Security and Defense: Changing of the guard
In 2005, a few months before the disengagement from Gaza, then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz held a meeting with a group of senior Palestinian Authority officials based in the Strip.
While Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was not coordinated with the PA, the purpose of the meeting was to see if the Palestinians could ensure that no security incidents would take place during the expected week-long withdrawal.
Mofaz was accompanied to the meeting by a few members of his staff, as well as Brig.-Gen. Yoav "Poli" Mordechai, then the head of the IDF's Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration.
Mordechai was functioning as the translator when Mofaz asked one of the Palestinians if they would be able to cordon off a certain area. The Palestinian answered yes, but strangely enough Mordechai translated it as no.
His alleged mistranslation was picked up by another member of Mofaz's staff, who, after the meeting, accused him of distorting the facts. Mordechai explained that while the Palestinian said yes, he really meant no. This he said he knew from the way the Palestinian answered, his body language and from his own intimate familiarity with Palestinian culture. In the end, he turned out to be right.
Since the disengagement, Mordechai has climbed the ranks of the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, and today is nearing the end of a three-year term as head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank, a tenure that has been characterized by Palestinians, Americans and Israelis as one of the most productive periods in recent history.
A former officer in a Military Intelligence unit, Mordechai has served over the past three years as the private emissary for Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi to PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. At a recent international donor conference in Switzerland, Fayad came up to Mordechai - who was representing Israel - and said "if you are here, that means the Israelis are taking this conference seriously."
Coordination between the IDF and the PA was enhanced following Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007. Since then, under the direction of OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni, Mordechai and outgoing Judea and Samaria Division Commander Brig.-Gen. Noam Tivon, Israel has succeeded in dramatically improving the quality of life in the West Bank by easing restrictions at an unprecedented rate.
While the IDF for years had been notorious for preventing goodwill gestures to the PA, the Shamni-Mordechai-Tivon trio has made unbelievable progress, despite the absence of diplomatic negotiations. Together, the group of officers has removed 21 manned checkpoints in the West Bank in the past two years, as well as over 200 dirt roadblocks. In addition, Israel has approved the deployment of several battalions of US-trained Palestinian policemen in the West Bank.
These actions have had a direct effect on the Palestinian economy. According to official Palestinian sources, since 2008, foreign investment in the West Bank has increased by 600% as a result of economic conferences Israel allowed and helped facilitate in Bethlehem and Nablus. Furthermore, during the first quarter of 2009, the Palestinian GDP increased by 5.6% compared to the parallel quarter in 2008, and according to International Monetary Fund estimates, economic growth in 2009 is expected to reach 7%, a figure that would be expected in Singapore, but not in the West Bank.
Due to the improved security situation, Shamni has allowed his officers to take more calculated risks. For example, the number of Palestinians granted permits to work in Israel has doubled in just three years, thus reducing the rate of unemployment, which dropped from 20.9 percent in 2008 to 16 percent this year.
Possibly the best proof of an improved relationship between the PA and Israel was during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip earlier this year. In the past, fearing uprisings, the IDF would always impose a curfew and closure on the West Bank during military operations in the Gaza Strip. During Cast Lead, however, there was no need for a closure, and thousands of West Bank workers continued to enter Israel daily.
THESE SUCCESSES are now in jeopardy, in part due to personnel changes in the army ranks.
Next week, Shamni will leave the Central Command and take up his new post as the IDF's military attachÃ© in Washington DC. He will be replaced by the former head of the Ground Forces Command, Maj.-Gen. Avi Mizrachi, a tank commander with little experience in the West Bank.
Tivon, a graduate of Harvard University, was replaced this past week by Brig.-Gen. Nitzan Alon, a decorated former commander of the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit - Sayeret Matkal.
Mordechai is next in line to leave. His successor has already been named - Brig.-Gen. Moti Elmoz, Shamni's current deputy. In contrast to Mordechai, who grew up in Military Intelligence and speaks fluent Arabic, Elmoz grew up in the Engineering Corps and does not speak Arabic, according to officers who know him.
Some defense officials have expressed concern that the process started by Shamni, Mordechai and Tivon will suffer a blow because of the change in leadership. Others have claimed that the personnel changes will not have a significant effect.
Ultimately, though, the changes on the ground are threatened more by the lack of diplomatic progress than by a change in command. In his farewell speech last week, Tivon said he hoped for a future that would include Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and not just military action.
"Together with my partners, we succeeded in reducing the terror levels in 2007 to the lowest in the past decade," Tivon said. "I believe that terrorism is dealt with not just with force, but also by creating hope and a sense of normalcy for the Palestinians, and a better future through dialogue."
While Tivon did not say it explicitly, there are fears in the IDF that the current diplomatic stagnation will undermine the efforts the army has made to improve the quality of life in the West Bank.
"This is one of the first times that the military is so far ahead of the political echelon in its relations with the Palestinians," explained one defense official. The IDF has already recorded 50 terror attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem in September, a slight increase from the previous month.
While recent violence surrounding the Temple Mount is believed to mostly be stirred by the Islamic Movement, officials warned that it could also be a symptom of diplomatic stagnation.
"When there is no hope for a better future, people tend to resort to violence," one military source conceded.
While it will be up to the new IDF trio in the West Bank to make sure that doesn't happen, in the absence of political progress it will not be an easy task, particularly in light of the fact that a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate does not appear to be around the corner.
Despite two recent visits to the region, US special envoy George Mitchell has still failed to get the sides to renew negotiations, an achievement that was anticipated following the three-way summit between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, PA President Mahmoud Abbas and US President Barack Obama last month on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
Instead, progress towards breaking the diplomatic impasse has hit another significant obstacle, with Abbas now asking the UN Human Rights Council to send a report written by a team headed by Judge Richard Goldstone - which accuses Israel of war crimes during Cast Lead - to the Security Council, and potentially to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
If and when this happens, the improvements the Shamni-Mordechai-Tivon trio made on the ground in the West Bank over the past two years could become just another footnote in the long history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as opposed to being remembered as a true catalyst for peace.