18 April 2002

Israel: the generals’ grand design Tanya Reinhart

Sharon’s present strategy of fighting the Palestinians to the last and imposing a new regional order follows the long-term vision of Israel’s political generals. For them, the failure of the Oslo peace process was not just inevitable, but a goal.

In conventional political discourse, Israel’s recent attacks on Palestinian civilians, villages, and governmental institutions are described as “retaliatory acts”. They are justified as a “response” to the latest wave of terror attacks on Israeli civilians. In fact, these “retaliatory measures” are part of a systematic assault on the Palestinian Authority that was carefully prepared long before the current “war on terrorism.” As far back as October 2000, at the outset of the Palestinian uprising and before the terror attacks had started, military circles in Israel had prepared detailed operative plans to topple Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

In a statement published in Israel’s major newspaper, Ha’aretz, on 18 October 2001, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared, “Oslo [ the peace accord] is not continuing; there won’t be Oslo; Oslo is over.” Oslo is now widely considered in Israel to be “an historical mistake.” Since March of 2001, the Israeli media has openly discussed plans to re-establish full military control of the territories.

Alex Fishman, the senior security correspondent for Yediot Aharonot, has explained that, after the Oslo accords, “The IDF (The Israeli Defence Force, or Israeli army) regarded the occupied territories as if they were one territorial cell,” and that this placed some constraints on the IDF and enabled a certain amount of freedom for the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian population.

Now, however, the army has returned to a concept of military administration that prevailed in the pre-Oslo years. They planned to divide the occupied territories into sixty-four isolated cells, each of which will be assigned a special military force, and “the local commander will have freedom to use his discretion” as to when and whom to shoot – the aim being to isolate Palestinian communities from each other, in preparation for a full takeover.

The apparent change in the official Israeli position on Oslo did not occur as a result of Palestinian terrorism. The first Palestinian attack on Israeli civilians in the current uprising did not occur until 3 November 2000, in a Jerusalem market. Yet a month earlier, on 15 October, 2000, a document prepared by the security services at the request of then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak stated that “Arafat, the person, is a severe threat to the security of the state [of Israel] and the damage which will result from his disappearance is less than the damage caused by his existence” (details of this document were published in Ma’ariv on 6 July, 2001).

The operative plan to topple Arafat, known as “Fields of Thorns,” had been prepared as far back as 1996, and was then updated in early 2000 once the Intifada began, as reported by Amir Oren in Ha’aretz on 23 November, 2001. The “Field of Thorns” plan includes everything that Israel is currently executing and more. (For details of the “Field of Thorns” plan see Anthony Cordesman, “Peace and War: Israel versus the Palestinians. A second Intifada?” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), December 2000, and its summary in Shraga Eilam, “Peace With Violence or Transfer” in Between The Lines, December 2000.)

Starting in the Autumn of 2000, politicians and functionaries in then Prime Minister Barak’s circles worked on preparing public opinion for the eventual toppling of Arafat. A key step in that propaganda war occurred on 20 November 2000, when Nahman Shai, then public-affairs coordinator of the Barak government, released a sixty-page document prepared by Barak’s aide, Danny Yatom, titled “Palestinian Authority non-compliance… A record of bad faith and misconduct.” Informally referred to as the “White Book,” this document argued that Arafat’s present crime – “orchestrating the Intifada” – was just the latest in a long chain of evidence that showed, it alleged, that Arafat had never deserted the “option of violence and struggle.”

Here is an example of the sort of evidence the “White Book” cites: “As early as Arafat’s own speech on the White House lawn, on13 September, 1993, there were indications that for him, the D.O.P. [declaration of principles] did not necessarily signify an end to the conflict. He did not, at any point, relinquish his uniform, symbolic of his status as a revolutionary commander” (Section 2). It’s true that Arafat wore the uniform on that occasion. This uniform, however, is the only “evidence” that the report can cite of Arafat’s hidden war-like intentions on an occasion that readers will recall was part of the Camp David peace process.

A large section of the “White Book” is devoted to establishing Arafat’s “ambivalence and compliance” regarding terror. Here’s an example: “In March 1997 there was once again more than a hint of a ‘Green Light’ from Arafat to the Hamas, prior to the bombing in Tel Aviv… This is implicit in the statement made by a Hamas-affiliated member of Arafat’s Cabinet, Imad Faluji, to an American paper (Miami Herald, April 5, 1997).” No further “hints” are provided to link Arafat to this bombing.

One wonders what history would look like if every statement by an opposition member of the Israeli Cabinet were taken to reflect the views of the Israeli Prime Minister. (Because of the nature of its coalition governments almost all Israeli Cabinets contain members from parties in contention with the Prime Minister of the day.) Yet these kinds of accusations – particularly that Arafat has given the “green light to terror” – succeeded in becoming the mantra for mainstream Israeli propaganda: “Arafat is still a terrorist and is personally responsible for the acts of all groups, from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to Hizbollah.”

From Barak to Sharon

If the Barak administration paved the propaganda path, the plans to oust Arafat grew more detailed under Ariel Sharon. The Foreign Report of 12 July, 2001 disclosed that the Israeli army had updated its plans for an “all-out assault to smash the Palestinian authority, force out leader Yasser Arafat and kill or detain its army.”

Entitled, “The Destruction of the Palestinian Authority and Disarmament of All Armed Forces,” this plan was formally presented to the Israeli government by chief of staff Shaul Mofaz on 8 July 2001. In this plan, the Israeli assault on Arafat would be launched, at the government’s discretion, after a big suicide bomb attack in Israel had caused widespread deaths and injuries; the bomb attack would be cited as the justification for the Israeli attack.

Many in Israel suspect that the assassination of the Hamas terrorist Mahmoud Abu Hanoud in November 2001 was designed to create the appropriate “bloodshed justification.” The timing, in any case, is deeply suspect.

First, Abu Hanoud was assassinated just when the Hamas was upholding its two-month-old agreement with Arafat not to attack targets inside of Israel. Second, the assassination took place on the eve of Sharon’s visit to the United States. Few in the Israeli government would not have been aware that the assassination would almost certainly result in a terrorist response. Indeed, Alex Fishman reported this publicly when he observed: “Whoever decided upon the liquidation of Abu Hanoud knew in advance that [a terrorist attack inside of Israel] would be the price. The subject was extensively discussed both by Israel’s military echelon and its political one, before it was decided to carry out the liquidation” (Yediot Aharonot, 25 November, 2001).

So Israel’s recent moves to destroy the Palestinian Authority, as described among others by Paul Rogers in last week’s openDemocracy, cannot be viewed as spontaneous “acts of retaliation.” They should be seen as part of a calculated plan, long in the making. This plan first required a propaganda war against Arafat, which was begun under Barak. The next step was to weaken the resistance of the Palestinians, which Israel has been doing systematically since October 2000 through bombarding their infrastructure, imprisoning people in their hometowns, and bringing them close to starvation. All Israel needed to complete the plan was for international conditions to “ripen,” permitting Israel to act without effective disapproval from the United States and various world bodies.

By December 2001, conditions seem to have “ripened” thanks to the power-drunk political atmosphere in the United States. If, at first, it seemed that the United States would try to keep the Arab world on its side by moderating the Israel-Palestine conflict as it did during the Gulf War in 1993, it now appears that it couldn’t care less. US policy is no longer based on building coalitions or investing in persuasion, but on sheer force. The smashing “victory” in Afghanistan has sent a clear message to the Third World that nothing can stop the United States from ruining any nation it targets. From now on, fear should be the sufficient condition for obedience.

The US hawks who are pushing to expand the war on terrorism to Iraq – and further – view Israel as an asset. There are few regimes in the world like Israel, so eager to risk the life of their citizens for some new regional war. As Prof. Alain Joxe, head of the French CIRPES (Centre for Peace and Strategic studies) put it in Le Monde, “the American leadership is presently shaped by dangerous right-wing Southern extremists, who seek to use Israel as an offensive tool to destabilize the whole Middle East area” (17 December, 2001). The same hawks are also talking about expanding the future war zone to targets on Israel’s agenda, like Hezbollah and Syria.

Under these circumstances, Sharon got his green light in Washington. The Israeli media chorus incessantly reinforces this in a way that also feeds back into US politics: “Bush is fed up with this character [Arafat]”; “Powell said that Arafat must stop with his lies” (Barnea and Schiffer, Yediot Aharonot).

But since December Arafat has been – for all practical purposes – under house arrest, surrounded by Israeli tanks. Even so, he has tried to appease the Israelis: to no avail. On 17 December, from his bunker, Arafat issued a televised call to all organizations to refrain from any terror or armed activities. The various Palestinian organizations complied, understanding the gravity of the situation, and a relative calm was maintained. Sharon, apparently needed a further “bloodshed justification” to advance his re-occupation plan. He ordered the assassination of another Palestinian leader on 14 January – Raed Karmi, head of a Tul Karem militia belonging to the mainstream Fatah organization. The horrible revenge taken by Palestinian militants – the bombing of a bat mitzvah celebration in Hadera – did not take long to follow.

Arafat’s security record

But what is the rationale behind Israel’s systematic drive to eliminate the Palestinian Authority and undo the Oslo accords? It certainly cannot be based on “disappointment” with Arafat’s performance, as is commonly claimed. The fact of the matter is that, from the perspective of Israel’s interests in maintaining its domination of the West Bank, Arafat did fulfil Israel’s expectations.

As far as Israeli security goes, the accusations in the “White Book” and subsequent Israeli propaganda that Arafat has aided the cause of the terrorists, could hardly be further from the truth. To take just one example, in 1997 – the year mentioned in the “White Book” as an instance of Arafat’s “green light to terror” – a security agreement was signed between Israel and the Palestinian authority under the auspices of the head of the Tel Aviv station of the CIA, Stan Muskovitz.

The agreement commits the PA to take active care of the security of Israel – to fight “the terrorists, the terrorist base, and the environmental conditions leading to support of terror” in co-operation with Israel, including “mutual exchange of information, ideas, and military cooperation” (clause 1, as translated from the Hebrew text by Ha’aretz, 12 December, 1997).

Arafat’s security services carried out this job faithfully, by assassinating Hamas terrorists (disguised as “accidents”), and arresting Hamas political leaders. (For a survey of some of the PA’s assassinations of Hamas terrorists, see my article “The A-Sherif Affair,” Yediot Aharonot, 14 April, 1998.)

Ample information was published in the Israeli media regarding these activities, while the “security sources” were full of praises for Arafat’s achievements. For example, Ami Ayalon, then head of the Israeli secret service (Shab’ak), announced, in a government meeting on 5 April, 1998 that “Arafat is doing his job – he is fighting terror and puts all his weight against the Hamas” (Ha’aretz, 6 April, 1998). The rate of success of the Israeli security services in containing terror was never higher than that of Arafat; in fact, it was probably much lower.

Indeed it is because Arafat worked so hard to answer Israeli demands that one can hardly find any compassion for Arafat’s personal fate (as opposed to the tragedy of the Palestinian people), in the writings of those critical of the Israeli Right. Their position was well summed up by David Hirst, writing in The Guardian on 14 December, 2001:

“When Arafat returned to the occupied territories in 1994, he came as collaborator as much as liberator. For the Israelis, security – theirs, not the Palestinians’ – was the be-all and end-all of Oslo. His job was to supply it on their behalf. But he could only sustain the collaborator’s role if he won the political quid pro quo which, through a series of ‘interim agreements’ leading to ‘final status’, was supposedly to come his way. He never could. … [Along the road], he acquiesced in accumulating concessions that only widened the gulf between what he was actually achieving and what he assured his people he would achieve, by this method, in the end. He was Mr. Palestine still, with a charisma and historical legitimacy all his own. But he was proving to be grievously wanting in that other great and complementary task, building his state-in-the-making. Economic misery, corruption, abuse of human rights, the creation of a vast apparatus of repression – all these flowed, wholly or in part, from the Authority over which he presided.”

From the perspective of the Israeli occupation, however, Arafat’s failures meant that the Oslo plan was, essentially, successful. Arafat did manage, through harsh means of oppression, to contain the frustration of his people, and to guarantee the safety of the settlers, as Israel continued undisturbed to build new settlements and to appropriate more Palestinian land.

Indeed, Arafat’s own security forces were formed and trained in collaboration with Israel. Much energy and resources were put into building the Palestinian side of the post-Oslo apparatus. It is often admitted that Israeli security forces cannot manage to prevent terror any better than Arafat can. Why, then, was the military and political echelon so determined to destroy all this in October 2000, even before the terror waves started?

Some history is needed to answer this question.

Another view of Oslo

Right from the start of the Oslo process, in September 1993, two conceptions were competing for dominance in the Israeli political and military system. One, led by Yossi Beilin, aimed to implement some version of the Alon plan, which the Labor party has been advocating for years. The original plan consisted of annexing to Israel about thirty-five per cent of the territories occupied in 1967, and installing either Jordanian-rule, or some form of self-rule, for the rest – the land on which the Palestinians actually live.

In the eyes of its proponents, the Beilin/Alon plan represented a necessary compromise, compared to the alternatives of either giving up the territories altogether, or eternal bloodshed. It appeared that Rabin was willing to follow this line, at least at the start, and that in return for Arafat’s commitment to control the frustration of his people and guarantee the security of Israel, he would allow the PA to run the enclaves in which the Palestinians still reside under some form of self-rule – perhaps even going to the point of calling these enclaves a Palestinian “state.”

But those opposed to the Alon plan objected even to that much. This second camp came mostly from military circles, and their most vocal spokesman in the early years of Oslo was then Chief of Staff, Ehud Barak. Another center of opposition was, of course, Ariel Sharon and the extreme right-wing, who were against the Oslo process from the start.

This affinity between the military circles and Sharon is hardly surprising. Sharon – the last of the leaders of the “1948 generation” was a legendary figure in the army, and many of the generals, like Barak, were his disciples. As Amir Oren wrote in Ha’aretz in January 1999, “Barak’s deep and abiding admiration for Ariel Sharon’s military insights is another indication of his views; Barak and Sharon both belong to a line of political generals that started with Moshe Dayan.”

This breed of generals was raised on the myth of redemption of the land. A glimpse into this worldview is offered in Sharon’s interview with Ari Shavit in the Ha’aretz weekend supplement of 13 April 2001. Everything is entangled into one romantic framework: the fields, the blossom of the orchards, the plough, and the wars. The heart of this ideology is the sanctity of the land.

In a 1976 interview that was only published in 1997, Moshe Dayan, who was the Defence Minister in 1967, explained what led, then, to the decision to attack Syria. In the collective Israeli consciousness of the period, Syria was conceived as a serious threat to the security of Israel, and a constant initiator of aggression towards the residents of northern Israel. But according to Dayan, this view of the role of Syria in those years is “bull-shit” – Syria was not a threat to Israel before 1967: “Just drop it. … I know how at least eighty per cent of all the incidents with Syria started. We were sending a tractor to the demilitarized zone and we knew that the Syrians would shoot.”

According to Dayan (who at a time of the interview confessed some regrets), what led Israel to provoke Syria this way was the greediness for the land it – the idea that it is possible “to grab a piece of land and keep it, until the enemy will get tired and give it to us”, Yediot Aharonot, 27 April, 1997).

On the eve of Oslo, most Israelis were tired of wars. In their eyes, the fights over land and resources were over. Most Israelis believe that the 1948 Independence War, with its horrible consequences for the Palestinians, was necessary to establish a state for the Jews, haunted by the memory of the Holocaust. But now that they have a state, most Israelis long to just live normally with whatever they have.

However, the ideology of the redemption of land has never died out in the army, or in the circles of the “political generals” who switched from the army to the government. In their eyes, Sharon’s alternative of fighting the Palestinians to the bitter end and imposing new regional order – as he tried in Lebanon in 1982 – only failed because of the weakness of a spoiled Israeli society. They hoped for and worked for a new war-philosophy. They saw this being established in Iraq, Kosovo, and now Afghanistan. Militarily, they believe that with the massive superiority of the Israeli air force, it is possible to win and police a permanent victory in the future.

While Sharon’s party was in the opposition at the time of Oslo, Barak, as Chief of Staff, participated in the negotiations and played a crucial role in shaping the agreements, and Israel’s attitude to the Palestinian Authority. Did he change his mind as he entered the negotiations, and become a supporter of the Beilin/Alon position of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence? It is more likely that Barak believed that Oslo would weaken the Palestinians and pave the way for their eventual destruction.

I quote from an article I wrote in February 1994, because it reflects what anybody who carefully read the Israeli media could see at the time: “From the start, it has been possible to identify two conceptions that underlie the Oslo process. One is that the process will enable us to reduce the cost of the occupation, using a Palestinian patronage regime, with Arafat as the senior cop responsible for the security of Israel. The other is that the process will lead to the collapse of Arafat and the PLO. In this scenario, the humiliation of Arafat, and the amplification of his surrender, will gradually lead to loss of popular support. Consequently, the PLO will collapse, or enter power conflicts and Palestinian society will lose its secular leadership and institutions.

Fixing the grave mistakes of Oslo

“In the power-driven minds of those eager to maintain the Israeli occupation, the collapse of a secular Palestinian leadership would be interpreted as an achievement, because it would take a long while for the Palestinian people to get organized again, and, in any case, it is easier to justify even the worst acts of oppression when the enemy is a fanatic Muslim organization. Most likely, the conflict between the two competing conceptions is not settled yet, but at the moment, the second seems more dominant: In order to carry out the first, Arafat’s status should have been strengthened, with at least some achievements that could generate support of the Palestinians, rather then Israel’s policy of constant humiliation and breach of promises.”

But the collapse of the PA did not materialize. Instead, Palestinians resorted once more to their marvelous strategy of zumud – sticking to the land and sustaining the pressure. Right from the start, the Hamas political leadership, and others, warned that Israel was trying to push the Palestinians into a civil war, to make the nation slaughter itself. All fragments of Palestinian society cooperated to prevent this danger, and to calm conflicts as soon as they began to deteriorate into armed struggle. They also managed, despite the tyranny of Arafat’s rule, to build an impressive amount of institutions and infrastructure.

The PA does not consist only of the corrupt rulers and the various security forces. The elected Palestinian council, which operates under endless restrictions, is still a representative political framework and a basis for democratic institutions in the future. For those whose goal is the destruction of the Palestinian identity and the eventual redemption of their land, Oslo became a failure.

In 1999, the Army got back to power, through the so-called “political generals” – first Barak, and then Sharon. The road was opened to correct what they continue to view as the grave mistake of Oslo. To fix this “mistake,” it was first necessary for the generals to convince a “spoiled” Israeli society that the Palestinians are not willing to live in peace and instead threaten our existence. Sharon alone could not possibly have achieved that.

But Barak did succeed by making a so-called “generous offer”, an offer that Palestinians and others supportive of Palestinian rights, immediately understood to be a fraud. (See also Michael Lerner’s editorial in the September/October 2001 issue of Tikkun, and Reinhart’s article, “The Peace That Kills”.)

After a year of horrible Palestinian terror attacks, combined with the Israeli generals’ massive propaganda and lies and now with US approval for action against terrorists, Sharon and the army feel that nothing can stop them from turning to full execution of their plan.

Why is it so urgent for them to topple Arafat? Shabtai Shavit, a former head of the Security Service (“Mossad”) who is not bound by the usual restraints posed on official sources, explained this openly in a December 2001 interview in Yediot’s weekend supplement: “In the thirty something years that he [Arafat] leads, he managed to reach real achievements in the political and international sphere… He got the Nobel peace prize, and in a single phone call, he can obtain a meeting with every leader in the world. There is nobody in the Palestinian gallery that can enter his shoes in this context of international status. If they [the Palestinians] will lose this gain, for us, this is a huge achievement. The Palestinian issue will get off the international agenda.”

Israel’s immediate goal is to get the Palestinians off the international agenda so that the killing, starvation, forced evacuation, and forced “migration” of the Palestinian people can continue undisturbed.

Concerned opinion around the world has tended to see Israeli politics as divided between secular, democratic politicians and religious extremists. There is a third force, the political generals. They are secular and believe in the supremacy of force. In a way, a slow, military coup, albeit one that has organised popular support behind it, has taken place in Israel.

From Wellington to Eisenhower and de Gaulle, generals have become legitimate political leaders. But in doing so they have put their army behind them. In Israel’s case it seems increasingly that the generals have moved into politics in order to put the society behind the army. This is an issue needing close attention. I have sought to analyse it in a recent book (‘Detruire La Palestine, ou comment terminer la guerre de 1948’, La Fabrique, France, April 2002) and will be returning to it in next week’s issue of openDemocracy.

A way out

In contrast to the spirit of blood and revenge now dominating Israeli public discourse, for years there has been a wide consensus in Israeli society that peace with the Palestinians requires withdrawal from the occupied territories and evacuation of the settlements. Many of the supporters of such a withdrawal did become confused and paralyzed by Barak’s offer and the massive propaganda surrounding that offer. But a process of sobering up has begun. According to a poll published in Ha’aretz, (4 July 2001) forty per cent of Israelis support the evacuation of all settlements; fifty-two per cent support the forceful evacuation of part of the settlements in a unilateral withdrawal.

Despite such wide support, implementation of this sensible plan seems further away every year. Since Oslo, the dream of peace has been replaced by the myth of negotiations. The theme in the Oslo days was that we are facing difficult and complex problems which require years, maybe generations, of negotiations, and until the whole deal is agreed upon, it is impossible to evacuate even one tiny settlement. Since then, the number of settlers has doubled from one hundred thousand to almost two hundred thousand, and the negotiations have only become more and more entangled and complicated.

This route of eternal negotiations has failed. Even if Arafat would agree to resume them, the Palestinian people are no longer willing to listen to vague promises about a future which never materializes. For true negotiations to begin, we must first withdraw – as we did in Lebanon. It is astounding how simple it is to do this. Most of the occupied territories can be evacuated immediately, within two or three months.

The only clear element of Barak’s plan in Camp David was the immediate annexation by Israel of about ten per cent of West Bank land. This area would include the settlement blocks which are close to the center of Israel and in which there are already over one hundred and fifty thousand Israeli settlers. What did not receive any attention in Israeli public debate was the fate of the remaining ninety per cent of the land which was supposed to belong to a “Palestinian State.” These lands are cut up by thirty-seven isolated Israeli settlements which were purposely built there to enable Israeli control of these areas. As a result, two million Palestinians are crowded into enclaves which consist of only about fifty per cent of the West Bank, while the other forty per cent is blocked by some forty thousand settlers.

These forty thousand settlers who are sprinkled in and among Palestinian enclaves, taking up to forty per cent of the land that is designated as the future Palestinian State, can and must be evacuated immediately. Many of the residents of these isolated settlements are speaking openly in the Israeli media about their wish to leave. It is only necessary to offer them reasonable compensation for the property they will be leaving behind. (For evidence: shortly after Oslo, Labor M.P. Haggai Merom tried to organize an evacuation from the settlements with compensation for settlers who were willing to evacuate. Thousands enrolled in the office he opened. But Prime Minister Rabin announced: “Not now!”)

The rest, the hard core of land-redemption fanatics, will have to accept the will of the majority, and they can be evacuated forcefully, as happened at Yamit, at the eve of peace with Egypt. Immediately after the evacuation of the settlements, the army will also leave all its bases and outposts.

This withdrawal will leave under debate the large settlement blocks, which cannot be evacuated overnight, as well as the problems of Jerusalem and the interpretation of the right of return. For these, negotiations will still be needed.

However, during the negotiations Palestinian society will be able to begin to recover, settle in the lands which will be evacuated, construct democratic institutions, and develop its economy based on free contacts with whoever they want. Under these circumstances, it should be possible to carry out the negotiations with mutual respect. It will then be possible to address the core issue: what is the right way for two peoples who share the same land to build their future together?

Copyright © Tanya Reinhart, 2002. Published by openDemocracy . Permission is granted to reproduce articles for personal and educational use only. Commercial copying, hiring and lending is prohibited without permission. If this has been sent to you by a friend and you like it, you are welcome to join the openDemocracy network.

Tanya Reinhart , is professor of linguistics and cultural studies at Tel Aviv University and the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Her political writings appear regularly in Yediot Aharonot.