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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
As a young squadron commander, Matan Vilna'i was trained always to ask about the goals of a mission before embarking on one. By doing so, he was taught, a soldier better understands what he is being sent to do.
Since those days, Vilna'i has participated in hundreds of military missions. He fought in the Yom Kippur War as commander of the Sinai taskforce; was deputy commander of the 1976 Entebbe raid; served as OC Southern Command in 1990; and was deputy chief of General Staff until 1998.
Now, as deputy defense minister under Ehud Barak, Vilna'i's outlook on life is not much different from what it was during his days as a general. Whether in regard to the Palestinian conflict, a large-scale operation in Gaza or the Iranian nuclear threat, Vilna'i always asks himself the same question: "What are my goals?"
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post ahead of the New Year, Vilna'i, 63, a member of the dovish Labor Party, takes a hardline approach.
Up until his appointment two months ago, Vilna'i had been out of the defense establishment for close to a decade, after losing his bid to become chief of General Staff to Shaul Mofaz. His new job, he says, has brought him back home.
While much has changed in the defense establishment in the last decade - disengagement from Gaza, the Second Lebanon War - the threats, Vilna'i says, have mostly stayed the same, though they have "expanded," primarily due to Iran's race for nuclear power.
Upon taking up his post, Vilna'i was granted a wide range of authorities by Barak, with an emphasis on the Palestinian issue, as well as preparing the Home Front for the next war.
His office on the 15th floor of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv is in an unprecedented bustle of activity. Offices that have sat vacant for years are once again filled with advisers and newly appointed staff members, tasked mainly with the establishment of a National Emergency Administration to integrate the IDF, Israel Police, Magen David Adom and Fire and Rescue Service during wartime.
Vilna'i believes that the government is acting "above and beyond" to protect Sderot and other Gaza-belt communities within Kassam range. While there is no such thing as hermetic protection, the MOD recently has invested more than NIS 500 million in reinforcing kindergartens, schools and other public institutions in the area.
By the end of the month, the plan is to complete delivery of 54 portable concrete shelters throughout Sderot that can be used for pedestrians caught during a rocket attack. By the end of 2008, Vilna'i intends to complete construction of 13 new schools in the Gaza-belt area that will be completely protected against Kassam attacks.
Vilna'i spent the first day of the school year in Sderot last week. Though sympathetic to the residents' plight, he does not believe that the helpless feeling reflected in the media is the reality in the southern city. Instead, he says, "people of interest" are trying to create a distorted picture of what is really happening in Sderot to promote their own political goals.
"There is not a feeling of desperation, but of residents who are fed up with the situation," he says.
SO, WHILE admitting that more needs to be done vis-Ã -vis Hamas in Gaza, the first question Vilna'i asks himself is about goals. While he is in favor of escalating and deepening IDF operations in Gaza - until now, the military has been permitted to operate within two kilometers of the security fence - he is against launching a large-scale operation.
And while he believes more needs to be done to clamp down economically on the Hamas leadership, he is opposed to "populist" recommendations by cabinet members, such as Avigdor Lieberman and Haim Ramon, to shut off the supply of electricity and fuel to Gaza's civilian population. (Though Israel allows food and basic supplies into Gaza, it has imposed restrictions on the supply of raw materials, in an effort to impair Hamas's ability to rule.)
"I am willing to examine every possibility according to local and international law," Vilna'i says. "But I assume that a decision to cut off supply lines will have the opposite effect - that it will actually increase the Kassam fire, since we are not fighting the Palestinian on the street, but rather the terrorists."
Regarding a large-scale operation, Vilna'i warns about the day after. "We need to ask ourselves how it will end," he says. "If we go in and conquer Gaza, do we then leave? And if we do, why go in to begin with?"
Nor does Vilna'i harbor any illusions about the strength of Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Speaking to The Post on Sunday - the day before Abbas met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ahead of the planned November peace summit in Washington, DC - Vilna'i said candidly that "Abbas cannot gain control over the situation in the Gaza Strip."
But, he quickly added, Israel has no real or better alternative.
Which is why Vilna'i is concerned about Hamas's growing strength in the West Bank, where he says the terror group is posing a major challenge and threat to Abbas's forces. "Hamas radiates an image of being less corrupt than Fatah," he says. "That is why they won the elections [in 2006], and that is also why there is a real possibility that they will take over the West Bank like they took over Gaza."
As deputy defense minister, it is up to Vilna'i to find the correct balance between easing restrictions on the Palestinians and ensuring Israel's security. While he says he has no problem removing roadblocks, he would first need to see that they are not needed to stop terrorists. "We cannot give up something, and all of a sudden have a suicide bomber blow up on a bus in Jerusalem," he says.
TURNING TO Syria, while refraining from commenting directly on the alleged IAF flyover there last week, Vilna'i says that the tension is subsiding and that war between the two countries is unlikely. A reported reserve mobilization in Syria, he says, was made as a defensive measure, and does not reflect an intention by President Bashar Assad to attack Israel.
"We have passed the peak in tension, and while we have said that we have no interest in war, they also understand that they have nothing to gain from going to war with us," he explains.
In spite of Vilna'i's claims, on Monday, Syria - for the first time since the incident last Thursday - announced that IAF planes had not merely flown over Syria, but had actually bombed targets. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem said that the planes dropped "live munitions." In other words, they attacked.
As the days go by, more and more details are emerging as to what really happened over Syria last week. Former MK Azmi Bishara, wanted by Israel for allegedly spying for Hizbullah, said that the target was important.
Turkey, too, is demanding an explanation from Israel for allegedly flying over and dropping fuel tankers in its territory.
Israel is maintaining its policy of silence. A scheduled visit by President Shimon Peres to the Kirya Military Headquarters on Tuesday in honor of the New Year was cancelled, after Barak decided that it would not look good if the General Staff and the president were caught on video smiling. Furthermore, Barak decided that it would not be right for the top IDF brass to be kept busy hosting the president for half a day while there is still a real chance of conflict along the northern border.
Due to censorship regulations, little can be said about the incident. What can be said is that this High Holiday season will be a tense one.
The assumption within the defense establishment is that the Syrians will respond - not necessarily by going to war, but possibly by activating terror proxies - to what they claim was an Israeli Air Force bombing attack. Israel believes that Assad needs to stall until 2009, when he finishes receiving Russian weapons shipments, before he's ready for a full-fledged war. Until then, he can activate Hizbullah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza to do the work for him.