JERUSALEM — Israel's generals have gone to war again--this time with one another.
In angry recriminations over a training accident that killed five young commandos early this month, Israeli generals have accused one another of carelessness with their soldiers' lives, dodging responsibility for the incident and then using press censorship in an attempt to cover it up.
All efforts to end the backbiting have failed, and senior officers now speak of the Israeli general staff as divided into feuding camps backing rival generals--and eyeing the top commands that ultimately are at stake.
"A nasty, nasty business," said a colonel whose own promotion depends, he acknowledged, on how it ends. "We are so absorbed in these quarrels that we are in danger of forgetting why we have an army and what it is supposed to do. And that will weaken us and even endanger our security."
Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, the military chief of staff, in seeking to end the quarreling, pointed to "the irreversible danger that can be done to the framework of relationships within the general staff, damage to its operational functioning and danger to the moral and command authority that the generals have."
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who is also defense minister, condemned "this war of the generals," warning that those suspected of continuing their feud in the press will be subjected to lie detector tests.
"I want to block this campaign waged by interested parties inside the Israel Defense Forces who are working in concert with the sensationalist press," Rabin declared, setting off yet another round of criticism, which has largely been directed at him for attempting to run the armed forces from his Jerusalem office.
As the controversy has grown and deepened, it has raised fundamental questions about the military's role in Israeli society, the army's responsibility to the country's elected political leaders and the paramountcy that "security," never well-defined, has had up to now.
"People are beginning to realize how many sins are committed in the name of 'security,' and that's really why this affair won't die down," another colonel said. "In the past, invoking 'security' was enough--there was no discussion, for, it was assumed, the generals knew best and acted selflessly.
"No more. When people see five young men, the pride of our nation, killed in a training accident through negligence, they want to know why, who was at fault, how did it happen, what was it all for."
Members of the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, are demanding of the Rabin government greater assurances that the military is "under control, the executor and not the maker of policy," as a member of Rabin's Labor Party commented over the weekend.
Censorship regulations, based largely on those imposed here by Britain at the end of World War II, are being reviewed and will likely be revised to ensure a freer flow of information and open political debate without impairing military operations.
Criminal investigations are also proceeding to see whether charges should be brought against any of the officers, including the major general commanding the exercise.
Yet one question is still not being asked, at least not widely: If the Nov. 5 exercise was actually a rehearsal, as reported, of the planned assassination of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the fundamentalist Islamic movement Hezbollah, near the Lebanese capital of Beirut, was this proper?
Or would it have been an act of state terrorism--the murder of a political as well as religious leader in a neighboring country with which Israel is now talking in U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations?
"As long as the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) don't officially say what the goal of the exercise was, we are absolved from debating it," a member of the Knesset's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee said, asking not to be quoted by name. "That remains subject to censorship despite its importance. . . .
"Still, I think we are bound to ask, at least privately, who authorized this operation and whether it had been thought through. While we might be justified in killing Nasrallah because of Hezbollah's attacks on us, including civilian targets, it could damage the peace process and lose Israel important international support. So, was this an IDF decision, or a government one?"
Such persistent probing, largely by the Israeli press and then by foreign correspondents, has frustrated efforts of the military to conceal the aim of the training exercise in which five soldiers were killed and six wounded when a missile was mistakenly fired at them and scored a direct hit.
Barak and his deputy were present at the exercise in the Negev Desert, reporters discovered, and the refusal by military censors initially to permit publication of this fact implied that a very important operation was planned with this special unit.