'Strategic Corporal' Is in Charge

The series of military foul-ups that has not stopped since the war in Lebanon, and reached a peak yesterday with the deadly shelling in Beit Hanun, is an indication that something is amiss in the political echelon's supervision over the Israel Defense Forces.

Time after time, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz have been forced "to express regret" for indiscriminate strikes on Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, or dangerous friction between the Israel Air Force and German naval vessels off the Lebanese coast.

The defense minister's aides explain that in many instances, Peretz functions as a moderating influence by blocking IDF operational proposals and demonstrating willingness to take risks to alleviate the distress of the Palestinians. According to the aides, however, Peretz does not approve every act of shelling by IDF artillery units or every scrambling of IAF aircraft. His job, they say, is to determine policy.

One can understand this, but the outcome is that practical policy is being determined and implemented by the commander of the artillery battery, the officer in the field or an even lower-ranking military official. Ehud Barak called this phenomenon "the strategic corporal," whose shortcomings could ignite the entire Middle East.

Olmert and Peretz hurry to take responsibility, apologize and promise investigations and conclusions; but this is not enough. It would be best if they were to first think of the strategic objectives, and then formulate Israel's security policy and the operational directives for the IDF.

The problem is that it is difficult to identify such a strategy when one is so wrapped up in the ever-increasing frustration from the Qassam rocket fire. Olmert was questioned last week during a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on the situation in Gaza and the Qassam rocket fire.

Customarily, the right-wing MKs blamed it all on the disengagement, to which Olmert replied: "There is unprecedented international consensus for our actions. Three hundred terrorists were killed, and no one in the international community said a word. One can rant and rave and shout, but if we act wisely, we will be able to maintain our achievements and strike at more and more terrorists."

When national strategy boils down to counting the bodies of the enemy, it is a sure sign of failure. Olmert makes do with the world's silence, and fails to explain the objective of the IDF's operations in Gaza beyond the killing of "more and more terrorists."

If the prime minister's political objective is the toppling of the Hamas government, he would have been better off keeping a closer eye on the military and suspending the use of high-risk measures such as artillery fire on the eve of his trip to Washington, while Palestinian Authority officials negotiated replacing the Hamas government with a government of "technocrats."

But Olmert allowed the middle ranks of the army to dictate the shelling policy, and the "strategic corporal," or the artillery battery's faulty computer, have given the Hamas government a few more months in office.