When Farce Becomes Tragedy

The intervention in Libya is farce, but from Israel’s perspective, some of the tragic elements also appear to be recurring.

marx and sad_521(do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
marx and sad_521(do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
IT WAS KARL MARX WHO once opined: “History repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce.” If one were to compare “Desert Storm,” the first Gulf war against Saddam Hussein in 1991, with “Odyssey Dawn,” the current parodic allied intervention in Libya, Marx would be half right: The intervention in Libya is farce, but from Israel’s perspective, some of the tragic elements also appear to be recurring.
Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi is no Saddam Hussein. He did not employ poison gas against a neighboring country and against his own citizens. He did not threaten to change the regional balance of power the way Saddam did when he marched into Kuwait in August 1990, with the idea of creating a petro-dollar empire that would fuel his military ambitions. The coalition arrayed against him was also more impressive. Muslim states from Bangladesh to Morocco sent forces, as did Syria and Egypt.
Today, we are still waiting for the first Arab cameo role in Libya.
Perhaps Qatari planes equipped with Al Jazeera satellite dishes will make an appearance. Then, in the early 1990s, the US response represented an assertion of leadership. Currently, the Obama Administration is doing its best to abdicate any leadership role and only French President Nicolas Sarkozy is spoiling for the limelight.
What has not changed is that Israel is being asked to suffer now and pay later, to avoid disrupting the coalition. When Saddam attempted to insert a wedge between the West and its Arab allies by firing Scud missiles at Israeli cities and Israel’s citizens walked around with gas mask kits, we were firmly instructed not to retaliate.
The Bush administration sent deputy secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger for the duration of Desert Storm to babysit.
Then most Israelis, including prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, felt that by gritting our teeth and not retaliating, Israel was getting a bargain, as the US was taking out the state that posed the greatest threat to Israeli security.
The only dissident was then-defense minister Moshe Arens, who claimed that Israel as a sovereign state could not shirk its responsibility to retaliate against a dictator who was terrorizing its civilian population. The quiet-spoken Arens was once disparaged by his intra-Likud rival David Levy as “the professor.” However, it was the professor, rather than the former hardhat, who understood that sometimes being uber-analytical was inferior to the Reaganesque “a nation’s gotta do what a nation’s gotta do” approach.
The March missiles launched from Hamas-controlled Gaza kept the school children in Israel’s south at home and inched their way past Ashdod to Yavne, with the next stop presumably the most populous coastal city south of Tel Aviv, Rishon Lezion. Israel sufficed with a few desultory air strikes.
Its restraint was rewarded when US President Barack Obama himself and not some minor-league flunky conveyed condolences for recent terror attacks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reaffirmed America’s “unwavering” commitment to Israel’s security.
The role of Eagleburger was played by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who put in a day and a half in Israel, oozing sympathy while reining in the leash.
Gates agreed that no sovereign state can tolerate having rockets fired at its people. But he added that “we don’t want to do anything that allows extremists or others to divert the narrative of reform that’s going on in virtually all the countries of the region.” Israel is again to practice restraint for the sake of the big picture.
In the aftermath of Iraq, Israel was called upon by Bush senior to ante up on the peace process. But at least he could claim to have provided a security cushion. Now Libya
appears to be the swan song of Western military force, the Grad and Qassam missiles continue to fly, and Sinai has become a freeway for their replenishment and upgrading. Yet Gates paradoxically views the situation as an “opportunity for bold action to move toward a two-state solution.” Israel must pay by passivity during the crisis, and then must help mollify the Arabs for allowing themselves to be liberated.
When Israel is deterred not by its enemies but by its friends from retaliatory action, its only recourse is to adopt civil defense measures.
For Israel, the Gulf War meant sealed rooms and Patriot missiles that did more harm than good. Now we are to be placated with the Iron Dome system and turning school buildings into redoubts, to be followed nationwide, no doubt, by fortified malls, reinforced clinics and buttressed hospitals.
An unwavering American commitment to Israel’s security and its qualitative military edge are of no avail, if it is not allowed to employ decisive force against Gaza. What is worse this time is that we lack a Moshe Arens who can push back against this passivity or, at the risk of giving some readers apoplexy, a Sarah Palin urging Israel to stop apologizing.
Contributing editor Amiel Ungar is a columnist for the Makor Rishon daily and the national religious monthly Nekuda.