From his elevated vantage point on the 14th floor of the new army headquarters building in Tel Aviv, Dan Halutz sees it all. Not only the vibrant city life unfolding beneath him but, across his orderly desk, all the classified documentation about our enemies' plans for our destruction. Away from the office, out in the field, he also sees better than most anybody else how well we are defending ourselves and how adequately prepared we are for the unexpected.
So when the chief of General Staff, four months into the job and presumably now thoroughly acquainted with its challenges, firmly asserts that Israel is looking more secure today than it has at any point in its 57-year modern history, it's heartening.
At one point in the lengthy interview that The Jerusalem Post conducted with him on the eve of Rosh Hashana, Halutz made the point that establishing and maintaining "a fa ade of strength" in this vicious region is critical to deterring enemies from military misadventure. Whereas a "fa ade of weakness" might constitute dangerous temptation.
It's a far-from-original thesis, and it may be that at least part of Halutz's so-confident assessment to the Post of Israel's wellbeing is designed to bolster that "fa ade of strength." But his supporting arguments are robust, too: the pride and confidence in Israel's military strength; the analysis that, while many in this region have yet to reconcile themselves to the simple fact of our existence, potential enemies are simply incapable of obliterating us in the short term; the statistical evidence of growing success in the war against terrorism.
Whippet-sharp, and probably more politically astute than the unfortunate Moshe Ya'alon, Halutz brings something else to the highest IDF rank that his curtailed predecessor couldn't: the "feel good" factor. If, as is reputedly the case, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz chose to not extend Ya'alon's term to a fourth year and to accelerate Halutz's flight to the top spot because he was simply more confident in the Air Force commander's capacity to get the job done, then this ability to convey a sense of positive reassurance was probably no small factor.
Still, deconstructing Dan in the aftermath of our meeting, and reading back through the interview notes, he was evidently at pains not to be overly sanguine. His upbeat description of Israel's peerless geostrategic position, for instance, was tempered by his anger at those who would exploit this moment of relative wellbeing to irresponsibly demand cutbacks in defense spending.
Indeed, while there was a mild undertone of good-humored irritation during the conversation that our photographer's relentless snapping was denying him a much-craved smoke break he was adamant that he would not be photographed cigarette in mouth or hand there were only two flashes of real anger, and one of them was when it was put to him that perhaps there was scope for slashing the defense budget and forging a much leaner IDF.
Halutz also tempered his remarkably firm insistence that there is a military answer to terrorism. While the decline in terrorist "successes" in the years since the horrific heights of 2002 was statistically unarguable, and while he saw no reason why the pullout from Gaza would reverse the trend, he acknowledged that there could never be a 100 percent answer to the threat posed by the suicide bombers.
It was a little worrying that he underpinned his confidence in the army's capacity to all-but eliminate terror by citing the disquieting examples of Britain in Malaysia half a century ago and the more recent, far from proven, trail-off in violence relating to the Irish troubles. It was still more worrying that he described the battle against the bombers as a Sisyphean task. It can only be hoped that his analyses are more rounded than his knowledge of Greek mythology.
But where he differs from some of his former uniformed colleagues on the issue of beating terror is in rejecting the notion that what's lacking here is a political solution. It was neither appropriate nor necessary for the army to throw up its hands and demand that the diplomats step in to thwart the bombers, he said. The army could subdue terrorism by itself, and was in the process of doing so here, he believed. The absent element was not a political accommodation but, rather, the ability to counter the murderous unpredictability of that part of human nature that motivates some people, never known to have associated with terror groups, to evade the best intelligence networks by deciding "out of the blue" to carry out an attack. Against that kind of unpredictability, in a tiny percentage of cases, he said, there can be no absolute defense.
Halutz insisted that the tools at his disposal were adequate to get the job done, but gave a brief glimpse of a ruthless military persona when praising Britain's methods for dealing with suicide bombers "a bullet in the head without asking questions." This admiration was apparently unaffected by the fact that the terror suspect most recently to have received a fatal British bullet, Jean Charles de Menezes, shot dead in Stockwell Underground station on July 22, was a Brazilian electrician with no connection to the previous day's attempted London blasts or the bombings in the city two weeks earlier.
Where the overwhelmingly positive Halutz was, initially at least, rather less emphatic was when asked about his confidence in his army's ability, should the government so order, to carry out a Gaza-style pullout, and dismantling of settlements, in the West Bank, on a more substantial scale than the summer's relatively minor pullout from northern Samaria.
He had been concerned about the potential for larger-scale refusal of orders by soldiers called to remove the settlers from Gaza, he said early in the interview. And pushed on the West Bank, his first response was to acknowledge how terrible it would be for the State of Israel if the IDF proved incapable of doing its job. His second response was the not unreasonable observation that no such pullout had been ordered and therefore he had no need to deal with hypotheticals. His third response was to try and laugh it off, wondering why we were asking him about such a pullout when it might prove to be a mission not for him but for the next chief of staff. Only at the fourth time of asking did he declare definitively that the IDF would carry out any legitimate mission as ordered.
Scrupulous in staying clear of political territory, Halutz was nonetheless prepared to speak his mind at times. He was markedly assertive on the issue of the potential threat posed by Iran, for instance. Though offering a flat "no comment" to a question about potential Israeli military options, he chose to add the unmistakable warning that the Jewish people were through with being "anybody's hostages."
And he was adamant about not being cowed by the threat of arrest for war crimes if he were to travel to London. He wouldn't steer clear of the British capital, he insisted, even if that meant spending a day in jail. He wouldn't abide moral sermonizing by a yored a reference to the ex-Israeli lawyer behind the legal campaign against visiting Israeli army types. Our interview's second, more powerful flash of anger came as he expressed his contempt for this and other critics of an Israel, Halutz said emphatically, that has moral right on its side.
Halutz is not an overtly emotional man, and this was not an emotional interview. But there was one moment I at least found moving, the moment that underlined the responsibilities weighing on his shoulders, however lightly he manages to seem to be carrying them. At the end of our Iran exchange, I said lightly that I hoped we could live with whatever eventuated from Teheran.
"You hope," said the chief of General Staff. "For me, it's my work plan."
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