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Last Updated: Friday, 31 October, 2003, 16:49 GMT
Q and A: Israel's criticism from within

The Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon has openly criticised his country's treatment of Palestinians - causing a public rift within Israel's cabinet. The BBC's Jerusalem correspondent, Barbara Plett, explains.

Were General Yaalon's comments a deliberate attempt to force a change in policy?

According to Israeli media, the chief of staff recommended to Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz that restrictions in the occupied territories be eased for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, as usually happens.

But instead of listening to General Yaalon, Mr Mofaz took the advice of the intelligence chief, who said the restrictions must remain because of the high number of warnings of suicide attacks.

This is the incident that seems to have prompted General Yaalon to go to the press.

Some reports say he had become increasingly frustrated with what he perceived as the government's refusal to pursue political options with the Palestinians.

Others say he was covering his back given his misplaced optimism in the former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr Abbas had to resign after only a few months in office with a ceasefire in tatters and nothing to show the Palestinians in terms of easing the tight Israeli closure.

When the moderate Mr Abbas was initially appointed, General Yaalon said it marked the end of the Palestinian uprising and a success for Israel's military policy.

Do the remarks reflect widespread opposition among the Israeli military to the current policy towards Palestinians?

It is not clear how widespread, but they do reflect the clearest division yet in the military establishment - between those who want to continue the clampdown to prevent attacks, and those who are beginning to say that Israel's iron-fist policy in the occupied territories is counter-productive.

What has been the reaction of the government - how serious is the apparent split?

There was no official response, but according to the media the prime minister's office was furious.

Reports said the Prime Minister Ariel Sharon demanded an apology and the defence minister called General Yaalon in for a dressing-down.

The dispute was more over how he expressed himself than over what he said - going to the press rather than his colleagues - especially since he was criticising security policy which is supposed to be Mr Sharon's area of expertise.

The word now is that the matter has been resolved. There does not appear to be an appetite to drag it out, although General Yaalon has made his point.

What has been the wider public reaction?

Nothing particularly noteworthy - so far this seems to have stayed at the level of an internal political dispute.

How much trouble does this spell for Mr Sharon?

That depends on the circumstances.

If there is another big suicide bombing in Israel the issue will probably go away. Otherwise, it may feed a growing discontent with the prime minister's policies.

But it is unlikely to deal Mr Sharon a major blow. It is more likely to provide an opening for criticism that may or may not widen.

Is there a more general shift in policy towards seeking some kind of deal with the Palestinian leadership?

There are elements of the Israeli establishment who are beginning to feel that the current situation in the occupied territories is untenable, and that the Palestinians have to be offered at least a political horizon.

There are also some who say that Israel has to offer more goodwill gestures to help out the vastly weakened Palestinian Authority.

Otherwise it may go into terminal decline and there really would not be anyone on the other side to talk to.

The problem is that any political solutions offered by the current right-wing Israeli Government would not meet the Palestinians' minimum demands.


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