[Marxism] Israeli despair

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 15 06:44:25 MST 2007

Israel's surge of despair
Top Israeli officials admit last summer's war against Hezbollah was a 
failure -- and denounce President Bush's actions in the Middle East.

By Gregory Levey

Feb. 15, 2007 | Hezbollah operatives plant explosives along the 
disputed border area between Lebanon and Israel. The Israeli military 
moves in and destroys them. Israeli and Lebanese forces engage in 
sporadic gun battles.

It may sound like the prelude to the war waged last summer between 
the Israeli military and Hezbollah, but it happened just last week. 
Tensions are running high along the Israel-Lebanon border again, and 
political and intelligence analysts are predicting another major 
flare-up of hostilities this spring or summer, or perhaps even 
sooner. According to Israeli military intelligence, Hezbollah remains 
firmly rooted in Lebanon and has successfully rearmed -- the 
Iranian-backed Shiite militia now has even more missiles than it had 
before last summer's war. To many Israelis, it seems as if that war, 
and the destruction it brought, were all for nothing.

For many, it is a thoroughly depressing realization. And this sense 
of depression is not only permeating the Israeli public. A series of 
recent interviews with current and former Israeli government 
officials revealed a level of pessimism across the Israeli government 
that is unprecedented in recent decades. Several senior officials 
acknowledged unequivocally that Israel lost the war against 
Hezbollah, and confirmed that this is a widely held view inside the 
Israeli government -- despite many public pronouncements to the 
contrary by Israeli leaders.

In light of Israel's close strategic ties with the United States, and 
particularly with the Bush administration, it has been all but taboo 
in the past for Israeli officials to openly criticize U.S. policy. 
But some officials I spoke with also voiced rising fears -- and 
disapproval -- over the Bush administration's handling of Iraq and 
Iran. Those officials include octogenarian Rafi Eitan, currently an 
Israeli cabinet minister, who told me that in the wake of Israel's 
failed efforts to crush Hezbollah, and with the deepening crisis in 
Iraq, Israel is in one of the most precarious situations he has ever 
seen in his seven decades of military and government service. 
Regarding President Bush's handing of Iraq, Eitan said, "Unless the 
policy changes, it is hopeless."

The level of gloom inside the Israeli government is accompanied by a 
creeping sense of paralysis -- one that could be dangerous not just 
for Israel, but for U.S. interests in the region, and for the Middle 
East as a whole. A recent conversation with a senior member of 
Israel's diplomatic corps -- someone with extensive experience in 
Israel's foreign policy establishment -- left me stunned by the 
degree of negativity. I have known him personally for several years 
and have never seen him so down on the country's prospects. "We lost 
the war," he told me, regarding last summer's conflict. "We all know 
that," he continued, adding that the failure against Hezbollah is the 
"core reason" for the deepening pessimism inside the government. This 
contrasts sharply, of course, with the official government line. As 
recently as Feb. 1, speaking to an Israeli commission investigating 
the war effort, Prime Minister Olmert, according to his aides, 
insisted once again that "Israel won the war."

The senior Israeli diplomat in part blamed Olmert's politics. "Do you 
know why we lost? Because soldiers don't want to die for these 
leaders. Who wants to die for Amir Peretz?" he said, referring to the 
Israeli defense minister, whose qualifications for the job have been 
called into question. Peretz, the leader of the Labor Party, but who 
had no real security or defense credentials, was appointed by Olmert 
last year to ensure the Labor Party's involvement in Olmert's 
coalition government.

The senior Israeli diplomat's grievances went beyond the Defense 
Ministry. He lamented the wave of cronyism, corruption and sexual 
harassment scandals that have plagued the government in recent times. 
"We live in a corrupt society, where those with merit don't get 
anywhere," he said. "It's a very sad time for the Jewish state."

I raised this striking level of gloom with another high-ranking 
diplomat, who told me he was not surprised to hear of it. "There is a 
lot of frustration right now," he nodded, "and it's not just felt in 
the Foreign Ministry." He agreed that it was caused by "all the 
corruption in the political layers, and the perception in Israel that 
the war was a failure."

Yet, the roots of the seemingly ubiquitous sense of despair may stem 
more from the goings-on in the corridors of power in Washington than 
those in Jerusalem.

In December, Daniel Levy, who served as a special advisor to former 
Prime Minister Ehud Barak and is now a senior fellow at the New 
America Foundation in Washington, told me that the Bush 
administration's Middle East policies are "just so out of sync with 
what are good politics for the U.S. and Israel." Those policies, he 
said, "have led Israel into the most dangerous situation anyone 
remembers it being in." Levy also pointed out that despite the 
American president's avowed staunch support for Israel, "Bush has 
never stepped foot in Israel or the Palestinian territories."

Every year, an influential assessment of the security situation in 
the Middle East is published by Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center, 
one of Israel's premier think tanks. This year's assessment, 
published in January, was not only bleak, but also openly critical of 
U.S. policy. "The threats to Middle East security and stability 
worsened in 2006," the assessment announced, because "the American 
failure in Iraq has hurt the standing of the U.S. in the Middle 
East." It went on to state essentially that American actions in the 
Middle East over the past few years have harmed Israeli security. It 
also argued that the United States should withdraw from Iraq in the 
near term, rather than add more troops, as Bush's surge plan is now 
doing. As one of its authors, Mark A. Heller, explained after the 
report was published, "There is no Israeli interest being served by a 
continued American presence in Iraq."

These sobering conclusions might provide a jolt to those in the 
United States -- whether American Jews or conservative evangelicals 
-- who have supported the Bush administration's policies in part 
because they were supposedly intended to help Israel.

While the U.S. and Israel clearly are united in the goal of stopping 
Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, some Israeli leaders have lost 
confidence in Bush's leadership when it comes to that crucial 
concern. In the aftermath of the release of the assessment, Uzi Arad, 
the former director of intelligence at the Mossad, added, "With 
American attention so much focused on Iraq, it comes at the expense 
of its ability to blunt the slow Iranian progression toward nuclear 
capability." Last week, I raised these assessments with Eitan, 
himself a former spymaster who led the Israeli capture of Adolf 
Eichmann in 1960, and who was the handler of the infamous spy 
Jonathan Pollard in the 1980s. "Sooner or later, a year or two, 
America will go out from Iraq," Eitan said. "Iran will unite with the 
Shiites of Iraq -- with or without force -- and then with the Shiites 
of Syria. Is this good for Israel? No, it is bad for Israel."

Against the backdrop of deepening turmoil in the region, the 
paralyzing depression within the Israeli government has clearly 
weakened it. This could play out badly in two different ways with 
regard to Iran. From a hawkish perspective, it could create a 
situation where, even if all diplomatic options fail and the United 
States does not step in, Israel might need to act militarily on its 
own against Iran -- but the government might be so paralyzed that it 
might not have the confidence or political capital to launch the 
incredibly risky military strikes deemed necessary. Perhaps even more 
dangerously, from a more dovish point of view, government leaders may 
choose to overcompensate for Israel's -- or their own -- perceived 
weakness by engaging in a potentially disastrous bombing campaign, 
without thoroughly weighing the huge risks involved or first 
exploring all the alternatives.

Several Israeli journalists have written articles recently discussing 
how Ariel Sharon -- who was plunged into his coma just over a year 
ago, at a much more optimistic time in the country's history -- would 
react if he were to awaken today. "We cannot bring ourselves to admit 
that we are lost without him," wrote Bradley Burston, a left-leaning 
columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz. "But, for a year now, we 
have proven just that ... we have lost the ability to avoid wars, 
just as we have lost the ability to win them."

Indeed, Sharon would have been aghast to observe the current state of 
affairs: no substantive progress on a solution to the 
Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Gaza in the grips of a Hamas 
government; Sharon's personal choice for army chief having resigned 
in dishonor after leading a disastrous war; a still-powerful 
Hezbollah bragging about victory in Lebanon; a demoralized Israeli 
military -- and, perhaps worst of all, a powerful and emboldened Iran 
on the rise.

The grim status quo seems to have left many at the top levels of the 
Israeli government turning their fears and anger inward. They have 
remained largely preoccupied with political infighting and back 
stabbing, and with the various allegations of criminal wrongdoing 
being leveled against many of them, instead of focusing on moving the 
country forward during deeply challenging times. Prime Minister 
Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have spent much of this past 
year engaged in an unproductive turf war over which direction Israeli 
diplomatic efforts toward restarting the Middle East peace process 
should go. And, according to many reports, Olmert and Peretz, the 
defense minister, are barely on speaking terms. Meanwhile, President 
Moshe Katsav is being investigated because of rape allegations, there 
are at least two corruption investigations in progress against Olmert 
-- and a former justice minister, Haim Ramon, was convicted in 
January of sexual harassment. With the government weighed down by all 
of this, it is unsurprising that very little seems to be happening in 
the way of diplomatic progress with Israel's neighbors.

In January, I told a personal aide to one of Israel's most 
high-profile public figures that I was considering attending the 
Herzliya Conference, Israel's most important policy conference, where 
important new diplomatic plans have in the past been floated for the 
first time. The aide waved her hand dismissively. "This year there's 
no point going," she said. "There's no substance -- everything is all 
show right now."

Many Israelis seem to agree with her evaluation of their leadership. 
In poll results released on Feb. 8, 78 percent of Israelis said they 
were "unhappy" with their leaders, citing corruption, inexperience 
and self-centeredness as their main reasons. And 68 percent of them 
said that their current leaders were worse than those of the past.

In fact, one of the senior government officials I spoke to recently 
-- usually silent on domestic political matters -- was despondent not 
only about the current "leadership vacuum," as he called it, but 
about the prospects for better leadership in the future. When I asked 
him about the chances that Livni, a skilled diplomat and relatively 
popular foreign minister, might one day be elected prime minister, he 
said, "She has no chance. The next prime minister will be a general."

Yet, he was equally pessimistic about the prospects of Dan Halutz, 
the architect of the Lebanon War. Halutz, who was once widely 
considered Ariel Sharon's presumptive heir and a future prime 
minister, recently stepped down from his position as army chief of 
staff. "He's finished," the senior government official said. And his 
view was no different regarding the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, who 
remains highly popular with the Israeli public and is considered 
strong on national security. "The Israeli people are not stupid," he 
said. "He had his chance and he failed."

When I asked him who could step in as the next prime minister and 
change course for the country, he just shook his head and stared into 
the distance.

To many in or involved with the Israeli government, George W. Bush's 
presence in the Oval Office was once reassuring. Now, it is 
increasingly worrying. Back in early 2004, when I started working in 
the Israeli Mission to the U.N. -- during the first year of the U.S. 
occupation of Iraq -- one of the senior diplomats there had an 
autographed photograph of Bush hanging behind his desk. But by the 
summer of 2005, as Iraq spiraled into chaos, I noticed that he had 
replaced it, without explanation, with a photo of U2's Bono.

For several years earlier this decade, many in Israeli society and 
government were avid fans of the Bush administration (to the dismay 
and even embarrassment of some on the Israeli left). Because of 
Bush's hard-line Middle East policies and staunch support for 
Israel's own often hard-line policies under Sharon, approval ratings 
for the president were often much higher in Israel than anywhere else 
in the world -- even the United States itself. Recently, though, as 
the recognition that the last six years may have actually made the 
situation in the Middle East considerably more unstable and dangerous 
for Israel, reverence for Bush is quickly diminishing in many quarters.

It might only add to the sense of pessimism and paralysis, then, that 
there may be little Israel's leaders can do to influence Bush -- who 
hasn't been swayed on Middle East policy even by many in the U.S. 
Congress. My former supervisor in the prime minister's office, 
Ra'anan Gissin, who was Prime Minister Sharon's longtime advisor, 
used to tell a story that illustrates this current predicament. In 
the days leading up to the Iraq war, Ra'anan sat in on a meeting 
between Prime Minister Sharon and President Bush. As always, Ra'anan 
explained, Prime Minister Sharon was very careful not to directly 
counsel any particular action to President Bush -- because of the 
rightful fear that it would be unwise for Israel to be seen in any 
way as pushing U.S. policy.

Sharon did, however, make one of his beliefs very clear. Whatever the 
United States did or didn't do in the Middle East, he said, it would 
eventually leave -- and Israel would be left behind, forced to deal 
with the consequences.

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