The Last Barrier Along the Road to War

When senior Israel Defense Forces commanders were shown a plan for rescuing an IDF soldier wounded at the site of Joseph's Tomb in Nablus at the start of the present Intifada, the plan was rejected because the commanders feared the rescue would cost many lives.

When senior Israel Defense Forces commanders were shown a plan for rescuing an IDF soldier wounded at the site of Joseph's Tomb in Nablus at the start of the present Intifada, the plan was rejected because the commanders feared the rescue would cost many lives. A bitter debate ensued among the top brass in the wake of the decision to allow Border Patrol officer Mahdet Yusuf to bleed to death. The IDF's senior command justified the decision on the grounds that the need to prevent a massive loss of human lives outweighed the possibility of saving one soldier. The voices of protest quickly died away.

It is essential to refer once more to this incident, because a study is being made of the IDF's operational plans for a "major military operation" that will be launched if politicians give the green light. And if the IDF ends up capturing Jenin, Nablus or Hebron, as former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding, it is estimated that hundreds of Israeli soldiers will die in the fighting. The IDF does not have much experience in combat in urban areas; however, it has accumulated sufficient experience for the top brass to realize how costly such fighting is in terms of military casualties. It is quite likely that, in response to such an operation, the Palestinians will opt for house-to-house combat. IDF tanks are quite capable of destroying many houses and thereby causing the death of many civilians, while Israel Air Force fighter jets would fire missiles at the "places where the shooting is coming from." Nonetheless, in the final analysis, Israeli infantry units would be forced to seize control of the city in question through combat on the ground.

The IDF's top brass are firm believers in a very dangerous operational philosophy, according to which, Palestinian military activity can be wiped out through the use of massive military force. When the IAF commander enthusiastically justifies the routine use of fighter jets to strike individuals located in a residential district and does not understand what all the hue and cry is about (because, in the IAF commander's view, there is no essential difference between the use of light weapons and the deployment of combat aircraft) and when the IDF chief of staff does not grasp the far-reaching implications of the use of fighter jets against civilian targets, then one should not be surprised to find that the capture of communities within Area A has become a logical and reasonable objective.

If a war breaks out, it will be a bizarre, and above all, unnecessary, military confrontation, fueled by the kind of political culture that has taken root here in Israel and which the IDF has assiduously nurtured. According to this political culture, every problem has a military solution. This war will also be bizarre because its planners have been unable to come up with a single reasonable goal - except the satisfaction of the Israeli public's desire for revenge.

Had the IDF top brass decided upon a different line of action, they would not have presented their war plans to the ministers in Ariel Sharon's cabinet, but would have warned them that such a war would be idiotic. After the outbreak of the first Intifada in 1987, then chief of staff Dan Shomron categorically stated that there was no military solution to the problem of the Intifada. This was the courageous declaration of a general who clearly understood that there was a limit to the power of the military force he commanded.

However, in the IDF of 2001, the atmosphere is quite different. The top brass have, for the past few months, been sending out signals that they do have a military solution to the problem of Palestinian terror. They are broadcasting this message despite the fact that the IDF has failed to deal effectively with the Palestinians and is continuing to battle guerrillas and terrorists as if it were fighting against a regular army. Today, the IDF senior command is even proposing expanding its misguided military operations.

The chief of staff and his colleagues have so far been unable to overcome their military myopia and, at times, refuse to take into account the impact their military plans could have on the broad political picture. Granted, it is very difficult to stand fast in the face of heavy pressure from both the public and saber-rattling politicians. But nonetheless, in addition to being the commander who gives IDF troops the orders to shoot, the chief of staff is a key player in the decision-making process in Israel. Given the absence of independent, professional consultative bodies outside the apparatus of government, the IDF is the sole institution capable of recommending policy guidelines to both the prime minister and the ministers in the Israeli cabinet.

Thus, the chief of staff has a unique responsibility - as the last barrier to a total loss of control over the situation. When cabinet ministers demand that Israel go to war, the supreme commander of the IDF must spell out to them what the basic significance of such a move would be. He must spell out to them that a war against the Palestinian Authority could lead to a regional war. And he must remind them that the period when Israel was the omnipotent police officer in the Middle East is over.

The problem is that it is by no means certain whether Shaul Mofaz is the right person for such a difficult mission.