Winging it

Our culture of improvisation might have made sense when Israel was young - now it's become intolerable.

sela billboard 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
sela billboard 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The State of Israel has made a career of being a "state of improvisation." We've always been able scatter some magic dust of improvisation which gets us out of tough situations. It was as if just prior to some major pending catastrophe, Israelis were able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and overcome. In 1967 for instance, Israel succeeded only at the last minute in mobilizing our troops, and managed to deliver a major defeat to Arab countries poised to attack. And once again, in 1973, when Israel was attacked we managed to mobilize our reserve troops just in time to turn the war around and overcome the enemy. The Israeli economy has gone through a similar path. There was a famous story about Pinhas Sapir, the long-time industry, trade and finance minister, who used to walk around with a notepad on which he would write himself "to do" notes. It was said that the entire Israeli economy was actually managed out of that notepad of his. When issues came up in need of resolution, Sapir's notepad was always around to help. Even Israeli diplomacy has adopted a similar improvisational pattern. During the 1950s, Israel developed its policy of retaliation for fedayeen incursions across the 1949 armistice line (today's Green Line). These payback operations frequently caused significant civilian casualties and generated widespread fury against Israel. Abba Eban, our ambassador at the UN, steadfastly and devotedly defended these actions. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion was once asked why a particular operation had been executed. He replied: "You will have to wait until after I hear how Abba Eban justified it at the UN. Then - I'll know." IT IS in this pattern of improvisation and last-minute work-arounds that has given Israel a positive international reputation. Israel has always been related to as an energetic young country which always somehow manages to achieve its goals. But the magic dust is long gone. I can't put my finger on just when it happened. It could have been during the Yom Kippur War, which in retrospect has been revealed as one huge failure; or was it, perhaps, the Lebanon War; the first? the second? Maybe it was just the passage of time that dissolved that old magic improvisational dust. What befitted a young, inexperienced country gradually become dangerously outmoded for an "adult" Israel. We are, after all, reaching 60. Impetuous omissions and reckless failures are not easily forgiven. This distinction being young and old, naturally, is a matter of perspective. Maturity demands planning and looking ahead - as well as learning from past mistakes. We need to apply this model to the second Lebanon war. Reports published in the war's aftermath indicated severe failures in preparation and implementation. Such failures are intolerable. And yet, Israel entered the war relying on that magic dust of improvisation - the illusion that, hocus pocus, somehow we'd be able to overcome Hizbullah. Now, it is clear that there are no easy triumphs, not when the military is unprepared. Israel's social structure has also faltered for relying on improvisation. The home front is our soft underbelly and absorbed most of the enemy's fire during the war. We should have been prepared for that. But we weren't. There were not enough bomb shelters, not enough food; the more vulnerable sectors of society - for all their remarkable stoicism - were deeply affected by the war, thus undermining the resilience of society. Eventually, voluntary organizations and charities filled the void left by the state's ineptitude. The sense was that civilian society needed to push the state aside and take on its responsibilities, albeit only partially and with limited capacity. And then there is the most recent example of how our reliance on improvisation fails us: the Benny Sela case. A prisoner sentenced to a 35-year term escapes custody employing rudimentary techniques and leaves the entire country astounded. Now, yet another inquiry committee reveals yet another series of oversights and failures. We're left shaking our heads wondering not why this rapist escaped, but why many others haven't as well. Israel endearing early capacity for improvisation is today transformed into unforgivable superficiality and incompetence. We don't seem to put sufficient effort into preparation, planning and long-term observation. We fail to be meticulous, still expecting to be able to figure things things out as we go long. That's not good enough anymore. Life turns out to be a lot more complicated than it was when the state was young. A sheepish youthful grin of embarrassment no longer suffices. The people who make life-and-death decisions in this country need to take this new grown-up reality to heart. The writer is director-general of the United Jewish Communities-Israel and was IDF spokesman during the 1991 Gulf War.