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Israeli Leaders Dealing With Season of Discontent

Analysts see no one powerful enough to challenge Sharon. Still, those who want a softer approach toward the Palestinians are pleased.

November 04, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — An outpouring of domestic discontent and criticism has caught the Israeli government off guard and heartened some of those urging a change in its aggressive approach toward the 3-year-old Palestinian uprising.

Since September, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Cabinet have come under fire from sources ranging from dissident fighter pilots to the army's chief of staff, who touched off a furor last week by publicly questioning the harsh Israeli crackdown on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

At least two alternative Mideast peace plans have been put forward. Opposition officials and the angry parents of dead soldiers have hammered at Israel's military presence in parts of the occupied territories. And an estimated 100,000 people turned out for a rally over the weekend in honor of the memory of Yitzhak Rabin, the dovish Israeli prime minister who was assassinated eight years ago.

While these hits on the government do not appear to be coordinated or to have threatened Sharon's grip on power, many of his detractors sense a rare opportunity to wrest some of the initiative and keep him on the defensive.

"Something has changed," said Menachem Klein, a veteran peace negotiator and an advocate of one of the two competing peace proposals. "You never know when a few elements will break out and meet other elements and have an impact."

Throw in an imminent general strike by unhappy workers, plus a corruption probe into dealings by Sharon and his two sons, and some opponents detect a whiff of weakness.

Analysts are quick to caution against overestimating any vulnerability in the Israeli government or expecting any major policy shifts. Sharon remains firmly in control, without any serious political challengers from within or outside his party, analysts say.

Still, he and his inner circle have recently suffered a series of embarrassments. The biggest was caused last week by Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the army's senior commander, whose stinging comments indicated a possible rift between military and civilian officials over how best to deal with a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 800 Israelis and 2,400 Palestinians.

Yaalon told reporters that military checkpoints and curfews in the West Bank, which have been especially tight since a suicide bomber struck a restaurant in the Israeli port city of Haifa a month ago, were harming innocent Palestinians and inciting dangerous levels of hopelessness and anger. Such tactics worked to Israel's detriment, not its benefit, in its battle against terrorism, said Yaalon, who supports easing restrictions on the Palestinian population.

Yaalon also suggested that Israel had been too "stingy" in its goodwill gestures toward then-Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, which contributed to his eventual resignation and the collapse of the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the road map.

While disagreement between army officers and politicians is nothing new in Israel, Yaalon broke with usual practice by allowing his name to be attached to his remarks. Furious, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz called in Yaalon for a dressing-down, while other officials lambasted him for airing his criticism in public.

"Once a decision has been made one way or another, that's it -- end of story, and everyone must align with this," said Uzi Landau, a former minister of internal security.

But Yaalon's words appeared to have some effect. On Sunday, the military announced that it would grant 15,000 permits to Palestinians to enter Israel for work and allow public transport to resume in the West Bank. The military described the steps as "confidence-building measures" decided "by the political echelon."

The Yaalon controversy followed another uproar in the armed forces involving some of their most glamorous and prestigious personnel: fighter pilots. In September, 27 pilots signed a letter slamming airstrikes in Gaza as "illegal and immoral" and refusing to take part in such operations.

Shlomo Gazit, a retired general and former head of military intelligence, said the discontent brewing in some pockets of the military stemmed partly from disappointment over what some considered to be missed opportunities to jump-start the Mideast peace plan. That plan envisions the creation of a Palestinian state after both sides fulfill various obligations, including the dismantling of new Jewish settlement outposts and Palestinian terrorist networks.

"The issue is the way the political and military authorities analyzed the road map," Gazit said. "From the military point of view, the road map should have been a turning point in the intifada and brought an end to the violence and the beginning of the political process."

But the plan rapidly bogged down in accusations from each side that the other was failing to keep its end of the bargain.

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