The retirement of Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon ushers an Israeli doctrine that plays down the Palestinian insurgency and envisions air power as the leading element against ground threats

Israeli defense sources as well as Western diplomats said incoming Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Helutz, who entered his position on July 1, has been authorized to reduce manpower and other assets employed to fight the Palestinian insurgency. The sources said the military’s priority in 2006 — in wake of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank — would be Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons arsenal.

“The new policy would favor the air force and intelligence over the ground forces, particularly the Armored Corps,” a defense source said. “In many ways, the ground forces would support the air force rather than the opposite.”

Under Helutz, the sources said, the army — which lost about 50 percent of its procurement budget since 2002 — would be reduced in both manpower and organization. They said this could include the elimination of one of the three regional commands.

The incoming chief of staff, the sources said, envisions the air force, rather than the army, as leading operations against such short-range threats as Palestinian insurgents in the Gaza Strip, the Iranian-backed Hizbullah in Lebanon and Syria. Helutz and his aides regard the combination of air power and real-time tactical intelligence as effective against virtually any adversary while reducing the need for large numbers of ground forces and platforms.

“Tanks and bulldozers are out,” Brig. Gen. Amir Eshel, air force Group Air Commander, told a conference on May 31. “The air force and special forces are in. The method of warfare is undergoing a deep change.”

A leading challenge of the military would be to improve intelligence to ensure a stream of targets for both the air force and special forces. Air force officers said that in 2001 Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suspended air strikes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip because of a lack of targets.

The sources said that while Ya’alon has encouraged cooperation between the air force and army, he has disputed plans to marginalize the ground forces. They said Ya’alon disagreed with the assessment by Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz that Iran’s emerging missile and nuclear capabilities constitutes the leading threat to Israel. Both Sharon and Mofaz were said to have assessed that the Palestinian insurgency did not represent a strategic danger to the Jewish state.

In contrast, Ya’alon warned that the Palestinians comprised the leading threat to Israel. He argued that the Palestinian war has succeeded in eroding Israel’s resolve and paved the way for unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The general said the continued Palestinian war was also undermining Israeli deterrence against Arab states, including Egypt.

“The Palestinians don’t see our withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as a choice, but as running away,” Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who cited Ya’alon, told a gathering of the ruling Likud Party on Thursday.

The outgoing chief of staff did not dismiss the importance of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. But the sources said Ya’alon maintained that Iran marked a greater challenge to the United States and its Gulf Arab allies than to Israel.

“In the end, Sharon decided he wanted somebody who was more in tune with his thinking,” a Western diplomat familiar with the dispute said. “Helutz agreed with Sharon’s assessment that Iran, rather than the Palestinians, marked the leading threat to Israel.”

On the eve of his departure, Ya’alon warned of a new Palestinian insurgency campaign that would seek to press Israel into additional withdrawals from the West Bank. Ya’alon said the Palestinian offensive would begin in the West Bank and quickly spread to Jerusalem, Kfar Saba and Tel Aviv, which could come under Palestinian missile attacks.

“There is a high probability of a second terror war,” Ya’alon said.

“Terrorism will return in all its forms — shooting attacks, car bombs, suicide attacks, mortars, and Kassam missiles.”

[On Thursday, Israeli authorities reported the capture of two Islamic Jihad would-be suicide bombers. Authorities said the Jihad operatives sought to blow themselves up in Jerusalem.]

Officials said that under Ya’alon the military drafted plans for the capture of the Gaza Strip in wake of the Israeli withdrawal in August 2005. They said the military envisioned the Palestinian launch of Kassam missiles from newly-obtained insurgency positions in the northern Gaza Strip in an attempt to strike critical facilities in the Israeli port city of Ashkelon.

Still, Sharon and Mofaz rejected Ya’alon’s stress on the Palestinians. The sources said the prime minister regarded 2007 as a watershed for the Middle East and the likelihood of a regional war. Sharon was said to envision a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq as emboldening Iran and its allies to launch a massive attack against Israel.

As a result, the sources said, Sharon has sought to ensure support from the United States in any regional crisis. The sources said Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank was meant to persuade President George Bush that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not be related to future Middle East regional tensions.

Helutz’s role would focus on preparing Israel’s military to face the Iranian missile and nuclear threat, preferably in cooperation with the United States, the sources said. They said Helutz would enhance and intensify intelligence against Iran and prepare the air force for long-range combat missions.

“We are advancing in controlling territory from the air,” air force commander Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedy said.