Editor's notes: Compounding failure

The lingering deterrent of our past military triumphs has now dissipated, even as Arab opposition to our existence has been reinvigorated. Yet Israel is engaged in politics as usual.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
'Less than 15 hours after the fighting began at dawn this morning, there was every evidence that Israel has already won the war, though fighting will continue… Israel has today created the nearest thing to instant victory the modern world has ever seen." These words come from the reporting of the late, much-missed Michael Elkins, Israel correspondent for the BBC and CBS 40 years ago, scooping the world on the extraordinary nature of Israel's achievements on the first day of the Six Day War. So audacious was their correspondent's insistence on Israel's success that both networks had reservations about running his coverage. CBS delayed his broadcast, telexing him that no one else was carrying anything remotely similar and that its credibility was at stake. But the impeccably connected Elkins was, of course, far ahead of the rest of the media pack and spot on. Unthinkably, impossibly, Israel had indeed attained its greatest military victory. Along with the military acumen, its triumph was not least a function of astute political timing, notably the insistence of prime minister Levi Eshkol, much to the frustration of his generals, to push off the preemptive strike for week after week until he was absolutely confident that the United States, in particular, would recognize that Israel had gone to war only as a last resort, when all diplomatic options had been exhausted. Today, as we prepare to mark the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, the parallels are sobering and the contrasts acute. In the very near future, Israel could once again find itself engaged in military confrontation on several fronts. Tensions are high on the Syrian border, with dual messages of peace and hostility emanating from Damascus, Bashar Assad sensing vulnerability and opportunity in the wake of last summer's Hizbullah war, and far too much potential for comfort of miscalculation and heightened sensitivity prompting a descent into conflict. Hizbullah might consider this summer premature for another round, but would certainly be ready to further stretch an Israel that was already in confrontation with Syria. Kassams are flying out and more arms are pouring into the Gaza Strip with the same inevitable consequence as the materiel that reaches Hizbullah. These are weapons that are being accumulated for one purpose only - use against Israel. Meanwhile, Iran nears its nuclear goal, and time ticks down not only for the potential effectiveness of economic sanctions, but for the option of military intervention as well. And Israel? The lingering deterrent of our past military triumphs has now dissipated, even as Arab opposition to our existence has been reinvigorated. Yet Israel is engaged in politics as usual. It may no longer be surprising to a public that now has such low expectations of its leadership, but the speed with which the Winograd Committee's meticulous dissection of high-level incompetence has been spat out by those it was intended to expose, shame and banish is dispiriting nonetheless. And in the context of those mounting threats, it is immensely worrying as well. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has argued that, as chief culprit, he owes it to the nation to personally supervise the rectifying of the catalogue of ineptitudes and failures detailed by the Winograd panel, conveniently ignoring the thrust of a report that portrayed him as unqualified for the task. Yet, post Winograd, the leadership seems as characterized by manipulation and narrow personal interest as ever, fiddling as the region threatens to burn - with this minister spinning against that one, this would-be party chief or prime minister weighing what to say and what to do less in the light of the national good than in the context of his or her likely career benefits. The case of Tzipi Livni's non-resignation is the most alarming and risible. Only in today's morally bankrupt Israeli body-politic could a public declaration by the foreign minister that she has told the prime minister he needs to quit actually work to his benefit. In the immediate aftermath of her surreal press conference last week, I was coincidentally invited by four foreign TV networks to try and make some sense of the political chaos, and in each case the news anchor opened with the eminently reasonable, but entirely mistaken, assertion that Livni's call for Olmert to go must surely have weakened the prime minister. No, I had to wearily explain. Livni had actually saved him by not delivering a "you quit or I will" ultimatum. One of the purportedly more decent senior Israeli politicians was continuing to work for a boss she deemed should have resigned after an inquiry had branded him incompetent, and never mind that Israel was facing an accumulation of threatening scenarios that could dwarf the challenges Olmert and co. so dismally failed to meet last summer. LEARNING AND implementing the lessons of the Second Lebanon War requires, in the case of Gaza, for instance, turning up the diplomatic heat on Egypt, directly and via every relevant third party, to act decisively to stop the smuggling. It requires the careful preparation of an effective plan for intervention if all else fails - with a clear definition of the goals, the refinement of the options for achieving them, the formulation of exit strategies, and a serious dialogue between the military and political hierarchies to ensure that everybody understands what is being contemplated. It requires public diplomacy, as so woefully not practiced in the run up to the war against Hizbullah, to alert the international community to the imminence of a similar scenario and the articulation of a narrative for the appropriate placing of responsibility. If Israel is compelled to mount a major ground offensive in Gaza it will face instantaneous international pressure to halt and turn back around. As with Lebanon last year, the fact that Israel demonstrably has no territorial claims in Gaza, having withdrawn to the international border and tried desperately to maintain restraint in the face of murderous provocation, will count for nothing. It will be castigated for purported over-reaction the moment the first Palestinian civilians are caught in the cross-fire, unless it can explain more effectively than it did last summer that the would-be sovereign Palestinian Authority, like the Lebanese government, has abdicated its responsibility to ensure law and order, and enabled terrorist groups to implant themselves amidst a civilian population, from whence to crow when they cause Israeli casualties and cry foul when Israel attempts to fight back. The public diplomacy needs to start now - everything from warnings to the international community to the accumulation of footage categorically demonstrating the cynical exploitation by Palestinian terrorists of their home population as human shields. Similar imperatives apply on the Syrian and the Lebanese fronts. The complexity and urgency of the task, for even the most capable of governments and the most well-oiled of military apparatuses, would be awe-inspiring. For this government, all the evidence would indicate that the mission is beyond its capability. But since it insists on staying put, it is to this challenge, and not petty rivalries and point scoring, that it should be devoting its fullest attention. To all but those at the very heart of the political storm, it would appear obvious that there is no way for these leaders to regain the public's trust, that they are bickering on borrowed time. But for so long as they are there, there is no shortage of other avenues for urgent improvement. A government bent, as Olmert's declaredly is, on winning over the Winograd critics and the public with a dazzling display of competent governance in the three months before the committee's final report comes crashing down should be moving to address institutional problems beyond the military arena, too. How much serious debate - as opposed to shoot-from-the-lip headline making - has the government carried out regarding the credibility of Syria's purported overtures and the complex peace/war dilemma posed by Bashar Assad? How much substantive thought has it paid to the impending massive American arms-sale package to the Gulf, galvanizing powerful argument to try to prevent the transfer of weaponry that erodes our military edge and could prove particularly dangerous to Israel should it be utilized for the wrong goals? More basically, has the entire process of government decision-making been overhauled, to transform cabinet meetings from meaningless talk-fests into forums for serious policy evaluation? The answer to date, needless to say, is no. If it wants to tackle the gaping disconnect between the bitter Israeli public and its elected representatives, the government, making good use of its improbable Knesset majority, should be forcing through electoral reform - kick-starting a process to enable genuine accountability, encouraging Israelis with leadership expertise, deterred by our current bruising system, from entering politics. How can it be, we cry out repeatedly, that we retain our insight, our flair and our expertise in such ultra-competitive worlds as hi-tech and medical innovation, but can find no candidates of similar acumen to take the political helm? Where, we ask, are the great Israeli leaders to match the icons of yesteryear? And if not great, how about competent? The case of Uriel Reichman offers at least a partial answer. Tapped by Ariel Sharon as the expert best equipped to oversee the desperately needed reform of our education system, Reichman found himself offered the Justice portfolio rather than the Education Ministry because of coalition pressures after last year's election, and, disgusted, immediately walked away from the Knesset. Where are the competent leaders? Well, Reichman returned to running the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. AS THE Winograd Committee wryly pointed out, the Israeli government last summer failed not merely to win a war for the first time in our modern history, it failed to win a war it had itself chosen to fight. The government's absent popularity reflects enormously widespread public mistrust in its ability to do better next time. Our American allies and the Diaspora Jewish community are similarly worried - and not a little baffled as to how it is that a failed government, so disliked by the electorate, is nonetheless determined to hang on to the very power it has shown itself incapable of using effectively. Forty years after effective military preparation and wise political stewardship enabled Israel to achieve its stunning, preemptive Six Day War victory, the notion of Ehud Olmert having to decide on a strategy for grappling with Syria, where the balance of forces could also necessitate preemption, or thwarting Iran, again with a preemptive strategy, is acutely discomfiting for Israel. The prime minister thinks we have it all wrong. And even though he presides over a strangely forgiving democracy, where unsuccessful and rejected leaders need only wait a few years to have a shot at political rehabilitation, he has elected to try and weather the Winograd storm. But it is a brave man who insists on retaining the most challenging position in the land when he was shown to be so lacking in overseeing the last crisis, and when the price of compounding that failure could be so much higher. A brave man indeed, or an exceptionally foolish one.