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Will he return? My guess is that he will. I used to think he wouldn't. Not under any circumstances. That he would disappear in the Arava desert and be a school principal. That he would go back to the barn on his kibbutz and organize a volunteer project. But now things look different. Bogey's anger is subdued, but deep. His anxiety about Israel's corruption is almost existential.
Moshe ("Bogey") Ya'alon is not thinking in terms of a return now. All he wants to do is swim in the sea, read books and write. To be with Ada. At the end of the summer they are scheduled to take up residence in a research institute in Washington. But the public dynamic might be stronger than the plans of the outgoing chief of staff. No, he will not enter politics. But sooner or later, he is likely to find himself leading the volunteer corps of the 21st century. The movement against corruption needs a face. It needs its Motti Ashkenazi - the reservist who led the protest against the government in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. And Bogey Ya'alon is not only the right candidate; he is the only candidate. Among those Israelis who held positions of power during the last decade, there was no one with a cleaner record. A principled ascetic. Honest and modest. An Israeli from another era: a man of truth.
The past few months have been hellishly hard. The affront. The agony. The feeling that rot has spread through the institutions of government. The fear that the rot is slowly infiltrating the Israel Defense Forces, too. But in the days ahead of his retirement, he recovered. So, when the time came to photograph him for this article, it was easy to tempt him to tell jokes.
Thus it happened that on his last Friday in the chief of staff's bureau, this tall, mummified, grim-faced officer had the interviewer, the photographer and the IDF spokesperson in stitches. Joke after joke. One outburst of laughter after another. A Ya'alon you never knew about. A Ya'alon we never knew. Bogey was almost bursting out of his uniform.
What will history say? Simple things: Director of Military Intelligence Ya'alon was one of the first to be suspicious of Yasser Arafat. Head of Central Command Ya'alon was the first to understand that an Arafat war was in the offing. Deputy Chief of Staff Ya'alon shaped the concept of the IDF's war against Arafat. Chief of Staff Ya'alon repulsed Arafat and, together with Prime Minister Sharon and Shin Bet security service chief Dichter, led Israel to a military victory over terrorism.
However, Ya'alon's rigidity and his inability to maneuver politically brought about a situation in which his relations with the government and media power centers were sour. As a result, he was alone throughout the entire course of the war. As a result, the moment the war ended, he was ousted. So that he himself will not be there at the critical moment this summer. He himself will not be there when we discover whether Ya'alon's war was a turning point or an exercise in futility. A war that produces stability or a war that produces more wars.
Lieutenant General Ya'alon, what was your mission in the past four and a half years?
"I have no doubt that life or fate or history brought me to the boiling point and the point of decision in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It doesn't begin in these four and a half years, in which I served as chief of staff and before that as deputy chief of staff. It begins far before that. I very much wanted to bring about the end of the conflict. Very much so. I did not delude myself during the Oslo period, but I had hope. When I took over as director of Military Intelligence I started to ask questions. And I did not get persuasive replies. Gradually the facts I encountered started to change me. Until at a certain stage I reached the conclusion that we were in a situation of reverse asymmetry. That we were in retreat, whereas the Palestinians were on the offensive. Therefore I thought that our mission was to create a wall in the face of the Palestinians. To prove to them that terrorism does not pay. Yes, to burn that into their consciousness - even if there are some who do not like that term. Because if we do not do that, Israel will be in serious trouble. If the terror is successful, it will continue even more intensively. It is liable to inflict the next war on us and the next stage. Therefore the wall of consciousness is essential.
Were you successful in building that wall?
Where were you successful?
"The success lies in the fact that in this violent round we succeeded in making the Palestinians aware of the need to stop the terrorism. We did this by means of the transition from defense to offense, from Operation Defensive Shield [spring 2002] and afterward. You have to understand: a fence does not solve the problem of terrorism. The fence is an important means in the ability to prevent infiltration, but it is not the ultimate means. The ultimate means is the ability to get to the terrorist in his bed.
"Therefore, the freedom of action we acquired as a result of taking control of the territory was what generated the turnabout. It reduced the number of casualties; reinforced our staying power; improved the economic situation; and obtained international legitimization.
"In contrast, it made the situation of the Palestinians go from bad to worse. Losses. Anarchy. The disintegration of the social fabric. Therefore, even before the disengagement plan and even before Arafat's death, they started to do some mental stocktaking. The awareness was forged that terrorism does not pay. That was the great Israeli achievement in this war."
But you say the success was partial; what did not succeed?
"If after all this the Palestinians are talking about the right of return in concrete terms and not just declaratively, that means we did not succeed in building a wall in the political sphere. On the Palestinian side, we still find a viewpoint and thinking in terms of the phased doctrine. The most significant development in this regard is the Cairo agreement between Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas] and Hamas. What Abu Mazen said in reference to this agreement shows that he has not given up the right of return. And this is not a symbolic right of return but the right of return as a claim to be realized. To return to the houses, to return to the villages. The implication of this is that there will not be a Jewish state here."
In other words, despite everything, despite four years of war, even Abu Mazen is unwilling to accept the existence of a Jewish state here?
"Even Abu Mazen. Even after four and a half years of war against Palestinian terrorism, we have not succeeded in convincing them to forgo their dreams about the return. All we succeeded in doing is to convince them that terrorism does not pay. From other points of view, too, the Palestinian Authority has not liberated itself from the Arafat era. When it permits Hamas to take part in the elections without abandoning its firearms, is that democracy? It's gangs. Armed gangs playing at pretend democracy. For the Palestinians it is still convenient to maintain a gang-based reality rather than a state foundation."
I will say what you are not saying: In these four years there was a phenomenal Israeli military achievement.
"That is what foreign armies are saying."
But there was a failure in translating the military achievement into a historic political achievement?
"Time will tell. I repeat what I said: we have a situation of reverse asymmetry. The State of Israel is ready to give the Palestinians an independent Palestinian state, but the Palestinians are not ready to give us an independent Jewish state. Thus the situation here is not stable. That is why every agreement that will be made is the point of departure for the next development of irredentism. For the next conflict. The next war. Despite their military weakness, the Palestinians feel that they are making progress. They have a feeling of success. Whereas we are waging a battle of withdrawal and delay."
Are you saying that historically, Israel is in a process of retreat and delay?
We are retreating without achievements?
"We are retreating without our having a narrative. Without our having an agreed story. Look, the whole question is whether your withdrawal is perceived by the other side as an act of choice or an act of flight. If it is perceived as a flight, they will continue to come after you; it is is perceived as a choice, everything looks different. As of today, three months before the disengagement, it is still not clear whether they will treat it as a flight or as a choice."
Are we heading into a dramatic summer?
"There is no doubt that this will be a dramatic summer. Until disengagement the interest will be to maintain calm. What will happen after the disengagement? If there is an Israeli commitment to another move, we will gain another period of quiet. If not, there will be an eruption."
How serious is that eruption liable to be?
"Terrorist attacks of all types: shooting, bombs, suicide bombers, mortars, Qassam rockets. It stands to reason that in the initial stage they will have an interest in demonstrating quiet in the Gaza Strip. But if there is an eruption in Judea and Samaria, Gaza will not remain quiet."
Are you saying that the first violent outburst will come from Judea and Samaria?
Because that is territory we have not yet withdrawn from?
"Correct. Over the years, the Palestinians have been trying to show us that territory we leave becomes quiet. I have no doubt that they will have in interest in demonstrating that after the pullout from Gaza there will be a period of quiet there. You left Gaza? You get quiet. You will leave Judea and Samaria? You will get quiet. Leave Tel Aviv and things will be completely quiet."
Do you see a return of the suicide bombings?
"Definitely. They will not forgo the suicide bombings. The suicide bombings and the Qassam rockets have something in common: they bypass the IDF. They are means of bypassing Israeli military might and striking at the civilian society."
By your logic, the Palestinians will now place Kfar Sava in their sights?
"Of course. It is as clear as day to me. If we get into a confrontation at the political level, if we do not give the Palestinians more and more and more, there will be a violent outburst. It will begin in Judea and Samaria."
So the cities on the border of the West Bank will be in the situation of the Gaza line settlements? Kfar Sava's situation will be that of Sderot?
"And Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, too. There will be suicide bombings wherever they can perpetrate them."
What you are saying, then, is that there is a high probability of the eruption of a third intifada?
"It is not an intifada. We have to stop calling it an intifada. It is a war."
Let me rephrase: there is a high probability of a second war of terror?
Within how much time?
"It depends how the story of this summer is recorded by each side. And whether the disengagement is implemented under fire or not."
Will the disengagement be implemented under fire?
"It is very probable that there will be a trickle of fire. But if the fire is massive, the IDF will distance the threat. Forces have been allocated for that."
Are you saying that in order to leave Gush Katif - the Gaza settlement bloc - we will have to enter Khan Yunis?
"If there is shooting from there? Yes, we are deploying for that."
How long will the evacuation last?
"I don't know."
The chief of the General Staff does not know how long the evacuation of the Gaza District will last?
"The question is whether we evacuate 8,000 residents or 20,000 Israeli citizens or maybe 50,000. If you evacuate 8,000, it could last three weeks. If you have to evacuate more, it could take longer."
A minimum of three weeks and a maximum of three months?
"I treat all the numbers on this subject with a grain of salt."
In other words, we have an open process here?
"In terms of the timetable? Yes. It is not easy to evacuate people from their homes against their will."
As the one behind the operative plan of the evacuation of the settlements, what worries you most?
"A subject that worries me a great deal is that there will be a decision by the elected level in Israel that the army will not be able to carry out."
Could that happen?
"We are readying for all scenarios. The army will implement the mission. Even if takes more time, the army and the police will carry it out. The problem will not be the army's implementation ability, but the combination of things. You start the operation and things happen and the government stops you. In such situations, government decisions can be made during the course of the operation."
Is that a feasible scenario?
"In certain conditions, everything is possible. And a situation in which the government has made a decision that the state is unable to implement is liable to be traumatic."
What you are saying is that the disengagement is not yet a fait accompli?
"If and when we complete the move, we will talk about a fait accompli."
Did you say 'if'?
"I have experience. I live in the ambiguity in which I live. And I live the reality that I live."
Part of that reality is Hamas. Does that organization's strengthening stem from the disengagement?
"There is no doubt that Hamas has appropriated the disengagement. But the reason Hamas is getting stronger is that Fatah is corrupt."
Is it possible that Hamas will take over the Gaza Strip?
Is it probable?
"If Fatah continues to behave as it does now, Hamas will eventually take over the Gaza Strip."
So in two or three years we are liable to find ourselves facing a Hamas-led Gaza Strip?
Can Israel allow itself a Gaza Strip that is controlled by Hamas?
"We are strong enough to come up with solutions for everything. But it will not bring stability. It will oblige us to be confrontational."
Do you see the IDF returning to the Gaza Strip?
"I do not rule it out."
Do you see additional operations such as Defensive Shield in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip?
"I do not rule out anything. We are not reaching a situation of stability here. And when the situation is not stable, everything is open."
Do you still think Israel is creating a tailwind for its enemies?
"I do not like the political use that was made of my professional statements. But to say that in regard to certain situations one need not be chief of staff."
Overall, are we headed for a situation of dividing the land?
"In the past decade, the government of Israel and Israeli society decided to divide the land. In the present reality, I see difficulty in producing a stable situation of end-of-conflict within that paradigm."
I am not sure I understand what you mean.
"We are talking about a viable Palestinian state. Those kinds of situations can be created in Europe: Monaco, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg. But here the situation is different. The Palestinian side does not harbor a feeling of thus far and no farther - not even in regard to the 1967 borders. They are talking about Safed and Haifa and Tel Aviv. And economically, too, Judea and Samaria and Gaza are not a viable state."
So are you saying that the thought that a two-state solution is within reach, is incompatible with reality?
"That paradigm does not bring about stability, no."
You maintain that the two-state solution cannot work. You maintain that what is agreed by the whole world and a large part of the Israeli public is without foundation.
"It is not relevant. Not relevant. It is a story that the Western world tells with Western eyes. And that story does not comprehend the scale of the gap and the scale of the problem. We too are sweeping it under the carpet."
What will happen if the world nevertheless imposes a two-state solution in the years ahead?
"It is difficult to impose things that have no foundation. Something that is imposed and is unstable blows up."
What alternative paradigm do you posit in place of the two-state paradigm?
"The paradigm of a far longer process. Far longer. One that obliges above all a revolution of values by the other side. Another possibility is to go beyond the paradigm of the Western Land of Israel, to enter into regional solutions."
Are you proposing to give the Palestinians land that is beyond the Western Land of Israel?
"We were in that situation before 1967: the West Bank was connected to Jordan, the Gaza Strip to Egypt. Today it is not relevant. But let us not delude ourselves. I do not see stability in the present paradigm and in the present state of affairs. I do not see a conclusion to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in my generation."
Is the establishment of a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and in 85 to 100 percent of the West Bank not feasible?
"That is an idea that does not bring about a stable situation. No. We can go for that, but from there the confrontation will continue."
So the establishment of that Palestinian state will lead to war?
"Yes, at some stage."
Could that war be dangerous for Israel?
Can the establishment of a Palestinian state in the present conditions create a semi-existential threat to Israel?
"If that solution were to be imposed tomorrow morning it would bring about the continuation of the irredentism, the continuation of the conflict."
Is the idea that a Palestinian state can be established during the current term of office of U.S. President Bush, and stability achieved, divorced from reality?
"Divorced from reality."
"Dangerous, of course."
If a Palestinian state is established now, will it necessarily be a hostile state?
"It will be a state that will try to undermine Israel. As long as there is no internalization of our right to exist as a Jewish state, and as long as there is insistence on concrete elements of the right of return, any such agreement will be like the construction of a house in which you plant a bomb. At some stage, the bomb will explode."
So what you are saying is that the idea of an immediate Palestinian state and of a two-state solution is a mirage.
"We have created a paradigm that generates an illusion. We have to think in long-term historical terms. Think about a lengthy process. Not something that is finished here and now and gives us an end to the conflict. There is no such solution now."
So the parting words of the outgoing chief of staff are that in this generation and perhaps in the next one, too, the sword will be an integral part of our lives?
"Without a doubt, without a doubt. And let us hope we can make do with a sheathed sword. In the realm of conventional wars, we have succeeded. Our sword is sheathed. Why is it that the army no longer has to fight wars of the 1967 and 1973 type? Because of our might. Because of the advantage we have acquired, which is mostly blue-and-white. The Israeli brain, Israeli technologies, Israeli fighters. That is why the sword is sheathed. But in the sphere of terrorism and in the sphere of the other capabilities which are trying to bypass the army and strike at the civilian population, our sword must remain drawn. It must remain drawn every day."
Is this what Israeli mothers are supposed to tell their sons and daughters?
"Yes. They have to tell them that they were born into a society of struggle. We should be happy that we have a home to defend. I have just returned from a visit to the death camps in Poland: once we did not have that [a home], either. And when we did not have a home, we saw what happened to us there 60 years ago. Not only a home for Israelis. For the whole Jewish people. But we have to continue to struggle for that home. To fight for our independence."
Are we in the midst of this struggle?
"Certainly. It is less intensive than when five countries invaded in the War of Independence, but it is not over."
What are you saying to Israelis as you conclude your term as chief of staff? What hope are you giving them?
"Shortly before the outbreak of the current confrontation I gave a talk to a group of civilians. At the end of the talk, a mother got up and said: `What you are saying is that I deluded my children when I told them they were going to live in a Western society of abundance; what you are saying is that we have not reached a situation of peace and security and we are still a society of struggle.' I told that mother that what she said was my recompense: if that is the conclusion she draw from my remarks, my talk was worthwhile.
"What am I saying to the Israeli public? I am saying that we are still a society of struggle. We have not reached a situation of peace and security. The cup is full. Very full. But it has to be said clearly that we are a society of struggle. With no illusions. Without false beliefs that we will resolve it with one move or another. No. It will not be resolved. And we have to see that with open eyes. It has to be said clearly. We have to prepare for the future with forbearance. With staying power. To broadcast this quiet strength. But under no circumstances to confuse ourselves with hopes that turn into illusions, which people try to translate into working plans that do not connect with reality. And not to immerse ourselves in the obsession that we are always to blame. We have to understand that what is now on the agenda is the question of our right of existence as an independent Jewish state. That is the subject. That is what we are still struggling for."
Do you harbor an existential fear?
"Of course. In the intelligence appraisal I submitted in 1998 I said that the existential threat lies precisely in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not Iran and not Syria and not Iraq, which still existed then. Those are not existential threats. There is one internal existential threat which concerns me very much, but I will not discuss it as long as I am in uniform. But the external existential threat is the Palestinian threat.
"Not that I am not concerned that Iran will have a nuclear bomb. But I am not worried that the bomb will fall here. I am worried about submerged processes it is liable to foment in the region. Whereas in the Palestinian case, I see that a combination of terrorism and demography, with question marks among us about the rightness of our way are a recipe for a situation in which there will not be a Jewish state here in the end."
Your outlook is exceptional - you are not part of the Israeli consensus.
"That is nothing new. Since November 1999 I have seen the writing on the wall: a war is about to break out. And I have to deploy for war when the situation of the Israeli consciousness is that peace is around the corner, that by summer of 2000 we will have peace. But even afterward, even after the fire erupts, there is a disparity between my conception of the confrontation and that of the people I work with. I remember myself coming to cabinet meetings and meetings of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee during the war and asking myself where they are living and where I am living. The gaps are enormous. The feeling is that you are fighting over a hollow arena."
Did you feel alone; that you were not understood?
"Of course. But first of all I felt deep worry. Because when you have to use force you need the backing of Israeli society. It is impossible to activate force without backing. Impossible. I call that intra-Israeli legitimation. I knew how to explain why we have to demolish homes in Rafah in order to prevent Katyushas falling in Ashkelon, but I was stopped because someone saw a photograph of one kind or another and had something to say. I saw those photographs every day. But I came with a deep feeling of the rightness of the way even when I was forced to demolish a house. But when you do not have intra-Israeli backing, you stop. Therefore, because of lack of agreement about the diagnosis, we moved from defense to offense very late. We paid a high price in human life only because of a lack of understanding about what happened to us here. Because of lack of agreement about the story."
That loneliness was a fundamental part of your term, was it not?
"The most difficult moments of the war came during the meetings of the security cabinet. You try to exert influence about a certain matter and find yourself almost alone. You find yourself without agreement about who the enemy is and what the war is about. A commander is always alone. Certainly a chief of staff. But in this case it was far beyond personal loneliness. It is the understanding that you perceive the situation in this way and everyone else perceives it differently. When what is at stake is the fate of your nation and your country, that is hard. Very hard."
Did your ouster pain you?
"This is not the moment to talk about that. Throughout my service I tried to eradicate phenomena of a criminal subculture. As though the law were an off-the-shelf product, ethics an off-the-shelf product. If you want, you use it; if not, you don't. And there is above the table and under the table. And an officer who is vigilant about honesty and integrity is a dolt. An officer who operates by manipulation and speculation is smart.
"In my eyes all this is a sickness, and when a sickness touches senior figures it is already a terminal disease. I tried to fight against that terminal disease. I waged a war of principle against it. Therefore, when the moment you are speaking about arrived, I thought that a very problematic message was being conveyed. But my feeling is that I lost a battle, not a war."
Will Citizen Bogey continue to wage that campaign from the place where Chief of Staff Ya'alon stopped?
"I am still in uniform. I need disengagement."
Ari Shavit is a Ha'aretz columnist. Contact
him by email at email@example.com
The article appeared in Ha'aretz
June 2, 2005 (www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/583843.html).
Thanks are due Deb Kotz and Randall Levitt for alerting people to this
article. Levitt writes, "This is a remarkable interview of the
outgoing Israeli chief of staff. Israel will need supporters who take
the long view."
Ari Shavit is a Ha'aretz columnist. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
The article appeared in Ha'aretz June 2, 2005 (www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/583843.html).
Thanks are due Deb Kotz and Randall Levitt for alerting people to this article. Levitt writes, "This is a remarkable interview of the outgoing Israeli chief of staff. Israel will need supporters who take the long view."
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