If you add up the total number of the years they spent in the Israel Defense Forces, the Israel Police and the Mossad, you come to the incomprehensible sum of more than 3.5 millennia in the service of state security. And now, 105 former high-ranking army and police officers and Mossad chiefs have decided to join together and step out of their private comfort zones to sign a letter calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "not to join the ranks of those who use threats as an excuse for resting on our laurels, and to initiate a political process."
We're not dealing here with serial signatories whose names and ranks adorn every petition for peace or in support of a Greater Israel. The names this time are different. Among them are ex-generals who left their uniforms behind a long time ago, like former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir and retired Major General Amiram Levin. And you'll also find major generals like Dani Biton and Avi Mizrahi, who parted ways with the Israel Defense Forces only recently and were members of the General Staff that embarked on Operation Cast Lead. They more than anyone else are familiar with the reality on the ground. The signatories also include three former police chiefs – Assaf Hefetz, Yaakov Turner and Herzl Shafir.
"We, the undersigned, reserve IDF commanders and retired police officers, who have fought in Israel's military campaigns, know first-hand of the heavy and painful price exacted by wars," reads the letter initiated by Major General (res.) Amnon Reshef, a former Armored Corps commander, who says he's sick and tired of a reality of rounds of fighting every few years instead of a genuine effort to adopt the Saudi initiative.
"We fought bravely for the country in the hope that our children would live here in peace," the letter continues, "but we got a sharp reality check, and here we are, again sending our children out onto the battlefield, watching them don their uniforms and combat vests and go out to fight in Operation Protective Edge… This is not a question of left or right. What we have here is an alternative option for resolving the conflict that is not based solely only on bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians, which have failed time and again… We expect a show of courageous initiative and leadership from you. Lead – and we will stand behind you."
We sat down to speak with four of the signatories in the yard of Reshef's home in Tel Aviv. Joining us were Major General (res.) Hagai Shalom, former head of the IDF's Technological and Logistics Directorate and current businessman and owner of the Tiv Ta'am chain and the Argaz company; Major General (res.) Eyal Ben-Reuven, former commander of the IDF colleges who still performs reserve duty as deputy GOC Northern Command; and Major General (res.) Avi Mizrahi, former GOC Central Command and current deputy CEO of Elbit.
From Gaza to Berlin
For Shalom, who left the military in the mid-1990s, this is the first time he's agreed to lend his signature to a petition of any kind.
"I fear for the future of the country," he says, explaining the deviation from his norm. "The situation here has never been a simple one, but the picture appears blacker than usual of late. There's a lack of purpose. You don't see anyone taking the lead along a chosen path, towards hope. Prime Minister Netanyahu is very talented and he's a fighter, but he's caught up with his own political survival – and that, rather than the fate of the country, is the main focus of his concerns. Unfortunately, the country needs more these days.
"I don't know if the petition will lead to change, but we have to start somewhere. We need to find a way to unite all the sane voices, inside and outside government, so as to put an end to the processes that lead us into dangerous situations. And I'm talking about Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid. Anyone who chooses to remain in the government, from the right or the center, and lends a hand to the government without instigating a political process is committing a very big sin."
Mizrahi, too, has steered clear thus far of petitions and letters of this kind. He retired from the IDF two years ago and took a year off before joining Elbit. "I haven't signed petitions or letters before because I was still in uniform," Mizrahi says. "Now, too, I joined in because the letter is correctly and appropriately worded. It's not categorized as left or right, but expresses instead genuine concern for the fact that nothing is happening. As a military man I'm able to say with certainty that we will achieve the best security if there is peace here."
Petitions from the left or the right are published every few months. What makes the current one any difference?
Reshef: "The difference is in the message, and in particular in the number of signatures at the end of the letter that is addressed to the Prime Minister, but through him to the public at large, too. Read the names of the signatories. They're all combat soldiers, major generals and brigadier generals – and please forgive me, my comrades of other ranks, for not managing to reach you. I was fired up. I saw Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi call on Israel to enter into negotiations, and no one in Israel is picking up the gauntlet.
"I saw us launch operation Protective Edge and got the sense that we've become accustomed to yet another round of fighting every three years. I was fired up. I wrote the petition and I thought I would get the signatures of 40-50 senior officers. Happily, one friend brought another, and hardly anyone refused. The power in the names is unique and a one-off occurrence."
Ben-Reuven: "We've spent most of our lives in the world of war. When you're there, you look at things differently than you do when you're in civilian life, where I started looking through a broader prism. The further away from it I move and look back, the more I realize just how much the issue of the world of war is folly and offers zero benefit."
Were all the wars unnecessary?
"The recent wars only intensified their lack of purposefulness. Don't get me wrong, I'm not discounting the problematic environment in which we live, and the fact that we need to be strong therein. We've established an empire here - Economic and security. But we are using the tools at the disposal of the empire in the worst possible way. Instead of using force to prevent the folly of the world of war, we have become a society led by statesmen who are taking us to the extreme and a shortsighted viewpoint that centers on force, force and more force. This I see as an existential threat in the near future."
Reshef: "We argue in the letter that the Yom Kippur War stemmed from political blindness. I also say that if there's no political follow-up to operation Protective Edge its fallen soldiers were in vain. And if so, what did the residents of the Gaza-boarder communities suffer for, and why did we need this trauma for the entire population, if already now they're talking about a second and third round. For God's sake, there is a solution that could prevent the following rounds. We need to come to a settlement with the moderate Arab states, which have more leverage over the Palestinians than we do."
Do you really believe that we can reach a comprehensive political settlement?
Reshef: "Definitely - establish a Palestinian state and reach a comprehensive agreement with dozens of Arab states in the region."
Ben-Reuven: "Today I believe that the State of Israel must make every effort to reduce the potential for conflict in the region. When looking at the region around us, it is a barrel of fuel surrounded by candles. All it takes is a minute for everything to explode. The current situation in the Arab world has actually created an opportunity that needs to be built upon to promote a different regional peace. And it can be done because we are strong."
Mizrahi: "That's a tricky question because everyone has their own definition of the term 'comprehensive regional peace'. Until now, by the way, we've failed when trying to speak only with the Palestinians, so perhaps a comprehensive move would be more successful. But if you'll allow me to reach even higher, Egypt and Israel share an interest in solving the problem. For example, Sinai is a large area of land most of which is undeveloped or uninhabited. If the Egyptians were to donate a few dozen square kilometers to the Gaza Strip, it could be beneficial to the joint development of the area and create a situation in which they, too, and not only we are in the game."
Shalom: "I believe that the situation in which Israel finds itself today can be changed. The world in general and the Arab world in particular are bubbling over and we could have taken advantage of the situation to move forward. But instead of doing, there is unnecessary chatter against the superpower, the United States, which is always there when we need it. The crisis with them is inappropriate, undignified and stupid."
Meanwhile, there are young Israelis who are choosing to go live in Berlin. Is this a consequence of the situation?
Shalom: "I don't want to hear of Berlin. Unfortunately, as a businessman I can say that the government chooses to fight businesses rather than make things easier for them, and it all rolls over to the consumer who struggles under the burden. My businesses are in Israel. I didn't go abroad – not because we don't have any cause for despair, but because we are doomed if we despair. The prime minister understands economics and he must alleviate the cost-of-living burden on the young and the weaker segments of the population."
Shalom: "By dropping VAT on basic products – an 18 percent reduction would be a huge relief for the weaker strata. The problem is that there's no ruling authority, neither political nor economic, and the prime minister invests most of his resources in politics and not the economy."
Mizrahi: "If you were to ask me where to invest, I would say education. The cost of living bothers me too, and I earn well. I lived abroad for a few years and believe me I could have become a millionaire had I stayed there; but this is my country and I came back. The young people's protest is just, and if they take to the streets, I will join them. But there's a big gap between that and leaving the country."
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The abduction and murder of the three Israeli teenagers, the shocking murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, and the attempted assassination last Wednesday of right-wing activist Yehuda Glick are just some of the recent events that have brought the already volatile situation between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem to the boiling point.
"We are not seeing the start of a third intifada," Mizrahi determines. "I say this based on knowledge rather than an assessment. The Palestinians and their leadership don't want friction. The current situation will calm down soon. Moreover, an intifada isn't the thing that should prompt us into a political settlement; but if there is no political settlement, the region will eventually burst into flames.
"In addition, they seem to be under the impression that when we are pressed, we are more generous when it comes to concessions. Take that into consideration. In the absence of hope, the quiet will not last forever. Furthermore, a settlement is good for Israel's security. We have to try, so that we can tell our children that we tried and did all we could."
Despite the lack of a peace agreement, the country is flourishing. It's impossible to find a parking space or a table at a restaurant, and perhaps the right-wing is right in saying that the Palestinians will eventually realize that they're not going to get a state, and they'll get used to the situation and live with us in peace.
Mizrahi: "Just this week, UNICEF published a report on the terrible state of Israel's poor children. The country is prospering because there people here are powerfully driven to show that despite the situation, they will succeed. But let's not fool ourselves – if they don't invest, if they don't reach a settlement, either we will lose the next war, and this is hard to see, or we will pay a very heavy price in casualties."
Shalom: "Israel is an amazing country. It has talented, diligent, innovative people. The problem is not the people, but the weakness of the government, or the lack of government, which has created intolerable gaps – and 90 percent of the blame rest on the government's shoulders."
Ben-Reuven: "The national leadership brainwashed us with the idea of a Greater Israel – from Rabin and Peres and northwards. Today, sanity must be restored to the public and we need to make it clear that there is a way to combine forces and interests and to reach political settlements. I have no doubt that if they were to bring such a settlement to a referendum, more than 70 percent would be in favor of it."
Is Netanyahu made of the right stuff? Is he capable of achieving a settlement?
Reshef: "Theoretically? He's capable. Does he want to? I don't have an answer to that."
Shalom: "I don't believe that Bibi will do something if he has the choice not to do it. He'll be forced to act only if he has no choice or in the event of elections. Perhaps the only way to change the current situation is through elections. Even if a government under his leadership were to come into power again, it would be a new beginning. Bibi is not a bad person. The problem is that the path he is walking will lead to nowhere."
Mizrahi: "Bibi is certainly capable. Will he heed our letter? That's a different question entirely."
Ben-Reuven: "He's made of the right stuff and if he wants to be, he is capable. For now, however, when looking at the end result, the man has failed."
So why are you appealing to him in the letter?
Ben-Reuven: "I'm appealing through him to the public. I signed the letter from a public perspective, in the hope that it will serve as an incentive to bring about a change in leadership."
Reshef: "We are appealing to him in the hope that he will understand that he has an opportunity to get our help. If it doesn't work out, my next goal is to put together a structured system that will allow us to organize a demonstration involving 200-300 thousand people next spring, with the message being a call for a regional political settlement that will lead to security-economic-social prosperity."