General Ya'alon's warning

ISRAEL'S military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon, set off a furor when he disclosed to Israeli journalists Tuesday the military's sharp criticisms of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unremitting imposition of curfews and closures on the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza. Within Israel's contentious political arena, Ya'alon's publicizing of the army's side in a crucial policy dispute was quickly transformed into an argument about the propriety of a serving general overtly questioning security policies set by Israel's civilian leadership.

However, it is the substance of Ya'alon's dissent that deserves to be taken seriously. As quoted in the daily Yediot Ahronot, a "military official" -- later identified as Ya'alon -- said: "There is no hope, no expectations for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip nor in Bethlehem and Jericho. In our tactical decisions, we are operating contrary to our strategic interests."

This is a devastating condemnation of Sharon's policy, not least because it comes from Israel's top military man, a figure whose point of departure is not politics or ideology but security. Moreover, Ya'alon has earned a reputation as a hard-liner on the militarized Palestinian intifadah of the past three years. In August 2002, he provoked Israeli doves by saying, "The Palestinian threat harbors cancerlike attributes that have to be severed and fought to the bitter end."

What he said this week reflects a more far-sighted assessment leading to a less rigid reliance on force and collective punishment. His warning Tuesday was that the government's continuing crackdown on the Palestinian population will only lead to more insecurity for Israel. "It increases hatred for Israel and strengthens the terror organizations," Ya'alon was quoted as telling correspondents from three Israeli papers.

Reaction to Ya'alon's remarks, from political figures and in Israel's lively press, made it clear that he was bringing into public view a debate that is taking place within the highest echelons of Israel's security establishment.

On one side is the chief of the Shin Bet security forces, who warns that any easing of the lockdown of Palestinians will lead to more terrorist attacks. As Ya'alon revealed, the Israel Defense Forces fear that the unrelenting pressure on the Palestinian populace plays into the hands of those who recruit suicide bombers and could culminate in a horrific explosion.

The road to peaceful coexistence between Israel and a Palestinian state must be a two-way street. The Palestinian side will have to end terrorism to gain freedom from occupation. But there will be no end of terrorism and occupation until political leaders in both camps act on the realization that their tactics, just as Ya'alon warned, are doing great harm to their strategic interest in a peaceful two-state solution.