This week, after yet another "step up" in the violence (a conservative estimate shows that the current Intifada has more steps than St. Paul's Cathedral), Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer made one of his customary appearances before the Labor Party (or what's left of it). Due to the rapidity of events and abundance of steps, it is somewhat hard to remember whether his appearance came an hour after the terrorist strike in Binyamina, or 15 minutes before the mortar shells fired on Gilo in retaliation for Israel's assassination of those responsible for the bombing in Netanya.
But one thing was clear, at least to anyone watching television: the defense minister was angry. Boy, was he angry. So furious that for a long time he faced the audience silently, with only his body language deliberately speaking volumes, his face and neck red and engorged like a blowfish, his expression clearly and overtly enraged. His whole being said: Enough! Watch me explode with anger - see me on the verge of a volcanic eruption.
Indeed, after 10 months of steps up, escalations, provocations, restraint, outbursts, revenge and counter-revenge, internal and mutual goading, insults and counter-insults and curses, it seems that Israel's leaders have left themselves only two options: They can explode, or they can ask to be kept from exploding. A carefully thought-out plan is out of the question. All that remains is pure rage, not just wordless, but also purposeless and pointless.
This is the almost spasmodic anger that instinctively propels tanks toward Palestinian-controlled areas, supposedly against the will and without the knowledge of our political leadership. The rage that makes Israel's army appear to the world like the mirror image of the hotheaded, capricious Tanzim. The volatile fury that causes shells to be fired at "Palestinian roadblocks," of all things - the naughty, naughty roadblocks that failed to stop a suicide bomber, who actually belonged to the Islamic Jihad and may in fact have crossed into Israel somewhere else...
But that's what happens when the blood goes rushing to our head: You'd better hold us back, or we may just smash that head into a wall.
True, no war is fought with cool composure, crisp logic, or any great degree of finesse. And it is also true that even Churchill rained torrents of vigorous curses on Hitler and Mussolini ("hyena," "bloodthirsty guttersnipe"). And yet even the bitterest of wars retains some trace of calculated chill, rooted in the nation's commitment to the goals of the war. But here, perhaps, because we have no clear goal to stick to, the Intifada has generated unique shock waves. Their uniqueness lies not in their capacity to destroy, but in the amount of fury, humiliation and private rage they arouse in people of all ranks, and especially in the most senior of them. Indeed, it is no longer clear just where this daily trance of anger and frustration comes from: Do our leaders and public figures inflame the people, or is it the other way around?
Either way, the enemy, however complex its motivations, has been easily and conveniently personified - whether it's Yasser Arafat or Shimon Peres, whose visit to the Likud's Knesset faction subjected him to an almost ritualized frenzy of anger and hate.
Not only marketplace vendors and the "man on the street," and not only after bombings and violent incidents. This goading has become a matter of routine for our political and military leaders, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (who this week seemed suddenly to grasp the futility of the abusive verbal whirlwind he himself had started).
The endless discussions of Israel's "restraint" only make our self-rousing more evident - as though the anger, blood and flames already raging here are nothing compared to a much greater outburst, stronger than we are, destructive even for us, that is now building up like a head of steam.
It would be too much to expect us, or even our leaders, to act with stoic calm when the Palestinians (and the Arab world in general) seem seized by anger and hatred that are like a menacing, colossal force of nature. Our anger can also be linked to our sense of having been disappointed and betrayed by the Palestinians, a feeling that several leaders - including Laborites such as Ehud Barak - have so methodically instilled in the public since the failure of the Camp David summit. But how much longer can we keep whipping ourselves into a frenzy of affronted rage?
It is one thing for the street and the populist media to do this, but how long can loathing, insults and theatrical displays of anger continue to be our leaders' substitute for genuine policy? And what will they argue in their own defense on the day after the next war or rash measure? That they were "under a very strong influence of adrenaline" (as a young man accused of a malicious, meaningless murder argued in court this week)?
Uncontrollable "bursts of adrenaline" have caused some of Israel's "most highly justified" wars (as well as some of the more inane ones). But this argument alone cannot be an acceptable alibi or excuse - not in court, and not in the court of history.
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