Civil Fights: Ehud Olmert, therapist-in-chief

Risk soldiers' lives to protect mere civilians? Not our army.

Olmert 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Olmert 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may have reached a new low with his remarks in Kibbutz Yifat last Friday. Discussing the daily rocket fire on southern Israel, Olmert declared: "The firing on communities bordering the Gaza Strip hurts us. We are doing everything to help the residents, but the country cannot be in the situation of having to reinforce every single home, because we cannot afford to do so." In reality, of course, not only has Olmert done nothing to "help the residents" during 18 months in office; he has actively obstructed others' efforts to do so. His unwillingness to launch a serious military offensive to stop the shooting left reinforcement as the only option. Yet he has not even enacted legislation to ease legal and bureaucratic restrictions on apartment owners reinforcing their homes at their own expense. Over half of Sderot's public bomb shelters are still unfit for even short stays, and the rest are unfit for long stays; yet when, after years of waiting in vain for state funding, the city obtained a NIS 6 million private donation to fund the renovations this May, Olmert demanded that the mayor return it, saying this should be a government project. Few classrooms in rocket range are reinforced, but the government has yet to allocate a cent toward reinforcing the others; it has also allocated only NIS 10 million of the NIS 300 million Olmert promised in February to reinforce the most vulnerable private homes. When businessman Arkadi Gaydamak temporarily evacuated residents during a particularly bad period, Olmert urged the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem municipalities to bar Gaydamak's tent cities from their jurisdictions. And the few legislative efforts to provide financial assistance to the south have been the initiative of individual MKs. THUS THE "everything" Olmert is doing essentially boils down to expressing sympathy: The situation "hurts us." It is not his job to solve problems; he is merely the country's chief therapist, there to serve as a sympathetic echo for the citizenry's anguish. Given Olmert's attitude, it is hardly surprising that the IDF - which, like the premier, is entrusted with the nation's defense - is also uninterested in doing anything about the rocket fire. Last Friday, a senior IDF officer was quoted as saying that the army, while concerned about Hamas's military build-up in Gaza, is not seeking permission for a large-scale operation there because Hamas is not yet anywhere near Hizbullah's capabilities and is therefore not a strategic threat. One has to wonder why waiting until Hamas does acquire Hizbullah's capabilities is preferable. But even more remarkably, the officer did not even mention the daily rocket fire on Sderot as a consideration. He cited fear of military casualties as a reason for avoiding a large-scale operation. But preventing civilian casualties? That, evidently, is not the army's problem. This attitude was underscored by another newspaper report on Sunday, which noted that much of the Katyusha fire on northern Israel during last summer's Lebanon war came from a few heavily fortified Hizbullah areas. Nevertheless, the General Staff and the Northern Command ordered troops to avoid these areas after two soldiers were killed during an initial assault on one of them. The Katyushas were far more deadly than the Kassams fired at Sderot, killing 43 civilians in a single month; and the toll would have been far higher if 200,000 to 300,000 northern residents (according to last week's state comptroller's report) had not fled the area. But risk soldiers' lives to protect mere civilians? Not our army. YET DISGRACEFUL though their attitudes are, it is hard to blame either Olmert or the IDF top brass - because on this issue, they are merely honoring the Israeli majority's wishes. Like Olmert, that majority has no desire to actually do anything for Sderot; it views its obligations as beginning and ending with feeling the southerners' pain. This was evident in a remarkable Peace Index poll published last December, which asked what the government should do about the daily rocket fire on southern Israel. The poll found that 57 percent of Jewish Israelis opposed a military invasion of Gaza even if this were the only way to stop the fire; only 36 percent supported it. Some 72 percent opposed evacuating Sderot residents; and a majority even opposed evacuating children. However, 70 percent favored negotiating with the Palestinian Authority (this was before Hamas took over Gaza) - even though only a third believed that talks would produce a full peace treaty, and 71 percent believed that a mere cease-fire would not halt the rockets. In other words, most Israelis are unwilling to fight for Sderot; emergency reserve duty would at best disrupt their comfortable lives, and would also probably result in casualties, whereas today, only southerners suffer casualties and disrupted lives. Nor is the majority willing to evacuate Sderot: That would be expensive, and would again disrupt their comfortable lives by requiring higher taxes. The only thing they are willing to do is negotiate with the PA, which they think will not work - because that costs them nothing. These sentiments surfaced again at a July 9 "solidarity concert" for Sderot. The rally, held in Tel Aviv and attended by some 30,000 people, was not called to demand any concrete action; as its title, "We Are All Sderot," indicated, it was merely meant to express sympathy. The Israeli majority gathered to declare that it feels Sderot's pain - from the safety and comfort of Tel Aviv. They would certainly not risk doing so in Sderot. TWO YEARS ago, following the disengagement, I wrote that the adage about people in a democracy getting the leaders they deserve did not fit Israel, as "nothing could be more alien to the cynicism, cowardice and callousness displayed by our ministers than the courage, compassion and decency displayed by tens of thousands of ordinary citizens." But in Olmert, we appear to have gotten exactly the leadership we deserve. His cynical willingness to sacrifice the country's welfare to his own continuance in power is a perfect reflection of ordinary Israelis' willingness to sacrifice Sderot's welfare to their own convenience.