Middle Israel: The next defense minister

Who are Ron-Tal and Kristal, and why should Middle Israelis care about them?

October 12, 2006 10:36
amotz asa el 88

amotz asa el 88. (photo credit: )


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Having learned last week of opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu's seemingly conspiratorial meeting with Yiftah Ron-Tal, while the renegade major-general was still formally a member of the General Staff, Israel Radio did what it does reflexively in such situations: It called Hanan Kristal. Who are Ron-Tal and Kristal, and why should Middle Israelis care about them? Ron-Tal is a little-known but charismatic infantry commander of the very sort that our latest war so sorely lacked, one who is now also famously frustrated, and with good reason. Having been sidelined by Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz in the race for the key position of OC Northern Command, Ron-Tal had to watch from those sidelines how a glaringly under-qualified Udi Adam - a product of the Armored Corps - got lost in the battle fog. With nothing to lose, as his IDF career was anyhow in its last weeks, Ron-Tal avenged his non-appointment by publicly demanding Halutz's resignation, citing the IDF's under-performance during the war. Kristal comes from an entirely different background, that which lies between academia, where he is a political scientist, and the media, where he has been a leading political analyst for the past three decades. The Ron-Tal situation became his subject as soon as Netanyahu became involved. The question to him was as simple as it was intriguing: What made the leader of the opposition meet with a serving general at a moment when he lacked any formal office? According to Netanyahu's people, the two held an entirely routine meeting in which they merely exchanged views concerning the military situation, an explanation which cannot be ruled out, considering the never-improbable prospect that Israel will soon face yet another change of power. Kristal, however, speaking on Israel Radio, all but assured us that the aspiring prime minister had a political rather than military agenda in mind when he met Ron-Tal, who is married to an Orthodox woman with whom he has lived for many years in the veteran West Bank community of Ofra. To be sure, Ron-Tal's tactless personal ambush, which he himself has since regretted, came coupled with an ideological attack on last year's Gaza retreat and the abuse of the IDF as its executioner. It therefore is far from impossible that Ron-Tal and Netanyahu were indeed talking politics, as Kristal suggested. However, at this point Kristal entered the scene not only in his capacity as an interpreter of political situations - a role at which he can sometimes be quite good - but as an oracle of the national need, a field in which he is pretty much clueless, though in it he can be influential, and in fact disastrous. THE WAY Kristal sees it, "Netanyahu must have a general" in case former chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon persists in his refusal to enter the political fray, or if the kibbutznik-farmer from the Arava desert joins politics, but not through the Likud. Having not only opposed disengagement, but also paid for that with his job, Ya'alon indeed these days carries some potential political energy that cannot be ignored. However, the fact that one retired general still carries in this country some political currency does not mean that prime-ministerial aspirants must each have a contingency of retired generals. It certainly does not mean that one of them should be designated for the position of defense minister. Yet herein lies the problem. The way Kristal sees life - and with him droves of pundits, politicians and voters - defense ministers are but extended generals. Moreover, political situations rise and fall on the deployment of this or that celebrated soldier. Thus, shortly after Netanyahu recruited Yitzhak Mordechai a decade ago, Kristal hailed the move as a major electoral breakthrough, an insight that soon proved as unfounded as the appointment itself later proved tragic; for Kristal, the infatuated importer of generals to Israeli politics, forgot to ask himself what a newly feminist Israel would make of Mordechai's well-known record of sexual misconduct. Similarly, the morning after Shimon Peres's defeat by Netanyahu in spring '96, Kristal thought Labor had made only one big mistake, without which it would have defeated Netanyahu: it did not nominate Ehud Barak as its candidate for defense minister. Now one does not need to be a historian, or a Labor enemy, or even just an opponent of the Oslo Accords, to understand that what shaped the '96 election, for better or worse, was the wave of suicide bombings that preceded it, and turned a critical mass of swing voters against Labor, regardless of who led them. Now Middle Israelis may say that with all due respect to it, they really have more important things to contend with than this one pundit's irrelevant, if unflattering, history of misjudgment. But it is relevant. First, because ever since he predicted in a late-'80s tabloid feature the future rise to power of both Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu, some came to see in him a political prophet, and secondly, because the last war's failed leadership by the civilian duo Olmert-Peretz is already making some - led by Kristal - reflexively crave for uniformed alternatives. Nothing could be more disastrous to us than that. IN KRISTAL'S view, Netanyahu "is looking around him in today's Likud and sees no general," and at the same time "does not want the Defense Ministry in the hands of former chairman of the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee Yuval Steinitz." What? Netanyahu is not known to have said anything of the sort to anyone, including Kristal, who was guessing rather than quoting the Likud leader, and Netanyahu knows full well that Israelis have long ceased to be impressed with retired generals, and the last war can only intensify the generals' loss of political altitude. Moreover, Steinitz - besides being a longtime Netanyahu loyalist - has indeed emerged as a diligent and insightful student of Israel's defense problems. A University of Haifa philosophy professor in his previous career, Steinitz was opinionated as a committee chairman, and has clearly established a decent command of the structure of Israel's labyrinthine defense budget and the nature of its daunting strategic dilemmas. The ideas he raised during those years, like expanding Israel's naval spending so it can offer supplemental infrastructure in case of emergency, can be adopted or rejected, but they sure reflect the kind of knowledge, passion and unorthodoxy that an army's civilian superiors must possess, and which its own commanders usually lack. Such thinking is exactly what defense ministers are for. This is what the civilian David Ben-Gurion and his deputy Shimon Peres delivered when they nuclearized Israel, this is what civilian defense minister Levi Eshkol did when he managed for the first time to buy arms in America, and this is what civilian defense minister Moshe Arens did when he established the Ground Forces Command. Our military defense ministers, at the same time, legendary though they were, have their names all over the calamities of the Yom Kippur War (Dayan), the Lebanon War (Sharon) the '87 intifada (Rabin), and this decade's Suicides War (Barak). True, in his appointment of a clueless union leader as defense minister Ehud Olmert has damaged the reputation of civilian defense ministers, and given some backing to Hanan Kristal's crooked political thought. Middle Israelis should not be confused by any of this: They want the generals in their barracks, and their superiors civilian, ones who spent years studying the civilian-military interface and are prepared to face up to generals, rather than feed them with ever-growing budgets. It follows that if Netanyahu returns to the premiership, his appointment of Yuval Steinitz as defense minister would not just be plausible; it would offer an antithesis to the charlatanism that began with Ya'alon's scandalous dismissal and Dan Halutz's celebration as a military genius, continued with Amir Peretz's bizarre appointment and culminated in 2006's midsummer nightmare.

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