Editor's Notes: A time for honesty, clarity and leadership

We need to reassert our sense of common purpose. And we need bold, selfless, far-sighted governance.

Livni and Netanyahu 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Livni and Netanyahu 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Watching those dozens of Syrian- Palestinians tear down the fence and make their way across the border on Sunday, there was no escaping the picture of Israeli weakness, the humiliation and the root causes of our pessimism.
The weakness was blatant in the evidence unfolding before our eyes that, again, our treasured army had been outmaneuvered. Despite the fact that this planned infiltration had been signposted weeks ahead of time, coordinated via Facebook’s Third Intifada pages, and orchestrated by the less-than-secretive means of transporting the protesters to the border area on dozens of big, noisy buses, our military forces had mobilized neither the manpower nor the equipment required to rebuff it.
The humiliation was visited by the infiltrators, celebrating their hugely symbolic “return” to “Palestine” with a mixture of disbelief and bravado. In mobile phone footage of the “crossing” itself, you can hear voices from amid the crowds urging the first infiltrators to turn back as they reach the unguarded border fencing, screaming that they’ve “done enough,” that “there are mines,” that they’re risking their lives. And then you watch as those trailblazers make their way across to the Israeli side of the Golan nonetheless, emboldening others, ultimately dozens, to follow. “I’ve returned,” shouts one of the first to complete the crossing, jubilant. “This is what liberation looks like,” rejoices another. Actually, this is what the wreckage of deterrence looks like.
And the pessimism stemmed from the day’s proof that the Arab world has maintained, through more than six uncompromising decades, its relentless grievance at the very fact of Israel’s existence. Sunday saw relatively low-level “Nakba Day” protests in the West Bank and over the Green Line in Jerusalem – in the principal areas, that is, of ostensible dispute with the Palestinians. The major flashpoints, apart from there on the Syrian border, were in Egypt, where the military forces stopped massed protesters from reaching the border; in Jordan, where the security forces similarly intervened; at the Gaza border, where the IDF proved better prepared; and on the Lebanese border, where a combination of Israeli and Lebanese forces prevented a border breach. This wasn’t occupation under attack. It was an assault on Israeli sovereignty.
Timed to coincide not with the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six Day War that saw the conquest of Judea and Samaria, but with the anniversary of Israel’s establishment in 1948, the “Nakba Day” protests are, in their very essence, a repudiation of the Jewish state’s right to draw continued breath. Sixty-three years after their leadership chose to try and destroy our nascent country rather than to accept the international community’s offer of unprecedented Palestinian statehood alongside us – and, when defeated, fell back on the skewed narrative of victimization exemplified by Mahmoud Abbas’s dishonest New York Times op-ed this week – the timing and locations of those protests this year underlined abiding, absolute rejection of Israel.
Left-wing. Right-wing. Pro-settlement. Anti-settlement. These crowds and those who dispatched them have no tolerance for any Israelis or for any Israel. And they were endorsed not only by that section of the Palestinian leadership that avowedly calls for our destruction, but also by Palestinian Authority President Abbas, who so articulately assures the West that he seeks coexistence alongside Israel and claims that his peacemaking ambitions are being frustrated only by the intransigence of successive governments in Jerusalem.
In remarks in Arabic on “Nakba Day,” as Arab and international media typically inflated the death toll and widely blamed Israel for all 16 reported deaths in the various border clashes, Abbas hailed the latest victims as “martyrs... Their precious blood will not be wasted,” he declared. “It was spilt for the sake of our nation’s freedom.”
Abbas, revealed in the “Palestine Papers” leaks as having taken a relatively moderate position on the peace-preventing demand for a “right of return” for those millions of refugee descendants represented in the border protests, has lately been sounding markedly more hawkish, now vowing never to “neglect” that demand. “‘The return’ is not a slogan,” he declared last weekend. Sunday’s onslaught emphasized as much.
EXACERBATING OUR profound Nakba discomfort is an acute concern at what now lies ahead – at the prospect of Israel being outmaneuvered again, repeatedly, to potentially devastating effect, both on the ground and in the diplomatic arena.
Sunday’s Nakba protests, the long-predicted Palestinian adoption of the unarmed people-power tactic that is potentially transforming so many countries around us, were minor – relatively petty affairs compared to what may unfold in the coming weeks and months.
The failure to effectively prepare for and grapple with those protests unfortunately echoed the hubris that attended Israel’s poor performance in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when it underestimated Hezbollah, and last May’s Turkish flotilla, when it ignored its own intelligence regarding the hostile forces on board the Mavi Marmara.
That a relatively small, unarmed crowd, approaching in broad daylight, could breach the border, culminated a saga of pathetic incompetence. Land mines plainly had fallen into disrepair. The border fencing itself was clearly inadequate, constituting no significant barrier to the crowds’ progress. In terms of intelligence and communications, it had been anticipated that the major people-power-push would come further along the border at Quneitra. Even so, there was insufficient allocation of manpower and non-lethal crowd dispersal equipment at an acutely sensitive border position, where it was known that large crowds would gather, if only to shout across the fence – Druse families separated by the border – as they do routinely. Finally, the slow response in the field meant that a few dozen soldiers then found themselves overrun by the crowds; mercifully, they did not resort to indiscriminate gunfire.
Now imagine if, rather than a few thousand protesters, the IDF had been faced with 10 times that number. Imagine similar occurrences at numerous positions along the borders with Syria and Lebanon. Imagine an Egypt disinclined or incapable of preventing mass protests on the southern border. Imagine Hamas sending the masses to the Gaza border. “Next time, millions will participate,” crowed Hamas’s Mahmoud Zahar from Gaza.
Perhaps most nightmarish of all, imagine mass rallies, as I have written in this column before, in east Jerusalem – where Israel asserts sovereignty, and where a violent dispersal by Israeli forces of unarmed protests would not even garner the limited international sympathy Israel has enjoyed in the defense of its territory against outside agitators.
It’s not as though the IDF has been deprived of opportunities to train for these kinds of scenarios. For much of the past decade, it has been facing protests at flashpoints along the route of the West Bank security barrier. And yet, we learn this week, the IDF is only now finalizing a “new operational doctrine” for containing “nonviolent” marches, to be unveiled before its commanders and drilled in the coming weeks. It is only now, we also learn, that the Ground Forces Command has received additional funds to purchase non-lethal crowd dispersal equipment such as the self-explanatory “skunk bombs” and the dizzying noise-emitting devices known as “the Scream.”
Amid the Palestinians’ diplomatic march to statehood at the UN General Assembly in September, and especially given this week’s border-busting successes, it seems highly likely that the security forces will indeed find themselves facing masses of protesters, in larger numbers, on one or more fronts. Will Sunday’s dismal performance prove to be an aberration?
Those fundamentally opposed to Israel, through the decades, tried first to destroy this country via conventional warfare, then through suicide bombings and other terrorist assaults, and more recently via missile attack – firing into our homes from theirs. Each new strategy has been defeated by resilient Israel, often at terrible cost. The new strategic challenge is an assault on our sovereignty via unarmed masses. We’ve had months to see it coming. Sunday suggests we weren’t looking.
SIMILAR WORRIES attend the diplomatic struggle. Here, too, there has been no hidden agenda, no reason to be taken by surprise. The Palestinian Authority made crystal clear almost two years ago that it was setting out to build the institutions of statehood, under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and that it would be seeking international endorsement of its sovereign ambitions this summer.
Fayyad’s economic stewardship, the training of West Bank PA security forces and their capacity to rein in anti-Israel violence, the success of Palestinian spokespeople in pinning blame on Israel for the failure of a peace process that the PA has willfully doomed, the current Israeli government’s coalition-preserving vagueness on key issues such as settlement plans and readiness for territorial compromise – all these elements, combined with familiar factors such as support for the perceived underdog, ignorance, longtime hostility to Israel, Muslim demographics, the structure of the UN and more, assure the PA of overwhelming international support for that statehood push.
Never mind the fact that the declarative endorsement of Palestine by the General Assembly would be achieved without any of the vital core issues being resolved, a recipe for escalated tension and likely conflict. Never mind that even the Western-beloved Fayyad, in his statebuilding manifesto, gives no hint of seeking reconciliation with Israel for his new Palestine. Never mind that Abbas – who never tried hard to counter the narrative Yasser Arafat bequeathed, in which the notion of historic Jewish rights here was derided – has now clambered into bed with Hamas, so that the Palestinian state the world is preparing to endorse is now partly steered by a terrorist organization dedicated to the destruction of the state next door. Never mind that if Hamas then takes over the West Bank – via next year’s touted Palestinian elections or the murderous Gaza coup approach – the world will have endorsed another rogue Islamist state. Never mind any of those objections, because most of the international community is insistently deaf to them.
IN THE face of this gathering diplomatic thunderstorm, the members of Israel’s political leadership – coalition and opposition – have maintained petty business as usual, taking cheap shots at each other, jockeying for popularity, consistently putting narrow interest ahead of national interest.
Again, as I have written so many times here in the past two years, Binyamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni failed the Israeli public after the 2009 elections in not agreeing to build a unified coalition that could have represented a broad Israeli consensus. They could have set out an Israeli diplomatic initiative that made plain this country’s security needs and other final-status positions, and created an agenda that those sympathetic to Israel internationally could understand, endorse and advance. They still can; indeed, the country cries out for them to do so.
Instead, we saw Netanyahu in the Knesset this week, still trying to keep both Barack Obama and Avigdor Lieberman off his back, issuing deliberately ambiguous remarks about maintaining settlement blocs and a presence in the Jordan Valley. And, predictably, we then saw Livni castigating him.
Doubtless the prime minister has prepared a similar tightrope act for his current US trip. While his own electorate is left to try to puzzle out precisely what he means – whether he is intimating, for example, a greater readiness to dismantle settlements outside the blocs and in the Jordan Valley – and what he would have said if he weren’t semi-paralyzed by the conflicting demands of his coalition and the international community, the PA is comfortably able to wave aside the whole formulation and again brand Israel as the rejectionist.
Israel used to be able to count on the overconfidence, the self-delusion and the divisions among our enemies as key advantages in thwarting their murderous ambitions. Now they are setting realistic goals and attaining them, and they have manufactured a veneer of unity – their differences temporarily subsumed beneath their common hostility to us. Today, it is the leadership of our people, where the differences are relatively marginal and the common interests nothing short of existential, that is so debilitatingly, unconscionably arrogant, disingenuous and divided.
Physically and diplomatically, Israel’s sovereignty is under attack, in a climate of growing sympathy for those who would destroy us. We cannot afford weakness, humiliation and pessimism. We need to overcome the hubris, put an end to the obfuscation, break out of the paralysis. This is a time for careful policymaking, for the honest internalization of demographic realities, for clear-headed responses to military and diplomatic challenges, for common sense, clarity of purpose and unity. And most of all, this is a time for bold, selfless, far-sighted leadership.