Sharon and the Generals: The Battle within. (Current Affairs)

By Blanche, Ed | The Middle East, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Sharon and the Generals: The Battle within. (Current Affairs)


Blanche, Ed, The Middle East


Ariel Sharon has been having trouble with his generals, just like several of his predecessors. But the line between Israel's military commanders and its government has rarely been so pronounced as now--and never so critical both to the state itself and to the region as a whole.

In dealing with the Intifada, Sharon's instincts as a former general with a reputation for boldness--his critics call it reckless glory-hunting--have been tempered by the need to keep his unwieldy and broad-based coalition government together. For some time that meant that Sharon, who favours force over finesse and likes to boast how he crushed Arab unrest in the Gaza Strip when he was army commander there in the early 1970s, was not able to let slip the dogs of war to the degree he would have liked and that displeased many of his generals. But at the end of March, amid a barrage of deadly suicide bombs in the heart of Israel's cities, he did so--until, after much prevarication, President George W. Bush ordered him to withdraw the forces that reoccupied the main towns of the West Bank. This has exasperated his generals and Israel's right wing, who argued, even as Israeli tanks began to withdraw, that in all probability the army would have to invade Palestinian territory again if the suicide bombings continued.

Twice in recent weeks, Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, himself an ex-general with hawkish leanings, had clashed publicly with the chief of staff, Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz. In October, Mofaz was slapped down after he criticised the government's decision to withdraw troops from Hebron as part of a short-lived ceasefire. Ben-Eliezer, whom many consider weak and inept, severely reprimanded Mofaz, who later, apologised publicly for his outburst.

And in early April, Mofaz declared he favoured expelling Yasser Arafat, then besieged in his Ramallah headquarters, from the West Bank. This drew another sharp rebuke from Ben-Eliezer, who said: "A decision to expel Arafat, or not, is a decision for the government alone." Mofaz," he said, "must understand what is permissible for the army and what is permissible for the government."

These clashes brought into the open--not for the first time--the issue of the military's role in Israel's politics and whether the line between military and civilian rule was being blurred. Indeed, Mofaz is scheduled to step down as chief of staff on 9 July and is expected to enter politics, so his comments may well have reflected his desire to establish his credentials as a right-winger.

Changes in key command positions in the military and intelligence establishment expected over the next few weeks could further complicate matters. Mofaz will be replaced by Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, a tough hardliner who advocates heavy military responses to Palestinian attacks. Several months before the Intifada erupted in September 2000, Yaalon, who has been endorsed by Sharon, predicted the collapse of the peace process and the outbreak of large-scale violence.

Sharon is also seeking to replace the chief of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, Ephraim Halevy, with General Meir Dagan, one of his confidants and another hard-liner. The heads of Military Intelligence and Shin Bet, the domestic security service, oppose Dagan's appointment, fearing it could sever their links with Palestinian security chiefs Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan, a crucial connection severely strained by recent events.

The September assassination of transport minister Rehavem Zeevi, a former general and an ultra-rightist, by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine masked, to some extent, the rift between the civil authority and senior military commanders. This discord stems from growing differences between the generals, who want to fulfil their mission to protect the State, and political leaders, who dictate military strategy. …

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