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New IDF chief thinks big

Israeli President Moshe Katsav presents then-air force commander Dan Halutz, right, with a military honor in Jerusalem in 2003. (Sa´ar Ya´acov/GPO)

Israeli President Moshe Katsav presents then-air force commander Dan Halutz, right, with a military honor in Jerusalem in 2003. (Sa´ar Ya´acov/GPO)

JERUSALEM, May 31 (JTA) — Dan Halutz, the former air force commander who has just taken over as the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, plans to introduce sweeping reforms that will upgrade Israeli capabilities against long-range strategic threats and urban terrorism. Halutz, 57, the first air force man to head the IDF, intends to restructure the ground forces, create new commands and accelerate a process of modernization that has been gathering pace over the past decade. Some of Halutz’s ideas are so far-reaching that senior officers are talking about an impending “revolution.” But Halutz’s first order of business will be more mundane: to ensure that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, scheduled for this summer, goes through smoothly. The army, together with the police, will bear the brunt of a huge operation to stop withdrawal opponents from preventing the dismantling of settlements and the evacuation of recalcitrant settlers. Halutz comes to the job after some controversy: Civil rights groups tried unsuccessfully to block his appointment because of statements they felt showed callousness toward the lives of Palestinian civilians. Moreover, Halutz’s predecessor, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, was forced to step down a year earlier than expected, apparently for suggesting that the Gaza withdrawal might encourage more terrorism. The circumstances of Ya’alon’s dismissal, and the fact that Halutz is one of several recently promoted generals known to have close ties to Sharon, have led some critics to voice concern over checks and balances in decision-making on crucial security issues. Halutz impressed Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, himself a former IDF chief of staff, with his ideas for change during talks over his appointment earlier this year. Halutz earned a reputation for innovation as air force commander, introducing state-of-the-art F-16 fighter planes, Apache Longbow attack helicopters, unmanned attack drones and higher-grade satellite intelligence. He even dared to touch the sacrosanct pilots course, extending it from two to three years and revising the curriculum. As IDF boss, Halutz plans to do something no previous chief of staff has dared: extend the scope of the ground forces’ command and delegate some of his own authority to the ground forces commander, putting him on a par with the commanders of the air force and navy. He also is contemplating abolishing Central Command and leaving the ground forces with just two regional commands, north and south. To focus on distant threats like a future Iranian nuclear bomb, Halutz plans to establish a new Strategic Command, and he wants to unify naval, air and ground commandos under a new special forces command to fight terrorism more efficiently. Looking ahead to the future battlefield, Halutz is expected to opt for more technology, less tanks and less manpower, and to prioritize closer coordination between air, naval and ground forces in joint operations. Halutz was a member of Mofaz’s “IDF 2000″ modernization team and he intends to accelerate the technological revolution it began, which has proved as important for urban warfare as for ballistic missile exchanges. Israeli military experts speak about the “age of the digital soldier,” in which soldiers will have maps on their wrist watches, cameras that can see through walls and electronically directed munitions. Some military insiders, however, are worried that Halutz might go too far. Ya’acov Amidror, a retired major general and former head of analysis in military intelligence, warns against further cuts in tank formations and abolishing Central Command. “We are a small country that needs to think in terms of having to fight on the ground and on several fronts at the same time,” he said. “Abolishing Central Command will reduce our flexibility in getting forces to the right front at the right time.” For the next few months, though, Halutz will have to focus on the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank. As deputy chief of staff, he drew up detailed plans to prevent withdrawal opponents from reaching areas designated for evacuation and to ensure that Palestinian terrorists don’t fire on the evacuating forces. If withdrawal is followed by a renewed outbreak of Palestinian violence, Halutz will have to find military answers; but if it sparks a new peace process, his job will be to fashion closer security cooperation with Palestinian Authority forces. At the height of the intifada, Halutz was at the center of controversy in July 2002 when, after 15 Palestinian civilians were killed during the assassination of Hamas leader Salah Shehada in Gaza, Halutz said he still slept well at night and that all a pilot feels when releasing a one-ton bomb is a slight shake in the cockpit. Halutz claimed afterward that he was not insensitive to Palestinian civilian life, and that what he meant was that the pilots were not deliberately trying to kill civilians. The reshuffle in the IDF has left Sharon with friends or confidants in nearly all the top security and intelligence assessment jobs: Mossad spy chief Meir Dagan is a close family friend, as is Halutz; and both the new deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski, and Brig Gen. Gadi Izencott, a front-runner to take over as military intelligence chief, are former military secretaries to Sharon. It’s not a question of yes men, says Labor legislator Ephraim Sneh; none of the top people is afraid to speak his mind. Rather, he says, there’s a danger of uniformity of thought among a group of like-minded men. “They’re all very good people with lots of integrity. But they are like-minded. And like-minded thinking led to the Yom Kippur War,” he warns. One who thought differently was Ya’alon. His three-year term was not extended. The nominal reason was poor working relations with Mofaz, but there was widespread speculation that Ya’alon’s comments that the Gaza withdrawal might provide a “tail wind for terror” may have been a contributing factor. Ya’alon 55, was chief of staff for most of the intifada, and it was during his watch that Israel seemed to gain the upper hand. Together with former Shin Bet security service chief Avi Dichter, Ya’alon worked out the basic elements of Israel’s successful counterterrorism doctrine: Keeping out suicide bombers by reoccupying Palestinian cities, putting up road blocks and erecting a state-of-the-art security fence between Israel and the West Bank. The Ya’alon-Dichter team’s greatest operational breakthrough was the development of close coordination between Shin Bet agents supplying intelligence and IDF forces acting on it in real time. As suicide bombings became more difficult to carry out, the terrorists resorted to firing Kassam rockets at civilian targets. Should fighting resume — and many Israeli military officials expect another round after the Gaza withdrawal — stopping the Kassams will be one of the military problems the innovative Halutz will need to solve.

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