Israel’s class of military politicians and chances for peace

Israel’s doves may have a Palestinian partner, but they lack a locomotive to pull the peace train to its destination.

Read part one: What does the future hold for Israel’s military politicians?

By Thomas G. Mitchell

Generals-turned-prime ministers Ariel Sharon (Left) and Yitzhak Rabin. (Photo: GPO)
Generals-turned-prime ministers Ariel Sharon (Left) and Yitzhak Rabin. (Photo: GPO)

From the 1960s until the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada in late 2000, which led to the collapse of the Labor Party and an end to it as an alternative to the Likud in heading coalitions, there have been six major military politicians who had an influence on Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors. These six were: Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizman, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Barak. These six all made it into the top two rungs of the political ladder (premiership, defense and foreign ministries). Today five of them are dead and the sixth, Barak, is retired. Half of them were opposed to negotiating with the Palestinians for an independent state throughout their careers. Allon and Dayan favored alternative versions of the Jordanian Option named after them but both of which were equally unacceptable to King Hussein of Jordan. Sharon favored keeping the West Bank and turning Jordan itself into a Palestinian state—at least until he became prime minister.

With the other three the situation grows more complex. in the second half of his political career, this time in the Labor Party, Ezer Weizman was a leading dove who favored peace negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). But with Labor in national unity governments with the Likud, this was a very controversial stance. When Labor went into the opposition after March 1990, Weizman found himself shoved upstairs into the presidency where he could only comment on the efforts of others to make peace with the Palestinians. That task fell to Weizman’s old rival, Yitzhak Rabin, whom Weizman hated because he believed that Rabin had kept him from becoming chief of staff. Rabin, who hated Peres because he believed that Peres had delayed his rise to the top in the IDF, approved of Peres’s secret Oslo channel with the Palestinians after the fact. He then repaired his relationship with Peres and the two negotiated the Oslo I and Oslo II agreements with the PLO. But Rabin never publicly agreed to the emergence of an independent Palestinian state as the end result of the Oslo process. His associates say that he was reconciled to such an outcome, but that he just could not bring himself to publicly express this and risk his political future over the Palestinians.

This leaves us with Ehud Barak, the protégé of Rabin and Israel’s most decorated soldier. Barak, like his mentor Rabin, preferred the Syrian track over the Palestinian track. Rabin went ahead with negotiations with the Palestinians only after he realized that Hafez al-Assad of Syria was in no hurry to make peace with Israel. Barak, who like President Clinton, relied on public opinion polls to govern, went slowly because there was not public support for giving up all of the Golan to the Syrians. Barak would have been greatly aided by a dramatic public gesture by Assad or another Syrian leader comparable to Sadat’s 1977 journey to Jerusalem but Assad thought that was beneath him. The negotiations were complicated by the fact that Assad was dying from cancer and was busy arranging the transfer of power to his son, Bashar, in the Arab world’s first hereditary republic. In the end, Barak offered Assad less than a 100-percent return of the Golan and Assad broke off negotiations in March 2000.

Barak then turned to the Palestinians, who felt scorned by being treated as “the other woman.” Barak had formed a wide national-unity coalition after the election that brought him to power. But, unlike Rabin, he lacked the parliamentary support in the Knesset to make tough decisions without the support of parties that supported the occupation. As Barak departed for Camp David in July 2000 to negotiate with Yasser Arafat in a summit that he had pushed on Clinton, his government lost its majority in the Knesset. Barak ignored the advice that he received from the head of military intelligence regarding Arafat’s red lines in negotiations. he made far-reaching, revolutionary concessions on Jerusalem and borders but he did not meet Arafat’s minimum demands. And Arafat, due to pressure from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, was probably determined not to make peace at that time in any case. The negotiations ground to a halt; Clinton delayed the introduction of an American bridging proposal by several months because his focus was on getting Al Gore elected president, and finally, the al-Aksa Intifada broke out. Peace with Syria may have been close; peace with the Palestinians in 2000 was never close.

Since late 2000 retiring chiefs of staff like Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Ya’alon, who in the past would probably have made their political careers with Labor, have instead gone to the Likud. Labor now lacks the prominent war heroes and chiefs of staff that allowed it to make territorial concessions from the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War until 2000. Now these generals-turned-politicians will have to convince the neo-Revisionists in the Likud to abandon their party’s historical mission of Greater Israel in order to make peace with the Arabs. For Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman, persuading the Likud to abandon the Sinai was difficult enough, but doable. Persuading the Likud to abandon the Golan will be even more difficult, but possibly doable under the right circumstances and with enough American aid in compensation. But getting their Likud colleagues to abandon their historic mission and trust the Palestinians will likely prove to be one concession too far.

Until the spring of 2011, I was urging both Americans and Israelis to concentrate on a peace deal on the Golan. But that train has already left the station. It will take years before Syria’s civil war is over and a new government consolidates power. Israel’s doves may have a Palestinian partner, but they lack a locomotive to pull the peace train to its destination.

Thomas G. Mitchell is the author of Mr Security: Israeli Military Politicians from Dayan to Barak, due out from McFarland Publishing in late 2014.

What does the future hold for Israel’s military politicians?
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