Divide Surfaces on Handling Security

It’s not every day that an Israeli army chief of staff calls in top journalists to express deep misgivings about government policy.

So when Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon initiated a late October briefing to warn that the government’s handling of Palestinian terrorism could provoke more intense Palestinian violence, the country sat up and took notice.

Ya’alon’s critique reflected a deep divide between two schools of thought: the hard-liners, like Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who believe relentless military pressure can force the Palestinians to abandon terrorism for peace negotiations, and relative moderates, like Ya’alon and many of the Israel Defense Force’s top generals, who maintain that Palestinian violence will only abate when serious political incentives are put on the table.

Ya’alon’s concern about the lack of a political horizon mirrors growing public criticism of government policy and decreasing confidence in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s capacity to deliver the peace and security he promised when first elected nearly three years ago.

The domestic criticism of Sharon has not gone unnoticed in Washington, where some powerful voices are urging pressure on Israel to move the Palestinian track forward and help deflect Arab anger at the U.S. role in Iraq. By going public, Ya’alon highlighted Israel’s profound security dilemma and deep differences in the security establishment over how to deal with it.

All the top brass agree that tight closures, blockades and roadblocks in and around Palestinian population centers make it harder for suicide bombers and other terrorists to get through. At the same time, though, Ya’alon and others argue that the longer Palestinians are cooped up without minimal public services, the easier it is for terrorist groups to tap into feelings of humiliation and hopelessness to recruit future bombers. In other words, they say, it may make good sense in the short term to clamp down to stop the next bomber, but in the long run, the tight closures could produce dozens more terrorists.

These differences came to a head in late October, when Sharon convened a high-level meeting to discuss the unprecedentedly tight noose Israel had imposed on the Palestinians in the wake of an Oct. 4 suicide bombing that killed 21 people in a Haifa restaurant.

Ya’alon warned of a pressure cooker in the Palestinian territories that was likely to explode and urged that restrictions on the movement of people and goods among West Bank towns and villages be eased.

The director of the Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter — who sees his organization as primarily responsible for stopping the bombings — objected. Any lifting of closures or roadblocks could enable suicide bombers to get through to their targets, he argued. Mofaz backed Dichter, but agreed to some minor easing of restrictions.

Convinced that the government was about to make a major blunder with potentially far-reaching military ramifications, Ya’alon decided to go public. He incurred sharp criticism from the government, primarily for making political comments while still in uniform.

Ya’alon’s supporters said distinctions between the military and political domains are not so clear-cut, and that as Israel’s No. 1 soldier, Ya’alon was duty-bound to warn the public about what he sees as a potential deterioration in the military situation.

Ya’alon did not leave it there, however. He implied that because of its hard line, the government had missed a great opportunity to take the peace process forward during Mahmoud Abbas’ brief tenure as Palestinian Authority prime minister and was likely to do so again with Abbas’ successor, Ahmed Qurei. Moreover, Ya’alon complained, every time there might be a chance to move forward, the government seemed to order another targeted assassination of a terrorist kingpin.

Government spokesmen vehemently denied the charges. Mofaz claimed he is doing all he can to ease conditions for Palestinian civilians but said ongoing terrorism makes it impossible for him to go as far as he would like. Moreover, he said, he did all he could to help Abbas — including an agreement to transfer four more cities to Palestinian control — a plan that was torpedoed by an eruption of Palestinian terrorism.

As for Qurei, Mofaz said he is willing to work with him, but progress will depend on just how far Qurei is prepared to go in cracking down on terrorism, as the Palestinians agreed to do under the “road map.”

For his part, Sharon expects to hold a key working session with Qurei soon. But his own political position is not as strong as it was when Abbas was prime minister.

Sharon’s position has not been helped by the police investigation into corruption allegations concerning him and his two sons. On Oct. 30, Sharon was interrogated for six hours on the so-called “Greek Island Affair,” in which he is suspected of taking bribes to help Likud activist and millionaire contractor David Appel secure a Greek island for tourist development. Police afterward were divided on whether they had enough evidence to press charges. But even if Sharon is not indicted, his political star seems to be in decline.

Sharon’s weakness may be one reason for emerging signs of a U.S. rethinking of the Israeli-Palestinian equation.

The Bureau of Intelligence and Research is recommending that the Bush administration apply pressure on Israel to stop construction in settlements in order to make headway with the Palestinians — and, the thinking goes, thereby help calm the situation in Iraq.

The recommendation is in a paper written by Carl Ford, assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, which was submitted last week to the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. Ford’s position is said to reflect that of CIA Director George Tenet.

Coupled with the changes of nuance in Washington, Ya’alon’s critique could herald the beginnings of new domestic and international pressure on Sharon to move on the Palestinian track.

As usual, though, the key lies with Washington — and it’s hard to say what the president might do in an election year.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

IDF Could Target Gaza Next

A new Israeli military operation has many wondering if the army now has the Gaza Strip in its sights.

For months, Israeli forces have been engaged in a massive anti-terror operation in the West Bank, but have not carried out such operations in Gaza. Several reasons were given, including the argument that an incursion into the densely populated area would exact heavy Israeli casualties. Israeli officials also said a security fence between Israel and Gaza was preventing terrorists from attacking Israeli targets.

In recent weeks, however, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke of the inevitability of military action in Gaza to root out the terrorist infrastructure there.

Following a series of Palestinian mortar and rocket attacks from Gaza, the army carried out a strike in Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, early Monday. Fourteen Palestinians were killed and more than 100 injured in the raid on a Hamas stronghold.

On Tuesday, the White House expressed concern over Israeli raids "that have resulted in the deaths and wounding of many Palestinian civilians.

"While the administration supports Israel’s right to self-defense, it is critical that Israeli forces make every effort to avoid harm to civilians in exercising that right," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in a statement. "The president urges Israel to minimize the risk to civilian populations in areas in which Israeli Defense Forces are operating."

The Israeli army denied Palestinian claims that a military helicopter fired a missile at a crowd of civilians outside a mosque. The army said the missile was fired at armed Palestinians who were shooting and throwing grenades at Israeli soldiers. During the operation, Israeli troops detained a Palestinian with a bomb and blew up a bag containing three mortars, Army Radio reported. Palestinian officials denounced the strike as a massacre and called for international protection.

During clashes later in the area, eight people were wounded by Israeli fire directed at a Palestinian hospital. The army said it targeted the hospital after Palestinians fired from the facility at a nearby Israeli settlement.

Shortly after the military operation ended, Palestinians fired three mortars at an Israeli settlement in southern Gaza, but caused no injuries. A senior Hamas official called for revenge and urged all Palestinian groups to attack Israel.

On Tuesday, Sharon said the raid had been a success and that Israel would continue its anti-terror operations in Gaza. He expressed regret for the civilian casualties but said Israel had to prevent future terror attacks. Because of the Palestinian civilian casualties, the Israeli army operation drew international protests, including from the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

On Tuesday, the Israeli commander in Gaza, Brig. Gen. Israel Ziv, acknowledged that none of the 14 people killed in the raid was wanted by Israel. A day earlier, Ziv told Army Radio the operation was "very important [because it made] clear to the other side that there is no place that constitutes a fortress against the Israel Defense Forces."

Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said Israel was trying to disrupt a mission to the region by E.U.’s top diplomat, Javier Solana.

"Every time we see efforts to get the peace process back on track, the government of Israel commits new war crimes against innocent civilians," said Erekat in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.

With the threat of more violence in the offing, and the United States asking Israel to avoid flare-ups that could distract attention from the U.S. campaign against Iraq, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres defended the operation.

"Israel tries to employ restraint, but it is committed to acting to prevent terrorist activity,’" Peres told Army Radio.

The Basketball Diaries

Two standout Jewish hoop stars headlining the Pac-10 basketball tournament? It’s all part of March Madness. David Bluthenthal, USC’s 22-year-old small forward, and Amit Tamir, UC Berkeley’s 22-year-old forward/center, each look to lead their team to the conference title at the March 7-9 tournament at Staples Center.

Tamir, a 6-foot-10, 250-pound freshman, is thrilled about the tournament, the first held since 1990. "I’m excited to compete in L.A. I’m going to have fun and enjoy my first college tournament," said Tamir, whose team entered the Pac-10 tournament ranked second.

The Jerusalem native earned Pac-10 Player of the Week and ESPN National Player of the Week honors (Feb. 11) for his performance against the University of Oregon. He posted a Cal freshman record 39 points, shooting 14-of-19 from the floor, including 5-of-6 from three-point range and 6-of-8 from the line. Tamir clinched Cal’s first five double-overtime points, leading the Golden Bears to their eventual 107-103 victory. He also snagged five boards.

Tamir recognizes that his exceptional play means more than just a phenomenal night on the court. "I got a lot of attention after Oregon and I know that made Jews, especially Israelis, proud. There’s something nice about being an Israeli ambassador of college ball," Tamir said.

Tamir almost missed his NCAA opportunity. While serving three years in the Israeli army, he earned a spot on the Israeli League’s Hapoel Jerusalem. Tamir said he wasn’t paid by Hapoel, but he did play with a professional on his team. This NCAA amateurism rule violation jeopardized Tamir’s eligibility. But Cal coach Ben Braun successfully fought to reduce Tamir’s potential seasonlong suspension to eight games.

Braun, who is also Jewish, discovered Tamir while coaching a youth team in Israel. The coach and player attended High Holy Day services together at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. "It was important to me to celebrate the holidays, and meant a lot to share them with Coach Braun," Tamir said. "It’s great playing under a Jewish coach because there’s so much he can relate to. We share a heritage, traditions and holidays."

Braun is not the only Golden Bear who puts this Israeli import at ease. Berkeley coeds make an extra effort to embrace Tamir.

"Students on campus come up and talk in Hebrew or just let me know they share Judaism with me. It’s made me feel at home," said Tamir, who played for the Israeli National under-18 and under-22 teams and led his 1997 ORT High School team to the Jerusalem city title.

Tamir’s teammates also contributed to his smooth continental transition. "Whenever there’s violence in Israel, the guys on the team want to know if it’s near my home, if my family is OK. It’s really nice, and I feel like I can help them understand what’s going on over there," Tamir said.

Tamir left more than heated conflict behind. His father, Asher, an electrician; his mother, Shula, a homemaker; older sisters, Rozit and Gal, and 11-year-old brother, Daniel, all remain in Jerusalem. "I miss my family and friends. And the food: the hummus, mmm, and, oh, the bourekes. My mom’s cooking especially," said Tamir, who does not keep kosher. "She’s a great cook," added the dutiful son, who claims he was overweight until age 15.

Tamir, who grew up watching televised Israeli League and NBA games with his father, aspires to be the first Israeli to play in the NBA. "It’s always been a dream of mine, and I think it would bring a lot of pride to Israel and the Jewish people," Tamir said.

Bluthenthal has similar NBA dreams. "I’ve wanted the NBA since I was 5, and am excited to have been invited to draft camps. After the season, all my efforts will go toward it. But now, I’m focused on the team and our tournament success," said Bluthenthal, a senior whose Trojans entered this weekend’s tournament ranked third. "We’ve got a great team and a shot at winning the title," added the 6-foot-7, 220-pound Los Angeles native.

The lifelong Lakers fan will enjoy his hometown advantage. "We don’t have to travel, and our L.A. fans will be there to support us," said Bluthenthal, who attended both Venice and Westchester highs.

A talented three-point shooter and aggressive rebounder, Bluthenthal got his career third Pac-10 Conference Player of the Week nod (Feb. 18) for his Arizona series performance. He came off the bench against Arizona State and earned his third double-double of the season, posting 21 points and 10 rebounds. In an upset victory over the Arizona Wildcats, he seized nine rebounds and collected a career high 31 points, making 7-of-12 from three-point range.

After an up-and-down season, the history major credits his success against Arizona, ASU and Stanford (22 points) on his strong mental attitude and work ethic. "I haven’t had the best season, but I stay positive and practice a lot," said Bluthenthal, who hits the gym by 7 a.m. daily and takes 500-700 shots before class. "I love shooting, so practice comes easily to me. And I think it’s paid off," added Bluthenthal, who recently became the 26th USC player to earn 1,000 career points.

Bluthenthal admits it’s difficult to fit Judaism into his current schedule. "I’ve gone to services a few times, but there’s not really time between school and basketball. But I’ve been thinking about going more after the season’s over," he said.

He is, however, a proud Maccabiah Games participant. He played at the 1996 New Jersey games, earned bronze at the 1997 Israeli games and gold at the Pan-American Maccabiah Games in Mexico City. "My Israel trip was an amazing experience. I played with great older players, saw incredible sites and learned about the heritage and history," said Bluthenthal, who withdrew from the 2001 games due to an injury.

This preseason Wooden Award candidate, who holds the Trojan record for most game rebounds (28), has become a Jewish phenomenon. "I receive a lot of attention for being a Jewish basketball player. I was fortunate to be born with my height and a love for the game. If my success — getting to play college ball — inspires other Jewish athletes, then that’s great," Bluthenthal said. "I’m happy to be some sort of role model to young Jewish players," he added, blushing almost as much as he does when asked about a girlfriend.

Raised in Marina del Rey, Bluthenthal wanted to stay in Los Angeles for college, the weather and his family. His father Ralph, a retired L.A. County Sheriff’s Department officer; younger sister, Evelyn, who plays volleyball for Venice High School and the 2001 Maccabiah Team, and two older siblings live in Los Angeles.

Though Bluthenthal’s great-great-great-grandfather, Wilshire Boulevard Temple past president Isaias Hellman, was one of three original USC land donors, Bluthenthal once dreamed of playing for UCLA. "The Bruins have a great basketball tradition. But now I’m glad I went to ‘SC, where we started a new tradition," he said proudly. Last year, USC went to the NCAA Elite Eight for the first time since 1954. Bluthenthal earned East Region All-NCAA Tournament Team honors.

"Because this is my senior year, I want us to win the Pac-10 Tournament and go even further than last year in the NCAA Tournament," Bluthenthal said.

Jewish basketball fans everywhere hope to see both Bluthenthal and Tamir achieve their hoop dreams.