Editorial: The Officers' Letter and Beyond

THE FAILURE of Camp David and the outbreak of the Intifada forced the Israeli establishment to unite. There was no way to cope with the uprising except through a national-unity government. The ideological cover for this harmony was the mythical notion, "We offered them everything and they slapped our hand." After years of internal wrangling, which had continued even after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli public yearned for unity.

On January 25 this unity broke. Fifty high-ranking reserve officers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) – no ordinary soldiers, but the cream of the society – published an open letter including the following statement: "We who understand today that the price of Occupation is the loss of the IDF's essential humanity (tselem enosh) and the corruption of Israeli society as a whole, we who know that the Territories are not Israel… hereby proclaim that we shall not continue to take part in the War for the Peace of the Settlements." (Yediot Aharonot, Weekend Supplement.)

This letter signals the end of the national unity that has shored up the present government.

Several factors brought the letter about: First, sixteen months of Intifada had passed without a decisive outcome. Second, the officers saw that the government had no political program. Third, America and Europe had ceased to play a restraining role. Given these factors, the officers, who had earlier tolerated excessive use of force, now came to see it in an ugly light.

Even before the letter, Israel's handling of the Intifada had provoked conscientious objection. Since September 2000, according to Yesh Gvul, almost a thousand soldiers and potential draftees have told the army that they will not take part in the Occupation. This figure stands in stark contrast with the earlier Oslo years (1993-1999), when only two or three refused annually.

As a document of conscientious objection, however, the letter of the officers is distinctive. It represents not just a moral position, but a political act. Its stress is not on the harm done the Palestinians, rather on the harm done Israel itself, its army and society.

In the last month, the number of refusing officers has mushroomed from 50 to 283 (and three have been imprisoned). They refuse to admit lower ranks – again, to preserve their political impact. They do not work through the political parties, but seek instead to use their status to break existing molds. They attempt to keep a foothold in the consensus (granting no interviews to the foreign press, for example, lest they appear as traitors). Yet in view of their military rank, their action poses the threat of mutiny. It cuts like a cleaver into the army's morale.

A quasi-democracy like Israel's can tolerate a degree of conscientious objection from low-ranking radical youth. It cannot tolerate organized refusal from its officer corps. In effect, the officers have opened a second front against PM Ariel Sharon. Nor is Sharon blind to the danger. He responded in his speech of February 21, accusing the officers of aiding the terrorists.

The officers embody a widespread Israeli desire that the army withdraw from the Territories, just as it withdrew from Lebanon almost three years ago. When they dub the present military effort a "War for the Peace of the Settlements", they are playing on the "War for the Peace of Galilee" (Israel's name for its Lebanon War of 1982, led by then Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon). Thus for the first time ever, people from within the establishment are drawing a comparison between Israel's settlements in the Territories and its ill-fated sojourn in Lebanon.

The first "establishment-Israeli" to question the settlements in public was Yitzhak Rabin, who distinguished those that fulfilled "security" needs from dispensable "political" ones. Since his murder, no one has dared to speak publicly about dismantling them, not even in Meretz circles, despite a tacit understanding in the Oslo talks that some would have to go.

Now the officers have come out against the settlements. Their outlook is too narrow, unfortunately, to take us far in resolving the basic conflict. They would like to see a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Territories – and be done with them! There is no sense of responsibility toward the Palestinians after all the years of Occupation, exploitation and regulated underdevelopment. If a cease fire were imposed somehow, followed by a new edition of Oslo, the officers would return to their posts, wherever these might happen to be. Such qualifications, however, in no way diminish the importance of what they have done. They have opened a debate that will rank among the most crucial in Israel's history. The supposed legitimacy of the Occupation has suffered a mortal blow.

From the officers' letter to a real solution, the way is long. Precisely here, we do well to mention another new phenomenon.

The Oslo Accords were like a drug to most Israelis, leftists too, sedating them into thinking they could go on leading good lives, even if their neighbors went hungry in a ghetto. The bursting of this illusion created a vacuum: the leaders, it seemed, had tried everything, both Greater Israel and concessions toward peace. The result of the vacuum was massive repugnance for all things political. A small number, however, were radicalized. Not since the first Intifada has there been such deep soul-searching by some Israelis about the harm that Zionism has done to the Palestinian people.

Dozens of radical Israeli youth, among them the now 100 signers of the twelfth-graders' letter, are coming to grips with the anomaly of Zionism. Unlike the officers, they are far removed from patriotism. They are probing anew the myths they grew up with. In the last Challenge we published the letter of Ya'ir Hilu, who has just finished his second 28-day term for refusal. It includes these words: "I fail to see how the repression of the Palestinian resistance by means of state terror – even crueler and of wider scope than the counter-terror it provokes – serves the society that I am a part of. How does the activity of the state, implemented through the army, benefit me and those I care for? The 'sterile' Jewish space created by the State of Israel is a ghetto for its Jewish residents. It prevents them from integrating into the Middle East. Nobody is safe in this space – either Jews or Arabs."

The radical character of these youth comes to expression in other ways too. Several, for example, grew up in Galilean mizpim, that is, small "lookout settlements". Built in the 1980's on confiscated Arab land, the mizpim are essential for "judaizing" central Galilee, which is still mostly Arab in population. The state awarded them jurisdiction over large tracts of Arab land beyond their actual borders. Recently, three draft-refusers from Mizpeh Yuvalim, whose parents were among its founders, met with Arab youth from Majd al-Krum, a village that lost part of its land to the mizpim. The Arab youth asked them, "How do you feel about the fact that the mizpim are built on our land?"

All three answered that this was wrong; that the villages ought to get compensation in the form of land; and that the mizpim ought to open their doors to receive the Arabs as members. One went so far as to say, "I don't feel right about the mizpim, and I don't intend to go on living there." These answers show that the new radicalization extends beyond the parameters of the military conflict alone.

The question arises, Where will these new radicals find a political framework through which to act?

The Israeli left at present offers them nothing. (See article, p. 6.) One of its branches views the Territories as an albatross: Israel should cut itself loose from them by unilateral separation, if need be. Another wants to remain within the framework of Oslo, dictating the shape and extent of Palestinian national liberation. A third branch banks on the Palestinian elite; it would settle for a "peace between leaders", although that implies continuing corruption and dictatorship on the Palestinian side.

The new radicals cannot, at present, find a corresponding Palestinian movement either. The progressive organizations are in disarray. Some have joined the Palestinian Authority and some have adopted the fanatical positions of Hamas. Yet the presence of a new Israeli radicalism may itself help to stimulate the re-emergence of a Palestinian counterpart.

There is a long-term hope, therefore, that these new radicals will find common ground with the Palestinians – not holing themselves up in the villas of Herzlia, but building a future free of racism and oppression.