The Knesset was shocked when the three-year tenure of IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, contrary to precedent, was not extended for another year. Indeed, Gen. Ya’alon was so highly admired for his professional competence and character that the Knesset Foreign Affair and Defense Committee conducted hearings on what amounted to a dismissal of this candid chief of staff.
Gen. Ya’alon’s dismissal is easily explained: his attitude toward abandoning Jewish settlements is diametrically opposed, on strategic grounds, to Prime Minister Sharon’s policy of unilateral disengagement. This appears quite obvious from a lengthy interview of Ya’alon shortly after his appointment as IDF Chief of Staff. The interview was conducted by Ari Shavit and appeared in Ha’aretz Magazine, August 30, 2002 under the title “The Enemy Within.” Below are the most salient extracts from that interview.
Q. Describe for me the present campaign between the Palestinians and us: Who is against whom, and for what, in this campaign?
“The campaign is between two societies that are competing for territory and, to a certain degree, for existence. I don’t think that there is an existential threat to the Palestinian society. There is an existential threat to us. In other words, there is asymmetry here, but it is reversed: Everyone thinks we are Goliath and they are David, but I maintain that it is the opposite.”
Q. Are you saying that despite what appears to be a war of the oppressed against the oppressors, of the occupied against the occupiers, the Palestinians actually have a sense of strength and power?
“Of course. They feel that they have the backing of a quarter-of-a-billion Arabs and they believe that time is on their side and that, with a combination of terrorism and demography, they will tire us out and wear us down. There is also an additional reverse asymmetry here: We do not have intentions to annihilate them and we have also expressed readiness to grant them a state, whereas they are unwilling to recognize our right to exist here as a Jewish state.”
Q. Are you saying unequivocally that the Palestinian struggle is not aimed at liberating the territories that were conquered in 1967?
“Of course not. The Palestinians have three stories. Their narrative in Arabic is one of mobilization for a war of jihad and non-recognition of Israel’s right to exist. That narrative rejects any attachment between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, and it mobilizes the Palestinian people for a war with the goal of bringing about Israel’s collapse. In English, the story is different: occupation, colonialism, apartheid. Those are completely irrelevant terms, which are intended to furnish the Western world with familiar terminology that clarifies who the good guys are here and who the bad guys are.
“In Hebrew, they have a third story: the peace of the brave. But I know the details and I say that [Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser] Arafat is taking the name of Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory, in vain. He saw Oslo as a Trojan horse that would enable the Palestinians to enter Israel, and September 2000 as the moment of emerging from the belly of the horse [when Arafat’s Terror War erupted]. Today, too, the ideology of Fatah is to bring about Israel’s disintegration from within. What they are after is not to arrive at the end of the conflict, but to turn Israel into a Palestinian state.”
Q. In other words, the goal of Arafat and of Fatah is to liquidate Israel by stages?
“Of course. Not to reach an agreement and not to arrive at the end of their claims, in order to preserve the conflict and to let time run its course according to the phased theory.”
Q. What will happen if he [Arafat] is reelected in democratic elections?
“The alternative Palestinian leadership has to be elected democratically on the model of Germany after World War II. Anyone who was a member of the Nazi Party was not allowed to be a candidate in the elections there, and anyone who is tainted by terrorism cannot be a candidate here.” [This obviously applies to Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) – PE.]
Q. Do you have a definition of victory? Is it clear to you what Israel’s goal in this war is?
“I defined it from the beginning of the confrontation: the very deep internalization by the Palestinians that terrorism and violence will not defeat us, will not make us fold. If that deep internalization does not exist at the end of the confrontation, we will have a strategic problem with an existential threat to Israel. If that [lesson] is not burned into the Palestinian and Arab consciousness, there will be no end to their demands of us. Despite our military might, the region will perceive us as being even weaker. That will have an impact not only on those who are engaged in the violent struggle, but also on those who have signed agreements with us and on extremists among the Arabs in Israel. That’s why this confrontation is so important. There has not been a more important confrontation since the War of Independence.”
Q. It’s that critical?
“Yes. I have no doubt that when this period is viewed historically, the conclusion will be that the War of Independence was the most important event in our history and this war was the second most important event.”
Q. Even more important than the Six-Day War or the Yom Kippur War?
“Of course, of course. Because we are dealing with an existential threat. There was an Israeli attempt to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by means of a territorial compromise, and the Palestinian reply was war. So this brings us back to the confrontation of the pre-state period, the partition proposal and the War of Independence. The facts that are being determined in this confrontation—in terms of what will be burned into the Palestinian consciousness—are fateful. If we end the confrontation in a way that makes it clear to every Palestinian that terrorism does not lead to agreements, that will improve our strategic position. On the other hand, if their feeling at the end of the confrontation is that they can defeat us by means of terrorism, our situation will become more and more difficult. Therefore, I say that we must not blur the weighty meaning of this confrontation. When you grasp the essence, it’s clear to you what you have to do. You have to fight for your life.”
Q. Does that mean that any move involving unilateral withdrawal before the confrontation is resolved and before the violence ends is dangerous?
“Of course. That would give a push to the struggle against us. Even if tactically it appears right to withdraw from here or from there, from the strategic perspective, it is different. That was my argument when the question arose of withdrawing from Joseph’s Tomb [in Nablus]. It was clear to me that leaving the tomb would be an incentive for the Palestinians, whereas others thought that leaving the site would neutralize a point of friction. But those who thought in those terms were thinking like Israelis, not like Palestinians.”
Q. So that means that in the present situation, leaving settlements would be a mistake with potentially catastrophic implications?
“Of course. I’m not talking about the political solution. I am not saying what will be right and what will not be right after the violence ends. That’s not my affair. When asked, I will give my security recommendation. But today, any such departure under terrorism and violence will strengthen the path of terrorism and violence. It will endanger us.”
Q. In other words, as chief of staff, you are saying that even if you need a battalion to hold an isolated settlement, if we leave it we will need a great deal more?
Q. Can we sum up by saying, without getting into the political question, that your professional opinion is that concessions that are made under fire are dangerous? Is it your view that any possible Israeli concession can be made only after the confrontation is decided and the violence ends?
Q. If so, and if the position of the Palestinians is as you say, where is all this leading? What will the end be? How long are we to live by the sword?
“We live in a very complex neighborhood, in which our right to exist has not yet been recognized. We have been living for a hundred years in crisis management. Therefore, we have to maneuver it into directions that strengthen us. And we have to win in this confrontation. Otherwise, the next war will not be far off.”
Q. Are you saying that we are entering a basic, existential situation again, that we have to understand that the confrontation is an inseparable part of our lives, but that if we are strong, we will reduce and control it?
“Do we have a choice? We must understand: The Palestinians have returned us to the War of Independence. Today it is clear that the State of Israel as a Jewish state is still an alien element in the region. It will take generations until various elements in the region accept its existence. Therefore, we have to go back to the ethos of standing fast, not because I am enamored of that ethos, but because there is no choice. It is an ethos of no choice.