Saturday, February 2, 2008

Snow job

Israeli commentators will no doubt be suspicious of a leaked description of the wily Ehud Olmert being “moved to tears” while perusing key parts of the Winograd Commission Report, but I don’t doubt that this was true. Ever since the Lebanon war of 2006, more and more attention has been focused on its last 60 hours, when the IDF launched a ground operation and 33 soldiers were killed—including, notably, Uri Grossman, the writer David Grossman’s son. Many people have charged that the ground operation was so obviously too little and too late, that the United Nations resolution stipulating the terms of the cease-fire was already formulated—that the only possible explanation for this final action was to advance Israeli lines just enough to give Olmert the means to spin public opinion and claim a kind of victory.

For any Israeli leader, the charge that he or she knowingly sacrificed the lives of young soldiers for political gain would be devastating—if it could be made to stick. Recently, at a public awards ceremony, Grossman pointedly refused to shake Olmert’s hand. Had the report not, in effect, exonerated Olmert of the specific charge, retrospectively endorsing the authorization of a ground operation as “inevitable,” it is quite possible that this snub is how Olmert would be remembered. Olmert must have known this and it must have stung.

None of this means that Olmert will survive as prime minister; nobody knows yet whether the Report’s Lasswellian euphemisms (“failed decision-making by the military echelon,” accountability that is “normative in the political echelon”) has given him a reprieve, as he reassured his aides. He will try to survive: dangle the prospect of “talks” with the Palestinians, hold on to his centrist coalition by stoking the (plausible) fear of Bibi Netanyahu, show-off his friendship with Bush, pump the economy—and hope that some ultimate peace deal could be worked out with Abbas (probably, in secret) and give him something to run on in 2009.

And survival does not just depend on Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s verdict, which we should have in a day or two. The Israeli street (grieving parents, army officers, newspaper columnists, political allies who suddenly become rivals) has a way of yanking away the Mandate of Heaven, after which leaders, if not coalitions, die by a hundred cuts. Most originally thought Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir would survive the Agranat Commission Report in 1974. Meretz leader Yossi Beilin, whose parliamentary support may prove crucial, is already calling for Olmert to save the peace process by simply swapping jobs with his more popular foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, whom the Report actually praised.

What can be known already, though, is that the Report has given a reprieve to a style of thinking typical in (what Lasswell might have called) the Israeli “consensus,” where the only power worth taking seriously is military, and the only response to violent actions by rejectionist radicals is an even more violent attack on the states or authorities that unwillingly harbor them. This was the response against Jordan in Qibya in 1953 and Samu’ in 1966. This was the response against Lebanon throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was the response against Fatah since the beginning of the Al Aqsa Intifada, especially when Sharon took over in 2001. The key is to make Israel’s “deterrence” credible: attack Israel and you will be hit tenfold; always checkers, never chess.

The main question the Report seemed to think worth asking was whether the tasks politicians gave generals actually succeeded—and if they did not, who is to blame for failures of decision-making and communication. The Report called the Lebanon War, of all things, “a missed opportunity,” yet another euphemism for the principle that when the government declares war it had better win it. Most of its recommendations were for the IDF.

HERE ARE THE questions the Report did not consider. Did any of these reactions get Israel anything but the alienation of the moderate forces it needed as counterweight to radical groups? Did they not strengthen radical groups, while causing revulsion among citizens of Western countries and in the Arab world as a whole—ordinary people who see, most vividly, the corpses and the rubble?

My God, was it not foreseeable that by retaliating massively against Hezbollah, Israel would be attacked with thousands of missiles, but that the missiles would be launched from buildings Israeli could not destroy without killing hundreds of civilians; that CNN and Al Jazeera would be on the scene and international reaction would force the air force to desist? That, in any case, another occupation of Lebanon would be impossible, and that Hezbollah would redeploy no matter how many losses it sustained—that Hezbollah, which would not even exist but for Israel’s twenty year occupation, cannot lose a war any more than win it, though it can most certainly lose a peace, which is why it will always sucker Israel into war?

Nor does the Report speak of how the consensus was turned into what one friend called ecstasa shel b'yachad, an ecstasy of togetherness. We like to forget this now, but Olmert’s popularity was at its height during the first week of the war, when in response to Hezbollah’s vicious ambush, the IDF responded by bombing Beirut’s airport, bridges, and oil installations, killing scores of civilians, creating tens of thousands of refugees, and fouling Lebanese beaches. When the Katushas started falling, and my wife and I protested (from New Hampshire) to Israeli friends that this was action was going to get us nowhere, one dear friend told my wife: “We have all moved, and you have stayed in place.”

MOST PEOPLE READING this blog did not watch Israel’s Channel One the night the Report was released. That is unfortunate, for the talking heads, for once, did not just shout each other down. The journalist Gideon Levy and former Labor Party and Knesset speaker, Avrum Burg, got the chance to ask the questions asked here, a hint the consensus may be shifting, if only subtly. “Why do we always think about the military first,” Burg asked; “why don’t we try negotiation, why don’t we try diplomacy, why don’t we sit down with the people attacking us.”

But an even more revealing moment was to follow. Vice Premier Haim Ramon, a confidant of Olmert’s, was asked why the “political echelon” simply gave in to the army brass and did not ask any of these strategic questions themselves? Ramon smiled. “All the politicians are afraid of the professionals,” he said; you are in a crisis, the defense professionals tell you they have a contingency plan. “Who dares to be the one in the papers contradicting them?” And it is not just with defense issues, he said. The same is true when you sit down to talk about the budget. You live in a world made by professionals, he implied, and they have been living in the post-1967 consensus for two generations.

The next morning, Jerusalem woke up to a blanket of snow. I flipped on the radio to find out what was open and what was closed. “Route 60 is closed from Shiloh to Jerusalem,” the people at the traffic control told us, a simple, proficient announcement that neglected to tell us that Shiloh is a tiny settlement on the other side of Ramallah, and Route 60 is a by-pass road used mainly by Jews (I drove it last week) to connect Ariel to Jerusalem; a road that would obviously be thought to connect Ramallah to Jerusalem if the people of Ramallah, now freezing and more cut off than ever from East Jerusalem, had not been so professionally effaced from Israeli consciences.