10 March 2007 - Criticizing Israel in tough times
I have been working on an article in which I criticize Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It has been an incredibly difficult task, and one that I have had serious doubts about. On the one hand, I feel very angry about the use of cluster bombs during the Lebanon War, and various other mistakes. On the other, I feel that this is the worst time to be critical, because anti-Israel hysteria is building to a feverish pitch.
I’ve decided to go ahead. One has to be able to criticize in difficult circumstances—indeed, that may be when criticism is most necessary and useful. But one has to shape such criticism very carefully. Below is an extract of the article I’ve been working on, which I’ve sent to the South African papers and which will hopefully be published this week. Then it’s back to defending Israel against the loony haters.
A photograph on the front pages of the Israeli newspapers last month said it all. There sat the Israeli Defence Force’s new chief of staff, whose predecessor had just stepped down over his mis-handling of last year’s Lebanon War. Next to him sat Defense Minister Amir Peretz, watching military exercises, peering through a pair of binoculars, trying hard to look competent. But woe!—the lens caps were still on . . .
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose approval rating is a disastrous three percent, made matters worse last month when he testified before the Winograd Commission, the government panel investigating the war. In testimony that was leaked to the media, Olmert revealed that he approved plans last March (four months before the war) to attack Lebanon in the event Hezbollah was able to kidnap Israeli soldiers.
Predictably, anti-Israel propagandists and conspiracy theorists have misconstrued Olmert’s statement to say that he had planned the war itself in advance and had used the kidnappings as a pretext. That could not have been true, and the simple proof is that Israel’s army was totally unprepared for war. Indeed, military officials greeted Olmert’s statement with outrage: if there was a plan, why didn’t we know?
Olmert’s testimony also revealed that he had tried to avoid war by quietly offering to withdraw from the Sheba’a Farms, a small area claimed by Lebanon and occupied by Israel that the UN says belongs to Syria. But Olmert’s other admissions have hurt Israel’s image, and invite legitimate questions about his responsibility for the humanitarian consequences of the war . . .
For Olmert, things should have been very different. When he took office last May, Israel held the moral and military high ground. The disengagement from Gaza in 2005 had convinced Israelis that progress, if not peace, was possible. But after the Lebanon war, Israel seemed vulnerable for the first time in decades. Hezbollah emerged from the war stronger than ever, while Israel was wracked with self-doubt . . .
This is a dangerous moment, a time when Israel dare not alienate her allies, nor lose faith in the rightness of her cause. Israel cannot afford the moral burden of what Olmert’s testimony suggests—that Israel may have gone to war unnecessarily, costing hundreds of innocent lives. The inexcusable and condemnable use of cluster bombs at the war’s end was bad enough; now Olmert has even more to answer for.
In 2002, when Palestinians made up a story that Israel had carried out a “massacre” in Jenin, Israel denied the charge. When those claims were proved false, Israel and her supporters enjoyed a huge boost of moral confidence. Many of the accusations Israel faced in Lebanon were fabrications as well. But some were not, and this time Israel’s leaders must accept responsibility for the choices they made . . .
I’ll publish another excerpt Sunday evening. I’ve just found out that Harvard Law School’s Justice For Palestine group is hosting an “Israel-apartheid” panel discussion (on Friday night, as usual, to minimize Jewish attendance). And I’ve been sent an article from this week’s Economist that blames Israel for the flaws in the Saudi peace plan. Hard times, indeed. But despair cannot lead to silence.