Exercise in Escapism

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I have been to many demonstrations in Tel-Aviv’s Rabin Square, even when it was still called "Kings of Israel Square".

I was at the legendary "Demonstration of the 400 thousand" after the Sabra and Shatila massacre (actually, there were around 200 thousand, which is still an impressive number). I was there when Yitzhak Rabin was shot. I was there when masses of young people sat on the ground, weeping silently and lighting candles for the murdered leader (It was said at the time that the young generation had finally woken up. But the young generation dried its tears and went on its way together with the cameras). I was there when 100 thousand streamed to the square quite spontaneously and erupted in an outburst of joy after Ehud Barak won the elections and delivered Israel from the nightmare of Benjamin Netanyahu (even if many of them regretted it later).

But the demonstration in which I took part the day before yesterday was different from all its predecessors. There were people from the Left and Right, religious and secularists, Orientals and Ashkenazim, settlers and peace activists, young (many young) and elderly. At one point I passed MK Effi Eitam, whom I consider the No. 1 fascist in Israel, and who may well consider me the No. 1 Destroyer of Israel. We ignored each other, but we were both there.

It was an uprising of citizens who came together to shout: Enough chutzpa! After the shameful fiasco in Lebanon, the leaders should have resigned at once. The more so after the scathing report of the Winograd commission. As the writer Meir Shalev, one of the speakers at the rally, declared: "Mr. Olmert, you said that you work for us. You are fired!"

It was a show of force of Israeli democracy. 120 thousand citizens (at least) assembled in the square in order to express frustration and anger. Some of them had a partisan interest in toppling the Olmert government, but most of those present simply came to say that they were fed up.

The demonstration was aimed at three persons: the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense and the Chief-of-Staff at the time of the war.

Dan Halutz has already drawn the conclusion and resigned. True, in the Book of Proverbs (24,17) the Bible commands us: "Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth", but, frankly, I permitted myself to rejoice and verily mine heart was gladdened.

The story started when Halutz was commander of the Air Force. In order to kill the Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh, he ordered the dropping of a one-ton bomb on his house, which also killed 15 civilians, including nine children.

We sent him and his colleagues letters, warning them that we may sue them for war crimes. When Halutz was asked how he feels when releasing such a bomb, he answered that he feels a slight bump on his wing. He added that we were traitors, and that we should be brought to trial. (Treason is the only crime still punishable by death under Israeli law.)

When Halutz was appointed Chief-of-Staff, we protested in front of the General Staff building. The protest was not only motivated by moral considerations, profound as they were. We also warned against giving the command of the army to a person whose boastful style testified to his being reckless, irresponsible and devoid of judgment.

Now comes the Winograd commission and repeats almost the same words. But in the meantime 119 Israeli soldiers, forty Israeli civilians and about a thousand Lebanese have been killed – because the pitiful political leadership was mesmerized by this winged nincompoop.

The crowd in the square directed its anger at Ehud Olmert, and to a lesser degree at the pathetic Amir Peretz. As is usual in the era of television, when the cameras can only focus on faces and not ideas, everything is personal. The entire protest was focused on individuals.

That was quite justified. This man Olmert has proved to be an arrogant and foolhardy leader, who rushed into a war with minimal knowledge of the situation in Lebanon, the capabilities of the army, the vulnerability of Israel’s civilian population to rockets. He did not consider any alternatives. His only field of expertise is party manipulations, as he is proving again now.

What is Olmert accused of? That he decided to go to war rashly. That the war had no clearly defined political and military goals. That he did not mobilize the reserves in time and did not make sure that the forces were properly trained and equipped. That he did not deploy the ground forces in time. That he decided on a big ground attack at the last moment, after the UN had already adopted the cease-fire resolution, and thus squandered the lives of 40 more soldiers.

All these accusations are accurate. But they also include a large measure of escapism.

That is a trait of the Israeli people (and perhaps of all peoples): they do all they can to avoid discussing the real disease and busy themselves with secondary, sometimes trivial, symptoms.

After the 1973 war, the people did not ask: Why did Golda Meir not respond to Anwar Sadat’s peace offer before the war? Why did we spend, after the 1967 war, six long years on victory festivals, vainglorious speeches and putting up settlements, instead of seizing a unique opportunity for making peace? Why was the Ship of State run like a Ship of Fools?

Instead of posing these questions, the Israeli public focused its frustrations, anger and protests on two questions: "Why were the reserves not called up? Why were the instruments (meaning tanks and artillery) not moved forward (on the eve of the war)?" Valid questions, but secondary ones. The Agranat Commision also focused on them. The masses demonstrated because of them. Menachem Begin rode on them to victory.

The same happened after the First Lebanon War. The condemnation was rightly focused on the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Because of it the Kahan Commision was appointed. Because of it, the legendary mega-demonstration in Kings of Israel square took place. Because of it, Ariel Sharon was driven out of the Ministry of Defense. But the main question was not asked: Why did Begin and Sharon invade Lebanon at all? Why did they prefer the Golan Heights to peace, as Moshe Dayan had previously preferred Sharm-el-Sheikh to peace? Why did they start an adventure that lasted for 18 years, at the price of more than a thousand Israeli soldiers, a war whose only lasting result was the rise to power of Hizbullah?

Now it is happening again.

Should we topple Olmert? Perhaps it would be better to replace Olmert with Tzipi Livni or Shimon Peres? (No, I’m not joking.) Or maybe it would be better to hold new elections, even if Netanyahu might win them? Is the failed Netanyahu better than the failed Olmert, or must we bring back the failed Barak? Or perhaps we should leave Olmert in place after all, in the hope that he won’t start any more wars without thinking?

But the real question is not why Olmert started the war in haste, but why he started the war at all.

Every right-thinking person understands that Hizbullah can be neutralized only by making peace with Syria, a peace for which we must give back the Golan Heights. What is more important for us – peace or the Golan? The Golan (and the God-forsaken Shebaa Farms) or peace with Lebanon?

About that no serious debate is being held – not in the Knesset, nor in the media, nor in public discussions. That was not the reason the masses assembled in the square. That is too complicated. That is too controversial. That needs cool thinking, drawing conclusions from what has happened. It is easier to shout "Olmert Go Home!"

Yes, Olmert must indeed go home. We need a new leadership, one that understands that Israel will know tranquility only if we make peace with the Palestinians, even when the price is the dismantling of settlements. Is this being discussed seriously? Would this demand draw hundreds of thousands to the square? Of course not.

In Thursday’s demonstration, Meir Shalev brought up the subject of the occupation and the settlements, much to the displeasure of the organizers who wanted to preserve unity. Some of the demonstrators protested (while others applauded). After all, that is controversial. So why talk about it on this festive occasion?

Because in the absence of a discussion of the issues that will determine our fate, everything else turns into an exercise in escapism.

Standing in the square, between men wearing knitted kippas and men wearing T-shirts, orthodox women with long sleeves and women wearing very un-orthodox tight jeans, I could not avoid a bitter thought: Where the hell were you when your voices could have saved so many lives? Were you saluting Olmert the avenging Hero, when he sent you into the war?

And you journalists who, almost all of you, called upon the people to come and protest, didn’t you call upon the people with the same enthusiasm to go to war?

What do we need now: to prepare for the next war – or to prevent the next war? To set up a government that will invade Lebanon again, and perhaps Syria, too, in order to "restore the deterrent power of the army" – or a government that will start serious negotiations to achieve peace?

My answer to myself was something like this: Even if it does not look like this on the surface, our people have already moved a long way – from "there is no Palestinian people", "Greater Israel", "United Jerusalem for all eternity" and "Our brothers the settlers", towards the recognition of reality. In spite of the brain-washing. In spite of the cult of power. In spite of the anxieties.

If you watch the hands of a clock, they do not seem to move. But after looking away for a while, you notice that their position has indeed changed.

In time, the people will assemble in the same square and demand the end of the occupation and peace with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese. Most of the crowd will applaud and, perhaps, even sing. Amen.

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