Column One: Three cheers for Israeli democracy

It is the openness of Israeli society that enables us to have a public debate about what happened last summer in Lebanon, identify those at fault and the reasons for their failures.

glick long hair 88 (photo credit: )
glick long hair 88
(photo credit: )
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is certain that he has nothing to be ashamed of. As the first Israeli leader to have led the country to military defeat, Olmert is proud of his performance in office and thinks that we should be, too. Thursday, Ha'aretz reported the gist of Olmert's February 1 testimony before the Winograd Committee which he appointed to investigate the government and IDF's (mis)handling of the war last summer against Iran's Lebanese proxy Hizbullah. The Ha'aretz story was one of only a handful of reports detailing testimony brought before the commission and so it is reasonable to assume that Olmert's office, rather than the commission members, was the source of the story. Olmert's advisers presumably believe that publishing their spin on his testimony will deflect criticism away from him and onto the IDF and so buy the premier more time in office in spite of the fact that only 3 percent of the public supports him. In his testimony before his hand-picked investigators, Olmert claimed that he had approved a contingency plan for war against Hizbullah in the event that Hizbullah abducted IDF soldiers along the Lebanese border. Those plans, Olmert claimed, involved the conducting of an air campaign and a small-scale ground campaign against Hizbullah with the goal of destroying its missile arsenal and forcing it to disarm in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1559. Olmert stated that he only ordered the helter-skelter large-scale, inconclusive 48-hour ground offensive at the end of the war because the IDF's small-scale ground operations until that time had been unsuccessful. He ordered the large-scale offensive, in which 33 soldiers were killed just before their comrades were ordered to retreat, because he wanted to get a better cease-fire resolution at the UN Security Council. This is the case, he argues, in spite of the fact that the Security Council had already unanimously passed the resolution before the offensive began. "Improved" Security Council Resolution 1701 is hailed by Olmert and his colleagues Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz as a brilliant, pro-Israel document that was well worth the sacrifice. They claim this in spite of the fact that 1701 makes no mention of either Iran or Syria; treats Israel, a UN member nation, and Hizbullah, an illegal terrorist organization, as equals; treats the Saniora Government in Lebanon which collaborated throughout the war with Hizbullah as a positive force; enhances the role of UNIFIL in spite of the fact that its forces reported IDF troop movements in real time on their Web site; and has enabled Hizbullah to rearm in broad daylight. Olmert's testimony to the Winograd Commission is interesting for two reasons. First, if Olmert was telling the truth then, far from clearing his name, he incriminated himself. By March 2006, the IDF had war-gamed his chosen strategy of an air campaign with a limited ground component. The strategy had failed. The fact that he chose it anyway casts doubt on his competence to lead the country in war. Moreover, while the public understood just days after the war broke out that it was imperative to call up the reserves and launch a large-scale ground offensive, Olmert clung to his failed air-based strategy until the end stages of the war. He called up the reservists so late that they had insufficient time to train for their missions. Olmert's testimony, like his office's apparent decision to leak it to the media, is also interesting for the arrogance it betrayed. Olmert told us his version of his testimony because he thought we would accept it without question. If he had thought we would question him, it is hard to imagine he would have revealed what he said because his defenses are so easily taken apart. Indeed, within hours of the Ha'aretz report, MK Yuval Steinitz, the former chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, did just that when he told Israel Radio how strange Olmert's statements are. If he ordered the IDF to prepare for war, Steinitz asked, why did the IDF do nothing to prepare for war? If he had a plan to respond to the abduction of IDF soldiers with a large-scale military campaign, then why did he slash the IDF's budget by a half a billion shekels two months before the war? With 57 percent of Israelis praying for new elections, it is hard to see how Olmert and his colleagues can ever regain the public trust. But the fact that their careers are about to end, while no doubt tragic for them, is a happy occasion for Israeli society as a whole and a great victory for Israeli democracy. It is because of the openness of Israeli society that we are able to have a public debate about what happened last summer in Lebanon and so identify those at fault and the notions that led them to their failures. And it is only by properly identifying both the failed officials and their failed ideas that the State of Israel will be able to safeguard its security in the future. WITH AN eye towards safeguarding Israel's security, it is instructive to compare Olmert's political woes versus Israeli society's democratic resilience to the panicked atmosphere in Iran this week in the aftermath of former deputy defense minister and former Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) commander Ali Rez Asgari's apparent defection to the West. The IRGC is responsible for both Iran's nuclear weapons program and its terror armies. Its forces reportedly both develop and guard Iran's nuclear installations. As to terror, the IRGC is in direct command of Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad and the Mahdi Army in Iraq. It exerts a large degree of control and influence over other groups like al-Qaida, Fatah and Hamas which receive money, training, arms and logistical support from the IRGC. In light of the IRGC's central role in the Iranian regime's most secret endeavors, there can be little doubt that Asgari's information will have strategic value for the US, Israel and other Western countries in assessing Iran's plans, capabilities and logistics. Here it is useful to compare Teheran's hysteria over Asgari's defection with Israel's muted reaction when IDF (res.) Col. and would-be drug dealer Elhanan Tannenbaum was abducted by Hizbullah to Lebanon in 2000. As a senior reserves officer, Tanenbaum was privy to top secret information relating to the IDF's Artillery Corps where he served. But in spite of the clear damage that Tannenbaum no doubt wrought during his years of captivity, he did not have the capability to do anywhere near the level of damage to Israel's weapons' systems as Asgari apparently can cause for Iran. No doubt, if a member of the IDF's General Staff were abducted by Iran, he too would be capable of causing far less strategic damage to Israel than Asgari can cause to the mullahs. The reason that Israeli commanders who fall into enemy hands can harm Israel's national security less that an Iranian commander who defects to the West can harm the mullahs is because Israel is an open and free society and Iran is a closed and unfree society. In free societies, much of what would be considered top secret information in a closed society is openly debated. Senior officials, who in a closed society like Iran are above scrutiny, are under constant scrutiny in Israel. Criticism of policies - which, as the case of Olmert's political demise makes clear - is necessary for correcting mistakes and moving forward, is the stock-in-trade of open societies. In closed societies, those that criticize policies risk death, torture and imprisonment for their actions. Because open societies like Israel are information societies, their strength is based not on hiding information from their citizens but in galvanizing their citizens' knowledge and talents to progress and defend themselves. In contrast, since by their nature closed societies maintain control by concentrating power and information in the hands of as few people as possible, a member of the powerful few who defects to an open society can do a great deal of damage to the regime. By the same token, since the main precondition for progress in open societies is public debate, when Israeli students protest against government policies, no one worries that their protests will destroy the regime. But in closed societies, criticism of the regime is liable to open a Pandora's Box that can bring about the regime's overthrow. That this is the case is obvious when observing the mullahs' obsession with both quelling dissent and preventing the fact that most sectors of Iranian society oppose their rule from being reported by the media. In this vein, Asgari's defection was not the only setback the ayatollahs suffered this week. The broadcast of a massive student protest against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his recent visit to Teheran University was another major blow to the regime. The footage, which was broadcast on France 2, was taken by cellular phone video cameras. It showed heroic students standing on stage next to Ahmadinejad calling him a dictator and daring him to arrest them, as hundreds in the audience cheered them on while burning Ahmadinejad's photograph. For the regime in Teheran, the widely circulated film was a huge disaster. Now it is clear to the world that although the mullahs may present a unified front, their people do not support them. Here it is important to emphasize that the mullahs' panic will in no way impact their commitment to carrying out a nuclear holocaust. What it does show however, is that the regime is anything but all-powerful. Indeed it is highly susceptible to a concerted campaign to overthrow it. Like all closed societies, the strength of the Iranian regime is built on the twin foundations of internal repression and external aggression. But also like in all closed societies, the mullahs suffer from an inability to identify mistakes and correct them or build their future on the power of their people who hate them. When the Olmert government's political collapse and Iran's strategic setbacks are taken together, one can safely say that this has been a fairly good week. Olmert's exposure of his incompetence has set the course for his government's replacement by a government capable of defending Israel. Then too, the exposure of Iran's inherent weaknesses by Asgari and the students at Teheran University points out a clear path towards preventing the regime from carrying out it planned nuclear holocaust while liberating the Iranian people from its tyranny.