This is the second blog installment profiling Moshe Yaalon’s interview in Haaretz that was published in full yesterday. The first installment was Yaalon: ‘Going to War Was Scandalous’. The interview is doubly interesting because it represents his political “coming out.” It is the equivalent (well not precisely equivalent, but similar) of Bill Clinton’s A Town Called Hope at the 1992 Democratic convention in that he used it to introduce himself to the American electorate for the first time.
For this reason and for the actual substance of the article, it is an extremely interesting gauge of the views and mindset of an up and coming political leader (if he does indeed enter politics, which almost everyone expects him to do).
It is also interesting that he chose the liberal Haaretz as his mouthpiece rather than the more conservative Maariv or Yediot. It would be as if John McCain chose the NY Times when he first decided to run for political office. I think he’s making the case among Israeli intellectuals and political liberals for an alternative view of the war and the leaders responsible for it. And perhaps he’s trying to inoculate himself from the charge, should he join the Likud as many expect, that he is the typical nationalist extremist thriving in that party. If that is his strategy, I’m not sure it will work as Likud seems irremediable rejectionist and extremist to the core. Unless he toes the line, I don’t see how he will be comfortable there.
Before we read Yaalon’s views, I want to add another caveat that I neglected to mention yesterday. Much of the criticism about IDF preparedness for the war can legitimately be laid at Yaalon’s doorstep, so in effect the interview is an attempt to defend his reputation as chief of staff. Naturally, should he enter politics this (his military position) will be his currency. Should his reputation be sullied by a state investigation it would devalue him as a political leader. Therefore this defense.
But let’s get to the meat of the interview. In this passage, he sets out a contrarian (to Olmert and Halutz at least) view of the importance of Syrian negotiations:
Did you favor negotiations with Syria?
“Yes. In the summer of 2003 I suggested to prime minister Sharon that he accede to the requests of Bashar Assad and enter into negotiations with him. I thought that the very existence of negotiations with Syria on the future of the Golan Heights would crack the northern alignment of Iran-Syria-Hezbollah and perhaps also cause its dismantlement. Sharon rejected my suggestion outright. He preferred the disengagement.”
Would you be ready to cede the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria?
“I never sanctified any piece of ground. If a territorial concession will bring about true peace and full recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, I am not against that. However, even if we did not reach a land-for-peace agreement, the very fact of the renewal of the dialogue channel with Syria would have distanced it from Iran and would have weakened the northern alignment, which I defined as a strategic threat.”
Here Yaalon returns to a more traditional and constrained conception of Israeli military power which makes it all the more striking in light of recent grandiose projections of such power in Lebanon:
“You have to understand that the use of military force is a last resort. You don’t use it offhandedly. And in order to use military force a legitimate strategic context is required. There was no such context regarding Hezbollah. However, beyond all that, it was clear to me that Hezbollah is a rooted phenomenon and will not be eradicated by military action. It was also clear to me that there is no unequivocal military solution against the rocket deployment. I therefore encouraged political activity, which in the end would lead to the disarming of Hezbollah as a result of an internal Lebanese process, and concurrently I drew up a military plan intended to address a scenario of a Hezbollah offensive that would oblige us to deal with the organization militarily.”
When you compare Yaalon’s original plan for action in Lebanon to what actually happened under Halutz’s direction, you can’t help regretting his forced removal as chief of staff (though the reason he was forced to resign, his rejection of the Gaza withdrawal, was more than justified):
What were the plan’s basic assumptions?
“That the IDF must act in a way that would set in motion a political process that would lead to the disarming of Hezbollah, the removal of the Iranians from Lebanon and perhaps also the imposition of sanctions on Syria and Iran. In a scenario of the abduction of soldiers, exactly as occurred on July 12, the IDF was supposed to respond with an aerial attack and the mobilization of reserve divisions, which would act as a threat to the Syrians and to Hezbollah and would encourage Lebanon and the international community to take action to achieve the desired goal. If the threat itself did not achieve the goal, a ground move would have begun within a few days aimed primarily at seizing dominant terrain as far as the Litani River and the Nabatiya plateau.
“The ground entry was supposed to be carried out speedily, for an allotted time, without the use of tanks and without entering houses or built-up areas. Because of our awareness of the anti-tank missile problem and our awareness of the bunkers and of the fact that the routes are mined, the intention was to activate the IDF in guerrilla modalities. That was the operational idea, that was the plan and that is how the forces were trained.”
Had this been Israel’s strategy, it might or might not have worked. But it would not have drawn Israel into the maelstrom it found when it adopted Halutz’s ‘scorched earth’ strategy in Lebanon.
In the following passage, Yaalon critiques the Olmert-Halutz mindset that maintained that military power alone could exterminate Hezbollah. If it is sincere on his part, it is a very wise formulation:
When did you understand that there had been a failure, that something had gone wrong?
“At the end of the first week. Until then things were conducted reasonably well. I was critical of the fact that the reserves were not mobilized, but I understood more or less what the goal was. But then, instead of plucking the political fruits of the aerial offensive, they continued to use force. They over-used force. And instead of coordinating with the Americans for them to stop us when the operation was at its height, and setting in motion a political process to disarm Hezbollah, we asked the Americans for more time. We let the Americans think that we have some sort of gimmick that will vanquish Hezbollah militarily. I knew there was no such gimmick. I knew the whole logic of the operation was that it be limited in time and not be extended.
“And then I lost all logical connection with the events. I understood that there was a deviation from the plan that was based on some sort of false feeling that there is a military means to pulverize Hezbollah and bring about its dismantlement and disappearance. Because the goals of the war were not defined and because no one clarified what the army is capable of doing and what it cannot do, the pursuit began of an impossible achievement. Instead of sticking to the IDF’s operative plan, they started to improvise. They improvised, improvised and then improvised again. Instead of grabbing political achievements at the right moment, they went on with the use of force. The excessive use of force in a situation like this is ruinous. It becomes a two-edged sword. When you turn a screw and reach a certain point you have to stop. If you keep going you end up pulling it out: you open instead of closing. That is what happened here.”
The following is a savage critique of the entire Israeli strategy of facing down Hezbollah in its populated strongholds:
So you believe the Bint Jbail move was also mistaken?
“Bint Jbail was imposed by the chief of staff. There was no orderly plan here. There was no dialogue between the General Staff and Northern Command and the field levels. The idea to capture Bint Jbail was born out of the desperate attempt to create a picture of victory, because Bint Jbail is a symbol. Because that’s where Nasrallah made his ‘spider webs’ speech. But it was clear that this was folly. Why are you even messing with a built-up area? Seize the dominating terrain. Use infantry according to the original plan. Don’t enter killing areas in which Hezbollah is waiting for you. Listen to the command levels that are telling you that this is a mistake.”
Here, Yaalon enters the delicate territory of what you say to the young Israelis who followed orders and were sent into a Hezbollah death trap basically for naught:
Your wife’s nephew was seriously wounded in the land skirmishes in the village of Debel.
“The question that arises from Moran [his wife’s nephew] and from his buddies is a simple one: Why? I am familiar with the loss of friends in war. And with bereaved families, and with serious wounds. But if it is clear why and for what, it’s easier. And here the young soldiers were sent to execute a mission whose logic and purpose were not clear to them. Nor did they understand why they found themselves in a house when it was clear to them that it wasn’t smart to enter houses. When Moran was drafted I told his father one thing: no tanks and no houses – I was that aware of the antitank threat. And when he shouted there, ‘Don’t send us into houses,’ nobody listened. Two antitank missiles entered the house, leaving nine killed and 32 wounded.
“So he and his buddies are asking why. Why the mistake in the tactical execution. And why the entering and leaving villages. And I, with them, also ask why. Yes, in war people are killed, wounded. But that is why the political echelon and the military echelon have to make their decisions in the most judicious and precise way. Not to get carried away. Not to act emotionally. Not to kick a wall with a bare foot. Because when you kick a wall with a bare foot the satisfaction of the kick lasts exactly as long as it takes for the foot to make contact with the wall. After that the foot is broken, while the wall continues to stand. And what happens in the meantime is not only that soldiers are killed. What happens is that the most basic element that leadership needs is eroded: trust. And that is what happened here. The trust of the soldiers and the commanders in the political echelon and in the senior command was eroded.”
In Israeli society, the IDF maintains a delicate balance with politics. It is ostensibly insulated from politics by civilian management. In truth, the boundary between military and politics is quite ambiguous. Many Israelis believe that the IDF essentially runs the nation’s security policy with a virtual carte blanche.
Certainly, the IDF senior echelon plays an over-sized role in political life after retirement from the army filling the ranks of prime minister and defense minister to an inordinate degree. The U.S. thankfully does not have such a tradition. Besides it’s a lot more lucrative for U.S. ex-generals to go to work for the defense industry than to go into politics.
In this passage, Yaalon decries the politicization of the military echelon, including the system of promotions, observed under Sharon’s reign:
“I see a war of cultures here. In recent years the public sector in Israel has undergone a process of corruption. It began in politics but, regrettably, also penetrated the army. A cycle of discussion has been created here in which the core is not the essence but marketing. In the war we paid a price for that. We paid a price for disengaging from the truth. We paid a price for the loss of integrity and the moral fog. We paid a price for accepting a process in which officers are promoted because they have political connections.”
Allow me to translate. You are saying, in effect, that Ariel Sharon’s ‘Ranch Forum’ corrupted the top level of the IDF.
“I have no doubt of that.”
You are arguing that the chief of staff and his deputy were appointed to their positions because they are close to the Ranch Forum.
“That is what the papers said.”
And this corruption, which has its origins in the Ranch Forum, caused many of the ills that were exposed in the war?
“The present chief of staff is a very talented person. He was an excellent commander of the air force. But there is a moral debate here. He carries with him a problematic message. The connection of officers to politics is undesirable. It is a corrupt connection. There is a problem today in the IDF of very senior officers who are too close to political elements.”
Yaalon also detects a ‘culture of complacency’ in the IDF which allowed it to become diverted from where its attention should have been focused:
The senior command distanced itself from details, and when the senior command does that it creates laxness. You get slackness. The muscle tone changes. At the same time, the processes of deep thought were severed. A clear message was conveyed that everyone has to toe the line. That decisions are made before the discussion and not in its course. Too much value was attributed to charisma, to the speed with which decisions are made. Anyone who held a different view was distanced or silenced. An unhealthy spirit emerged of not being meticulous and of not making an effort. Of uniformity of opinion and of complacency. And worst of all: a feeling was created that anyone who preserved rectitude and integrity was liable not to be promoted. A feeling was created that anyone seeking promotion has to cross the lines and join the spinfest and learn how to serve the politicians. That is why the chief of staff cannot now put the IDF through a rehabilitation of values. Because he reflects saliently the flawed culture of values from which release is needed, which has to be cleansed.”
This is a man who certainly wants to be the next defense minister if not prime minister. Let us hope that if that happens the sentiments expressed here will not fly out the window. Any Israeli politician who carries into his policy deliberations the caution expressed here will be an exceedingly wise leader.
But unfortunately, history is littered with the bodies of generals and politicians who once spoke wise thoughts only later to perform foul deeds. I certainly hope that Yaalon is not one of them because Israel desperately needs the insights laid out in this interview.