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Muhammad al-Dura mural 390.(Photo by: REUTERS)
Into the Fray: Can the people trust the government?
The people of Israel are confronting a crisis of credibility. Can they trust the people elected to lead them?
As soon as we abandon our own reason, and are content to rely upon authority, there is no end to our troubles.
– Bertrand Russell, 1950

This week, almost a decade and a half after the Muhammad al-Dura incident at the Netzarim junction in the Gaza Strip, the government of Israel has taken a stand, rebuting responsibility for the death of the then-12 year old Palestinian child.

Hardly a ‘silver bullet’

While hardly a “silver bullet,” definitively disproving the vicious blood libel against the IDF the incident triggered, the investigatory initiative, as a stand-alone endeavor, may arguably have some merit to it. As The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon points out in his astute analysis (May 21): “The [government] panel, as convincing as it might be, did not incontrovertibly demonstrate the truth. Rather, it put out – 13 years after the event – a strongly argued Israeli version of those events.”

However, when viewed in broader context, the handling of the al-Dura affair highlights the dismal performance of almost four decades of successive Israeli governments, frittering away the fruits – both physical assets and international stature – of Israel’s stunning military victory of June 1967.

Significantly, whatever one might feel regarding the wisdom of reopening the controversy after so much time, it is extremely doubtful whether the government would have instituted the recent inquiry and attempted to shake off blame attributed to it, without the tenacity of private citizens such as Philip Karsenty and Dr. Yehuda David, who fought unstintingly to expose the truth –largely at their own expense, with precious little official support, and not infrequently, despite official disapproval.

Indeed, the hesitant, lethargic and erratic response that characterized the way Israel dealt with the al-Dura episode reflects much of what has characterized the conduct of our national strategy over the better part of the last four decades, in the realms of both security and diplomacy.

Perverse pessimism?

Prima facie, it is easy to dismiss sweeping accusations of strategic incompetence against the Israeli leadership over recent decades as excessive alarmism, at best, and unsubstantiated hysteria, at worst.

After all, since its inception Israel has undergone astounding development. For anyone living under the rugged austerity that prevailed during the first decade of the state, the realities of today would surely have seemed an unattainable dream. Then, basic foodstuffs were rationed by government decree; waves of immigrants were housed in tents and tin shacks without running water or electricity; gnawing doubts existed as to whether the nascent, poorly equipped, largely untested IDF could meet the daunting challenges it faced.

In those forbidding circumstances of chronic scarcity and acute insecurity, no one could have pictured that within a few decades, Israel would be traversed by multilane highways, that household kitchens would be equipped with the latest modern conveniences, that foreign travel would be a commonplace experience, that consumerism would rival levels in many developed countries.

Visible signs of burgeoning power and prosperity abound everywhere: Surging GDP per capita, amazing advances in science and technology, massive gas finds and the prospect of soon-to-be-attained energy independence.

On the security front, things appear well in hand, with little to induce a sense of immediate existential danger to national survival. The once-horrific Palestinian terror has faded into a faint memory, with most of the country enjoying long periods of calm, punctuated by brief low-intensity conflagrations, with little impact on major urban metropolises. Israel’s regional adversaries are in debilitating “post-Spring” disarray.

Even with regard to Iran, surreptitious computer worms and mysterious explosions appear to have disrupted – at least to some degree – Tehran’s nuclear program, causing the projected schedule for doomsday scenarios to be repeatedly pushed back.

Plush upholstery, faulty brakes

Surely all this makes pronouncements of pessimism seem positively perverse? Surely all this awesome achievement points to the foresight and competence of Israeli governments rather than any alleged ineptitude? However, despite the undeniable successes, at least some of which must be credited to good governance, any congratulatory complacency would be perilously misplaced.

A dispassionate analysis, entailing a measure of historical perspective, of Israel’s major geostrategic decisions since the mid- 1970s reveals a depressing sequence of massive miscalculation, coupled with obdurate refusal not only to concede error and engage in timely corrective measures, but to stubbornly adhere to the self-same disproven political paradigm for future policy formulation.

Regrettably, a compelling case could be presented for likening the behavior of successive governments to that of the management of a public transportation company that focuses on upgrading the upholstery of its buses, enhancing their air-conditioning, improving the stereo-systems and installing wi-fi, but neglects the maintenance of the brakes and skips oil-changes.

Thus for the passengers – the Israeli people – the journey seems increasingly comfortable, but as the inevitable curves in the road approach, increasingly dangerous.

In fact, it may be worse. Without wishing to push the analogy too far, imagine that the management was aware of the calamitous consequences of its policy, but persisted with it anyway. After all, both in the present government and in several of its predecessors, numerous ministers warned of the perils of policy they later embraced – and were even elected to public office on the basis of their opposition to it.

Misguided and myopic

Ever since the much-heralded 1978 Camp David Accords, as a result of a series of misguided and myopic government decisions, Israel has found itself in an ever-tightening and menacing geostrategic stranglehold.

These decisions have created a set of geopolitical circumstances that – despite the modern comforts of day-to-day life – are gradually but inexorably coalescing into a situation that makes the viability of Israel increasingly untenable.

The decision to evacuate Sinai – universally applauded except for by a small band of then-reviled, but ultimately vindicated, skeptics – has led to what in effect is a largely uncontrolled – and uncontrollable – jihadi emirate, in which acts of unspeakable savagery are the order of the day. Courtesy of the Begin-government, the peninsula is slowly evolving into a security nightmare, pressing ever-more ominously on Israel’s long southern border, threatening to obliterate the tourist industry in Eilat, with no good option even remotely conceivable.

Given the situation in Egypt it is difficult to know which would be worse:

(a) To let the Islamist regime remilitarize the peninsula – and thereby not only forfeit the major tangible benefit for Israel in the peace agreement, but risk the weapons introduced to the area, ostensibly to impose law and order, falling into the hands of the Islamist warlords they were intended to pacify.

(b) To insist on maintaining the demilitarization – and allow the entire peninsula to descend into unregulated chaos with all the attendant security hazards, nourished by inputs across the largely unrestricted border with the Islamist-dominated entity in Gaza.

(c) To retake Sinai – or significant tracts of it – and risk a full-scale war with Egypt and any other allies (state or non-state) that might be eager stand by its side.

True, the withdrawal treaty with Egypt did provide 30 years of uneasy “cold peace” – or rather prickly non-belligerence. But in the long run that is likely to appear a rather forlorn return, for which future generations may well be called on to pay – with daunting compound interest.

Throwing caution to the wind

Barely a decade after the Sinai pullout, the Rabin government decided to throw caution to the wind and dispense with all the hitherto sober caution regarding the terrorist PLO headed by Yasser Arafat.

Disdainfully disregarding pleas of “Don’t give them guns” by opponents of the fateful 1993 Oslo Accords, who were dismissed as “right-wing religious radicals,” the Labor-led coalition acceded to the deployment of armed Arab militias within mortar range of the national parliament and almost instantaneously unleashed a wave of unprecedented bloodshed among the civilian population that took over a decade to rein in.

Several years later, with Ehud Barak as prime minister, Israel undertook a hasty and unbecoming unilateral evacuation of the security zone in south Lebanon. Apparently more intimidated by Israeli activist organizations such as “The Four Mothers” than by the specter of Islamist terror on our northern border, the government sanctioned the 2000 IDF withdrawal from the area, facilitating its takeover by the implacably inimical Hezbollah and the buildup of its arsenal of rockets and missiles, which culminated in the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

This military encounter, grossly mismanaged by the Kadima-led government of Olmert-Linvi, which, shackled by its commitment to the ridiculous notion of unilateral withdrawal, could not permit military rationale to determine IDF operations, ended with the ludicrous UN Resolution 1701. Predictably, the result has been an immensely empowered Hezbollah with it weapons stockpile quadrupled and its political stature immeasurably enhanced.

It would be a grave error to believe that the subsequent years of calm on our northern border reflect successful deterrence of Hezbollah. Its will to fight remains undiminished.

It merely indicates that it has been forced to regroup, rearm and redeploy – and to wait, with greatly improved capabilities, for the next opportune moment.

Flying in the face of common sense

Emboldened by the perceived flight of the IDF from south Lebanon and by the far-reaching concessions offered by Barak, the Palestinians in 2000 launched the bloody second intifada that, once again, brought carnage to the streets of Israel.

The wave of bloody violence was only contained after the 2002 Defensive Shield Operation, the construction of the muchmaligned security barrier and a series of targeted assassinations of leading terrorists.

Astoundingly, despite accumulated experience and many of his own clearly stated positions, Ariel Sharon, Barak’s successor, embarked on a policy that flew in the face of every vestige of common sense: Unilateral evacuation of the Gaza Strip and the eradication of all remnants of Jewish presence in the area.

The result has – predictably – been the rise of an Islamist enclave, with increasing military capabilities and political stature that can hold the entire south of the country hostage at its whim, while comprising a plentiful source supply for the radicals in Sinai.

But for the grace of God

In light of the escalating security problems on the fronts with Sinai, Lebanon and Gaza, one can only shudder to think of the situation we might well be facing now on the border with Syria, had previous governments “succeeded” in concluding a deal with Damascus, and the Golan Heights had been transferred to the control of an Assad regime. Against the backdrop of brutality and bloodshed that has engulfed Syria, how risible the assurances of so many “well-informed authorities” that Assad could be relied upon seem today? Imagine the dread that would be felt in the country if al-Qaida affiliates were now in control of the Golan, commanding the approaches to the Galilee and overlooking Tiberias. How chilling it is to realize that it is but for the grace of God (or good fortune – depending on one’s religious proclivities), not the prudence and foresight of the Israeli government, that the country might well be facing such a calamitous situation.

But worse might still be in store....

Disregarding past debacles

There are indeed ominous signs on the horizon of things to come. The hectic comings and goings of Secretary of State Kerry, the rumors in the public domain, the de facto building freeze, the well-funded drive for a unilateral withdrawal to the security barrier and delineation of the provisional borders, all augur ill for the future.

Given the mounting dangers to national security that the injudicious adoption of a policy based on political appeasement -cum- territorial concessions has precipitated in the South and North, it seems almost inconceivable that it is again being contemplated in the East – where its inevitable failure would have far graver ramifications than elsewhere. Could it be that a government headed by a premier, and composed of a bevy of ministers, senior officials and advisers, who built their political careers on warning of the perils of relinquishing the highlands of Judea and Samaria and control of the Jordan Valley, be the government that does precisely that? The people of Israel are confronting a crisis of credibility. Can they trust the people elected to lead them to “press on the brakes” and stop the country hurtling – plush upholstery, wi-fi connections and all – into the dangerous curves.

If not, who killed Muhammad al-Dura – if he was killed at all – will seem like small potatoes.

Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.
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