Unready, Unaware, Undone by the UN

Now, it's the battle for the battle of Jenin

Select officers in Military Intelligence (MI) and in the Shin Bet security service have lately been perusing - they lack the time just now for a more detailed reading - a top-secret document written by Amos Gilboa, a brigadier general in the reserves who was formerly head of MI's research division.

At the request of MI, Gilboa wrote a series of event analyses on intelligence episodes of the past two decades, such as the warnings about a war with Syria in 1985 and 1996, and the assessment of Saddam Hussein's intentions and capabilities in 1991. The latest chapter in the series, which has the purpose of indicating to intelligence officers where their predecessors were mistaken in the recent past, in the hope that similar mistakes will not recur, concentrates on the confrontation with the Palestinians.

Gilboa read the intelligence documents and prepared an illuminating survey of the road to September 2000. He commends MI's research division under Amos Gilad for its prescient forecast of the military clash with the Palestinians.

Gilboa was not authorized to research the major failure of the research division, in the 1973 Yom Kippur War - a particularly galling failure given the achievements of Israel's intelligence- gathering apparatus. In the meantime, until his next task of intelligence analysis, Gilboa, or someone like him, would do well to look into the political Yom Kippur blunder of the past two weeks: How the government of Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres inflicted on itself the fiasco of the fact-finding commission into the events of the battle in the Jenin refugee camp.

Prime Minister Sharon and Foreign Minister Peres, who bear most of the responsibility, both personal and institutional, will not volunteer to research themselves; therefore what's needed is an initiative of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. In the past few months, the committee's chairman, MK David Magen (Center Party), has taken the defense establishment by surprise with his vigorous and businesslike running of the prestigious panel. The Shin Bet had only praise for his speedy handling of the legislation that formalizes the security service's activity (including the section of the new law that is of central importance to the Shin Bet but that many people failed to notice: the section on SIGINT - Signals Intelligence, referring to electronic bugging and collection - giving the Shin Bet a formal status in this sphere for the first time).

The subcommittee on the secret services - which in its previous incarnation, under MK (now Public Security Minister) Uzi Landau, examined the entanglement of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Mossad espionage agency in the bungled assassination attempt on a senior Hamas official, Khaled Meshal, in Amman - could also investigate the battle for the battle of Jenin.

Maybe, though, there is no point to an investigation, or to the cross-matching of testimonies, or to the publication of a learned report, because after all the failures and the investigations and the reports Israel continues to make decisions on the weightiest matters and on the most sensitive issues in an offhanded, off-the-cuff way. The rarified air that the prime minister and the foreign minister breathe cast a spell on them and induced them to believe that phone calls between them, or with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, could act as a proper substitute for orderly, coordinated and documented staff work.

Peres is capable of managing the world, the New Middle East, the peace center that bears his name; the Foreign Ministry is small change for him. His hyperactive director-general in the Foreign Ministry, Avi Gil, dreamed about political intelligence worthy of the name and established a political-military department in the ministry. This did not find even an iota of expression in the Jenin affair. Then intelligence officials set out on desperate attempts, made ridiculous by the panic that drove them, to obtain drafts of the "terms of reference" that would guide the fact-finding team. As in October 1973, Israel absorbed a first blow from which it recovered only with American aid and at a very high cost.

The blow was totally superfluous, because the spirit of the time runs contrary to the moves undertaken by Annan and the Security Council against Israel. Even those who "have nothing to hide" are not enthusiastic about being investigated. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon at the time that American aircraft killed hundreds of civilians in Baghdad, in the command bunker of the ruling party. One could ask Powell, in terms of the result, whether he examined fully the situation in the bunker before going ahead and authorizing the missile strike. The entire operation against Iraq was then, and still is, under the auspices of the Security Council; however, no one is investigating the council or the secretary-general in connection with their complicity in the "collateral damage" that is caused to civilians in military operations, however justified and authorized they may be.

Such a demand was raised and, as expected, was ignored, following the resignation of the prime minister of Holland and the country's chief of staff in the wake of a report on their negligence in failing to prevent the massacre of some 7,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica.

In an article in The Washington Post, writer Samantha Power put forward a series of tough questions about the Clinton administration, NATO and the UN in that affair. "`The international community is big and anonymous,'" Power quoted Wim Kok, the prime minister, as telling the Dutch parliament in his resignation speech. "`We are taking the consequences of the international community's failure in Srebrenica.'"

Another columnist in The Washington Post, William Arkin, reported to his readers this month on his trip to Afghanistan as the head of a fact-finding mission of Human Rights Watch. Arkin wrote about the testimonies of villagers, such as the principal of a local school, who with their own eyes saw American bombers kill children. Afterward, from one interrogation to the next, the layers of hyperbole in the testimonies were peeled off, and what remained at the end was that a few students who were playing with a bomb that failed to explode were injured. Nevertheless, hundreds or more of innocent Afghans lost their lives, and thousands lost their livelihood, as the result of a mistake made by intelligence and mis-aimed missiles. The monitoring report on Afghanistan is due to be published in another month. It's worth waiting with bated breath for Kofi Annan's response; maybe he will pound his head against the wall of an American veto and propose sending the now unemployed members of the Jenin commission to see what's what at Tora Bora.

James Baker - not the secretary of state in the administration of the first President Bush, but the legal adviser to the National Security Council in the Clinton administration - took part in the authorization process for the targets of NATO operation against Serbia in Kosovo in 1999. Writing in the quarterly journal of the Navy's War College, Baker noted that everyone, from the president on down, understands that it is essential to enlist the aid of experts on international law, but that the content of the law lags behind the events. The desire to avoid the heavy bombing of dual purpose - military and civilian - governmental targets from the very outset of the operation is intended to save innocent lives. But in fact, it has the final effect of claiming more lives, because the war will continue, masses of civilians on all sides will become casualties, and if the air attacks, which are escalated bit by bit in the name of the holy "measured response" prove insufficient, it becomes necessary to send in ground troops and the killing increases.

In the target-specific operations carried out by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Shin Bet in the territories - quiet infiltrations of a village or a city neighborhood in order to grab wanted men in their homes - other units, reinforced by armored vehicles, are placed at the ready in case of need for a noisy, and violent, withdrawal. Every such preparedness, whose details are kept secret from the forces, which are thus effectively kept idle, uses up resources but is considered essential.

The legal experts who last week were flown to New York in order to haggle over the terms of reference of the fact-finding commission, were offended to read on their return that instead of closing the breach, they had widened it. In their view, the battle was political and not legal in character; the breach remained as it was since Annan created it while Peres and Sharon looked on complacently.

The first to warn about the gravity of Annan's ploy was the head of the Planning Branch in the General Staff, Major General Giora Eiland, and he persisted, almost alone, in his efforts until the commission was disbanded. Eiland is one of the most moderate, most skeptical and most perspicacious analysts in the defense establishment: From the withdrawal from Lebanon to the stages of bargaining and confrontation with the Palestinians and the very latest military and political developments, his forecasts have proved impressively accurate. This time he took a strict line, whereas cabinet ministers played down the danger.

The situation appraisal that Eiland formulated was too realistic to be persuasive. It won out, in the end, because in the Sharon government, what common sense doesn't do is done by the threat embodied in Benjamin Netanyahu. The chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, bears the military responsibility for the messy turn of affairs in Jenin and for preventing the media from direct reporting on the events there - reporting that would have undercut the propaganda about a massacre that generated the Annan initiative. Mofaz, who also wants to absolve himself of the charge that he was responsible for the fact that Druze Border Policeman Madhat Yusuf was left to die at the battle for Joseph's Tomb early in the confrontation - saw an opportunity to appear as a commander-in-chief who protects his troops.

The chief of staff, whose conscience did not bother him to the point of making him resign when he was ordered to withdraw from Lebanon and cut the defense budget, hinted that the government would have to look for another chief of staff, through whom, as the exclusive authority under the law, it would order soldiers to testify before the UN's Jenin commission.

Sharon can afford a little friction with President Bush on the eve of his visit to Washington; and he can also afford to show restraint as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat leaves Ramallah. What he cannot afford is to give Netanyahu a gift like the resignation of his ideological partner, the chief of staff, with the tacit suggestion that the government has plunged a knife into the back of the soldiers - and least of all on the eve of the Likud's convention.

Yes, we have no embassy

If the Japanese member of the Jenin commission remains without work, here's a useful job for her: to advise the State Comptroller's Office as an expert on her country. According to the report he issued this week, the comptroller, retired Supreme Court justice Eliezer Goldberg, was stunned at the wastefulness exhibited by the Foreign Ministry, which is spending $7 million to build an embassy in Tokyo. That really is a fortune - with it you can buy three homes for former prime ministers in Kfar Shmaryahu - but Goldberg's report was written in local terms, which ignore the situation in Japan, where one banana - first-hand, with peel - costs $20.

In Japan the constant dilemma about whether to lease an expensive piece of real estate or to buy, was decided in favor of building. The Israeli representation in Tokyo needed a new wing for the embassy and for the ambassadorial residence. The cost of buying existing properties: $30 million. The cost of renting a residence only: $25,000 a month. The lot that is owned by Israel in Tokyo is currently worth, in the insane real estate market of Japan, somewhere between $80 million and $100 million. In these circumstances it turned out that investing $7 million in both structures, and not only in the residence, was the right economic decision and not a hedonistic scandal fomented by insensitive bureaucrats.

Anyone looking for puzzling decisions in connection with Israel's diplomatic assets doesn't have to go halfway around the world. To induce other countries to locate their embassies in its controversial capital, Israel promised the poorest of them, those for which Jerusalem is relatively not much cheaper than Tokyo, that it would bear the costs. Only two countries, El Salvador and Costa Rica, have embassies in Jerusalem, and they are paid for by Israel. When a refrigerator goes on the blink in one of them, for example, the embassy's maintenance man calls the administration department in the Foreign Ministry with a bill for the repair or the purchase, as though he were the Israeli administration official in the Tokyo embassy seeking reimbursement for purchasing a melon for $60.

O captain, my captain

In September the Supreme Court will consider the request of former defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai to appeal his conviction for criminal offenses by the District Court. Like any offender in his situation, Mordechai, who was convicted on sexual assault charges, continues to plead his innocence, but if he does not overcome two hurdles - permission to appeal and then the overturning of the verdict - he can look forward to a procedure in which the army will consider whether to strip him of his rank as a major general in the reserves.

That is a procedure that the military advocate general, Menahem Finklestein, himself a major general, tried unsuccessfully to spare Mordechai. The ministerial committee on legislation thwarted Dr. Finkelstein's learned maneuvers and left intact the binding custom for the past 45 years of stripping officers and noncoms, in the career army and in the reserves, of their rank if they violated the civilian penal code. The offender must face a panel of commanders whose recommendation is passed on to the chief of the Personnel Directorate and then to the chief of staff. If the chief of staff decides contrary to the panel's recommendation, the final decision is made by the defense minister.

Mofaz, the chief of staff who was appointed thanks to Mordechai, will be spared the dubious pleasure of making the decision about his forgotten patron. It will not be easy to peel off Mordechai's major general rank, and with it what's left of his honor, nor will it be easy to explain why this should not apply to senior figures when it has been applied to officers of lower rank. This is one of the tasks that Mofaz will gladly pass on to his successor, Moshe Ya'alon, in July.

With a bit of effort and a crowded schedule, Mofaz will also not have to make a decision on the matter of Ofer Nimrodi. Captain (res.) Nimrodi has been convicted twice and sentenced to a total of almost three years in prison. The procedure to strip him of his rank was set in motion after his first conviction, but Nimrodi got it suspended. In any event, Nimrodi was rehabilitated and found a respectable job as assistant to the chairman of the board of the company that publishes the daily Ma'ariv - which likes to run preachy articles against the rich and famous and governors of banks who have done wrong.

After the curbing of the initiative by Finkelstein, which would have helped Nimrodi in the same way it would have helped Mordechai, the Military Advocate General's Office said the panel dealing with Nimrodi would meet at the end of February. Correction, in March. The beginning of April. Later in the month, end of April. Last and absolutely final date: May. May is here, the month has a long way to go, but the composition of the panel has already been decided: two lieutenant colonels, the head of the legal supervision section in the Military Advocate General's Office, the head of the officers branch in the personnel section, and above them a colonel, the commander of the "Barak" track in the Staff and Command College, Yariv Krieger.

Colonel Krieger, who was an officer in the Golani infantry brigade, was the commander of the territorial brigade in the West Bank. The panel has a well-connected secretary, a major who serves as the bureau chief of the commander of the Personnel Directorate. The majority will decided, and if the chief of staff seeks to be lenient where the panel was severe, politics will decide.