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The Generals vs. Netanyahu

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BENJAMIN NETANYAHU
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In late May, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's approval ratings spiked upon his return home from a trip to the United States, where he publicly rebuffed President Obama's call for a future Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders and land swaps. At least one segment of the population, however, was unimpressed with Netanyahu's move: the Israeli security community.

In contrast to the Netanyahu government's stance, most security experts do not see control of land as synonymous with security. After all, Israel's greatest military victory -- the 1967 war -- occurred within its old borders, whereas its greatest military defeat -- the 1973 war -- took place when Israel supposedly had more "strategic depth."

Whereas Netanyahu claims that the 1967 borders are "indefensible," the majority of Israeli reserve generals, ex-security heads and national security experts are convinced that a negotiated final-status peace deal with the Palestinians along the lines of the 1967 borders -- with modifications due to population shifts on both sides -- will significantly improve Israel's strategic position in the region. It is the continuation of the status quo that the security community regards to be far more dangerous. As former Israeli deputy minister of defense Gen. Ephraim Sneh (Res.) argued this week in his New York Times op-ed, Israel needs to make peace with the Palestinians, which invariably means a return to the 1967 lines, with some adjustments.

Prior to Netanyahu's trip, a new Israeli peace initiative calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital, was presented by 50 prominent figures, including former Shin Bet (Israeli internal security service) heads Yaakov Perry and Ami Ayalon, ex-Mossad chief Danny Yatom and former IDF Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. Eighteen retired Israeli generals signed the letter, which stated that "recognition of such a Palestinian state is vital for Israel's existence" and that "it is the only way to guarantee the resolution of the conflict by negotiations, to prevent the eruption of another round of massive violence and end the risk of isolation of Israel in the world." These security experts, in other words, are far more in sync with President Obama's position on the contours of a final peace settlement than that of Netanyahu's hard-line government.

Yet Netanyahu routinely has ignored the recommendations of the security experts. When then-Shin-Bet-head Yuval Diskin suggested two years ago that Hamas leaders appeared interested in reaching a hudna (long-term cease fire) with Israel in exchange for a return to the 1967 borders, Netanyahu abruptly told him to stay out of the diplomatic arena. An almost identical incident took place during Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, in which he berated the then-IDF-Chief-of-Staff, who expressed concerns about the stalled peace process in a June 14, 1999 intelligence briefing.

Meir Dagan, who recently stepped down as Mossad Chief after eight years, has referred to Netanyahu's government as "reckless and irresponsible," blasting the prime minister for his aggressive stance toward Iran and for failing to advance the peace process with the Palestinians. According to Dagan, Israel's "ability to survive in the region is highly dependent on the relations that will take shape between us [Israelis] and the Palestinians." Another recently-departed member of the security establishment, IDF Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, has joined the numerous voices calling on Israel to restart peace negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas so as to avoid the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state in the UN in September.

Netanyahu's disregard for security officials dates back to his conduct during his first term as prime minister in the 1990s. Back then, he scuffled repeatedly with IDF Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Shin Bet Chief Ami Ayalon and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, each of whom quickly lost confidence in the prime minister on matters relating to national security. Netanyahu's biggest failures at the time -- decisions taken over the objections raised by the security establishment -- include his decision to open the Western Wall tunnel in the Old City, which led to the eruption of violence and the deaths of dozens of Israelis and Arabs, and the botched assassination attempt of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Jordan, which led to a marked deterioration in Israeli-Jordanian relations.

To the Israeli security community, Israel's growing isolation, the mounting frustration on the part of the Palestinians and the demographic time bomb that threatens to alter the Jewish character of the state of Israel are a deadly combination.

For Netanyahu, however, political considerations invariably trump security ones. Absent massive pressure, the prime minister will not risk alienating his right-wing religious base that is keeping him in power by altering the status quo. Netanyahu is well aware that, with few terrorist attacks in recent years and a booming economy, most Israelis are not focusing on the "diplomatic tsunami" and outbreak of violence that is widely expected to result from the upcoming UN vote on a Palestinian state. Netanyahu understands that the only real political opposition he faces these days is from his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who is to Netanyahu's right. Lieberman rejects the notion that a Palestinian state will end the conflict and has threatened to annul Israel's commitments under the Oslo accords if such a state is recognized by the United Nations. Not surprisingly, he has applauded Netanyahu's defiant stand against President Obama.

With Netanyahu's domestic standing fairly stable, the loudest voices criticizing his intransigent policies are coming from the nation's top national security figures. The Council for Peace and Security, an association of national security experts in Israel that supports peace diplomacy with the Palestinians, has been highly critical of Netanyahu's rejectionist approach, particularly in light of the looming September UN vote.

In the meantime, a number of highly ranked ex-generals are gearing up to challenge Netanyahu in the polls. Ashkenazi is apparently eyeing the Labor Party leadership following his mandatory cooling off period. Another former IDF Chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen. (Ret.) Dan Halutz, has already joined the opposition Kadima Party, whose key platform plank is a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And Gen. (Ret.) Amram Mitzna is vying for the leadership of the Labor Party, hoping to mount a challenge in the next national elections to Netanyahu, whom he has called "dangerous for Israel."

The growing calls from the Israeli security community for a return to peace talks with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank on the basis of the 1967 borders, with modifications, serve to highlight the discrepancy between Netanyahu's policies and Israel's strategic needs. But will they be enough to help avert the potential disaster that awaits Israel and the occupied territories in September?

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