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Israel's Top Brass Splits Ranks by Getting Political

In a country where the longest running political issue is war and peace, it has always been difficult to separate the military from politics. Top generals have often run for office after they retire from the military, and most political figures have some kind of leadership service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on their rsums. But there is a sense among some Israelis that the military is more politicized, with the different echelons of the military showing different tendencies.

The top brass now has a clear image of being associated with the Labor Party, which brokered the 1993 peace accords with the Palestinians. Ehud Barak, the trusted Army chief of staff to late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left his post to go into Labor politics and is considered his party's likely contender against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the next election.

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Mr. Netanyahu himself acted on fears that the military is in the pocket of Labor by firing a general last week who was a lead negotiator in talks with the Palestinians when it became known that he had secret meetings with Labor leaders. Israeli newspapers report that IDF Chief of Staff Amnon Shahak is planning to step down to join the Labor ranks, too, though he denies such plans.

Historically, serving in the military was essential for defense of the state; few questioned it. But in the 1980s, Israel went through its own Vietnam syndrome - public opinion turning sharply against a long, involved war - when its part in the war in Lebanon became increasingly unpopular at home.

Now, with the populace divided over peacemaking with the Palestinians, more soldiers seem reluctant to implement the policies of a government they disagree with - especially when they see an alternative.

"Military occupations are very political acts, and so the Army will become politicized," says Stuart Cohen, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. "Everyone is saying, why is Shahak in negotiations with Palestinians? Well, for better or worse it's a feature of Israeli life. We just have a more open society, a more intrusive press ... than we used to."

Different political currents run through the rank and file. When Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers turned their guns on each other two months ago, higher-ups called for restraint and soon suggested joint patrols could be reinstated. On the ground, soldiers who manned the checkpoints after the fighting said they had no interest.

"No way. They're drinking coffee with us one day and then shooting at us the next?" says one Israeli soldier at a checkpoint near Ramallah. "We can't trust them. They did it once, they'll do it again."

Socioeconomic studies show people who are more inclined towards the Israeli peace camp tend to come from wealthier families and are better-educated. Those with such advantaged backgrounds opt for elite units such as the Air Force and intelligence corps. Those who come from poorer areas, immigrant families, or disadvantaged ethnic groups are more likely to wind up in less glamorous divisions, such as the border police or the divisions that staff roadblocks, which habitually deal with Palestinians.

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