General Discontent

Can a high-ranking general’s public critique wake Israel’s subdued left?


A minority of Israelis have long expressed their disapproval of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s hard-line approach towards the Palestinians, but dissent within the nation’s military has been limited. True, some reservists and even elite pilots have publicly split with the government, but such refuseniks have been few in number and politically isolated. Now, however, one of Israel top generals is making his displeasure known.

Army Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon, a commander known for his tough position towards the Palestinians, told Israeli media that he was the frustrated anonymous source behind recent statements slamming Sharon’s policies. Yaalon declared that the harsh treatment of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers only serves to increase “hatred and terrorism.” The general also said that the tight restrictions now imposed on Palestinians were preventing the harvest of olives and other essential agricultural goods. Finally, Yaalon argued that Sharon’s policy of “stingy” compromises contributed to the political demise of former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Such a public rebuke may amount to a minor seismic tremor in the complicated landscape of Israeli politics, but can it change matters on the ground? While the news of Yaalon’s ideological defection made regional headlines, many in the Arab world took the news in stride. After all, Yaalon’s observations themselves are hardly revelatory, Maher Othman writes in Beirut’s Dar al Hayat.

“The actual controversy in Israel about the block in the political horizon because of Sharon’s extremist government’s policies towards the Palestinians stems from fear of the possibility of the Palestinian Authority’s complete collapse, the fact that would charge Israel with the burdens of its outrageous occupation of the Palestinians. It should not be believed that Chief of Staff in the occupation army, Moshe Yaalon, has suddenly noticed the war crimes, which his forces are committing against the Palestinians. He, as some Israeli commentators drew to his attention, was and is still a partner in taking the assassinations and military strikes’ decisions.”

Othman makes an important point. While those anxious to build opposition to Sharonist policies may jump at Yaalon’s announcement, it’s naive to assume he
came to such a realization overnight. Many in the Israeli media point out that Yaalon’s outburst came in the midst of a spat with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Yaalon was pushing for closure in occupied territories to be eased for Ramadan, but Mofaz didn’t heed the advice and cited the ever-present risk of suicide bombings. Yaalon issued his critique, anonymously at first, following Mofaz’s decision. Many analysts maintain that while Yaalon is clearly a tough military man, he is also a man who ultimately seeks a political solution with the Palestinians.

Yaalon, while clearly not a proponent of Palestinian liberation, argues that both Palestinians and Israelis benefit when Palestinians believe their lot will improve. The editorial board of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz explains:

“The chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, is worried about the absence of political hope among the Palestinians in the territories. His concern is that the Palestinians are in a pressure cooker that is going to explode and affect the security of Israelis — the security for which the Israel Defense Forces is responsible in large measure, with other bodies and subject to the government.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shares Ya’alon’s concerns, according to his public declarations. Sharon instructed the IDF to help better the Palestinians’ social and employment situation, so they do not sink into despair and hatred and enlist as suicide bombers. However, when the chief of staff sought to translate this general guideline into concrete moves, he encountered the opposition of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, whose reasons are in part substantive — such as warnings by the Shin Bet security service about the danger of terrorist attacks — and in part otherwise. The result is that the prime minister’s policy is not being implemented, the commanders in the field are reporting increasing ferment, and the IDF is under attack for lethal operation failures (at Ein Yabrud and Netzarim). The chief of staff feels, therefore, that it is his duty to act to change the situation.”

So, is Yaalon’s declaration a triumph for those in Israel pushing for a political settlement with the Palestinians? Is it a triumph for the Israeli left? Is it even really a setback for Sharon? The fact is, Ha’aretz notes, Israel’s left has been M.I.A. for a long time. And Sharon, while rumored to be furious at Yaalon, is responding to the general’s attack with conciliatory words and acts. On Friday, Sharon’s government after weeks of resistance and criticism of the Geneva accords, announced that Shaul Mofaz will meet with Palestinian leaders next week.

Of course, Yaalon’s willingness to criticize the government could prove contagious. Other military commanders could follow suit, giving voice to what analysts describe as a growing dissatisfaction in the ranks. Yaalon’s comments could even present the Israeli left with the opportunity it’s apparently been waiting for. Or another suicide bombing could wipe the entire episode from the headlines. Given the sorry state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the final possiblity seems all too likely.