By Amos Harel
For a few hours last Thursday, it looked as though the Israel Defense Forces action in Ramallah was leading to yet another blowup in a year that has been characterized by tense relations between the military and the government.
The broadcasts of footage from Ramallah, in which Palestinian civilians were seen rushing for shelter under fire from armored Jeeps, weighed heavily on the meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm al-Sheikh. The large number of casualties (at the conclusion of the incident, four Palestinians were dead and there were dozens of wounded) created palpable discomfort between Olmert and his host. And as Ramallah burned, Olmert's promises of easements for the Palestinians were perceived as hollow. The prime minister, who was exceedingly embarrassed, was again depicted as someone who does not control his army properly.
Criticism of the General Staff came quickly from the bureaus of Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Peretz in particular demanded sternly that the IDF brass provide him with explanations of what went wrong: Why did a special operations unit embark on an arrest action in the heart of Ramallah in the first place, so close to the start of the summit meeting? Who approved the operation? Why weren't the defense minister or Chief of Staff Dan Halutz briefed in advance? How was the force discovered and how did it fail in its mission to arrest the wanted man, who managed to escape despite the fact that he had been shot and seriously wounded?
But by the next day, the affair had pretty much evaporated. It was replaced by a number of far more urgent matters, from the political point of view: the expansion of the corruption investigation in the Tax Authority, the various investigations of the prime minister, and above all the weekly "spin," this time about Olmert's intention to replace Peretz with Ehud Barak.
Meanwhile, at Olmert's bureau they realized that media magnification of his anger at the army would also reflect poorly on the image of the prime minister himself. The defense minister also lost interest in the affair. With his current public standing being what it is, the defense minister cannot sack Central Command chief Yair Naveh, who approved the mission. Therefore, almost as usual, the question of the minister's personal survival became the more important issue. The imbroglio in Ramallah ended with a whimper.
On Sunday of this week a clarification was requested, during the course of which Naveh admitted that the timing of the mission had been a mistake. Peretz, according to his bureau, asked the army to formulate "a new procedure for arrest missions at a sensitive time."
And still, the affair has left a real mark on relations between the defense minister and the GOC. One might form the impression that Naveh has already been marked at the minister's bureau as "the bad guy" in the West Bank: the one who warns against removing barriers and easing restrictions on the movement of Palestinians; the one who is dragging his feet on preparations for the evacuation of the outposts and is now sabotaging the government's peace efforts. Left-wing organizations, after all, have long accused Naveh of being an agent of the settlers. In Peretz's environs, where paranoia is an almost permanent condition, there were those who posited a connection between the skullcap on Naveh's head and the incident in Ramallah. It can't be that it's all a coincidence, they argued.
Tension between Naveh and Peretz is bursting out at the end of a year of proven success by the Central Command in fighting terror. In the major general's contacts with the government and the media, something rough is often evident, despite his senior rank. The fact that Naveh, in the investigation of the Ramallah incident, hinted that he was not even aware of the summit at Sharm al-Sheikh when he approved the mission, is not entirely surprising.
At the same time, a one-dimensional description of the GOC would do him an injustice. In effect, he is the person responsible for the IDF's major operational success in 2006. At a time when the extent of the mishaps in the war in the North is coming to light in all its severity, and when the Southern Command, whose hands are tied now, is finding it hard to provide an answer to the terror from Gaza, a steep decline in the extent of terror from the West Bank has been recorded for the fourth year running.
In each of the past two years there were only two suicide terror attacks within the Green Line, in which 11 Israelis were killed. Another eight Israelis were killed in attacks in the West Bank. During that same period, 187 Palestinians were arrested in the West Bank on suspicion of volunteering to carry out suicide attacks.
When Naveh departs from the command in a few months he will leave a sector where the IDF has thus far managed to thwart terror. This has been an impressive tour of duty for the GOC, who has gone through it without much credit from public opinion and with a minimum of public relations.
Naveh is paying a considerable personal price. His twin sons are serving in combat units that belong to the command. One of them, Shai, a fighter in the Haruv Battalion, was moderately wounded in an encounter with armed Palestinians in Nablus last July and is still in the rehabilitation process. And all along, demonstrators from the extreme right have been interfering with his life: For about a year now there have been weekly demonstrations in front of Naveh's home in the suburban Tel Aviv community of Givat Shmuel, a sharp reminder of his role in the violent evacuation of homes in the Amona outpost and his signing orders that restricted the movement of several extremist settlers.
Naveh, 49, has been head of Central Command for two years. He did most of his service in the Golani Brigade, which he also commanded, and in the fighting in southern Lebanon. His extensive knowledge in the professional field was manifested during the war in Lebanon when, around the General Staff table, he was among the first to identify the blunders in the management of the war. But Halutz chose to distance him from the inner circle of decision-makers.
In return for maintaining quiet that in the Central Command, Halutz granted Naveh a great deal of independence in making decisions there. While in the operational arena Naveh proved his worth, he has angered the government on several occasions: Under Ehud Barak, when Naveh was commander of Gaza, there was widespread, unauthorized destruction of Palestinian infrastructure; under Ariel Sharon, it was the April, 2001 operation in Beit Hanun, which angered the Americans, and most recently, when Naveh said in a lecture that King Abdullah will be the last Hashemite ruler in Jordan.
In front of the cameras
This Tuesday at the Central Command there was an investigation into Ramallah operation. The performance of the special operations unit was defined as a failure, but the problems go far beyond the borders of the sector. The commanders' considerations before authorizing the action missed not only the importance of the Olmert-Mubarak summit, but also the effect of the presence of many media crews in the center of Ramallah. The incident played out in front of the cameras of Al Jazeera and was transmitted live throughout the Arab world.
The officers should have been aware of this: Last June a similar operation went awry in the same area, and it too won massive media coverage. A senior source in the command explains that within a year, in the center of Ramallah, 24 successful operations were carried out, and "we estimated that the force would be out, together with the detainee, even before the city noticed."
The army claims that one of the four killed was a wanted armed man who fired at the forces. As for the other three, they make do with the general statement that they had participated in the confrontation with the forces. This too is a way of lowering the statistics of "uninvolved persons" killed in the fighting. The command counts eight Palestinian civilians as having been killed last year. B'Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Territories, counts 46 dead, among them seven women, but the number also includes stone-throwers who were killed by soldiers' fire.
Thwarting terror was done through the use of brutal measures, first and foremost "separation," which during the course of about a year created an almost impenetrable barrier between northern Samaria and the Jordan Valley and the area of Ramallah and Jerusalem. A check by Haaretz yesterday found that the army's commitment to easements at the checkpoints, in accordance with the instructions of Olmert and Peretz, is at best being implemented only partially.
The criticism of Naveh's policy in the matter of the checkpoints combines with discomfort on the left with his demonstrative reservations about evacuating more outposts. The GOC was severely burned in the Amona affair. Since then, he has been looking for ways of arriving at compromises with the settlers and has been casting doubt on the logic of unilateral measures against them.
But Peretz has mainly himself to blame in this matter: Had he imposed his authority on the army and ordered it to take down outposts in accordance with a strict timetable, Halutz and Naveh would have saluted and obeyed.
Naveh's conciliatory approach to the settler leadership, and the fact that his separation policy provided the settlers, for the first time, with a system of roads for Jews only, have not improved his standing in the settlements. The prevailing attitude there toward the IDF measures is as an opening position only, in advance of the next improvement in conditions. As commander of the Gaza Strip at the beginning of the second intifada, Naveh got a lot more gratitude from the inhabitants of Gush Katif. The GOC is trapped in his stereotype: In the eyes of the left, his skullcap is sufficient to label him as the darling of the settlers, though his personal opinions on political issues are more moderate. In the eyes of the extreme right, he is a traitor, and it is incumbent upon them to continue to harass him.
Although he does not admit it, Naveh is bothered by the demonstrations in front of his home. His drowsy National Religious Party neighborhood is not accustomed to such sights. In especially bad weeks the opposition to him pursues him even on the Sabbath, into the synagogue, so much so that he has considered whether to continue to reside in the community. This story has become personal: The major general loathes the hilltop fanatics and sees them as endangering the future of the Zionist project.
After the war, Naveh acceded to Halutz's request and decided, as part of the attempt to stabilize the system, to stay on for a few more months. Officially, he is slated for retirement, but another round of appointments in the top brass (and a new chief of staff) might keep him in the IDF.
In the meantime, the diagnosis at the General Staff is that Naveh is "playing for time. He can already see the end of his tour of duty and is thinking about how the summation will look. This is an approach of minimum risks, and therefore the imbroglio in Ramallah is a little surprising."
But despite all this, it is possible to make a predication: Before the end of his tour of duty, Naveh will manage to lock horns again, with Peretz and quite possibly also with the extreme right.
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