Reality Check: Apologizing is also heroic behavior

Is Lior Lotan’s apology to the Mengistu family enough to keep him in his post?

July 12, 2015 20:42
4 minute read.
Journalist talking to family of Avera Mengistu

Journalist talking to family of Avera Mengistu. (photo credit: ASHKELON MUNICIPALITY)

Is Lior Lotan’s apology to the Mengistu family enough to keep him in his post?

Lior Lotan is a true Israeli hero. Decorated for his bravery in the attempt to rescue kidnapped Israeli soldier Nachshon Wachsman, during which he was seriously wounded, and the leader of the elite force which snatched Mustafa Dirani from Lebanon in the attempt to learn more about the fate of missing IAF navigator Ron Arad, Lotan has literally placed his life on the line to help rescue Israelis captured by the country’s enemies.

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As such, one could hardly find a more suitable candidate for the position of the prime minister’s representative dealing with hostage issues – until his thuggish behavior toward the Mengistu family, whose son Avera is missing in the Gaza Strip.

Threatening a worried family that “whoever turns this into a story involving the Ethiopian community versus the State of Israel, will keep Avera in Gaza for another year,” or scolding them for having the temerity to remind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he hasn’t replied to a single letter they sent him over the past eight months, turns a hero into a bullying monster.

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So is Lotan’s apology to the Mengistu family over the weekend enough to keep him in his post? After initially thinking Lotan’s position was untenable, due to the harsh, patronizing way in which he lectured the Mengistus, his unreserved apology for his behavior provided second thoughts.

Not seeking any excuse for his unacceptable conduct, Lotan visited the family once more, unequivocally telling reporters he had made remarks that should not have been made and that he felt a deep need to apologize to the Mengistu family for them.

In today’s social media culture, in which mass witch-hunts mercilessly chase down anybody who has caused offense, sometimes with tragic consequences as in the case of the suicide of the interior ministry official Ariel Ronis, people are no longer given pause for reflection. The pack cries “off with his head” and the immediacy and scale of Facebook and Twitter trigger people to resign as opposed to sincerely apologizing for their actions (if, indeed, an apology is due) and riding out the unpleasant storm.

The easy option for Lotan would have been to step down and disappear from public (and social media) life. Instead, he chose to face up to his boorish behavior, fully admit that he was wrong and publicly apologize for it. In so doing, he once again established his credentials as a true Israeli hero.

BUT THIS does not mean that the handling of the Mengistu affair has been without blemish. It is almost impossible to avoid the impression that had an Avi Hershkovitch from a veteran Israeli family in Herzliya Pituah gone missing in Gaza, as opposed to Avera Mengistu from Ashkelon, whose Ethiopian father still doesn’t speak Hebrew, then there is no way the story could have been kept under wraps for 10 months.

While the defense establishment have an obvious interest in keeping reports about the missing Israeli to a minimum so as to avoid creating public pressure on the government to agree to a prisoner swap with Hamas a la Gilad Schalit, there is a clear difference between Schalit, who was on active IDF duty when he was abducted by Hamas, and Mengistu, who voluntarily climbed the border fence into Gaza. No one would expect mass demonstrations and vigils outside the Prime Minister’s Office demanding the return of someone who chose to enter Gaza on their own volition.

At the same time, regardless of the circumstances of Mengistu’s entrance into Gaza, one would expect the security establishment to get in touch with the Mengistu family immediately after his disappearance – IFD soldiers spotted Mengistu climbing the fence and he left a bag behind on the Israeli side of the border with his ID card – and not wait two weeks before meeting them to take down details about Avera, as the family claim.

Netanyahu too, has behaved poorly, not meeting with the family until this weekend when the story hit the headlines in a negative way for him, or answering their letters over the past months. As Yitzhak Rabin’s former chief of staff Eitan Haber noted, it’s hard for Netanyahu to claim he’s been too busy with matters of state to meet with the Mengistus when just in recent weeks he’s been photographed with visiting stars Art Garfunkel and Maria Carey, even hosting a private family dinner for the latter at his official residence.

The story of Avera Mengistu is a sad and puzzling one, but it is one that should not have been kept from the Israeli public by means of a media gag order, while his family deserve the consideration, sympathy and respect that more well-connected Israelis would have immediately received.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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