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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - February 20, 2007

Q. What did the Rice-Olmert-Abbas meeting in Jerusalem on Feb. 19 accomplish? Q. What are the primary challenges facing the new IDF chief of staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi?

Q. What did the Rice-Olmert-Abbas meeting in Jerusalem on Feb. 19 accomplish?

A. Apparently, very little. In fact, judging from Rice's comments after the meeting, the main achievement of the meeting was agreement to continue meeting.

This is significant, but not surprising. Rice had prefaced the meeting with statements about the importance of remaining in touch with the moderate Abbas. Nevertheless, with the anticipated formation of a Hamas-Fateh unity government, Rice (and Olmert) could logically argue that Abbas, who heads Fateh, would now be "tainted" by his party's integration into the government and should henceforth be boycotted in the same way that the government will be--at least as long as it does not accept the Quartet's three conditions. Olmert reportedly accused Abbas during the tense meeting of "betraying" him at Mecca by entering into the unity government deal with Hamas without insisting on the Quartet's demands. Nonetheless, he stated specifically after the meeting that Abbas would remain Israel's Palestinian interlocutor, albeit only to discuss Palestinian efforts to fight terrorism and Israeli humanitarian gestures.

Abbas, for his part, could not expect much out of this meeting. He and the Saudis knowingly ignored American admonitions 10 days ago when they agreed with Hamas to establish a unity government that is not committed to the Quartet conditions. He could hardly hope to win Rice over to the wisdom of his decision in Mecca in a single sitting. A continued dialogue is the most he could wish for. Meanwhile, the Mecca deal has had the desired effect of stopping Palestinian internecine fighting in Gaza, something Abbas was desperate to do. Once the unity government is formed, he still hopes to persuade Rice and Olmert to talk to its non-Hamas ministers, including trusted favorites like Salam Fayad, a former and apparently future finance minister.

As for Olmert, both he and the Israeli public are far more preoccupied with the dynamics of corruption investigations, the Winograd commission's anticipated findings and their potential effect on coalition stability and on the prime minister's own future than with a meeting with Abbas that is almost by definition a non-starter. Fortified by agreement with President Bush to stick to the Quartet's conditions, Olmert knew he had little to lose and little to gain from this meeting.

Rice set the stage for the meeting with comments to the press that were extraordinary in their very banality and the absence of that breakthrough "diplomatic horizon" she claims she aspires to. Monday's Washington Post quotes her, under the amazing headline "High-Stakes Shuttle Diplomacy", stating "I am committed to this. This takes hard work. It takes patience, it takes perseverance, it takes getting up after a bad day and trying to make a better day. And that's what I am going to do. As long as I am secretary of state, that's what I am going to do. And that's what the president wants me to do". Coming from Henry Kissinger or James Baker after a month of shuttling between Damascus and Jerusalem in 1974 or 1990 that might have sounded impressive. But Rice checks in to Jerusalem and Ramallah for a night or two once every few months and accomplishes little if anything.

True, Rice proclaimed after the Jerusalem meeting that the threesome had indeed discussed the "diplomatic horizon". But her rhetoric, against the backdrop of near-total lack of political movement between Palestinians and Israelis, seemingly could only reflect one of two possible takes on the situation. Either she really believes that her efforts to promote an Abbas-Olmert dialogue hold the potential for a significant breakthrough, in which case she is seriously out of touch with Israeli-Palestinian realities and not cognizant of the real energies she would have to invest in order to achieve something. Or she knows she is merely going through the motions in order to be able to reassure the Quartet and the moderate Sunni Arab states that she is committed to Arab-Israel peace as she seeks their cooperation against Iran and strives to forestall European peace initiatives judged more friendly to the Arab side.

But are the Europeans, Saudis and Egyptians that naive? Or do they, for lack of an alternative, simply pretend to be impressed by Rice's Jerusalem heroics. Does anybody in this part of the world take Rice and Bush's policy initiatives seriously?

Q. What are the primary challenges facing the new IDF chief of staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi?

A. Ashkenazi inherits some challenges from his predecessor, Dan Halutz, who resigned under heavy criticism stemming from last summer's war, while other challenges are more deeply imbedded and have little to do with Halutz.

The most obvious challenge, and the most obviously linked to Halutz's performance, is to lead the IDF in absorbing and applying the lessons of last summer's mediocre operation against Hizballah in Lebanon. Some of this may even involve dismantling structural reforms instituted by Halutz during the months preceding the war that are deemed by Ashkenazi to have been counterproductive. For example, Halutz eliminated the deputy chief of staff's traditional role as chief of operations and gave the regional commands greater autonomy to manage operations. The result was that during the fighting on the ground in Lebanon the only guiding hand at the top was that of Halutz, an air force man with little feeling for ground operations. Ashkenazi is likely to reverse these and similar changes.

Another area crying for reform that cannot be dealt with so easily in a short period of time is the revelation, following the war, that most of the IDF's senior ground commanders had been promoted over the years, including before Halutz's time, despite the absence of proper training--lacking everything from a war college degree to armor courses for infantry colonels who were promoted to division commander. Ashkenazi has to be careful not to expose the IDF to too many changes within a short time span. In any case, it will take more than a few months to train or retrain senior commanders. On the other hand, some senior posts are likely to change hands fairly quickly as Ashkenazi promotes the officers he has confidence in and pensions off those he finds wanting.

Ashkenazi's biggest challenge is to prepare the IDF for the next war, yet without making the classic mistake of "fighting the last war". There is plenty of talk about another round with Hizballah, which is rearming, retraining and beginning to reestablish its presence in southern Lebanon despite the activities of UNIFIL and the Lebanese army. IDF Intelligence estimates that Hizballah is now stronger than before last summer's war. But will another round look like the last one? Will Syria be involved? Or could the next war be against Iran, sparked by an American or Israeli attack and involving massive Iranian retaliation in the form of missile and terrorist attacks?

Here it is useful to recall that when Ariel Sharon picked Halutz over Ashkenazi as chief of staff in the spring of 2005, he had two primary missions in mind: carrying out unilateral redeployment from Gaza, which Halutz did extremely well, and preparing the IDF for what would be essentially an air war with Iran. Halutz, as an air force man, was well suited to the latter task. Ashkenazi may be less so.

Ashkenazi inherits an army plagued by low post-war morale among the lower and medium ranks, where the temptations of Israel's booming civilian economy render it difficult to keep good commanders in service, and an atmosphere of back-biting among the higher ranks. Halutz, in his parting remarks, alluded more than once to the sniping he took from his fellow generals, noting that the most dangerous thing for an air squadron commander is to be shot at from behind by his number two. (Halutz's predecessor, Moshe "Bogie" Yaalon, used an even more dynamic metaphor when, upon his early departure from service, he noted that he wore high combat boots even to his office "because there are snakes in the grass" at General Staff headquarters in Tel Aviv.)

Ashkenazi's task of improving morale will be all the more difficult in view of the army's total disdain for Minister of Defense Amir Peretz, who has neither expertise nor security leadership qualities to offer the defense community. Interestingly, Ashkenazi is able to work with Peretz; he was, after all, appointed by Peretz last summer to serve as director general of the Ministry of Defense. But now that Ashkenazi has become chief of staff, Peretz, who is widely viewed as a "lame duck" because he could lose his Labor leadership position and ministerial post in a party primary in late May, is having difficulty finding another candidate for the director general's post. In view of PM Ehud Olmert's similar lack of security know-how and experience, this leaves a dangerous vacuum at the political command level above Ashkenazi.