Israel Forms Special War Command, Excluding Liberal Labor Party

by DEBKAfile 2 October 2002

The British prime minister Tony Blair may have needed a Middle East slogan to get him through this week’s Labor conference in Blackpool. But his simplistic message, delivered in a speech on October 1, drew derision in Jerusalem with a tinge of remembered bitterness over Britain’s record in this region. The word from government circles in Jerusalem was: The Foreign Office may write whatever speeches it likes for Blair, but we stand by President Bush’s Middle East outline.

Jerusalem’s jibe came in response to the following comment by the British prime minister:

“And what is happening in the Middle East now is ugly and wrong. The Palestinians living in increasingly abject conditions, humiliated and hopeless; Israeli civilians brutally murdered. I agree UN resolutions should apply here as much as to Iraq. But they don’t just apply to Israel, They apply to all parties. And there is only one answer. By this year’s end we must have revived final status negotiations and they must have explicitly as their aims: an Israeli state free from terror, recognized by the Arab world and a viable Palestinian state based on the boundaries of 1967.”

Leaving aside the artificiality of the comparison between Iraq and Israel, DEBKAfile’s political analysts suggest that this analogy may prove to be a major gaffe in view of the widening rift on Iraq between the US-UK and the majority of UN members.

What analogy will Blair choose for the Bush administration if it goes ahead with Britain and fights Iraq in defiance of the world body? Will he then declare that UN resolutions should apply to America and Britain as much as to Iraq? President George W. Bush has already berated the UN for behaving like the League of Nations (which failed to prevent the rise of Hitler and outbreak of World War II). How will Blair be able to preach to the US president the way he preaches to Israel, given that British commandos have joined US special forces already inside Iraq?

However, Blair is not solely to blame for trying to lay down the law for Israel and its adversaries; he sees a chink in Israel’s deterrent armor that is opening up at the unfortunate moment when the country is confronted with three present and potential warfronts: the Palestinian, the Lebanese Hizballah and Iraq.

The most dangerous threat of all comes from the domestic front. This week, a chorus of criticism went up against the IDF’s 11-day siege-and-destruction operation against Yasser Arafat’s government compound in Ramallah – and the way it was lifted. It came mostly from various self-interested Israeli politicians. The operation was slammed as a fiasco that moreover rehabilitated the Palestinian leader’s standing and miscalculated the force of America’s disapproval.

DEBKAfile’s military sources beg to place some pertinent facts on record:

Israel’s siege of Arafat’s headquarters has not been lifted. The tanks and troops pulled back Sunday, September 29, several hundred meters, for a few hours, at the personal request of President Bush, after which the White House made a point of explaining that no bad feeling was involved then or later.

Some tens of Palestinians burst into the compound and surrounded Yasser Arafat. Together they were photographed, recorded and filmed. He was also allowed to receive visitors, his first being UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen and European emissary Miguel Moratinos. Two, three or four of the wanted terrorists, whose extradition Israel had demanded may have skipped in the furor. Arafat’s top guns, however, the ones who designed his suicide-massacre campaign and were in the process of planning mega-strikes against Israeli targets in cahoots with Iraqi intelligence, especially Col. Tawfiq Tirawi, commander of the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, remained trapped with Arafat.

This in fact was just as Washington intended from the start.

How did this happen? After the cameras had finished clicking and whirring, the reporters were gone and the Palestinian victory celebration over, the Israeli siege rolled back into position, albeit in reverse order: the tanks forming the outer circle, special forces units next, and sharpshooters poised around the last standing Palestinian building, on the alert for escape attempts.

Before leaving for Moscow Sunday, September 29, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon made it clear that none of the wanted men, including the fugitives, would enjoy Israeli immunity – and that went also for Arafat.

The moment he was airborne, criticism of the siege operation came at full blast. Much of it rose against the background of the Labor leadership challenge to defense minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer. He and his two rivals, Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna and chairman of the parliamentary foreign and defense committee, Haim Ramon, vied with one another at the party caucus to score points at the expense of the Ramallah operation.

Then, as the prime minister’s flight came into to land at Ben Gurion, Tuesday October 1, a barbed exchange of messages developed between him and Ben Eliezer.

The defense minister, fighting for his life as party leader, attacked Sharon at the risk of playing into his hands. He knew by then that Sharon had deliberately left him out of the new prime ministerial war command, set up in readiness for war with Iraq. Sharon’s trusted appointees to this panel are chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Yaalon, OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, incoming Mossad director Meir Dagan, Shin Beit head Avi Dichter and former Mossad head Ephraim Halevy, present head of the national security council and Sharon’s personal envoy on delicate overseas missions.

At the same time, Ben-Eliezer’s strongest card in the party is not his personal strength but his standing as defense minister. It is therefore hard for him to complain about being sidelined by Sharon in the government, especially when Sharon’s preferred candidate for defense, the former chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz, is waiting in the wings.

And the defense minister is not renowned for his taciturnity.

In his briefing to the Knesset foreign affairs and security committee on Tuesday, October 1, Ben Eliezer said the countdown had begun for the American assault on Iraq. He went on to declare: “If the Iraqis do attack us, it will only be if they are in critical distress. The Americans will do their utmost to crush Iraq’s capability, inter alia to fend off an Israeli response.” Then: “The Iraqis do have a surface missile capability, but they can carry no more than small quantities of chemical and biological materials. If we are attacked, we have the right to act to defend ourselves.”

Israel’s defense minister did not assert that Israel would fight back; he only noted that it has the right to do so.

Sharon’s own contribution to Israel’s deterrence has been equally uncertain. Last week, he went on record as saying that Israeli would not respond to just any Iraqi strike – only one that caused damage to life and property.

This stream of halfhearted rhetoric that emanates from domestic political agendas sends equivocal messages to the outside world. Blair quickly spotted the weakness, as no doubt have Saddam Hussein, Hassan Nasrallah and Yasser Arafat.

Meanwhile the Israeli army continues its counter-terror sweep in West Bank towns with no mind for the equivocations at the top of Israeli politics. In a typically blunt statement, the commander of the Nahal Brigade operating in the Palestinian West Bank town of Nablus told a reporter Tuesday, October 1, after one of his men, Staff Sgt. Ari Weiss was killed in action: “We’re taking casualties here to keep them from launching more terrorist attacks.”