Spring 2004


  Chiefs of Staff Use University Forum to Air Views on Israel’s National Security
Current Chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, is graduate of the University’s National Security Studies M.A. program

What do the present and two former chiefs-of-staff of the Israel Defense Forces have to say about Israel’s national security?  To find out, the University’s National Security Studies Center sponsored a seminar series featuring each of the chiefs, with time at the end for questions from the audience.  In each case, the security was tight on entering the packed, 400-seat Hecht Auditorium.

        Former Chief-of-Staff and present Minister of Defense Shaul Mofaz, who led off the series in November,  placed great emphasis on the country’s resiliency as a source of its strength.  This, he said, surprised the Palestinians, as well as some of Israel’s enemies that are not in direct confrontation with it, because there have been more civilian than military casualties in the past three years. 

        Mofaz warned, in this connection, against harming the lowest socio-economic classes.  “When the security situation improves,” he added, “it will improve their situation even more than an economic program, which cannot substitute for security.”  He believes that “security will lead to peace, not the reverse.”

        He revealed that when there was a shortage of officers, the IDF went to the country’s peripheral regions and offered to finance the education of potential officer material from these areas.  The special recruitment program started with 90 soldiers and now has 1200, 40% of whom, he said, are outstanding students.  “We have to extend a hand to those who want to do more and can’t,” he remarked, adding that this attitude also applied to immigrant absorption.  “Aliyah has an influence on our security,” he said.  “We have to provide resources to help them [new immigrants] absorb.”

        The Defense Minister said that Israel was updating its defense concept, a process that would take about a year.  “There is no place in our region for the weak,” he told his audience, “so we must be strong.”  In his opinion, this means investing in “quality human capital” from the kindergarten up, in addition to amending Israel’s security concept militarily.

        Former Chief-of-Staff and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was next in the line-up of the seminar series at the end of December, charged that two of the three legs of the tripod on which Israel's security stands were missing.  Though acknowledging there was intense fighting against terrorism, he charged the Sharon government with not supplying the two other legs of the strategy tripod.  One was very intensive construction and rapid completion of the security fence, which he thought was being built only hesitantly and even negligently.  The fence, in his view, would guarantee Israel's security and include 80% of the settlers though only 10% of the territories. 

        "Two and a half years were wasted in not building the fence," he said, blaming the government for lacking the courage in facing up to the Americans.    He emphasized his call for an immediate separation from the Palestinians. 

The other missing leg was an open door for negotiations without prior conditions.  "Without this," Barak warned, "there is no chance to obtain the world's agreement or that of the United States [to Israel's actions].”

        The missing two legs of this tripod, the former prime minister stressed, would show the world that any unilateral step taken by Israel was defensive in nature.

       One of Barak's great fears is that the Palestinians will begin to say no to a two-state solution.   There are, he cautioned, already Palestinians who want only one state in the hope that they can democratically take it over on the model of South Africa.

        Current Chief-of-Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, who closed the seminar series, voiced the opinion that Israel had to tighten its special relationship with the United States, meaning deepening its dependence on the world’s only superpower at the expense of its own maneuvering space.  The nature of the international terrorist threat, he advised, obligated this imbalance.  It also demanded more intelligence cooperation with the U.S.

Israel’s top soldier dismissed as irrelevant in its current war on terrorism the use of a large, blitzkrieg-type force.  On the contrary, sometimes using too much force has acted against us, he said.  The need was for superior military intelligence and special forces. Another key component was national resiliency and stamina. 

Commenting that no agreement existed in Israeli society on a diagnosis of the war with the Palestinians and its aims, Ya’alon stated that such a situation made things much more difficult for Israeli soldiers fighting this war.  Incidents of IDF soldiers wounding or killing unarmed Israeli and foreign protestors against the security fence being built provided a telling backdrop to this admission.  In a recent case, he said by way of justifying the action taken shortly before his talk in early January, there had been intelligence on a potential suicide bomber. 

Though stressing that “we are fighting Palestinian terrorism, not the Palestinian people,” Ya’alon explained that if the IDF encircled Nablus, it was because the greatest threat came from there.  “Every day there is an attempt to send suicide bombers from Nablus to Israeli society,” he said. But, he admitted, “we also pay a price.  The encirclement [which theoretically keeps the city’s residents penned in] causes hatred of us.  It also demands of us an economic cost.”

The chief of staff acknowledged that the image of power, including atomic power, has deterred Arab states from employing weapons of mass destruction against Israel.  Rather than engaging Israel directly, he said, “the other side has been trying attrition tactics to weaken Israel’s nerve.  Suicide bombers and Qassam rockets are aimed at the civilian population.  Our perseverance is seen as the weak link in the chain.”

 Ya’alon asked rhetorically, “How does the other side see us?”  Their answer, in his view: “Israel is strong from afar, but up close it will collapse because it is not willing to fight anymore.”    

“It is in this context that we must see the struggle with the Palestinians,” he concluded.


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