Thursday, October 30, 2003

JERUSALEM — Israel’s top general was called on the carpet yesterday about an interview with leading Israeli newspapers in which he criticized the government’s hard-line policies as counterproductive and blamed the Sharon administration for the defeat of former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly was infuriated when Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon was identified as the subject of the interviews, which at first were attributed only to a “senior military official.”

In the interviews, which appeared in the nation’s leading newspapers on Wednesday, the normally hawkish general said that the government’s policies were destructive and that crushing militants was effective only if accompanied by peace negotiations.

The failure of the Sharon government to make concessions to Mr. Abbas contributed to his downfall, the general reportedly said, adding that Israel must now support Mr. Abbas’ successor, Ahmed Qureia, by easing restrictions in the Palestinian territories.

The general also was quoted as saying that the proposed route for a security fence that will cut deeply into the West Bank would require too many soldiers to defend, and that threats on the life of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had served only to make him more popular.

Gen. Yaalon, long seen as a tough supporter of the government’s hard-line policies, was called in yesterday by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz for a “clarification” of his remarks.

Mr. Sharon’s office issued a statement afterward that the prime minister will “make do” with the explanations offered by the general and that Mr. Sharon regards the matter as closed.

An official said Mr. Sharon will not demand an apology or dismiss Gen. Yaalon, as had been reported.

In the interviews, Gen. Yaalon made it clear that the general staff feels that the continuing pressure on the Palestinian population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is creating a humanitarian crisis that is increasing hatred for Israel and the motivation for terror attacks.

That differs from the view of the Shin Bet security service, which fears that any easing of pressure will lead to a new rush of suicide bombers into Israel. The government generally has adopted the Shin Bet’s approach.

Gen. Yaalon described this as “sacrificing the strategic interest for the sake of tactical considerations.”

He advocated removing the army’s blockade around cities such as Jericho and Bethlehem — which are currently relatively tranquil, canceling the existing ban on Palestinian vehicular traffic throughout the West Bank and easing pressure on those areas free of terror activities.

The government’s policies have come under criticism from soldiers before, but never at the highest levels.

Several hundred soldiers have refused to serve in the Palestinian territories in protest at what they were asked to do there, and in late September, 27 air force pilots signed a letter saying they would no longer participate in air strikes on civilian population centers.

In his meeting with Mr. Mofaz, Gen. Yaalon reportedly said that his remarks to the press did not constitute criticism of the government but were an explanation of the army’s differences with the Shin Bet.

An army spokeswoman issued a statement that Gen. Yaalon’s remarks reflected the complex reality confronting decision makers.

“The army is subordinate to the political echelon,” the statement said, “obeying its instructions precisely.”

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