Originally published at customerservant.com. You can comment here or there.
By Ari Shavit Haaretz Magazine 15 September 2006
Moshe Ya’alon is ensconced in a small room on the second floor of the Shalem
Center in Jerusalem’s Greek Colony neighborhood. His year at a research
institute in Washington hasn’t changed him. He lets his proud and tough
integrity say its piece, as in the past. Because, after all, he is entirely
as he was. He is entirely that uncompromising moral roughness of a native of
Kiryat Haim. A son of historic Mapai, the forerunner of Labor; the son of
poor Ashkenazim, working-class Holocaust survivors, who sent their son to
the land-settlement movement, to the security sphere and the building of the
country. To self-fulfillment without vested interests, without a sense of
humor and without winks and manipulations.
At Doron’s Falafel they like Boogey, as Ya’alon is known. When he sits at
the Formica table with tehina dripping from his half-pita, he looks
different from any other contemporary Israeli public figure. His Spartan
modesty is now working in his favor. At the midway point between the house
on 29th November Street and Cremieux Street the former chief of staff
somehow seems to embody a different moral thrust. Jerusalem Likudniks who
have had their fill of Olmert and know every shtick of the Tricky Dicky who
grew up in their city are looking to the colorless kibbutznik who, for his
part, seems to be trying to obscure his presence and to shrink his stature.
Will he enter politics? Ya’alon continues to deny it, but the denial sounds
less cogent and more hesitant than in the past. The person who removed the
chief of staff of the Al-Aqsa Intifada prematurely in order to replace him
with Halutz and Kaplinsky sowed in this village teacher a seed of ambitious
bitterness that every so often lights a burning fire in his eyes. The person
who managed the second Lebanon war in the way it was managed let the seed
sprout and produce fruit. If he were not labeled as being responsible, to a
certain extent, for the blunder of the six years that preceded the war,
Ya’alon would already now be leading the postwar protest movement.
If he were not also controversial, Ya’alon would already now become the Moti
Ashkenazi of 2006 – the person who sparked the post-Yom Kippur War protest
movement. Still, even so, even though he knows that people are lurking in
ambush for him, Bogey appears determined to make waves and foment storms.
Those who did not want him as chief of staff will get him as a key figure in
the new public life of the political era that is about to open.
The IDF failed in the second Lebanon war. As the person who was deputy chief
of staff and chief of staff for five of the past six years, don’t you bear
responsibility for this failure?
Ya’alon: “I support the establishment of a state commission of inquiry. I
propose that I be the first person to be questioned by the commission. I
have nothing to hide.”
You froze the Nautilus project and thereby exposed the North to Katyushas.
“I am not the one who stopped the Nautilus project. But I did have doubts
about it. It was extremely expensive and of limited result. It could only
have protected a city here and a city there. If Israel invests a fortune to
sew a protective suit for each citizen and turn itself into a bunker state,
it will not survive economically.”
You also neglected the active defense systems for tanks against anti-tank
missiles. Because of you the tanks were not protected.
“As chief of staff I assigned priority to creating intelligence capabilities
and attack capabilities. In my opinion that was a correct approach, which
proved itself. I would not have used the tanks the way they were used in
You shared the conception that gave excess weight to the air force and to
“The air force and the precise munitions proved themselves both in the
Palestinian arena and in the Lebanon fighting. I did not count solely on
aerial combat. I prepared an option of ground combat and prepared the
appropriate forces for that. The problem in the war was not the air force
but the unrealistic expectations about what the air force could achieve.”
You accepted the stagnation of the reserve units.
“Even before I became chief of staff we made the decision to take a risk in
this regard. We made it clear to the political echelon that in a war it
would take four days to prepare the reserve units. Even now I think the risk
we took was reasonable. In 2002 Israel faced a danger of economic collapse.
The IDF has to understand the constraints of the budget and adjust itself
accordingly. I continue to battle today against an excessive increase of the
defense budget. Israel’s economic soundness is a central element in its
You said that we had to let the rockets rust.
“True, and I stand behind that statement today, too. I did not suggest that
we sit idly by until the rockets rusted. I proposed that we act politically
and in a limited military fashion so that in the end Hezbollah would disarm.
I understood there was no military action which could smash or pulverize
Hezbollah. I understood that there is no way to uproot Hezbollah from the
hearts of the Shi’ites in Lebanon. I also understood that there is no
gimmick that will remove the Katyusha threat instantly. Accordingly, I
proposed that we take combined political-military action in order to contain
Hezbollah, to constrict its maneuvering space and in the end to bring about
a situation in which the organization would be perceived as illegitimate in
Did you favor negotiations with Syria?
“Yes. In the summer of 2003 I suggested to prime minister Sharon that he
accede to the requests of Bashar Assad and enter into negotiations with him.
I thought that the very existence of negotiations with Syria on the future
of the Golan Heights would crack the northern alignment of
Iran-Syria-Hezbollah and perhaps also cause its dismantlement. Sharon
rejected my suggestion outright. He preferred the disengagement.”
Would you be ready to cede the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria?
“I never sanctified any piece of ground. If a territorial concession will
bring about true peace and full recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a
Jewish state, I am not against that. However, even if we did not reach a
land-for-peace agreement, the very fact of the renewal of the dialogue
channel with Syria would have distanced it from Iran and would have weakened
the northern alignment, which I defined as a strategic threat.”
Nevertheless, the rockets kept piling up and you did not take action against
“You have to understand the limitations of power. Those who do not
understand them must not be in command of power. At this moment Syrian
missiles are aimed at Israel. Why don’t we attack them? Why don’t we attack
the Iranian Shihab [missiles] already today? One could argue that we should
also attack the Egyptian missiles. Egypt has a large army and many missiles,
so why shouldn’t we attack them now, because who knows what will happen 10
years down the line?
“You have to understand that the use of military force is a last resort. You
don’t use it offhandedly. And in order to use military force a legitimate
strategic context is required. There was no such context regarding
Hezbollah. However, beyond all that, it was clear to me that Hezbollah is a
rooted phenomenon and will not be eradicated by military action. It was also
clear to me that there is no unequivocal military solution against the
rocket deployment. I therefore encouraged political activity, which in the
end would lead to the disarming of Hezbollah as a result of an internal
Lebanese process, and concurrently I drew up a military plan intended to
address a scenario of a Hezbollah offensive that would oblige us to deal
with the organization militarily.”
What were the plan’s basic assumptions?
“That the IDF must act in a way that would set in motion a political process
that would lead to the disarming of Hezbollah, the removal of the Iranians
from Lebanon and perhaps also the imposition of sanctions on Syria and Iran.
In a scenario of the abduction of soldiers, exactly as occurred on July 12,
the IDF was supposed to respond with an aerial attack and the mobilization
of reserve divisions, which would act as a threat to the Syrians and to
Hezbollah and would encourage Lebanon and the international community to
take action to achieve the desired goal. If the threat itself did not
achieve the goal, a ground move would have begun within a few days aimed
primarily at seizing dominant terrain as far as the Litani River and the
“The ground entry was supposed to be carried out speedily, for an allotted
time, without the use of tanks and without entering houses or built-up
areas. Because of our awareness of the anti-tank missile problem and our
awareness of the bunkers and of the fact that the routes are mined, the
intention was to activate the IDF in guerrilla modalities. That was the
operational idea, that was the plan and that is how the forces were
If so, why was that plan not implemented?
“I don’t know. That is one of the questions that the state commission of
inquiry will have to investigate. In my opinion, the aerial offensive was
correct. The air force delivered the goods. In a few areas it even provided
favorable surprises. But the activation of the ground forces was a
catastrophe. There was no defined goal. There was no required achievement.
They jumped from one idea to the next and introduced new missions all the
time without any logic.”
So you argue that the IDF was prepared for the war but that its management
was a failure.
“Exactly so. In the debriefings that are now under way in the IDF the
tendency is to go below. To talk about a crisis at the tactical level. To
cast the responsibility on the battalion and brigade commanders. But I
maintain that the problem is not there. Our pilots are excellent. The
company commanders are excellent. They fought excellently in Operation
Defensive Shield [in the West Bank, in spring 2002] and they overcame the
Palestinian terrorism and also carried out the disengagement optimally. And
they have not changed since. In this war, too, when they were used correctly
they operated correctly. There were units that liquidated about 50
terrorists without sustaining one casualty. So the allegation that the army
is basically flawed is not right. Nor do I accept the claim that the IDF did
not prepare for this campaign but for the last war. That is simply not true.
What we had here was a management failure at a very senior level by those
who are responsible for activating force in Israel. The failure in this
campaign was one of management.”
When did you understand that there had been a failure, that something had
“At the end of the first week. Until then things were conducted reasonably
well. I was critical of the fact that the reserves were not mobilized, but I
understood more or less what the goal was. But then, instead of plucking the
political fruits of the aerial offensive, they continued to use force. They
over-used force. And instead of coordinating with the Americans for them to
stop us when the operation was at its height, and setting in motion a
political process to disarm Hezbollah, we asked the Americans for more time.
We let the Americans think that we have some sort of gimmick that will
vanquish Hezbollah militarily. I knew there was no such gimmick. I knew the
whole logic of the operation was that it be limited in time and not be
“And then I lost all logical connection with the events. I understood that
there was a deviation from the plan that was based on some sort of false
feeling that there is a military means to pulverize Hezbollah and bring
about its dismantlement and disappearance. Because the goals of the war were
not defined and because no one clarified what the army is capable of doing
and what it cannot do, the pursuit began of an impossible achievement.
Instead of sticking to the IDF’s operative plan, they started to improvise.
They improvised, improvised and then improvised again. Instead of grabbing
political achievements at the right moment, they went on with the use of
force. The excessive use of force in a situation like this is ruinous. It
becomes a two-edged sword. When you turn a screw and reach a certain point
you have to stop. If you keep going you end up pulling it out: you open
instead of closing. That is what happened here.”
Did you try to warn people? Did you talk to Olmert and Halutz?
“I tried to phone from Washington. Then I got here and tried to talk here.
But I discovered that the political level had the feeling – which was
nourished by the chief of staff – that the matter could be wrapped up from
the air. And when it turned out that the aerial move was not going to
deliver the goods it was never meant to deliver in the first place,
frustration set in. A desperate search began for some kind of move that
would produce some sort of feeling of victory. The delusory idea of a
one-kilometer ground move developed.”
“The goal that was posited was to destroy Hezbollah outposts adjacent to the
border. But if Hezbollah is not disarmed, it will build new outposts. If it
is disarmed, there is no point destroying the outposts. So the whole idea of
sending a force into Maroun A Ras was baseless. I didn’t understand it. I
didn’t understand where it came from. I was not familiar with any such
Did you say so to Halutz?
“I did not succeed in speaking to the chief of staff. I came to Israel
because I was climbing up the walls in Washington but I went back the way I
came and climbed those walls even higher. By then we were already entangled
in Bint Jbail.”
So you believe the Bint Jbail move was also mistaken?
“Bint Jbail was imposed by the chief of staff. There was no orderly plan
here. There was no dialogue between the General Staff and Northern Command
and the field levels. The idea to capture Bint Jbail was born out of the
desperate attempt to create a picture of victory, because Bint Jbail is a
symbol. Because that’s where Nasrallah made his ’spider webs’ speech. But it
was clear that this was folly. Why are you even messing with a built-up
area? Seize the dominating terrain. Use infantry according to the original
plan. Don’t enter killing areas in which Hezbollah is waiting for you.
Listen to the command levels that are telling you that this is a mistake.”
“Yes. Because spin is penetrating strategy. There is a discourse here. There
is no listening here. There is a misunderstanding that the land army is not
a plane to which you assign a mission and it attacks and returns. It is
impossible to order Northern Command to capture Bint Jbail by a snap
decision. As a result, soldiers are killed. As a result, the IDF goes in and
comes out and retreats. The deterrent image is damaged. At Maroun A Ras and
at Bint Jbail an unfavorable reversal was created in the battle picture.”
Your wife’s nephew was seriously wounded in the land skirmishes in the
village of Debel.
“The question that arises from Moran and from his buddies is a simple one:
Why? I am familiar with the loss of friends in war. And with bereaved
families, and with serious wounds. But if it is clear why and for what, it’s
easier. And here the young soldiers were sent to execute a mission whose
logic and purpose were not clear to them. Nor did they understand why they
found themselves in a house when it was clear to them that it wasn’t smart
to enter houses. When Moran was drafted I told his father one thing: no
tanks and no houses – I was that aware of the antitank threat. And when he
shouted there, ‘Don’t send us into houses,’ nobody listened. Two antitank
missiles entered the house, leaving nine killed and 32 wounded.
“So he and his buddies are asking why. Why the mistake in the tactical
execution. And why the entering and leaving villages. And I, with them, also
ask why. Yes, in war people are killed, wounded. But that is why the
political echelon and the military echelon have to make their decisions in
the most judicious and precise way. Not to get carried away. Not to act
emotionally. Not to kick a wall with a bare foot. Because when you kick a
wall with a bare foot the satisfaction of the kick lasts exactly as long as
it takes for the foot to make contact with the wall. After that the foot is
broken, while the wall continues to stand. And what happens in the meantime
is not only that soldiers are killed. What happens is that the most basic
element that leadership needs is eroded: trust. And that is what happened
here. The trust of the soldiers and the commanders in the political echelon
and in the senior command was eroded.”
You haven’t mentioned the successful operation at Baalbek.
“I am not convinced that what was done at Baalbek was a success. And I am
not convinced that what was carried out was justified in terms of risk, cost
and benefit. There is a certain type of operation that carries a very high
risk level. Therefore you attempt it only when the achievement it is meant
to generate is of strategic importance. I am not certain this was the case
here. I am not certain that the operation at Baalbek was not an adventure.”
And the final ground move that ended the war?
“That was a spin move. It had no substantive security-political goal, only a
spin goal. It was meant to supply the missing victory picture. You don’t do
that. You don’t send soldiers to carry out a futile mission after the
political outcome has already been set. I consider that corrupt.”
You are saying a very serious thing. Thirty-three soldiers were killed in
that operation. Were they killed to achieve a spin?
“Yes. And that is why people have to resign. For that you don’t even need a
commission of inquiry. Whoever made that decision has to assume
responsibility and resign.”
Does the prime minister have to resign?
“Yes. He can’t say he did not know. He cannot say that. Even if he was not
an army person in the past and was not prime minister or defense minister,
he knows how one goes to war. This is not the way to go to war. And he knows
how a war is managed. This is not the way a war is managed. Going to war was
scandalous and he is directly responsible for that. The management of the
war was a failure and he is responsible for that. The final operation was
particularly problematic and he was directly involved in that. He was warned
and he did not heed the warnings. Therefore he must resign.”
And the chief of staff?
“The chief of staff failed in the management of the war. He gave the
political echelon the feeling that he had the capability, which in practice
he did not have, to bring about a political achievement by means of an
extremely aggressive military operation. He entered the war without defining
it as a war and maybe without understanding that it was a war. He did not
understand the implications of the measures he himself adopted. He did not
mobilize the reserves in time and did not open the emergency depots in time
and did not activate the high-command base. He managed the war from his
office. He imposed missions such as Bint Jbail without any discussion and
without consulting with the command about the consequences and implications.
He created lack of clarity that rattled the forces in the field, caused a
loss of trust and generated chaos. He did not give the commanders in the
north backing. He did not build a structure that would help him overcome his
weakness in the land sphere. He managed the campaign arrogantly and
Must the chief of staff resign?
“Yes. He should have resigned immediately after the conclusion of the
And the defense minister?
“The defense minister should be replaced. There is a certain justice to what
he says about being new and not having time to learn and not even hearing
that there were rockets in Lebanon. But the responsibility is on his
shoulders in his very agreement to take the job. Both he and the person who
appointed him are responsible for appointing an inexperienced person to a
sensitive post without taking into account that within a short time he would
have to manage a crisis. There is no doubt the leadership team that was
created here was perceived by Hezbollah as weak and inexperienced. Nasrallah
may have been taken by surprise at the aggressive reaction by the prime
minister, the defense minister and the chief of staff, but in the end he was
right in his assessment that this team was not capable of managing a war
The price of moral fog
Has there been any improvement since the war? Is a learning process
“The processes of cover-up and corruption are continuing. The prime
minister’s examination commissions are an escape. Instead of proving that he
is showing responsibility, the prime minister is fleeing from
responsibility. In the IDF, too, it’s clear there will not be truthful
investigations. Everyone is busy with his own personal survival. So without
changing horses and without a state commission of inquiry that will expose
the truth to everyone, there is no chance of starting the process of
rehabilitating the IDF. This is because the IDF is not destroyed. It does
not need organizational rehabilitation. What it needs is a rehabilitation of
values. Without the replacement of the political leadership and the senior
command, that kind of rehabilitation of values is impossible. It won’t
You have lost me. What, exactly, do you mean?
“I see a war of cultures here. In recent years the public sector in Israel
has undergone a process of corruption. It began in politics but,
regrettably, also penetrated the army. A cycle of discussion has been
created here in which the core is not the essence but marketing. In the war
we paid a price for that. We paid a price for disengaging from the truth. We
paid a price for the loss of integrity and the moral fog. We paid a price
for accepting a process in which officers are promoted because they have
Allow me to translate. You are saying, in effect, that Ariel Sharon’s ‘ranch
forum’ corrupted the top level of the IDF.
“I have no doubt of that.”
You are arguing that the chief of staff and his deputy were appointed to
their positions because they are close to the ranch forum.
“That is what the papers said.”
And this corruption, which has its origins in the ranch forum, caused many
of the ills that were exposed in the war?
“The present chief of staff is a very talented person. He was an excellent
commander of the air force. But there is a moral debate here. He carries
with him a problematic message. The connection of officers to politics is
undesirable. It is a corrupt connection. There is a problem today in the IDF
of very senior officers who are too close to political elements.”
Can you give some examples?
“In the last Herzliya Conference the chief of staff said that our security
situation has never been better. The Iranian threat – not this year.
Terrorism is not an existential threat. Wow, terrific. Life is great. We
have it good here. That was an untruthful presentation for the inhabitants
of Israel. And it came ahead of elections. It was within the framework of an
attempt at a ‘compensation of hope,’ as the prime minister put it.”
Are you saying that the chief of staff promoted Kadima?
“It’s very possible. After the disengagement it was clear that we were
headed for a confrontation with extremist Islam, which viewed the
disengagement as a sign of weakness. I knew that and Military Intelligence
knew that. What should have been done was to prepare the IDF for a
confrontation. But instead, they forged some imaginary hope that turned out
to be an illusion. They placed a golden calf before the people of Israel and
another golden calf, instead of telling the nation the truth. The top level
of the IDF was a partner to this. Adlerism [referring to ad man Reuven
Adler] penetrated the army. What we had here was the sin of arrogance and
what we had was corruption. In the year that preceded the war there was a
worrisome shift for the worse in the IDF.”
Did you discern problems in the IDF even before the war?
“Certainly. The senior command distanced itself from details, and when the
senior command does that it creates laxness. You get slackness. The muscle
tone changes. At the same time, the processes of deep thought were severed.
A clear message was conveyed that everyone has to toe the line. That
decisions are made before the discussion and not in its course. Too much
value was attributed to charisma, to the speed with which decisions are
made. Anyone who held a different view was distanced or silenced. An
unhealthy spirit emerged of not being meticulous and of not making an
effort. Of uniformity of opinion and of complacency. And worst of all: a
feeling was created that anyone who preserved rectitude and integrity was
liable not to be promoted. A feeling was created that anyone seeking
promotion has to cross the lines and join the spinfest and learn how to
serve the politicians. That is why the chief of staff cannot now put the IDF
through a rehabilitation of values. Because he reflects saliently the flawed
culture of values from which release is needed, which has to be cleansed.”
The reservists who protested the war say that it revealed the fact that
corruption kills. Do you share that view?
“Yes. Corruption is the real threat to Israel. It is more dangerous than the
Iranian threat and the Palestinian threat. That is why we have to replace
the leadership now. Without the replacement of the leadership there will be
no cleansing and no cultural-values rehabilitation and also no preparedness
for the next war.”
Do we have to prepare for a war?
“Deterrence was harmed in the wake of the war’s failed management. Unjustly,
Israel is now perceived in the region as a state that is not able to protect
the lives of its citizens. The image of Israel and the image of the IDF is
bad. As chief of staff I was able to accept the Military Intelligence
appraisal that the probability of a Syrian surprise attack was very, very
low. Today, as a result of the war, that probability is no longer very, very
low. It is not extremely high, but it is more than low.”
In this state of emergency, do you see yourself taking over as chief of
staff for a pre-set limited period?
“That is not necessary. There are good people in the system who can do the
job. There is no need for an emergency appointment. But throughout my life I
have said that if I am wanted, I am here. It’s the same today.”
And if you were offered the post of defense minister?
“I will not enter the present alignment. It needs to be replaced. In other
circumstances it would be a hard dilemma.”
It’s said that you are connected to Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud.
So maybe you will establish a new party?
“I am not looking for power. I hate it. But I do not flee responsibility. I
also hated the army, but after the Yom Kippur War I joined the career army.
In the first years it was hard for me to go back to the army every Sunday
morning, but I did it because I thought that I would be able to exert
influence from there. Today I don’t think politics is my way to exert
But you are not ruling it out altogether. In an analogy to what happened to
you after 1973, maybe you will again feel that you are required to take
action contrary to your DNA and run for prime minister, despite everything?
“I don’t want to get into that. I am disturbed by what is happening in the
country. It’s burning in my bones. I care. But at the moment all I want to
do is share with the public my diagnosis of the situation, to share with the
public an understanding of the gravity of the corruption. If we do not act
immediately to uproot the corruption from the political establishment and
from the military establishment, it will endanger our existence. Arrogance
and corruption are today the existential threat to Israel.”