anticipate a large conflagration, which will justify breaking down the doors and an assault by the firefighters.