Israeli left fears army role in peace process

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The Independent Online
LABOUR politicians are stressing fears in Israel over the participation of the military in peace negotiations with the Palestinians. There is concern over whether the army is truly subordinated to the democratically elected political leadership.

Haggai Merom, a Knesset member of the ruling Labour Party on the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee, criticised what he sees as the growing militarisation of diplomacy. He said the office of the general staff had become an adjunct of the prime minister's office and declared: 'We have always kept the army out of the peace process.'

His concerns were echoed by Ora Namir, the Labour stalwart, once a supporter of the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and now closer to the left of the party. Specifically, the criticism has been levelled at the participation in Sinai of the deputy chief of staff, Amnon Shahak.

The controversy erupted after reports that the army had voiced its concern at some of the terms of the interim agreement reached in Davos 10 days ago by the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, and the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Yasser Arafat. On Friday, Mr Rabin received senior generals, including the chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Ehud Barak. The Israeli press has said that the generals were unhappy with how much Mr Peres had tried to give away in terms of security. It has been reported that the generals were playing on the known differences between the bold, visionary Mr Peres and the more cautious, security-conscious Mr Rabin.

Both men, however, have been at pains to play down both the reported rift between them, and the supposed role of the army. Mr Rabin said that, when the secret Oslo accords were reached, he was criticised for not bringing in the army. He defended the participation of senior officers. 'In the negotiations held now, unlike those leading to Oslo, there is vital significance to the presence of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), because the issues are explicitly security-related and because the IDF will be responsible for the practical implications.'

Senior army commanders see the row as politically motivated. 'It has to do with the internal politics of the Labour Party . . . exploited by the Likud opposition' according to one source. They see their function as turning the political agreements into security procedures, whether relating to the protection of Jewish settlers, the size of the Jericho area, or the nature of border security. 'We don't see any agreement which will result without the very deep involvement of the IDF. It is responsible for the security of the state of Israel, and is asked to ensure that security after the agreements. But we are not the policy-makers. We are advisers, like all civil servants, and we are going to put all the options on the table.'

Historically, army officers have often played key roles in peace negotiations. Mr Rabin, then a junior staff officer, assisted General Yigal Yadin in the 1949 armistice negotiations on Rhodes. Talks on disengagement of forces with Egypt at Kilometre 101 and with the Syrians in 1974 were conducted by military men. And General Abrasha Tamir thrashed out many of the details of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.

The Israeli army promotion is rapid and retirement early, so many successful generals in their mid-forties turn to a second career in politics, such as Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan (whose nephew, General Uzi Dayan, is currently in Cairo advising Mr Peres in his negotiations which began on Monday night with Mr Arafat).

On a broader level, the row has focused debate about the central role the army plays in Israeli life. To an outsider, the political establishment is weighed down by top brass. At least nine generals sit among the 120 members of the Knesset. They include Mr Rabin himself, Benjamin 'Fuad' Ben Eliezer, Raful Eitan, Ori Orr, Arik Sharon, Ephraim Sneh, Rehavam Zeevi ('Gandhi'), Motti Gur, and Avigdor Kahalani. Arab commentators have in the past made the error of seeing Israel as ruled by a junta of generals, but Mr Sharon, Mr Eitan and Mr Zeevi are all in right-wing opposition parties.

The army draws citizens together, whatever their origins. Men do 45 days a year reserve duty until the age of 54. Women's service has been decreased to 21 months.

The army has been under fire before. The post-mortem into the 1973 Arab-Israeli war found many top brass responsible for lapses in security which allowed the surprise Arab attack on Israeli positions. The army, at all levels, insists that it will carry out orders - even if this means confronting Jewish settlers in the occupied territories.