Four wise men

IN SPITE OF external threats it has had to confront and the bitter factionalism of its domestic politics, Israel retains a quality that any democracy worthy of the name should envy -- the self-correcting therapy of truly free speech. Witness the interview that four former chiefs of Israel's Shin Bet security service gave to the mass-circulation daily Yediot Ahronot Friday, warning their compatriots that as a result of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies, "we are heading downhill toward near-catastrophe." Among them, the four former heads of Israel's General Security Service have 18 years of experience under diverse Israeli governments overseeing the recruitment and running of Palestinian informants -- people who are called collaborators by many other Palestinians. Because the four security chiefs have all been in charge at one time or another of protecting Israelis, their criticism of Sharon's tactics cannot be dismissed as the carping of unworldly intellectuals or the illusions of gullible doves.

These are practical men who come to their condemnation of Sharon's policies out of concern for Israel's long-term security needs. Their conclusions were shaped by direct experience of the shadow world in which security professionals monitor and infiltrate groups of guerrilla fighters or terrorists.

So when a figure such as Carmi Gilon, Shin Bet chief in the mid-90s, speaks out against the shortsightedness of Sharon's approach, he is propounding a view that members of the Israeli mainstream must take seriously.

The Sharon government "is dealing solely with the question of how to prevent the next terrorist attack" and so ignores "the question of how we get out of the mess we find ourselves in today," Gilon told the Israeli paper. By asserting that Sharon has failed to offer a feasible solution to Israel's security problems, Gilon and the other former Shin Bet heads align themselves with the serving army chief of staff, General Moshe Ya'alon, who lamented recently, "In our tactical decisions, we are operating contrary to our strategic interests."

These senior defenders of Israel have come to the conclusion that it is in Israel's strategic interest to negotiate a two-state peace deal with the Palestinians. Toward that end, the four Shin Bet directors call for Israel to withdraw from Gaza and most of the West Bank, even if that means an Israeli government will have to clash with a certain number of settlers.

During their interview, the security chiefs signed a petition in favor of one of the two peace plans negotiated unofficially by former Israeli Cabinet ministers and security authorities and Palestinian notables over the past three years. This was their way of saying that a peaceful resolution of the conflict is possible, that we all know pretty much how it must look, and now both sides need leaders who have the will to make it happen.