In Washington: Winograd cracks the ice

The good news is that the pro-Israel community is changing.

mjrosenberg88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Perhaps it is trite to say it, but the very existence of the Winograd Committee says something very profound about Israel's political system. It is not merely that the Israeli system is democratic. There are many democracies worldwide, including the oldest one of them all, the United States - but Israelis seem, oddly enough, to have more faith in their democracy than citizens in most of the others, including this one. I know that sounds odd. The rap on Israelis today is that all the political scandals and corruption have made them cynical and that few believe in the fundamental fairness of their system. That sounds right and almost inevitable in a country where so many political figures are under investigation. But the reaction to the Winograd Report says something else. It says that Israelis expect their government to do the right thing when it comes to matters of war and peace. Once Israelis perceived, right or wrong, that the Lebanon war was a failure, they demanded to know exactly how it happened and who was responsible. Then they would decide the proper punishment. This is not something we do here. There was no official investigation of the Vietnam War (we learned about its origins from the leaked Pentagon Papers, which the Nixon administration tried to suppress) and there won't be an official investigation of the Iraq war either. AMERICANS seem to be more accepting of governmental malfeasance than Israelis. We expect politicians to act like politicians. We even tolerate being lied to. Israelis, amazingly enough, do not. That is why the Second Lebanon War - like the first one and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 - was investigated. And its findings were no whitewash. The prime minister, the minister of defense and the army chief-of-staff all were found to have made grave errors of judgment. Winograd found that the government went to war without fully examining the alternatives, the likely results of a full-fledged Israeli military response and even the army's capabilities. The report also found two previous prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, responsible for allowing the situation in the north to deteriorate so badly, without responding, that it left their successor, Ehud Olmert, with a time bomb ticking away. Governments make mistakes, terrible mistakes. It is not as if Olmert and the others deceived the Israeli public into war. The provocation that produced war was no phony Gulf of Tonkin attack, knowingly used by a president to win support for the Vietnam War. No one "fixed" the intelligence to produce a preordained result. No, the Israeli attack on Hizbullah was the response to that terror organization's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of another three on the Israeli side of the border. The attack was unprovoked; its purpose was to seize hostages who could be used to negotiate the release of Hizbullah terrorists in Israeli jails. MOST ISRAELIS wanted their government to respond militarily, and decisively. They did not know that the government (including the military) did not know how to do that. According to the report, Israel embarked on the war almost blindly, with no real plan and not much more than the hope that the great Israeli army and air force would figure out how to win on the fly. That didn't happen. Hizbullah suffered no knockout blow and the war ended with hundreds of thousands of Israelis from the north living as temporary refugees, with southern Lebanon devastated and over 1,000 dead, with Hizbullah riding high, with the kidnapped soldiers still in their hands, and 162 Israelis dead. In retrospect, the war looks like a mistake; not the idea of the war (a country has the right to defend itself), but the war that was actually fought. The government should have known it was not ready for war and, at the very least, bought some time - and developed a strategy - before undertaking one. The good news - if there can be good news in a situation like this - is that the government of Israel should learn from the mistakes Winograd points out. The report includes specific recommendations, which, if followed, would prevent a third Lebanon debacle (in the north or somewhere else). Holding the government accountable in this instance can help prevent future blunders. BUT WHAT of us here, the pro-Israel community? We supported the war whole-heartedly. I didn't think Israel had any choice but to hit back hard and, throughout the war, held my tongue (and pen) when I started to perceive that the war was going badly. I assumed the Israeli government knew what it was doing, that it wouldn't risk its soldiers without a solid plan to accomplish the mission. I was wrong. And so were all those who felt that this war was a necessary battle for Israel - in contrast to the various raids, skirmishes and attacks on Palestinians which accomplish little other than to take lives and postpone the negotiations that will end the conflict. Especially wrong were those people who tried to shut down criticism of the war by people who understood that it was a mistake, like the members of Congress who spoke up and said that the United States should help end the conflict by seeking a cease-fire. The response these members of Congress received from local community leaders who wear the pro-Israel mantle was loudly and unambiguously negative. They were told that their call for a cease-fire was inappropriate. They were summoned to community meetings where they had to defend themselves against the charge of being anti-Israel. Now we see that these members of Congress were not wrong. A cease-fire, once the war started going badly for Israel (which was the precise point that the congressional cease-fire calls were issued), would have saved dozens of Israeli and hundreds of Lebanese lives. Those dissenting members of Congress clearly deserve an apology. After all, the Winograd Committee and, essentially, the entire population of Israel now agree that the war was a debacle. But apologies aren't likely. Despite everything we have learned, there are still those spokespeople for the pro-Israel community who believe that lockstep support of official positions is invariably right. No matter that they have been proven wrong, over and over again. THE GOOD news is that the pro-Israel community is changing. Nobody loses their congressional seat for telling the status quo crowd what they don't want to hear. Sure, they get some flack from those champions of the status quo. But that is about it. And more and more people in the pro-Israel community want their representatives to speak up when they perceive our (or Israel's) policies to be damaging - damaging to America and damaging to Israel. The ice is cracking. The Winograd Report only helps. The writer is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.