Needed: A new mind-set

We've been willing to subsist between periods of quiet and days of extreme violence.

Olmert speeks 298.88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Olmert speeks 298.88
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Israel after the second Lebanese war is understandably in a probing mood. Too many questions are being raised on the military, civilian, political and social handling of the crisis. Citizens are clamoring for authoritative answers. An independent commission of inquiry must be established to meet these concerns. But can such a panel, however broad its mandate, also reassess the guiding concepts that led to the present situation? Can it reexamine the conventional wisdom that has dictated policy in recent years? Can it explore workable alternatives for future action? These, most urgent, tasks still remain the domain of the public at large. Undoubtedly, official conduct during the Lebanese imbroglio - in all its civilian and military manifestations - calls for a comprehensive review. There are simply too many issues that must be addressed in order to avert a recurrence of the procedural, logistical, tactical and strategic lacunae that are now being revealed. A full-fledged commission of inquiry is indeed the most appropriate mechanism to carry out such an undertaking. It is also the only construct that can begin to restore the confidence of Israel's citizens, whose trust in their system has been seriously shaken by recent events. Israel is about to embark on a period of self-evaluation, involving a critical look not only at the comportment of its leaders, but also at some of its most hallowed institutions. There is a very real danger that such a process, with all the introspection it entails, will nevertheless remain confined. It should be extended - through the conscious breaching of the parameters of prevailing discourse - to fundamental perceptual and policy issues as well. THE STARTING point for such a discussion centers on the hegemonic mind-set that has dominated Israeli thinking in the past few years. Its most obvious characteristic is a heady self-assurance bordering on arrogance. This ubiquitous hubris has been severely jolted by the Lebanon experience. It is still unclear whether this shock will also inject sufficient doses of humility necessary to dig below its surface. Behind this bloated sense of power lie several troubling precepts. The first, somewhat ironically, has been an ongoing feeling of insecurity bordering on paranoia. The perception of threat - often depicted in existential terms - helps to explain the overwhelming reliance on military might as the primary tool of policy. It also accounts for the entrenchment of a militaristic worldview which, both personally and programmatically, has infiltrated every aspect of Israeli life. This thinking has fostered a self-perpetuating dynamic: the greater the dependence on the use of force, the graver the perception of the nature and the scope of the threat to the state. The constant swing between impotence and omnipotence leaves very little room for a grounded, measured, reassessment of Israel's situation and options. This kind of civilian-based debate (especially in the midst of a mounting preoccupation with military performance) is long overdue. Awareness of the limits of the use of force may also assist in modifying a second prevailing precept: the belief in Israel's capacity to determine its future on its own. This notion, fueled by a mixture of suspicion and bravado, has informed the policies of successive governments (and has indirectly legitimized the breakdown of social solidarity). The widespread faith in the ability to alter conditions on the ground through decisive unilateral action led not only to the abrupt disengagement from Gaza, but continues to dictate the imposition of changes without consultation in the West Bank as well. Even the staunchest upholders of unilateralism now admit that Israel can no longer afford to operate in a vacuum. Such an approach blinds policymakers to real dangers (the spread of missile technology is just one example). It also forecloses any chance to identify and pursue unfolding opportunities. THE THIRD constraining precept flows from here: the conviction that there are no diplomatic avenues available to Israel at this time. Since the collapse of the Oslo process no real effort has been made to talk to the Palestinians, let alone to Syria or Lebanon. The reluctance to enter negotiations has not only created a violent backlash, it has also seemingly affirmed their futility. Israelis have been all too willing to subsist between periods of relative quiet (when no initiatives are necessary) and days of extreme violence (when no such possibility exists). The indeterminate outcome of this Lebanese war suggests a need for a vigorous reconsideration of diplomatic alternatives. Just this week the Palestinian leadership has renewed efforts to implement a truce and to form a national unity government committed to negotiations with Israel. The overwhelmed prime minister of Lebanon, Fuad Saniora, has called for peace with Israel. The president of Syria, in his own inimitable way, has left a crack open for diplomacy. And the Arab League is urging the United Nations to convene an international conference to resolve the conflict. The Israeli public has an obligation to consider these proposals. There is a close relationship between internal reorganization (which requires an official commission of inquiry) and external stabilization (which demands a deep public probe). Israelis can choose to content themselves with a formal and systematic reexamination, wallowing in the self-criticism it involves. Or, they can also engage in a broad, frank, conceptual reassessment that will allow them to draw the necessary lessons from recent experience and to capitalize on available opportunities. This embracing alternative is both pressing and promising.