Two Farmers Kicking Over the Milk Bucket

Sharon's officers are now as contemptuous of him and his defense minister as he once was of his superiors.

In the summer of 1981 a new minister of defense took office, impatient to prove wrong those who refused to make him commander in chief when he was a general in the Israel Defense Forces. Ariel ("Arik") Sharon stormed the Kirya, Israel's "Pentagon" in Tel Aviv, with a hearty appetite and an ammunition magazine full of plans to change the Ministry of Defense, the military administration in the territories and, most of all, the IDF.

His familiarity with the issues and his micro-management dwarfed the commander-in-chief, Rafael Eitan, and rendered the generals starstruck. However, one of his old acquaintances, a senior officer, predicted an end that was as bitter as those of Sharon's military campaigns that went adrift due to over ambition.

"It's a classic case of the cow who gives a full bucket of milk and then kicks over the bucket," the officer said. If not a cow, then the farmer and the farmhand who milked his cows. The kick came in Lebanon, and when you kick a bucket, your foot hurts, too.

Prime Minister Sharon fought against the old Arik, hiding him inside himself for four and a half years. A new generation of army officers at first made fun of Sharon's ignorance of 21st-century concepts, but with time and with the appointment of Sharon's buddies to key positions, the IDF got used to him. He earned the professional respect of other sectors of the security establishment as well. Staff at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission whisper that no previous prime minister has kept such a careful eye on the country's nuclear energy issues.

This week Sharon gave in once again to the yetzer ha'ra, the evil inclination. This time he let himself be led astray by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who was actually proud of his own mental U-turn - he saw it as proof of his ability to free himself of the fetters of the opinion he held five minutes ago. Mofaz labored mightily, with very partial success, to show he was worthy of his office. He was not at his best during the Iraqi crisis of 2003, and it was on his watch at the Defense Ministry that relations with the Pentagon strained and construction of the separation fence was dragged out. His ambition to shake up the ministry's organization chart was frozen until the appointment last week of a new director-general.

On the plus side, Mofaz sped up the appointment of Dan Halutz as commander-in-chief, and led the government's campaign to evacuate the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. However, while still intoxicated by the high marks he received from the security establishment last month, he lost control of his kicking leg. So did Sharon.

The entire array of reasons given for the evacuation of the settlements, despite the rabbis' calls to favor their religious rulings over the laws of the state and its institutions, just melted away. The demand for a chain of command that is unified, democratic and separated from religion disappeared, together with Mofaz's pretensions to a national leadership - as distinguished from a religious or ethnic one.

Benjamin Netanyahu, in his last-minute opposition to the evacuation and resignation from the cabinet, mentioned the home of his father, the historian Benzion Netanyahu. Mofaz, in his new refusal to order the IDF to demolish the synagogues in the evacuated settlements, mentioned the home of his own father, an observant Jew. The son's efforts to blame his late father for the stupid government decision he initiated should by no means be a reflection on the honor of Mofaz senior. The move is infuriating, but it does not mean that the politicians have gone off the rails. It's not that they're hearing voices, just that they're looking for votes.

During his years as an officer, under prime ministers whose decisions - even those involving the security of the state - were affected by partisan considerations, Sharon often was contemptuous of the political leaders. Now he is being punished for his arrogance: he is ridiculed just as he once ridiculed them, and his officers are as contemptuous of him and his defense minister as he once was of his superiors.