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Roni Ben Efrat

By Roni Ben Efrat


Published in Challenge # 99,  September – October 2006


THREE weeks after the cease-fire, the political situation in Israel may be described as one of imminent collapse. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz have fallen to the depths in public opinion. A full 63% of the people think Olmert ought to resign; 74% want Peretz's head, 54% Halutz's.


Israelis live today with a sense of failure. They search for the source of the "lapse" (mekhdal) – a term much used to describe the disaster of October 1973 (the "Yom Kippur War"). A protest movement of reservists has arisen, divided between those who demand a State Commission of Inquiry and those who call for the resignation of the "trio": Olmert, Peretz, HalutzThe movement is not, at this stage, politicalIt may easily fall into the hands of the Right, or it may disappear.


Amid the confusion, it is well to check where the real lapse lay.


Some commentators, here and abroad, have maintained that the war was planned. Perhaps they mean that Israel had a contingency plan for a future war with Hezbollah. That is likely. But the war began as a response to a provocation, and it did not proceed in the manner of a calculated initiativeIsrael reasoned that Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, had broken the rules, and it wanted to exploit his mistake in order to impose new onesIf the Lebanese army and international forces do indeed take control of southern Lebanon, as ordained by Security Council Resolution 1701, then it can claim to have achieved this goal.


Nasrallah saw himself as the new Saladin. He had often boasted to the Arab states that they don't understand Israel – that they fear it needlessly, because the Israel of today is not that of forty years ago. As he put it in a long interview for Lebanese TV on August 27, neither he nor his advisers ever imagined that the July 12 action would lead to warYet once war began, he again broke the rules by unleashing some 4000 rockets.


Nasrallah made military decisions as if he were a state, but he is not. He stored weapons in Lebanon, then embroiled it in war, without authorization by the Lebanese people and without accountability to anyone. (No one calls on him to resign.) He exploited the prerogatives of statehood while avoiding its responsibilities. As guerrillas, he and his colleagues hid from Israel. But heads of state like Bashar Assad or Fuad Siniora do not have the luxury of hiding: they must answer to the world for their countries' actions. By hijacking Lebanon, Nasrallah managed to rouse the ire of both the Arab leaders and the West.


Hezbollah also compromised its suppliers. Every rocket that was launched, especially those that struck deep into Israel, cast a shadow toward Iran and Syria. What responsible nation gives high-grade weaponry to an organization that is not a nation and that is accountable to no one? Consider Iran, in particular. The US is seeking to curb its nuclear ambitions by imposing sanctions through the UN, and here Iran is caught supplying weapons to Hezbollah! The Americans can now ask in the Security Council: How can a nation that supplies guerrillas be permitted to make the Bomb? Danny Rubenstein (Haaretz August 31) points out that Iran also financed Hezbollah's huge underground bunker complex in southern Lebanon. All this expenditure was not undertaken for the sake of capturing two soldiers. He speculates that it was part of an overall plan for reprisal against Israel, in case the US were to attack Iran. By using these resources prematurely, Nasrallah exposed and compromised the Iranian strategy.


Nasrallah has managed to shape, for the first time, an Israeli-American-Arab-European front. We note another "first," by the way: Israel has invited Europe to take part in implementing the cease-fire agreement. Until now it had confined itself to bilateral relations with the US. The change is further evidence, if any were needed, of the decline in American influence.


IF THERE is a State Commission of Inquiry, it will quickly discover that the essential problem was not military.The army never planned to defeat Hezbollah on the battlefield. In Yediot Aharonot (August 25, 2006), pundits Nahum Barnea and Shimon Schiffer invented a defense that Chief of Staff Halutz could reasonably make before the Commission. In the spirit of Clausewitz ("War is the continuation of politics by other means"), their Halutz explains that the army was merely a means for getting the international community to establish a new order in Lebanon. They have him say, for example: "I figured that we had to hit the Lebanese infrastructure. If two big power stations went up in smoke, the French would hasten to Beirut. The international community would quickly act."


Barnea and Schiffer present their Halutz as cool, calm and careful about definition of goals: "I objected to defining our goal as the return of the kidnapped soldiers. One must not set a goal one cannot achieveInstead, we defined the objective as the creation of conditions for return of the soldiersWe spoke of weakening Hezbollah, not eliminating it, not disbanding it, not stamping it out. These words were used by government ministers, not by the army."


Halutz – the real one now – believed air power would suffice to accomplish these vague and limited goals. There was no intention of conquering Lebanon. The tardy use of ground forces, among which most of the army's losses occurred, was merely intended as a catalyst to spur the international community into doing what it in fact did.


If all this is so, there was no "big failure." Why then is the country under a cloud?


Because there was a big failure. Israel's deep weakness was exposed. A country that has aroused great hatred among its neighbors for decades can hardly afford, it thinks, to have its weakness exposedIt needs "power of deterrence." But deterrence requires more than perceptible destructive force; it also requires perceptible willingness to use it. Israel proved itself willing to use part of its destructive force: it bombed like madAs the weeks went on, however, and the rockets kept falling on Galilee, there was no perceptible effect on Hezbollah's ability to disrupt Israeli life. Clearly air power would not suffice.


The more Israel stuck to the air, the more evident was its weakness. Helicopters and jets could kill while keeping above harm's way, but forces on the ground would be another story. With this appeared the great soft underbelly of Israel's army: its fear of battlefield losses. Ground forces, this vital part of its destructive force, it was not willing to use. And when finally it made a show of use, as a ploy, in a manner ill planned and worse executed, the Emperor turned out to be scantily dressed indeed. 


No wonder, then, that Israelis are under a cloud. In their reluctance to risk death, they proved incapable of stopping a small guerrilla organization that instills the virtues of martyrdomIn this dangerous neighborhood, that does not look good.


The reluctance to risk death derives from an irreversible breakdown in the Israeli Jewish collective. Into this the Commission will not inquire. To it we now turn.


ISRAELI society has undergone a major change in certain key values. It has moved from Zionism to what is called post-Zionism. The establishment of a Jewish state was formerly the first priority. That is, the Jewish collective came first. This is no longer the caseToday, individual self-realization is first.


One can trace the breakdown of the collective, in part, to the poisonous victory of 1967, which eventually polarized the society. But we would also stress the Economic Stabilization Plan of 1985. Before this Israel had been, for Jews at least, a more or less egalitarian state. In the 1950's, the uppermost fifth earned three times more than the lowermost. Today, as a result of measures adopted in the Plan, the uppermost fifth earns 21 times moreWhere gaps are so big, one cannot expect solidarity.


Throughout the economy, publicly owned companies were sold to private investors (often for much less than their worth). Organized labor was washed overboard by personal contracts, personnel companies and migrant workers. Protective tariffs were reduced or eliminated. Labor-intensive industries were ushered out to the third world, while high-tech was ushered in. Israel, in short, was chained to the global economy. (For more on this topic, see Challenge 98, "The Breaking of Organized Labor in Israel.")


The change is epitomized in the kibbutz as an institution. Strictly speaking, hardly any kibbutzim remain. Most have been privatized. People earn different salaries in various enterprises carved out of the original kibbutz. A kibbutz high-school teacher, Rina Barkai, sees no decline among kibbutzniks in willingness to serve, but notes a drop in the willingness to take on command roles and enter the career army. "The reason is the feeling that a person's self-actualization does not have to take place within military service." (In Ya'ir Sheleg, "The Bereavement Map has Changed," Haaretz August 27, 2006.)


The change of direction was not publicizedIn 1985, no leader stood up and announced, "Friends, until now the principles that guided us were the sanctity of the army and social solidarity. You were first a soldier and then a citizen. As of today, you are first a citizen and afterwards a soldier." But this change is behind the fact that Israel has lost its battlefield deterrence.


It is also why the decision to call up the reserves took so long. When many reservists, officers and plain soldiers alike, are self-realizing at the rate of 15,000 NIS monthly (ca$3500), or even more, the state cannot afford to compensate them for time spent in the army. Moreover, the motivation to leave their lucrative work for the battlefield is minimal. Today, when an Israeli youth seeks employment in a commercial company and the interviewer asks if he's in the reserves, he finds himself in the awkward position of a mother asked if she has children to care for: a positive reply may cost him the job.


There is also much talk about the scarcity of Tel Avivians among the troops in Lebanon. Tel Aviv is known as a "bubble," supposedly oblivious to the "hard realities" faced by the rest of Israel. According to Dr Yagil Levy, an expert on the country's "map" of bereavement, Tel Aviv merely symbolizes the processes that mainstream Israeli society is undergoing. In the first Lebanon War (1982), half the fatalities were secular Ashkenazis (Jews of European descent). In this new war their proportion has dwindled to a quarter, while that of Mizrahis (Jews of Middle Eastern and African descent), Soviet immigrants and Ethiopian immigrants has risen. (In Sheleg, op cit., Haaretz August 27.)


People have other things to do than create a stateIf after fifty years they still have to expend their lives in doing so, with no end in sight, they may begin to wonder – with Meron Benvenisti in this issue – whether the enterprise is worth it.   


War exposes a society's character, and this society has now been exposed in its nakedness. There was the government's failure to take care of its citizens in the north (not a little reminiscent of the US government's failure during Hurricane Katrina). Should we have been surprised? If Israel deserts its poor during peacetime, will it not do the same in war? The well-to-do northerners fled. The poor awaited the rockets in ill-equipped shelters, when they had them. Most of the "rescue forces" were sent by philanthropists, who financed part of the evacuation to hotels and campgrounds in securer places. Any illusion that the state would care for the weak went up with the smoke of the Katyushas.


We may locate the nub of the lapse on the occasion, soon after March elections, when Peretz asked Olmert for the Finance Ministry. Olmert replied, "I'll give you Defense." Why? Because in the Israel of 2006, the Finance Ministry is more important. Almost every IDF general or Shin Bet officer is connected to some capitalist who, after the officer has doffed his uniform, will appoint him as a CEO. It was no great shock to learn, therefore, that on July 12, in the fateful hours between the capture of the soldiers and the decision to bomb Beirut, Army Chief Dan Halutz found time to sell investments.


The great lapse, then, is a function of the fact that Israel is caught between two worlds. Still guided by the Zionist model, it refuses to resolve the conflicts with its neighbors. But guided by post-Zionism, it refuses to maintain the welfare state, which aimed for the kind of Jewish solidarity that was needed to wage those conflicts.


The wishful thinking here during recent years has been that the era of warfare is over and that now we can indulge in unilateral solutions: the withdrawal from Lebanon (2000), the disengagement from Gaza (2005), and the "convergence" or "realignment" that did not and will not take place in the West Bank in 2006. But unilateralism labors beneath the false assumption that the active side can live in affluence while the passive sinks into poverty. A real Investigative Commission should ask why the State of Israel, and the West in general, encourages the Arab world to remain economically backward. Why do they cheer for the dictators of Egypt and Saudi Arabia? And for the moguls of Lebanon, including Fuad Siniora? These corrupt regimes, by cultivating gaps, create a hothouse for groups such as Hezbollah. Even if the Lebanese army and the international forces manage to restrain the latter, the problems that nourish it will remain.


If there's a single ray of light from this war, it is that it has sharpened the alternatives before which Israel stands. Unilateral solutions, based on military superiority, are no longer viable. In the end, the country will have to decide on a direction. A peace treaty with Syria and Lebanon will not solve the conflict at its root. The question of questions, on which Israel has stumbled time and again, remains that of the Palestinians. Nor is this just a matter of occupied territory. It is a matter of long-term economic occupation and the effects thereof. The per capita GDP in Israel today is $24,600. In the West Bank it is $1000, in Gaza $600.


In Egypt it is $3900, in Jordan $4700. These countries are nominally at peace with Israel, but their populations have become increasingly hostile to it and the West. A lasting solution can hardly be expected from within the Middle East, which swings between corrupt dictators and religious fundamentalism. As long as the gaps remain so large, no peace can hold. A solution depends on the demise of the global system that maintains these gaps and its replacement by a system that can vanquish them.

“What we didn’t have, but obviously needed, was an alarmist”.  Leo Cullum, New Yorker, April 2, 2001