Dan Meridor was agitated. His brother Salai had phoned that night from Washington and had dictated to him, using a primitive code, the American secretary of state James Baker's hard questions about Israel's willingness to enter into a diplomatic process with Palestinian representatives. The next day, a Saturday, Meridor went to the home of prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and read him the American message. Let's tell them yes and get it over with, he pleaded. But Shamir did not get excited. "It's not urgent," he asserted. "Let's wait."
Shamir maintained these strong nerves when Baker's questions brought about the breakup of his government, and also a year later during the Gulf War. Iraqi Scud missiles fell on Tel Aviv, the army was raring to respond and the generals were warning about the erosion of Israel's deterrence. Only Shamir didn't panic. He realized that Israel had nothing to look for in Iraq and procrastinated through fruitless discussions until the war ended. Shamir had neither a "national assessment team," as the Winograd report recommends, nor military experience in three-division battles, nor a doctorate in decision-making. He was, however, "made of granite," as Ehud Barak observed, and refused to decide or act under pressure. There's no need to get excited about anything, Shamir would say.
Ariel Sharon behaved the same way as prime minister. He always preferred to conduct himself ponderously and not to react off the cuff. He wanted others to convince him as to why he should react at all. His subordinates and his government ministers spoke to him submissively, and anyone who dared to argue or deviate from the line was punished with a cynical remark. Sharon sent the Israel Defense Forces to the towns of the West Bank in Operation Defensive Shield only after he was shown that the army was able to operate in refugee camps in the territories without getting embroiled in bloody battles there. He implemented the disengagement plan through a long-term timetable, which allowed for the IDF to be prepared for the task and isolated opponents of the evacuation. He preferred to be accused of procrastination and he never justified his decisions by the need to act quickly. Sharon refrained from making immediate decisions after grave terror attacks so the anger and the pain would not blind him. And when Hezbollah provoked him, toward the end of his time in office, he simply said: "As far as action on the border with Lebanon goes - don't do whatever doesn't need to be done there."
The Winograd report has shown that at the root of the failure in Lebanon War II was haste: the desire to respond quickly to the kidnapping of the soldiers in the North instead of first thinking about what would come of it and about how the military action would achieve the aims. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to go to war without stopping to take a drink of water, think and consult. To his credit it must be said that the entire country, apart from the Arab Knesset members, was swept along in the belligerent enthusiasm and desire to teach Nasrallah a lesson. But this does not detract from Olmert's responsibility - it is his role to withstand such pressures.
The solutions the Winograd Committee is suggesting are drawn from the bureaucratic lexicon: enlarging the National Security Council, multi-ministerial discussions, enrichment workshops for ministers, a procedure for presenting a "second opinion." All this is good and important, and should have been done long ago. But let there be no illusions: No team, however professional and sophisticated, can withstand a prime minister if the latter is set on heading for the battlefield. No team can prevent a national imbroglio of many years, like the establishment of the Jewish settlements in the territories. It suffices to look at how the American administration, with its tremendous advisory teams overflowing with professors and doctors, became embroiled in an unnecessary war in Iraq and does not know how to leave.
The committee could have spared a lot of ink and blood had it added a simple recommendation: not to react quickly to crises. It is better to sleep in, calm down and get up in the morning with new insights and ideas. This does not ensure immunity from mistakes, or guarantee the best possible decisions in any situation, but it seems there is no better invention for preventing imbroglios.
And it also has political value: Shamir and Sharon, with their ponderous and cynical conduct, survived in office longer than their daring younger colleagues. At moments of truth the public prefers to rely on sober, level-headed leaders and to avoid adventures.
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