Daniel Bavly writes on how, despite almost constant warfare, Israel has taken leaps and bounds in establishing a booming economy, and building world-class industries and academic institutions. Yet since this most recent war, Bavly raises the question of growing fatigue in Israeli society. With an inexperienced and irresponsible government, a weakened military, and a cynical society, many in Israel are losing the hope they once had for peace. In Bavly‘s opinion, despite the creeping pessimism of recent years, if Israel can shake itself free of its fatigue, and take an affirmative direction towards creating innovative and collaborative strategies for peace, there will still be reason to hope.
Daniel Bavly graduated from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem after having fought as an infantryman in Israel’s War of Independence. An Executive Partner in the Accounting and Auditing Firm Bavly, Millner and Co. in Tel Aviv from 1957-1995, Bavly became an active lay-leader in many Israeli Universities after retirement. He is the author of a number of books on the history and foreign relations of Israel.
AS LIFE AFTER THE WAR WITH HEZBOLLAH returned to a semblance of normality, many Israeli citizens, including those who supported the campaign, felt uneasy about the path that their country was taking. What the confrontation had been about, and what the military and government had set out to achieve remained obscure. And yet, it was almost uncanny how rapidly, in spite of the new uncertainties, everyday life, economic activities and social programs resumed.
Following the indecisive confrontation with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the perennial mini-war against the Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israelis celebrated the new year of 5767 on the second day of autumn 2006. It is unclear whether they were grim or sad; however, they certainly were not elated. For some time, a visible deterioration in the quality and character of Israel’s politicians has been evident. This summer, Israel’s military leadership also came into question. As it completes its sixth decade, Israel’s record is extraordinary: having absorbed millions of immigrants, built hundreds of settlements, established some of the finest academic institutions and successful high-tech industries in the world; all this in a country that must also maintain a strong military. Has all this activity contributed to a form of national fatigue?
40 YEARS AFTER THE SIX DAY WAR
In the coming year, Israel will mark the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War and the occupation of the West Bank. Much has happened since those days of euphoria in the summer of 1967. In recent years, increasing gloom related to the humiliating effects of military rule over the Palestinians has become more prevalent. Israelis have come to believe that there is no way to accommodate their Arab neighbors; we are destined to continue as we always have and live in a hostile world as occupiers of another people. Instead of achieving peace, we shall have to depend solely on the strength of our security forces.
But there are also those who realize that we are not living in an intransient static state where geopolitical decisions are unilaterally up to us. We cannot continue to ignore the social and demographic developments and needs around us. Understandably, there has been an increase in those who acknowledge that they feel less secure than they did in the past and are more concerned about what the future holds for the country. This uncertainty is exacerbated by the belief that Israel’s senior leadership cannot provide the level of security the country rightfully deserves. Seemingly less perturbed, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in his New Year’s speech to the nation, sounded upbeat about the future, however, he refused to own up to the mismanagement of the summer campaign against Hezbollah, and all but ignored the sharp drop in his popularity ratings. Sadly, a majority of the population did not find him convincing.
When Lt. General Ya’alon, Chief of Staff until the early summer of 2005, was asked in an interview why he had not prepared the army for the eventual destruction of Hezbollah’s rockets, he answered that this past summer’s offensive was totally uncalled for. When he was Chief of Staff he believed that the cease-fire, reached in 2000, would be maintained for many years and that in time, a settlement would be reached so that the rockets would rust and rot. Clearly, his successor, General Dan Halutz, by choosing the use of force, acted on a different premise.
Although only a small minority would agree with Lt. General Ya’alon, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Lebanon War was an unnecessary confrontation after the kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers. The war caused many deaths and great damage to many innocent people, both Israelis and Lebanese. The results were not worth the loss of lives and the waste of resources. Israel’s age-old role as the Sheriff of the Middle East is getting out of proportion. Nevertheless, it is too soon to assess how costly a more modest profile would be for the country in the coming years.
As we entered the Jewish New Year, it became clearer than ever that this government, like most of its predecessors, has no intention, and hence no plans, to reach peace with its neighbors. This state of negativism will discourage any attempt by the elected Palestinian leaders to establish a viable government of their own, and will discourage them from negotiating or pursuing any road towards peace. The further escalation of bloodshed will be an almost inevitable result.
WHAT HAS CHANGED?
Since the end of the hostilities there has been considerable public pressure to appoint a public investigation commission that will be asked to examine and assess the mistakes leading to the confrontation as well as those made during the fighting and since. Such a commission headed by a retired senior district court judge has now been appointed and may be expected to hold sessions in the coming months. Whether it will heal the wounds and correct the recently noted, careless mistakes, which the security forces had to deal with, is too soon to say. Certainly the brief for this commission does not include a request to examine the operating policies of the decades of chronic confrontation with the Palestinians. It will offer no way to resolve the seemingly unsolvable impasse with them nor suggest how a peaceful settlement can be reached.
The present Government came to office in the aftermath of the 2006 spring elections, under a coalition headed by the new Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert replaced Ariel Sharon after his stroke in January. Sharon is still in a comatose state. Amir Peretz, a labor union leader chosen to lead the Labor Party was chosen, in spite of his inexperience, to head the Ministry of Defense. Although obvious from the start, when the fighting with Hezbollah erupted, it became clear that neither Olmert nor Peretz were prepared for their office assignments.
THE DECLINE OF MILITARY CAPABILITIES
In the media, there have been many descriptions of the shortcomings of the Israeli Defense Forces. It remains unexplained why with no existing battle plan, the decision to attack was made literally minutes after the news that two soldiers had been abducted and six others killed by Hezbollah reached government. Was it sheer abrasive arrogance and carelessness? Obviously, the lack of preparation alone caused a series of unforeseen difficulties. In conducting the campaign as the fighting continued, some operational commands were incomplete while others were contradictory. There were also garbled communications and changes in orders that led to bungling in the battlefield. As the first attacks were carried out by the Air Force, whose mission was clearer and apparently ably carried out, it took some time before the faults the ground-troops encountered came to light.
Only when hostilities were near an end, was it acknowledged that the troops had not been trained for confronting the guerrilla fighters in the hilly, bushy terrain of Southern Lebanon. There was not enough detailed intelligence as to where the Hezbollah rockets were located. And as they set out to combat, the commanders of the military reserves paid insufficient attention to the requirements of their troops. Many soldiers lacked the basic military gear and logistical support.
INABILITY TO LEAD
For the senior commanding officers, this was the first real military confrontation that they had experienced. They had not been trained to fight guerilla forces or other types of disciplined troops. Most of their careers had previously been spent commanding soldiers in policing chores on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Rather than lead their troops into battle as IDF senior officers had done in previous wars, some commanders stayed behind when their units were ordered to advance.
Accordingly, Hezbollah exploited their tactical advantages and capabilities, including state of the art, easy to operate weapons, effective evasion tactics, a vast network of bunkers and a familiar terrain with a supportive local civilian population.
CYNICAL SOCIETY, WEAKENED MILITARY
In the aftermath, many retired Israeli generals, critical of the events, called for a serious overhaul of the military command. So far there is no sign that a highly qualified trusted officer has been delegated, and given the instruments to carry out the complex but essential task of correcting the operational mistakes that were made, and restoring the professional capabilities to ensure the trust the army once had in itself.
In Israel’s early days, the army was considered to be the role model of an idealistic society. Young officers were admired for their leadership, discipline and audacity. Since then, the civilian society has become both more materialistic and cynical. Obviously, the military, an integral part of the country, has been influenced by these developments, and understandably the shortcomings identified following its disappointing performance in fighting Hezbollah are yet another indication of the difficulties the country may have to face in the coming years.
HOW THE WAR AFFECTED THE CIVILIANS
The national mood in Israel is determined by a state of siege syndrome: the belief that the whole world is against us. Many Israelis feel comfortable with this realization, and do not seem to be bothered as they repeatedly pronounce these pessimistic, doomsday prophesies.
It was the first war since 1948, in which a significant segment of the civilian population, living in the Galilee and Haifa, came under attack. Clearly the authorities had not prepared for these hostilities. Many of the existing bomb shelters were in disrepair and the authorities had not ensured that basic food needs would be supplied in good order. Although the number of civilians killed was under 40, by lobbing approximately four thousand Katyusha and other rockets during the 33 day combat, Hezbollah caused considerable material damage, and managed to paralyze social and economic life in the north of Israel. Many living in the towns of Kiryat Shmona, Safed, Naharia, Ma’alot and other communities in the north, packed up their belongings and drove south to safe sanctuaries in the center of the country. While government ministers lauded those who remained for their courage, it was later learned that in some of the communities the municipal officers opted to abandon their responsibilities and move to safer areas in the south. Sensing that they were on their own, many people stayed put, found alternative shelters, and fended for themselves.
LIFE AS USUAL
Life in Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv continued on, almost oblivious to the month-long bloodshed occurring just 100 miles away. For them, it was a deluxe war, taking place in some remote location.
This can be explained in part by the fact that over the years, most Israelis have become immune to the daily news of Israeli brutality carried out in the Gaza Strip or within the West Bank. The apparent reoccupation of parts of the Gaza Strip and the harsh ways the military has treated the Palestinians living in the West Bank hardly phases the Israeli public now. Even more troubling, in recent months the population has become hostile and antagonistic towards Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. The sudden appearance of Israeli flags constitutes a resurgence in nationalism.
In spite of all of this, the pace of business and trade has not slowed, and night life is as active as ever. Following the fighting, economic development might have dipped marginally, but GNP growth is still expected to exceed 4 per cent in 2006.
SO, CAN WE CHANGE DIRECTIONS?
In the early nineties, Itzhak Rabin realized that attempts should be made to settle the conflict with the Palestinians, before Muslim fundamentalism could become a serious threat to Israel: hence the Oslo Accords of 1993. The heads of government who have since succeeded him seem to be less and less concerned by radicalism despite its increasing influence in many sectors of Israeli life. Today Israelis sense that the Palestinian – Israeli conflict is not just over the ownership of the land. Since the second Intifada erupted in 2000, religion is making a comeback as Hamas gains strength among the Palestinians, and Hezbollah threatens the north. Added to this may be the influence of threats from both Iran and Al Qaeda.
Today, the threat of another war remains serious and the absence of a clear policy for the foreseeable future could prove costly. A geo-political vacuum cannot exist. Where no agreement between countries in conflict is reached, the question of when another violent eruption will occur is only a matter of time.
The majority in Israel seems to disregard the repeated declarations made not only by the PLO leadership but also by Hamas who express their interest in coming to an understanding with Israel. Some do not believe such statements while others are not concerned, supporting the Prime Minister when he states that Syria is, at this time, no partner for peace. Mr. Olmert has asserted that the Golan will forever remain a part of Israel and that the time is not ripe to negotiate with Syria. He has not mentioned, however, if it will ever be. Meanwhile, most people are unaware of the serious Saudi Initiative supported by the Council of the League of Arab States whereby most Arab countries have stated that they are willing to join in a peace settlement with Israel on conditions that, not long ago, most Israelis would have regarded as enticing.
Striving to make peace will call for a change in the sense of direction. At present there is no sign that the government is considering ways to try and make peace. But if our leaders have no intention to strive to make peace, have they, in the aftermath of the recent war, instructed the military to prepare for the possibility of another outbreak of hostilities? The answer is a resounding no. With readiness for neither peace nor war, what other options are there?
Today, Israelis do not seem to be concerned about peace. It is not that they do not want peace, but the majority are probably unwilling to make the compromises that such an arrangement would require and therefore do not regard it as a viable option. As the Palestinians persist in their acts of terrorism, there are those who believe that they too have lost the possibility of making peace and have accepted the present impasse as livable and inevitable.
WHERE IS THE OPPOSITION?
In the coming months, the appointed Commission is expected to investigate the performance of the Government and the Military in its confrontation with Hezbollah and how in the past six years they and their predecessors could have prepared for such an eventuality. The Commission however was not asked to come up with recommendations on how to avoid the mistakes made, correct shortcomings, or repair faults. There is no evidence that any others public bodies are seeking ways that will ensure better governmental management in the future.
It is increasingly evident that Israel is experiencing a moral, ethical malaise among its leadership. Something is clearly amiss among senior Israeli politicians. According to repeated media reports, the President, Moshe Katzav, is under investigation for suspected rape and sexual harassment and may soon be charged and forced out of office. The Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert is suspected of bribery in more than one real estate transaction linked to his residence. The ex-minister of Justice, Haim Ramon was forced to resign when he was charged with sexual harassment. A previous minister, and now the chairman of the prestigious Knesset Foreign and Security Committee, Tzahi Hanegbi, is about to be charged with political bribery. These are only a few of a series of ongoing scandals and inquiries linked to politicians, mayors and other senior government bureaucrats. Under scrutiny, government officials are spending far more time trying to absolve themselves, than devoted to their office.
Disregarding these embarrassments the Israeli government still has offered no hope nor solutions for how peace might be attained. Even the opposition has been unable to provide alternatives. The Israeli Left, composed of parts of the Labor Party and the left-wing Meretz (an organization with many well meaning people), has not offered guidance nor suggested what other routes Israel might follow in the foreseeable future. And although some people do listen to and collaborate with sensible Arab-Israeli leaders, the great majority of the Jewish population ignores them.
So, as we entered the New Year, the most we could understand was that until we realize how important it is for us to become active partners in a necessary peace initiative, we will continue in this endless cycle of violence and struggle, dishonesty and defeatism.
FATIGUE IN ISRAELI SOCIETY
I have so far only directed my writing to Israel. Obviously there is another side to this conflict, which I have not addressed. As we all know, the Palestinians are not easy partners. Their role in the peace process should also be discussed, but that is a topic for another article.
The above is merely an attempt to describe the mood in Israel this autumn. I have been wondering why over the past generation the ethical and moral qualities and the level of performance, both of the military forces and of government, are in decline. Are the achievements of those who wish to wound and possibly destroy us, greater than we realize? What has caused this apparent attrition in Israel’s performance? Might it be affecting the fiber of Israeli society?
For some 20 months in 1968 and 1969 Israel experienced heavy land and air combat with Egypt along the Suez Canal, later called The War of Attrition. But in open war with the military of another country, there are clear winners and losers. The endless, faceless war being fought against an elusive enemy hidden within the Palestinian people is virtually impossible to win; and it is wearing on Israel.
Is it fatigue that is destroying what only recently we were proud of? In spite of Israel’s many impressive achievements, is the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians and other Arab neighbors having a heavier toll than we thought? And if so, do we lack the innovative thinking to survive? Now, more than ever, we must take initiatives and begin to work vigorously towards creative, humane, considerate, and flexible solutions to the cycle of violence. It can be done. The Israeli government can again find a sense of purpose, and the sooner we do so, the better.