The lessons of 1948

It is worth recalling those dramatic days of 1948 as we wait for the report of the Winograd Committee.

olmert fed up 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert fed up 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
This has been a week of sadness and of joy, of memories and of fantasy. The speeches we heard from our acting president, from our prime minister and from others were largely make-believe. It could hardly be otherwise. On Memorial Day or on the day to celebrate our independence one remembers the good, the Israel that we wanted and fought and died for, and not the Israel whose president and minister of finance are close to indictment on criminal charges, and whose prime minister and yet one of his ministers - Mr. Lieberman - are under investigation. We all have our memories. Special events, particular scenes from the past are etched in our subconscious. In most countries memories revolve round personal events - romance, family, personal achievements or failures; in Israel, for many of its citizens, memories bring back scenes of war. The Lebanese wars, the Yom Kippur War, the War of Attrition, the Six Day War all figure prominently in our collective memory. My own war memories go all the way back to the War of Independence. As a young, very young, new immigrant from Great Britain I fought in the battles for Jerusalem until my budding military career came to an abrupt end when I got in the way of an Arab bullet during intense house-to-house fighting in the south of the city. Casualties in Jerusalem were heavy; in our platoon of 35 soldiers only nine came through the war unscathed. The one war that the citizens of Israel, sabras and immigrants alike, know very little about is the War of Independence, which was truly the most remarkable of all of Israel's wars. How many among us, for example, realize that we came to within an inch of losing Jerusalem to Jordan's crack Arab Legion? Backed with armor and artillery, the Legionnaires advanced to within less than a mile of the center of Jewish Jerusalem before being beaten back. Jerusalem's fate hinged round the fierce fighting in the gardens and the building of the Convent of Notre Dame, which was held by poorly armed citizen-soldiers (one of the commanders at Notre Dame was a world famous professor of zoology from the Hebrew University). Had Notre Dame fallen nothing would have stopped the Legion from taking over the center of the city. How many among us know that on July 6, 1948, during a short truce, David Ben-Gurion resigned as prime minister and minister of defense? His resignation was one of the best-kept secrets of the war, but caused much consternation among the recently appointed cabinet of the new state and, in particular, in the General Staff. The Palmah and Hagana commanders who had become members of the new army's General Staff had dissented violently from Ben-Gurion's plans to reorganize the armed forces, and that led to his resignation. They had their own ideas and were not willing to accede to the mandate of their minister. Ben-Gurion rescinded his letter of resignation only after the commanders headed by Yigael Yadin intimated that they were willing to obey any order of the government. The prime minister reasserted his leadership, and transformed Israel's armed forces, including the Irgun, Lehi (Stern Gang) and the Palmah, into a conventional army. Without Ben-Gurion's iron hand, without his implacable leadership, the War of Independence would have ended very differently. It is worth recalling those dramatic days of 1948 as we wait for the report of the Winograd Committee, due to be published next week. Strong leadership of the Ben-Gurion genre has been the one ingredient that is lacking in Israel. A leader in Ben-Gurion's book has to take decisions that he believes are in the interest of his/her people even if they are unpopular, and not kowtow to public demands. Yet his iron rule was tempered by a deep-seated belief in the need to uphold the democratic foundation on which his government rested and in the supremacy of law. It is safe to say that, if Ben-Gurion were prime minister today he would have dismantled all the illegal outposts in Judea and Samaria, for the simple reason that they were illegal. He would not have allowed the settlers to remain in the building they occupied on the Hebron road, because they did not act according to the law, and he would not have passively accepted the shame inflicted on the army and the government by the settlers when they invested Homesh on Independence Day in defiance of a government decision forbidding them to go there. He would not have turned a blind eye to the many illegal acts perpetrated by the settlers, because he would have known that to compromise on upholding the law was to take the first step down a very steep and slippery slope toward a loss of morals and toward internal weakness. For him, the need for the army to obey civilian authority was sacrosanct, as his decision to resign in the midst of a war rather than allow the military commanders to ride rough-shot over their civilian leaders amply demonstrates. Had he been with us today he would have, without doubt, sacked the commander of the Central Command, Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh, for the highly political speech he made recently in which he criticized the government's decision to disengage from the Gaza Strip. Our present government took none of these steps, and the result of this weakness is plain for all to see. As we head into the 60th year of our statehood, we have a lot to be thankful for, for we have witnessed colossal achievements since those harrowing days of 1948 when the fate of the newly established state hung in the balance. We also have lessons to learn from those days. Will Judge Winograd help us in the learning process?