Israelis Should Heed Critic of Sharon's Policies

November 2, 2003

Most fair-minded people would acknowledge that when faced with unending suicide terrorist attacks against its civilian population, Israel must take drastic steps to protect its citizens. No government in the world would do less. Defense is the first obligation of a nation.

But that doesn't mean that whatever Israel does is necessarily either effective or in its long-term interests. That is just the point that Israel's senior military commander made when he went public recently with the assertion that his country's military tactics were too repressive and would result in ever-higher levels of hatred and terrorism.

It was an extraordinary statement made by Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the Israel Defense Force chief of staff. He sharply and publicly criticized both his immediate superior, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He said he was motivated by the fear that by cracking down as brutally on Palestinians as Israel has since the last suicide bombing, Israel is creating another generation of suicide bombers.

Yaalon has struck a chord not only outside of Israel, where Sharon's brutal tactics have been criticized for some time, but inside Israel as well. Other military officials have echoed Yaalon's concerns. They say that by making it impossible for thousands of Palestinians to travel from one part of the West Bank to another, keeping people from jobs and school, Israel is breeding hatred in parts of the population that would otherwise not necessarily support the terrorism.

The dilemma that Israel's government faces is how to crack down on terrorism and yet not do it in a manner that causes such deeply felt antipathy among the Palestinian population as a whole.

Unfortunately, some Palestinians are going to see Yaalon's comments as an indication that their terrorist tactics are weakening Israel's resolve and unity.

From a Western perspective, the willingness of a military leader to speak out against his superiors is a show of courage and an indication of a nation with strong values. Democracies are often saved from repeating mistakes by the presence of open debate and criticism. Authoritarian regimes, which do not brook dissent, rarely correct mistaken policies.

But that point can be turned back on the Palestinian leadership. There are signs that at least some Palestinian officials or leaders realize that more than three years of terrorism has been terribly counterproductive to their interests. And yet there is no public debate within the Palestinian community, no senior military officers talking out against that dreadful policy.

Even if Yaalon is right - and we believe there is merit to his concerns - the question remains: How can Israel be less repressive and yet still combat terrorism against its citizens?

Throughout his long career, Sharon has gotten himself in trouble because of poor judgment and his tendency to do things to excess. Yaalon is saying it's happening again. Israelis need to listen closely to what the general is saying.

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

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