Israel’s war with the Palestinians has ironically been sidelined by an acute domestic row setting Israeli military and security chiefs against defense minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer in a bitter crisis of confidence. This situation is reported exclusively by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, which point to Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, and Shin Bet director Avi Dichter as spearheading the break with the defense minister. Political veterans say this is the sharpest crisis of confidence between a defense minister and the military-security echelons since the 1960s, when foreign minister Shimon Peres, then deputy defense minister, joined with chief of staff, the late General Moshe Dayan, to oust defense minister Pinhas Lavon.
Informed sources in Jerusalem say General Yaalon is no longer talking or conferring with Ben-Eliezer. “Yaalon defers directly to Ariel Sharon. He takes operational orders and gets any backing he needs straight from the prime minister,” one source said. “The chief of staff refuses to carry out the defense minister’s orders unless endorsed by the prime minister.”
Dichter, director of Israel’s secret service, the Shin Bet, whose role in combating terror is vital, likewise boycotts Ben Eliezer and is dead set against the minister’s plan to conciliate the Palestinians by experimentally handing over the anti-terror campaign to Palestinian Authority security agencies – first in the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem, next in Hebron. The Shin Bet chief regards the plan as both hopeless and dangerous. He contends it fails to address the complicated Israeli-Palestinian security and political issues, while pandering to Yasser Arafat and playing along with his attempts to buy time until he is ready to launch his next onslaught of terrorism, including mega-attacks that will cost hundreds of Israeli lives.
If Dichter is critical of the defense minister’s tactics, Yaalon queries his motives. The general confided to a small group of friends that Fuad is going where no Israeli defense minister dared to go before. Yaalon believes the Labor Party leader is exploiting the defense ministry and his decision-making powers as stepping-stones on the way to a position of vantage over his rivals for the Labor party leadership. The chief of staff privately suspects Ben-Eliezer of weighing military operations in the light of their usefulness to his drive for retaining the leadership of his fractured party against a new contender, former general Amram Mitzna, who is breathing down the back of his neck.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources point to some of the absurdities inherent in this standoff.
This week Ben-Eliezer negotiated an Israeli army pullout from Bethlehem with Palestinian security chiefs who represented no accepted authority. Along came the international media and hailed the promised pullout as indicating that Israel and the Palestinians were back on track for a ceasefire. They omitted to report that not a single Israeli soldier or tank actually withdrew from Bethlehem – an impossibility, in any case, since none were deployed inside the city in the first place.
Ben-Eliezer came out next with a promise to ease the military clampdown on Palestinian towns, whereupon the army sent a special forces unit into the center of Ramallah to nab Mohammed Saadat, the brother of Ahmed Saadat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who is jailed in Jericho under US-British supervision for masterminding the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister. Mohammed Saadat was killed while resisting arrest on Tuesday, August 20, drawing vows of vengeance from the PFLP.
The following day, the defense minister urged in a radio interview that any Palestinian sign of goodwill and willingness for dialog must be encouraged and addressed. That evening, the Shin Bet announced the capture of a Palestinian terror cell of six Jerusalemites, responsible for the deaths of 35 civilians. The men were caught in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Geulah in north Jerusalem on their way to a massive terrorist attack. Most of the cell carried Israeli identity cards. They are credited with carrying out eight major attacks, including the July 31 bombing of a cafeteria in Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, in which nine people, among them five Americans, were killed.
The only political winner of this behind-the-scenes tug of war between the defense minister and the highest-ranking officers of Israel’s armed forces and security branch is Sharon. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say the prime minister feigns non-involvement in the feud. But, on the quiet, he is backing Yaalon and Dichter against his defense minister and government coalition partner.
Political circles in Jerusalem dissect Sharon’s objective as being to hasten the visible decline of the Labor Party to the point of its collapse and eclipse as a political force. Sharon is counting on the Labor fallout voting for him in the next election – due in October 2003, if not earlier. He needs the former Labor ballots to offset the large-scale defections from his own Likud party – as many as half its members – who are expected to support the bid certain to be mounted by the former Likud prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Fuad may find himself trampled in the stampede to the next general election.