On Tuesday, Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz said goodbye to the Paratroopers Brigade. 36 years after reaching the brigade for the first time, he returned there for the last time. He landed at the base in midday, and insisted on crossing it on foot in the oppressive heat.
The staff prepared a short presentation in his honor, which reviewed his milestones in the brigade. “My name is so and such” said the first person to rise, “I am a soldier in the 890 regiment, Mofaz was a soldier in the regiment in 1966.” “My name is so and such,” said the second, “I am the commander of a mortar platoon in the 890 regiment, Mofaz was the mortar company commander in 1969.” “I am deputy commander of the newest platoon,” said the third, “Mofaz was deputy commander in 1970.” The last in line was the brigade commander, Col. Aviv Kochavi. “Mofaz,” he said, “was commander of the brigade in the years 1984 to 1986.”
At the end of the presentation Mofaz was invited to speak. He stood up on the small stage, uncharacteristically without papers, looked at the people sitting in the small auditorium, officers and close family members. “I came to Israel at the age of nine,” he said. “We lived in Eilat, money was scarce, and my late father sent me to study in Nahalal. I was a dairy farmer there, and from the age of 15 got up at 5:00 a.m. every morning to milk the cows. I milked three times a day.”
“Since I lived far away,” he related, “I went home on leave once every month and a half, not like today’s soldiers. When I reached the age of 18, I volunteered for the paratroopers and reached here. There were huge eucalyptus trees, and the custom was before each meal to climb a rope tied to the top of the tree, using your hands, and climb down the same way.”
“I had strong hands from the milking, and when I came down from the tree the tough sergeant looked at me. ‘What is your name,’ he asked. ‘Mofaz,’ I answered. ‘And where are you from,’ he asked. I was silent for a moment, thinking what to say to him – from Iran, from Eilat, or from Nahalal. Since I connected the question to the rope climbing, I said from Nahalal. And so, for a long time people called me ‘the Nahalalite’ and this was a great compliment for me: to be from the [Jezreel] Valley.” [Meaning one of the early pioneers.]
“And then,” he said with his voice cracking, “I remembered what my father told me when I left the house, and had a rough time. ‘It is all for the best,’ he said, ‘All for the best.’ And this saying follows me everywhere, throughout my path in life. You should never give up, you must stick to your goal and realize it, since it is all, ultimately, for the best.”
When leaving the auditorium of the Paratroopers Brigade, Lt. Gen. Mofaz seemed as though after a long series of farewell meetings with different units in the army, he realized that here it was really over. He would not come here any more, not pore over the maps, not ask questions nor receive answers.
“An appointment with zero credit”
Shaul Mofaz replaced Amnon Lipkin-Shahak in the office of the chief of staff in July 1998. People interviewed to this article had difficulty remembering an appointment of a chief of staff that aroused such great commotion. Yitzhak Mordechai was defense minister at the time, and Maj. Gen. Matan Vilnai was the leading candidate, a fourth ‘prince’ after Dan Shomron, Ehud Barak and Lipkin-Shahak.
“An appointment with zero credit,” said one of the interviewees. “A decision that required a great deal of explanations,” as another phrased it. The media said he would have to walk around with a learner’s “L” on his back, that he could be a worthy appointment only if the entire General Staff was killed in an aerial crash and he was the sole survivor.
Mofaz could have been saved some of this bombardment had he not been caught in the line of fire in the fierce and ancient feud between Vilnai and Mordechai, which began in the paratrooper regiments and continued in the first Intifada, when the two served simultaneously as OCs of commands, Vilnai in the south and Mordechai in the Central Command. Vilnai claimed then that Mordechai gave inaccurate situation descriptions and glossed over facts. Mordechai claimed that the choice was unrelated to the old feud, but was not very convincing.
Mofaz maintained his silence, and buried himself quickly in a whirl of activity, which would characterize his four years in office. A chief of staff with a hoe, said military correspondents, the kind who would spend time in Tze’elim rather than Washington.
Question: During the entire period, you never referred to the unflattering statements that accompanied your appointment. Were you hurt by them?
“I regard this today in the same way I regarded it then: I did not think that this chorus would decide a thing, and I do not think so today. The decision for the appointment, like other decisions made during my term of office, are too weighty for these people.”
Question: These people?
“Those critics, who thought they could determine for the army what to do and whom to appoint.”
The proving period
Ten days after assuming his position, Mofaz took the General Staff to a three day workshop at Kiryat Anavim, to discuss what was defined as the “IDF 2000 Program.” 29 working teams were established at the end of the workshop. Six months later the findings were presented and recommendations were submitted. Meanwhile, Mofaz met with Meir Shetrit, when the latter received the finance portfolio, and presented the plans to him, including efficiency and downsizing plans. “Who do these transparencies belong to,” asked Shetrit, surprised at the depth of the proposed cuts, “the army or the Finance Ministry?”.
“The proving period,” it is called today by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yom Tov Samia, who last served as OC Southern Command. “Everything Mofaz did at the time was examined through a magnifying glass, and he made a great effort to prove that the choice was correct.”
“As for operating the working teams – Mofaz arrived with a clear plan, wrapped in committee cellophane. But I do not remember any committee submitting a proposal different from his initial outline. In any case, there is no doubt that what he did in that period, before the beginning of the conflict with the Palestinians, had not been done in the army since the Yom Kippur war.” […]
Several months after entering his position Mofaz ordered the soldiers at the Kirya to arrive fifteen minutes earlier, at 7:45 a.m. instead of 8:00. He also ordered the army to allow holding non-religious funerals. Later on he supported the right of Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror to express his opinion about the peace songs (“Children of the ’73 Winter”) in closed military forums, “even if my opinion,” he said, “differs from his.”
In a panel discussion, at the annual memorial ceremony for casualties of the Shaked commando, he said that he was in favor of parent involvement but not parent intervention. “The soldiers’ parents should not and cannot tell the army how to train, dress or feed the soldiers.”
Mofaz held a meeting with parents of soldiers once every four or five months. Several dozen parents were selected at random by the computer, and invited for a talk. Parents said things there that few if any chiefs of staff had ever heard.
Civil and substantive relations
In his term of office, Mofaz saw three prime ministers and four defense ministers. For a large part of his time in office, he actually worked directly with the prime minister.
“I would prefer not to refer to this issue now,” he says. “I do not think that it should be discussed in the media. As a rule, the relations between myself and the prime ministers and defense ministers were characterized by trust and dialogue, especially during periods of battle, with full understanding for the needs of the army.”
Question: Both Sharon and Ben-Eliezer reprimanded you more than once after statements that they viewed as improper, and pointed out that the government has an army, and not the reverse.
“I would not sum up our relations based on these statements. The relationship was very good.”
Question: With the present defense minister as well?
“The relations with the defense minister were civil and substantive. If there were disagreements, they impaired my functioning as chief of staff, and some of them might have been avoided.”
Question: Such as?
“Several statements that could have been avoided. In any case, I do not think more than that should be said today.”
Question: Starting with the withdrawal from Lebanon, there was continuous criticism of your political involvement.
“In my opinion, this is part of the Israeli way of life, and it did not impair my ability to work whatsoever. In no case was the activity of the IDF affected by statements by the political echelon not directly responsible for the army’s activity.”
During Mofaz’s term of office, three soldiers were abducted by Hizbullah, who gradually entrenched themselves along the new line in the north. For the first time since the Yom Kippur War, reserve soldiers were drafted with emergency call-up orders. The army entered the West Bank twice, in Operation Defensive Shield and Operation Determined Path.
At the end of his third year in office, he was interviewed by Alex Fishman, military correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth, and myself. “Do you like your position,” we asked him. “I don’t know,” he said, “if ‘like’ is the appropriate word, but I would be willing to fill this position for another four years.” “Four actual more years?” we asked. “Actually so,” he answered.
“Do you feel the same way today,” I ask.
“At the time,” said Mofaz, “I attributed the question to my strength to carry on.”
Question: And today you are out of strength?
“No, but my term of office has come to an end. If I knew the conflict was going to end in six months, or even in another year, I might ask to continue in order to finish what I started. But this is not the case, and the baton must be passed on.”
The Palestinians Realize that They Made a Mistake
In September 2000 riots broke out at the Temple Mount and the “el-Aksa Intifada” began, which turned into an “armed conflict” which turned into a “low level war.” The IDF went back into the territories, the West Bank was practically re-occupied, the PA is on the brink of collapse. From a window of opportunity and hope for an end to the conflict, nothing is left.
“I’ve gone through four wars in my 36 years in the army,” Mofaz says, “hundreds of operations, but this war is the hardest.”
In the first year of fighting, the settlers demanded to let the IDF win. The army demanded to be allowed to demolish houses, to neutralize those responsible for terror. The West Bank and Gaza Strip were subject to closures and blockades, as well as a long series of roadblocks, which became targets for terror attacks.
In February 2001, the Sudra roadblock was attacked. One soldier was killed, one wounded. That same month, the roadblock at Ein Arik was attacked. Six soldiers were killed. Less than two weeks later, a Palestinian sniper shot and killed seven soldiers and three civilians at a roadblock near Ofra.
In Kissufim, a Palestinian crossed the fence, killed a soldier, injured four people and escaped. In August 2001, two members of the Popular Front infiltrated the Marganit outpost in the Gaza Strip, killed three soldiers and wounded seven. A month later two Palestinians infiltrated Elei Sinai, shot and killed two young people and injured 13. A cell that infiltrated the Africa outpost killed four soldiers. A terrorist who infiltrated Moshav Hamra in the Jerusalem murdered a mother and her daughter.
There were those in the army who began to speak of Lebanon-ization. That defense armoring had replaced initiative.
The chief-of-staff became the most threatened man in the country, and the ring of security around him tightened. That did not affect the pace of his work. In December 2001, at the ceremony when the IDF Intelligence commander was changed, Mofaz said that the PA was tainted with terror up to its head, and caused a furor.
Question: Now, when we are back in the West Bank, what will happen?
“Right now, the most urgent thing is to stop terror.”
Question: And at the same time, the situation is escalating. We’ve captured almost all of the West Bank and are talking about staying there along time, something that seemed unlikely a few months ago.
“In any case they are escalating the situation.”
Question: But so are we.
“We are doing it as part of our efforts to prevent terror attacks.”
Question: And yet there still are terror attacks, and the price in blood is terrible.
“I don’t think this is a decree from heaven. It is mainly due to the fact that the Palestinian leadership has not abandoned the path of terror.” Question: If so, then the solution is the re-occupation of all the territories?
“I’ve said before that if this leadership is replaced, perhaps it will be possible to have a new horizon, a process in which the PA itself combats terror.”
Question: Do you see anyone in the PA doing this?
“I think that the Palestinians realize that they made a mistake when they chose violence and did not try to continue diplomatic talks.”
Question: Who realizes this?
“The leadership around Arafat. People who realize that terror detracts from their international status, who realize that the world sees them as another terror organization, while they want to create for themselves an image of freedom fighters. People who realize that as long as Arafat leads them, there will be no agreement. Already back in Taba he proved that he prefers an armed conflict.”
Question: How many of his 18 ministers think this way?
“More than half.”
Question: And yet, even you say that they will do nothing to remove him. What is the source of his power?
“It’s historical. In the eyes of the Palestinian people he is the symbol of the struggle, even though in my opinion he is in a process of becoming weaker.”
Question: Should he be exiled?
“I contend that time is now working against us. As long as Arafat is around, we will not be able to reach an agreement, and he will continue to wield terror. We already have 561 people killed. In terms of the US, this is 30,000 killed, and we saw how they reacted after a lot less than that. My approach is that those who use terror against us must be removed from the region. At first this might cause a great stir, but very quickly a new coalition will be created that will seize the leadership. And in any case, the damage he will cause outside will be less.”
Question: The GSS is opposed to exiling him.
“Not only the GSS. So is the Mossad. They argue that this can only be done if a new situation is created.”
Question: Such as a terror attack on the Azrieli Towers?
‘I don’t want to get into this. I’m only noting that they mention a large scale terror attack. In my opinion, we shouldn’t wait. We’ve already had enough opportunities: the attack at the Dolphinarium, the Karine A, the slaughter at the Park Hotel on seder night. As long as we don’t get Arafat out of here, terror will continue, and the situation will escalate. The question is if we are willing to drag this out and to pay the price.”
Question: Ten 20, 50 dead a month?
“About these numbers, and every effort must be made to reduce them. If there is any chance that the sky will clear if Arafat is not here, we must take our fate in our hands and go for a move that shapes events, and not moves that react to them.” [… ]
We Did All We Could, We Were Outside
The decision to prepare the army for a confrontation in the territories was made by Mofaz in the midst of what still seemed to be a peace process. Maj. Gen. (Res) Samia says this was one of the most important decisions that Mofaz made.
The conflict found the army well-prepared, but ten months later, Mofaz said in an interview to Yedioth Ahronoth that his successor would inherit this conflict from him. What he did not foretell was that the conflict would put the army back into the cities of the West Bank.
The escalation might put us back in Nablus and Ramallah, which we will have to re-conquer, we asked him at the time. I don’t believe that will happen, he said then.
A week ago, in the command room of the Nahal Brigade above Ramallah, he leaned over a map of the city with the commanders. Why aren’t you going into el-Amari [refugee camp] he asked. We are, they said, we’ve already been there four times.
And what did you find, he asked. A few guns, they replied.
We can keep the civilians under curfew for two-three weeks, the brigade commander said. Less, said OC Central Command Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan. Then they discussed the vacuum created in the city, the services nobody was providing, the threat to the troops, which would grow the longer they stayed. We are preparing ourselves mentally for a stay of months, the chief-of-staff said. [… ]
Question: Could our use of force have been excessive? That this is what exacerbated the conflict and fanned the flames?
“The IDF’s use of force was measured and appropriate.”
Question: And yet, on the one hand we’ve kept on using more force, while on the other hand, the Palestinians intensified the fighting. It began with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and then the Tanzim joined.
“The Tanzim joined because Arafat ordered them to and also funded their acts. First in the territories and then later inside the Green Line. As for the use of force: we know that using military force can reduce terror and lower the flames. This was proven in Operation Defensive Shield and now again in Operation Determined Path. And with this being the situation, we will have no choice but to stay a long time in the Palestinian cities.”
Question: Months? “At least.”
Question: And then what, we restore the Civil Administration or military rule?
“Neither. We will help them run their civilian lives, we will allow food, water, fuel in. All in a way that takes their needs into account on the one hand, and security on the other. We will not make any relief measures in places where there is terror.”
Question: There is terror everywhere, all the time.
“In my opinion, what happened in the last 20 months has brought the Palestinians to the conclusion that they will not achieve their goals by using violence. Certainly after Bush’s’ speech.”
Question: Whom they see as Ariel Sharon’s ally.
“That may be, but they also realize that this is the biggest superpower in the world.”
Question: Are you worried about the possibility that we are returning to a pre-Oslo situation, that we might have to take this whole journey all over?
“We’ve tried everything, we were outside [the cities], but if there is no choice we will remain in the territories, and we know this carries a price.”
Question: But we have no choice?
Question: Replace the Palestinian leadership?
“If Arafat continues with terror, that is what we must do, even if right now this is not acceptable.”
Question: Do you have hope in the separation fence?
“A fence that is part of an entire system can be effective. Right now we are talking about a fence that is 100 kilometers long. There is another 300 kilometers without a fence. In any case, a fence will not resolve this conflict.”
Question: So this means that this investment is wasted in the long term? “It’s hard to judge today.”
Question: Instead of blowing up in Netanya, the suicide bombers will blow up in Lod?
“The section where the fence is being built is the section that is easiest to infiltrate. This was the thinking behind the Enveloping Jerusalem plan too. But in the meantime, our staying in the cities is very important.”
Question: Are you worried about a Lebanon-ization of the territories?
“That could happen. It depends on the effectiveness of our actions. And in any case, this is preferable to terror attacks.”
I voiced my opinion
After four years in office, Shaul Mofaz is perceived as one of the more highly political chiefs of staff. He opposed the withdrawal from Lebanon without an agreement, and left no doubt as to his position. On the day Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced the withdrawal without an agreement, he said the price could be excessive.
“I am not upset by the criticism,” he says. “I think I was a chief of staff who voiced his opinion. This was not always to everyone’s taste, and the reactions were divided accordingly: people whose worldview agreed with what was said defined it as a professional opinion, and people who opposed my opinion said it was the expression of a political stance.”
Question: You expressed your opposition to the withdrawal from Lebanon after the prime minister’s announcement.
“I also said it in the cabinet.”
Question: You opposed the government decision to withdraw from Abu Sneina. “Here too, I voiced my opinion in the cabinet as well.”
Question: And outside the cabinet.
“I don’t think that was the problem.”
Question: You opposed the Clinton proposal.
“The proposal was examined by the General Staff from the security standpoint, and there was a sweeping consensus that it involves danger to the State of Israel. This is also what I said in the cabinet. When one of the ministers said to me that I had not left a single stone standing, the prime minister told him: ‘Let the chief of staff speak his piece.'”
Question: Yossi Sarid, in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that on the other hand you did not express a professional opinion regarding the unlawful settlements, nor state your position on the proposed law to recognize first degree relatives of immigrant soldiers as citizens of the state.
“I did not see fit to address this issue in my parting from the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. These two issues are political and not military.”
Today too, Mofaz does not retract his opposition to the withdrawal from Lebanon without an agreement. “In the long term,” he says, “the withdrawal from Lebanon will have negative strategic effects, although in the short term it did bring quiet to the northern border.”
This interview ran in Yediot Aharonot on July 5, 2002