An Airman as Top Israeli Soldier Will Depend on Deputies to Tackle Terror

Israeli military commentators came up shooting blanks when they took a searching look at the deputy chief of staff and former air force commander, Dan Halutz, who was picked to replace the forcibly retired Moshe Yaalon as Israel’s 18th chief of staff. The pundits went straight into absorbing professional debates over such contentious issues as: Should Israel’s armed forces be reshaped from three regional commands – southern, central and northern – into just two, southern and northern? Or, was it a good idea to name a fighter pilot instead of a veteran ground forces officer as the country’s top general.
However, the new man will pretty soon find himself embattled with more pressing problems. Even if the planned Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank goes smoothly in the summer, there is a very real threat that Halutz will hardly have time to take a breath before the Palestinians go back to war in the fall, confronting Israel with a changed enemy.
Palestinian terror, which died down after Yasser Arafat’s death November 11, is set to resume in earnest in late September or early October. Only top-level political changes in Jerusalem or Ramallah can ward off a fresh outbreak – in the Palestinian leadership or by means of an early Israeli election that would postpone indefinitely the evacuation of all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank.
Before then, in July or August, the new chief of staff will need to be on red alert for signs of terrorist outbreaks brewing during the precarious transition period of three to four weeks.
The Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) together scripted the time table for this sensitive period.
On July 17, the Palestinians hold parliamentary elections which are expected to elevate the Islamic extremist Hamas to the dominant force in “mainstream” Palestinian politics.
Allowing for this eventuality, Sharon and Abu Mazen have left themselves three days, July 17 to 19, to decide on their course of action – depending on the size of the Hamas victory. Those three days will also be used by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other radical groups as a brief timeout to plot their strategy ahead of the July 20 start of Israel’s withdrawals.
They will decide then whether to resume their attacks on the Zionist enemy without delay or wait until late September or early October when the Israeli military and civilian presence will be gone from the Gaza Strip.
Testifying before the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee Tuesday, February 22, Brigadier General Yossi Kupperwasser, head of the research branch of military intelligence, addressed the question of whether Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades had managed to reorganize, train new recruits and familiarize their members with new weapons smuggled by sea and through northern Sinai since Arafat’s death.
Kupperwasser’s message was brief and to the point: these groups planned to resume their suicide bombings and would “soon take vigorous action to prepare strategic attacks should diplomacy reach a dead end”.
Despite the current calm, he said, terrorist groups are continuing to shore up their infrastructure and develop, build and test new mortars and Qassam rockets.
The jury is still out on whether civil war will break out in Lebanon following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. It is too soon to determine whether Syria and Iran would join the fighting or if Hizballah and Palestinian militias would fight on the Syrian side. The Palestinian Hamas and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades would be caught up in a quandary. Diving into the Lebanese strife would upset their secret plan to relocate the entire terrorist administration with all the radical Palestinian organizations lock stock and barrel from Damascus and Beirut to the Gaza Strip and from there to the West Bank.
The door was opened to this transfer by Sharon’s consent to evacuate the tunnel-ridden Philadelphi Corridor along Gaza’s border with Egypt. (See separate article on this page).
The Israeli public has not been informed of this plan and it is not generally known that Abu Mazen’s endorsement provided the real incentive for Hamas and al-Aqsa Brigades to supposedly stick to a de facto ceasefire.
According to our sources, Abu Mazen has been trying to sell the Americans and Israelis the very same argument Arafat offered at the Oslo peace accord framework negotiations in 1993 and 1994. It is that the transfer of Palestinian forces from Lebanon to the Gaza Strip and West Bank would shore up central Palestinian government and give it real military clout to confront external threats. Abu Mazen promises to co-opt the terrorist groups into “reformed” Palestinian security and intelligence services. New uniforms, training and paychecks would turn the gunmen, he contends, into regular law and order enforcement officers. He would then be free to pursue a peaceful accommodation with Israel.
Sharon and President George W. Bush have yet accepted the Abu Mazen vision, but Egypt is nudging them to buy it. Cairo warns that their veto would kill any chance of reviving the peace process and cause an immediate flare-up of the Israeli-Palestinian war.
Conscious of the threats in store, Yaalon is moving to terminate his tenure prematurely to give his successor more time to prepare for the war crisis that he is sure will break out in the immediate aftermath of the Palestinian parliamentary election and ahead of the Gaza pullout.
This prognosis is also behind the sudden speculation that the man Halutz beat out for the top job, Major-General Gaby Ashkenazi, will be persuaded not to hang up his khakis but take over as head of military intelligence. This job was designed for Major-General Moshe Kaplinsky, until recently OC central command. He will most likely move into the position vacated by Halutz as deputy chief of staff. ( And Ashkenazi will get the message that he still has a future shot at the chief of staff position).
With the appointments of the two experienced ground forces commanders, Halutz would be off to a running start in battling the next Palestinian terror onslaught.
The son of immigrants from Iran and Iraq, Halutz, 57, is no stranger to combat and strategic planning. Joining the air force in 1966, he was still training as a pilot when the Six Day War broke out a year later. An F-4 Phantom pilot, he flew 43 combat missions during the 1973 Middle East war and shot down three enemy planes. Four years later, he quite the service and went to work as a building contractor, but reenlisted after the 1982 Lebanon war.
Qualifying as an F-16 pilot, he commanded the air forces’ weapons systems division and joined the general staff in 1988 as head of the Operations Directorate.
Should efforts to persuade Ashkenazi to stay in the army fail, Sharon, defense minister Shaul Mofaz and new chief of staff Halutz will consider asking outgoing OC northern command Major-General Benny Ganz to postpone his retirement plans and throw his weight behind the high command.

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