February 22, 2016 - Olmert, Eizenkot

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s tenure as head of government; the ramifications of IDF Chief of the General Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaking out against excessive use of force by soldiers and police in dealing with knife attacks by Palestinian youth; and two key issues of domestic and international sensitivity that his comments point to.

Q. Israel just sent a former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to prison on charges of graft and breach of trust. Assuming this is the end of his political career (though in Israel you never know; look at Aryeh Deri), how would you evaluate Olmert’s tenure as head of government?

A. On the eve of his incarceration, Olmert himself pointed out that he had not been accused of malfeasance connected to his time as premier--only to earlier offices he held. Of course, he denied the charges related to those earlier offices too. Still, this leaves us with three “clean” years as prime minister, 2006-2009.

On balance, and with a few years of retrospect, those years leave a relatively positive legacy in terms of Israel’s strategic health. Three accomplishments stand out.

One, which Israel has never openly acknowledged, was the 2007 attack that destroyed a weapons-grade nuclear reactor that Syria had almost completed constructing in its northeast with North Korean assistance. Olmert had to face down reservations about the attack within Israeli security circles and deal with US President George W. Bush’s refusal to tackle the reactor issue himself. This was a courageous and ultimately vital decision in view of what ultimately happened to Syria. It deserves pride of place alongside PM Menachem Begin’s 1981 decision to send the Israel Air Force to destroy Iraq’s Osiraq reactor.

A second, more controversial accomplishment was the Second Lebanon War of summer 2006. It started badly and seemed to end inconclusively. It portrayed Olmert’s defense minister (Amir Peretz) and IDF chief of staff (Dan Halutz) as hapless amateurs. The prime minister himself came across at the time as utterly lacking in the kind of security experience necessary to manage such a conflict situation. And yet today, nearly ten years later, Olmert, Peretz and Halutz can claim that they succeeded beyond expectations in deterring Hezbollah from attacking Israel. They can even point to the fact that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has lived in hiding ever since.

True, for some three years now Hezbollah has been tied down defending Syria’s Assad regime, causing Nasrallah recently to declare openly that he had no intention of attacking Israel. Yet even before Hezbollah entered the fray in Syria it sat quietly, apparently heavily deterred by the events of 2006.

(Halutz, incidentally, was never forgiven by the public for his mistakes in 2006 and particularly his arrogant rhetoric; the modest Peretz, in contrast, is credited for creating Israel’s anti-rocket missile defenses precisely because as a civilian defense minister in 2006 he was attuned to the vulnerability of Israel’s civilian rear that the war exposed and the security establishment of the day belittled.)

Third, Olmert spearheaded Israel’s most audacious attempt yet to achieve a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Often termed the Annapolis Process and shepherded quite energetically by the Bush administration, it involved a prolonged series of one-on-one meetings between Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that culminated in Israel’s most far-reaching peace proposal to date--offered by Olmert when he was a “lame duck” prime minister under threat of indictment, and rejected by Abbas.

In recent statements, Olmert has intimated that his political enemies were responsible for this failure: they cooked up the corruption charges against him precisely in order to prevent him from making peace with the Palestinians, and they persuaded Abbas not to credit his peace proposals. Neither of these charges holds water; both take away some of the luster from what Olmert, admirably, tried to do on the peace front in 2008.

Olmert will also be remembered for two controversial acts regarding Gaza. As deputy prime minister under Ariel Sharon, Olmert was the first senior Israeli politician (before Sharon) to campaign for unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip--a move considered controversial to this day. And as prime minister, he presided over a war with Hamas in Gaza in 2008-2009 that would be counted as the first of three such encounters (so far) that ended without a conclusive outcome.

The Gaza offensive, incidentally, caused Turkey to withdraw mediation efforts it had been devoting to a peace effort between Israel and Syria. How much progress toward peace can Olmert take credit for on the Syrian front? Apparently not much, though he deserves praise here too for trying, and we don’t yet know all the details.

 

Q. Last week IDF Chief of the General Staff Gadi Eisenkot spoke out courageously against excessive use of force by soldiers and police in dealing with knife attacks by Palestinian youth. Israel’s right wing didn’t like it. What are the ramifications?

A. Eisenkot carefully avoided public exposure during his first year leading the IDF. Only recently has he begun speaking out--courageously taking on extremely controversial issues and emerging as a voice of reason and caution in an otherwise hawkish and hyper-nationalistic atmosphere. A month ago he pointed out that the Iran nuclear deal offered not only drawbacks but strategic advantages for Israel, thereby marking himself as at least a partial critic of the Netanyahu line.

Last week, in responding to questions from high school students preparing for military service, Eisenkot addressed the issue of soldiers firing on teenage Palestinian boys and girls threatening them and stated that “the IDF cannot speak in slogans such as ‘if someone comes to kill you, arise to kill them first’ or ‘everyone who carries scissors should be killed’. He specifically condemned an incident wherein a soldier “emptied a magazine” into a 14-year old girl wielding a scissors from across a barrier and noted that troops can respond this way only when there is a clear threat to life.

Eisenkot’s remarks drew sharp criticism from a number of right-wing ministers and settler leaders, some of whom accused him of obliging soldiers to drop their guard dangerously. He was backed vehemently by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a bit less resolutely by Education Minister Naftali Bennet (who merely but correctly pointed out that Eisenkot was reiterating standing IDF orders) and, after waiting four days, by PM Netanyahu, who was obviously anxious to draw the line on an incident that endangered government unity.

As Yediot Aharonot columnist Nachum Barnea noted on Sunday, Yaalon and Bennet, both veteran IDF commanders, “know how to distinguish between a smart finger and a light finger on the trigger,” whereas in contrast Deputy FM Tzipi Hotoveli, who sharply criticized Eisenkot, “chose not to serve in the IDF and instead do national service in the army of the Jewish Agency in Atlanta, [and] has no difficulty shooting everything that moves.”

Beyond the immediate ricochets, however, and even beyond the reassuring news that the IDF is in responsible hands at a time of considerable turmoil both across Israel’s borders and in Israeli-Palestinian relations, Eisenkot’s remark and the reaction it provoked point to two key issues of great domestic and international sensitivity.

 

Q. What’s the domestic issue?

A. Eisenkot finds himself dealing with Palestinian attacks on Israelis for which the Netanyahu government has no effective response, political or otherwise. The use of force does not deter such youthful attackers: according to the Shin Bet General Security Service, 37 percent of them are aged 16-20, another 10 percent are under 16, and virtually none were known to the authorities from previous incidents.  In the absence of any political process whatsoever that might give hope to Palestinian youth who will otherwise act suicidally out of despair, the IDF and Yaalon consistently favor economic incentives such as avoiding prolonged punitive “closure” of Palestinian villages and loosening restrictions on Palestinians working in Israel. The Shin Bet points out that the percentage of those working legally or even illegally in Israel who engage in attacks is negligible. Yet even on these issues the IDF encounters criticism from right-wingers in the government.

Meanwhile, we end up with a right-wing, settler-dominated government that refuses to term this wave of Palestinian attacks, now totaling nearly 300 since they began some four months ago, an “intifada” lest this highlight the government’s inability to stop it. This same government, or parts thereof, then turns on the responsible adult who seeks to rein in the excessive force employed by soldiers and police whose violent response it has been egging on. As Barnea notes, Israel’s right wingers need “someone to bear responsibility for the situation. They’ve exhausted [their attacks on] human rights organizations, Arab members of Knesset, the European Union, the United Nations. They are out of ammunition. For lack of an alternative they have piled on the chief of staff.”

Here another interesting aspect of the current wave of violence bears noting. While there appear to be no relevant statistics available, anyone paying attention these past months knows that a large percentage of Palestinian attacks are directed not at Israeli civilians but at soldiers, police and border police. Based on any definition I am aware of, these are acts of warfare, not terrorism (which is violence directed at civilians, not soldiers, to achieve a political aim). This, too, is a reality the Netanyahu government and its supporters are simply not competent to deal with.

 

Q. And the international issue?

A. A few weeks ago, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom was roundly condemned in Israel for intimating that Israeli security forces were carrying out extra-judicial executions of Palestinian attackers. While Eisenkot is to be commended for courageously calling out security force excesses, and without in any way diminishing the hard, instantaneous decisions that endangered soldiers and police sometimes have to make, it seems impossible not to acknowledge on the basis of Eisenkot’s remarks that at least in some isolated instances Wallstrom may have a point.

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