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In Parting Interview, Army Chief Leaves Imprint on Israeli Agenda

It’s not every day that Israel’s No. 1 soldier expresses doubts about the country’s long-term survival. But that was part of a bleak message from Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, as he stepped down as the Israeli army’s chief of staff, that has shaken the country’s political establishment. In a wide-reaching, early June interview in Ha’aretz, Ya’alon pulled no punches as he put key existential issues on the table, questioned the wisdom of Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, debunked the notion of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said it could lead to a “situation in which there will be no Israel here in the end.”

Left-wing and centrist critics are appalled at Ya’alon’s pessimism and accuse him of failing to understand the rationale behind Israel’s withdrawal plan. Some, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, suggest Ya’alon’s comments stem from bitterness at not having his term as chief of staff extended for another year.

But right-wingers, including the “rebels” in Sharon’s own Likud Party, have welcomed Ya’alon’s critique. They intend to use it and similar reservations from the former head of the Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter, as central pillars of a new, last-ditch campaign against the planned withdrawal.

In the interview, Ya’alon says his doubts about the peace process with the Palestinians began a decade ago, when as chief of military intelligence he saw troubling signs on the ground, began asking questions and “did not get convincing answers.”

The core problem in his view is that the Palestinians, even under new leader Mahmoud Abbas, are unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, regardless of its borders.

“The State of Israel is ready to give the Palestinians an independent Palestinian state, but the Palestinians are not ready to give us an independent Jewish state,” he says.

Therefore, he believes Palestinian violence against Israel will continue even if the Palestinians get a state of their own. In fact, Ya’alon rejects the two-state solution as “an illusory and dangerous paradigm” that will not bring stability, but will become a platform for future war.

The two-state solution “is a story that the Western world tells through Western eyes. And that story fails to understand the enormity of the gap between Israelis and Palestinians, and the scale of the problem,” he argues.

If a Palestinian state is established, it will “try to undermine Israel. As long as there is no internalization of our right to exist as a Jewish state, and as long as there is insistence on concrete elements of the ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees, any such agreement will be like the construction of a house in which you plant a bomb,” he declares. “At some stage, the bomb will explode.”

In Ya’alon’s view, the ongoing conflict eventually could pose an existential threat to Israel.

“I see a combination of terrorism and demagoguery, with question marks among us about the justice of our cause, as a recipe for a situation in which there will not be a Jewish state here in the end,” he maintains.

As for the withdrawal, scheduled to begin in August, Ya’alon predicts that sooner or later it will be followed by a new outbreak of terrorism, worse than any Israel has experienced before.

In his view, if Israel stays put on the new, post-withdrawal lines, the eruption will be immediate. Further withdrawals will win it a bit of breathing space, but the reprieve will be temporary: Eventually, Israel’s capacity to meet Palestinian demands will be exhausted.

“It’s as clear as day to me. If we get into a confrontation at the political level, if we do not give the Palestinians more and more, there will be a violent outburst. It will begin in the West Bank,” he says, adding that it will include Kassam rockets across the border and suicide bombers all over the country.

The issues raised by Ya’alon are at the cutting edge of today’s political debate in Israel. The fundamental question is how best to consolidate Israel’s existence.

The main argument against Ya’alon is that if his outlook results in continued occupation of land the Palestinians covet, it will lead to Israel’s delegitimization in the international community and to Palestinian demands for a binational state with a Palestinian majority, threatening the Zionist idea of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority.

Proponents of the two-state solution say it will ensure a Jewish majority in Israel, be endorsed by the international community and underpinned by international law and give Israel, no longer seen as an occupier, the moral high ground.

In a best-case scenario, the two-state solution is seen as a paradigm for reconciliation and cooperation that could lead to the end of the conflict.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz rejected Ya’alon’s prediction of violence after this summer’s withdrawal.

“There are several possible scenarios, and we don’t have to embrace the most pessimistic one,” he told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday.

Sharon professed surprise at Ya’alon’s analysis, saying he had never heard anything like it while Ya’alon was still on the job.

For Ha’aretz, in an editorial, the implication was clear: Ya’alon was attacking the withdrawal plan because of Sharon’s decision not to extend his term.

Others on the left were less dismissive. In an article titled the “Bogey Horror Show,” Ha’aretz satirist Doron Rosenblum wrote, “Ya’alon’s bleak prophecies should worry us. Most of them make sense. But at least we can take some consolation from the fact that Ya’alon won’t be around to help make them come true.”

Ya’alon’s parting remarks were perfectly timed for the withdrawal’s right-wing opponents. Ehud Yatom, a Likud Party legislator who opposes withdrawal, confirmed Sunday that both Ya’alon and Dichter would feature prominently in a final campaign to stop the withdrawal.

A booklet on the “security dangers of withdrawal,” citing both former security bosses, will be distributed to households across the country. The campaign slogan seems to paraphrase Ya’alon: “The withdrawal will bring terror; we need to rethink things,” it reads.

The demonstrations, protests and high-profile statements against the withdrawal seem to be having an effect. A poll published in the Ma’ariv newspaper last Friday showed that public support for the plan now stands at 50 percent, a fall of 9 percent in just two weeks.

The Likud rebels hope their new campaign will bring that figure down further and influence key Likud ministers to come out openly against the plan. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already has, and others could follow suit.

For Ya’alon, the reaction to his views can hardly be surprising: As chief of staff, he says, he grew accustomed to the fact that many Israelis were so desperate for quick peace that they would reject all evidence and arguments to the contrary.

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