My Word: Eyes on the skies

We need a balance between independence and friendships; deterrence and diplomacy; wings and prayers.

December 15, 2016 22:03
Benjamin Netanyahu with the F-35

Benjamin Netanyahu with the F-35 . (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

In 1987, a Hebrew University student internship took me to the welcoming ceremony for three F-16C fighter planes that landed at an IAF base in the North.

The details have become sketchy with time, but I think some onlookers – who included a delegation from American- Jewish organizations – clapped, much as people still occasionally applaud when an El Al plane touches the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport.

The ceremony, in the presence of prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, defense minister Yitzhak Rabin and US ambassador Thomas Pickering, was moving but not showy. The media world was not developed enough for that and social media were still a flight of fancy.

My strongest memory is of a USAF pilot stepping out of the single-seater cockpit looking like a Hollywood movie star rather than someone who has flown across the Atlantic (albeit with a short stopover) and the proud-looking Israeli pilot who had escorted him over the Mediterranean smiling as he approached his new plane.

The fighter planes, the most advanced at the time, were officially transferred to the IAF and the Israeli pilots happily accepted responsibility for them, signing for them with a flourish as part of the ceremony.

I don’t recall the speeches although a look through The Jerusalem Post archives reveals that Pickering told the Post’s Joel Rebibo that “a good share” of the US fighter plane was produced according to Israeli defense needs and specifications and that it represented the US’s continued commitment to provide Israel with the “qualitative edge” in meeting its defense needs.

The same American-Jewish delegation also visited the premises where the Israeli Lavi fighter plane was being designed at the time using US funding. (“Where can you put the donor’s plaque on a plane like this?” one delegate jokingly asked.) The project was permanently grounded in May 1988 following heavy American pressure as it feared the blue-and-white jet would compete with its own planes.

I recalled the trip this week when the latest word in fighter planes, the F-35, landed more than fashionably late at an Israel Air Force base in the South. The two stealthy fighter jets, known in Hebrew as Adir (“mighty”), finally arrived after a six-hour delay – due to fog.

The planes had not been given permission to take off from Italy, where they had been waiting for the last leg of their journey. Friends and colleagues sent increasingly terse messages from the base at Nevatim, near Beersheba, where they had been prepared for a festive afternoon welcoming ceremony. Instead, they ended up interviewing each other and shivering with cold as the planes steadfastly refused to appear on the radar or horizon.

Everything was left up in the air, except for the planes themselves.

One friend quipped that it was lucky it was a Monday, and there was plenty of time before the Sabbath, recalling the scandal that brought the government down when the country’s first F-15s landed in the Jewish state after the start of Shabbat on Friday, December 10, 1976.

Others joked that had the pilot been Israeli rather than American, he would probably have taken off anyway, chutzpah being an essential survival skill as far as the IDF is concerned.

A former fighter pilot reassured those following the fiasco from afar that it was a matter of local Italian and USAF regulations because the flight was procedural and not a combat operation.

All were relieved when the planes ultimately made it, perhaps more than coincidentally, just as the country’s main evening news broadcasts began at 8.

Not only Israeli eyes were on the skies.

Israel’s enemies, Iran primarily among them, were undoubtedly also watching the arrival. It’s unlikely that they were consoled by the way the planes’ vaunted long reach and ability to avoid detection had seemingly not helped the aircraft overcome the problem of poor visibility.

They probably also took little comfort in US President- elect Donald Trump’s tweet the same day that the cost of the planes’ production at Lockheed Martin was “out of control” and the reminder that the planes, while better for some missions than the F-15s and F-16s, were by no means problem-free.

Israel is buying 50 F-35s, using the recently agreed-on American aid package. If Trump’s tweet and the response are an indication, the cost will likely now increase.

The event was a reminder that although the 10-year, $38-billion aid deal is generous, the package is wrapped with non-decorative, irremovable strings. The US can use it to boost its own industries, while it puts a damper on some aspects of independent Israeli development and sales.

The US military aid package is not about donors’ plaques or the “schnor” mentality, begging for charity.

The mutual needs of America for a stable, democratic ally in the Middle East, and of Israel for strategic support from what remains the nearest thing the world has to a superpower, are clear.

THE IMAGES coming out of Aleppo are heartbreaking.

While it is hard to independently determine the extent of the carnage and destruction, many noted that if it is even a fraction of what we’re seeing, it is devastating for the innocent civilians caught up in the tragedy. The stories are not new and are not restricted to Aleppo alone.

The city, however, has become a symbol.

The indictment of the man screaming to the world, “Ayna antum?” – “Where are you?”– reverberated among the ruins.

Thirty-five years ago this week, Menachem Begin’s government in a swift, surprise move passed the Golan Heights Law in the Knesset by a vote of 63-21. According to the Foreign Affairs Ministry website, explaining the legislation that extended Israeli law to the Golan, Begin cited: “Syria’s implacable hostility to Israel, and the recent deployment of Syrian missiles on Lebanese soil – a provocation of crisis proportions.”

Although there were later moves by Rabin and reportedly also by Benjamin Netanyahu to negotiate with Syria, a diplomatic process with Assad Senior and Assad Junior never came to fruition. Very few Israelis today can say they are sorry, yet the UN in its peculiar fashion persists in demanding Israel hand the Golan Heights over to Syria “forthwith.”

As soon as possible in this case, as far as I’m concerned, is never.

If we have learned one thing from our own experience of unilateral disengagement and withdrawal from Gaza and southern Lebanon, it’s that it doesn’t bring peace to either Israel or the area vacated. And an unavoidable lesson from the situation in Syria is that we cannot rely on promises of the international community to keep us safe, despite the country’s diverse diplomatic allies both old and new. We need a balance between independence and friendships; deterrence and diplomacy; wings and prayers.

David Ben-Gurion used to say: “Be’ein rovim, afilu matateh yoreh,” when there are no guns, even a broom can shoot. The F-35 is no flying broomstick, and we’re not part of some virtual world quidditch competition, but unlike the earliest days of the state, when Israel’s very existence could not be guaranteed, today we can say the sky is not falling.

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