Four former chiefs of Israel's Shin Bet security service launched an extraordinary attack on Ariel Sharon yesterday, saying his policies were catastrophic and endangered Israel's future as a Jewish state.
The four men gave a joint interview to the mass circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, in which they called for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories and evacuate Jewish settlements there.
Ami Ayalon, the Shin Bet director from 1996 to 2000, said: "We are taking very sure and measured steps to a point where the state of Israel will not be a democracy or a home for the Jewish people."
Yaakov Peri, the director of Shin Bet from 1988 to 1995, supported him, saying: "From whatever aspect you look at it we are going in the direction of decline, nearly a catastrophe.If something doesn't happen here, we will continue to live by the sword, we will continue to wallow in the mud and we will continue to destroy ourselves."
The attack by the four Shin Bet menfollows a similar outburst from the current chief of staff of the Israeli army, General Moshe Ya'alon, who said the current policy of strict closures on Palestinian cities was increasing Palestinian resentment of Israel.
The criticism from the Shin Bet directors who included Avraham Shalom, director from 1980 to 1986, and Carmi Gillon, director from 1995 to 1996 went deeper, and it is all the more damaging because it comes from former chiefs of a service linked to assassinations, closures and roadblocks.
Mr Gillon said: "If we continue our conflict with the Palestinians, this country will go from bad to worse."
Mr Shalom said: "All the steps that we have taken are steps that are contrary to the aspiration for peace. If we do not turn away from this path, of adhering to the entire land of Israel, and if we do not also begin to understand the other side we will not get anywhere. We must admit that there is another side, that it has feelings and that it is suffering, and that we are behaving disgracefully."
Asked about ideological settlers who would oppose a withdrawal from the occupied territories, Mr Ayalon said: "At issue are 15 per cent or even 10 per cent of the settlers, and we have to be capable of facing such a number."
The men condemned Mr Sharon for making progress on the American-backed road- map peace plan dependent on the Palestinian Authority suppressing militant groups. "It is an excuse for doing nothing," Mr Shalom said.
The men accused Mr Sharon of a strategic mistake in refusing to deal with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian President. "We will not determine who is relevant and who isn't," said Mr Shalom. "Nothing can happen without Arafat."
Mr Sharon was also criticised for maintaining there was no partner for dialogue on the Palestinian side. Mr Ayalon said: "If the state of Israel were to leave the Gaza Strip ... and really and truly begin to dismantle illegal settlements ... the Palestinians would come to the negotiating table."
The separation fence that Israel is building in the West Bank also came in for heavy criticism. Mr Shalom said: "Today's fence is creating a political and security reality that will become a problem. It creates hatred, it expropriates land, and annexes hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to the state of Israel."
Israeli military tactics were also questioned. The policy of assassinating leading militants "has become an excuse," said Mr Ayalon. "If we were quieter, there would be fewer terror attacks." Mr Peri added: "I don't understand why a tank driving through Ramallah has to also crush the cars parked on the side of the road."
Mr Ayalon concluded bleakly: "Much of what we are doing today in [the West Bank] and Gaza is immoral, some of it patently immoral. But I think what has happened to us is the loss of hope. And I'm speaking of both sides. Almost everything that we do to them and that they do to us, were we able to put it into a context of time and to say this is a stage on the way to something better, would be tolerable. The problem is that today, neither us nor they see any better future."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies