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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
On the last day of disengagement (August 23, 2005), while thousands of soldiers and police were carrying out the evacuation of the northern Samaria settlement of Homesh, one general, accompanied by an aide, toured the site. OC Ground Command, Major-General Yiftah Ron-Tal, though not part of the chain of command executing the withdrawal, had come to see things for himself. When settlers complained to him about the injustice being done, Ron-Tal just smiled grimly and said nothing.
This week, the same Ron-Tal caused a storm, when he publicly criticized the handling of the recent war in Lebanon, and blamed it on disengagement. The main thing puzzling me about his statements is their timing.
He remained silent while he was responsible for the training and capability of those very troops he is now claiming were unprepared for the war; he kept quiet during the two months following the cease-fire. Now, suddenly, just before the end of his year-long pre-retirement paid leave, he decides to let loose.
Had he waited a bit longer, he wouldn't have been docked two months of pay. Nor would he have aroused such a controversy over the propriety of officers sounding off political views while still in uniform. So, why did he do it?
One possible answer is that he actually wanted to create the kind of storm that would not have erupted had he been back in civilian clothes. But if he were aiming at such exposure, why would he choose to make his remarks to the relatively obscure Kfar Chabad Lubavitcher weekly? After all, it was merely by chance that the interview was picked up by Ma'ariv, alone among the rest of the mainstream media, setting the ball rolling and leading to his additional radio interviews.
Another potential motive could have been his interest in launching a political career - as some are claiming, following reports of his meeting with Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu. But if that were the case, why would he have gone about it in such a roundabout way?
The truth may be that there was little prior planning to the Ron-Tal offensive. And that if any other reporter had approached him at an opportune moment, the scoop would have been his.
Was, then, the festival this week surrounding Ron-Tal overplayed?
A close examination of what he actually said reveals that there isn't that much of a difference between his words and those of hundreds of politicians, ex-generals, pundits, reservists, bereaved parents and other concerned citizens - voiced since the cease-fire - all convinced that the handling of the war had been a farce, all eager to show top trio Olmert, Peretz and Halutz the door.
Furthermore, after the harsh comments on the part of former Chief of Staff Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon, it would seem that there is hardly anything worth adding to the cacophony.
Still, everyone managed to get all riled up by Ron-Tal, including Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, who fired him in a flash. And all this because Ron-Tal was still a general in "service," despite having left his final post of command last November.
Halutz would have been wiser to brush off Ron-Tal's comments and issue a brief statement about his actually being a former general. Instead, he humiliated himself by summoning Ron-Tal to a meeting, rescheduling the meeting and - when Ron-Tal still didn't turn up - publicly announcing his rather meaningless discharge. Perhaps the chief of staff, whose first post-war message to the army was about the dangers of loose lips with the press, is hoping to set an example for his notoriously leak-prone officers corps.
According to Amos Harel in Ha'aretz, in a recent investigation carried out by the IDF field security unit, it turned out that on a single day, 460 officers spoke to journalists without authorization. Halutz also recently warned the members of his staff that he has had their cell phone bills checked out, and knows who among them has been briefing the media behind his back. (I hope Halutz realizes that his generals can use private phones and other modes of communication to smuggle their views out.)
In such a small, politically-driven society, it would be hard for generals - who, despite their legal status as mere civil servants, are public figures - to keep their personal views to themselves, even if they wanted to. Moreover, the political leanings of most prominent officers are well-known; often the best barometer is their relationship with the settlers while serving as commanders in the West Bank. Halutz is no exception. In 1982, as a reserve officer, he took part in a counter-demonstration against the left-wing Sabra and Shatila protest, to show support for then defense minister Ariel Sharon. And when he was commander of the air force, he fired up the Left by making a string of controversial statements over the justification of bombing civilian targets in the Gaza Strip. After disengagement, he lambasted the Right for its hostility toward the IDF in the wake of the evacuations. Reports that Sharon viewed him as his potential political successor, then, came as no surprise.
NOR SHOULD Ron-Tal's views be very surprising. A relatively unknown tank officer before his promotion, his main distinction was being "the first settler general," and living in Ofra with his wife who had become religious.
The way this story has been overblown goes to show that as much as readers love to complain about how the Israeli press has become gradually post-Zionist, generals can still grab their headlines every time, without fail.
I think that, for many Israelis, what emerged as a revelation from this whole episode was that generals are entitled to an entire year of full pay, including a car, upon leaving their job - just so they can adjust to civilian life. Considering that they are required to do nothing to earn their salary other than keep quiet about politics and other controversial subjects, perhaps it should be called "hush-money." But Ron-Tal would not be hushed.
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