View From America: Ehud Olmert's bunker mentality

PM dismissed the notion that the people of the North had been traumatized, denigrated Diaspora help.

tobin 88 (photo credit: )
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
One year after the Second Lebanon War, Israel's North is back in business. Where 12 months ago the region was shaken to its core by the impact of hundreds of missile hits from Hizbullah, traces of the damage are now hard to find. Last year the North was empty as many of its residents fled south to safety and the tourists who usually visit the area were conspicuous by their absence. This August, it's more or less back to normal. But according to experts in the field of post-traumatic stress disorder, the effects of the Hizbullah onslaught are still there, under the surface. For adults and children alike - especially those who were already in difficult emotional circumstances - the impact of last year's war remains enormous. According to Prof. Mooli Lahad of Tel Hai College and the Israel Trauma Coalition, "The houses are fixed, but the question remains as to whether the souls of those who suffered through the bombardment and the displacement it caused are repaired." Lahad warns those who would minimize the problem that "the process of healing communities and individuals is more difficult than fixing buildings." In a presentation to American Jewish journalists late last week, Lahad and his colleague, Prof. Rami Benbenishty of Hebrew University's School of Social Work, discussed research on the question of just how great the impact of the war was on the psyches of Israel's citizens. What they found was that even though the number of civilian casualties in the Second Lebanon War paled in comparison to those inflicted by Palestinian suicide bombers and snipers during the second intifada, the conflict with Hizbullah devastated Israelis' sense of security more than anything that had come before. THE FAILURE of the government to prepare adequately for attacks on the North and the fact that the evacuation of civilians was "too late and too slow" all eroded the sense of community and security. It was precisely to deal with these problems that a number of programs aimed at shoring up the spirits of those affected were funded by North American Jewry via the United Jewish Communities' Israel Emergency Fund. The projects range from the purchase of hibuki - huggable stuffed animals - and therapy for traumatized children to providing similar help for firefighters battling post-traumatic stress disorder after their service last summer. Other programs reinforce the sense of identification and pride in the towns and villages of the North which was undermined, at least in part, by the perception that local government failed its citizens. Millions of dollars donated by friends of Israel have been invested via the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee in dealing with the problems that experts such as Lahad and Benbenishty assert are not only serious but have been partly exacerbated by the lack of faith in government. BUT WHEN asked about this in a meeting with American Jewish journalists who were in Israel at the invitation of the UJC to learn more about how the IEC had spent the $360 million raised for it, the prime minister of Israel was having none of it. Ehud Olmert dismissed the notion that the people of the North had been traumatized, and even questioned the reliability of any psychologist making such a claim. He asserted, moreover, that anyone who would make such a case for the impact of the war was attempting to construct a false sense of the nation's state of mind. Not only did he flatly contradict the studies that have been commissioned by those tasked by Israeli and Diaspora philanthropic institutions to deal with this issue, he seemingly denigrated the value and importance of the work the emergency fund has been doing. When this was pointed out to him over the course of several follow-up questions, he backtracked to the extent of allowing that he respected and valued the work of the UJC and its emergency fund and consented that, maybe, some people somewhere in Israel, might be traumatized. But Olmert still insisted there was no crisis of confidence, and no reason to be alarmed about the way the war may still be harming many Israelis. Though he was at pains to make no direct criticism of emergency fund spending or priorities, the conclusion that he didn't believe the work was all that important was inescapable. IT MAY be that Olmert had not been briefed on the research. One supposes that, given the many other problems on his plate, the prime minister may also not have been paying attention to what the emergency fund was actually doing. But the state of denial in which Olmert is living is hardly limited to his oblivious attitude to the facts about the need for aid to the traumatized. When asked about any mistakes he might have made during last year's war, Olmert reiterated a stonewall strategy that is all too familiar to Israelis. Though it was his own boasting that he would eradicate Hizbullah and free the two IDF soldiers whose kidnapping set off the fighting, Olmert blamed the press for inflating the public's expectations of a clear-cut victory that he now acknowledges was always an impossibility. For those who have never had a close-up look at the Nixonesque bunker mentality that appears to characterize Olmert's continuing grip on power as his poll ratings dip below even the margin of error itself, the gaffe about trauma was all too revealing. Granted, leaders need to inspire their people rather than wallowing in talk of "malaise," as Jimmy Carter once did of Americans. And Olmert is right when he speaks, as do other Israelis, of the nation's resilience and ability to carry on despite cruel attacks by an unconventional enemy. But a man who prefers to consider the reality of his nation's pain as unworthy of serious attention, who speaks of it as a plot against his political future rather than as the needed acknowledgement of a serious problem - who, if only by implication, denigrates a cause which Jews overseas have rightly prioritized, and in which they have invested millions - is clearly out of touch. Denial is, as the old joke goes, a river in Egypt. But, unfortunately, it appears that its source can be found in Israel, in the Prime Minister's Office. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.