In two minor, inferior countries - the United States and Britain - reputable committees of inquiry were formed to probe the gap between information relayed by George Bush and Tony Blair about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the embarrassing, perplexing result that no such smoking guns have been found. Among other things, the committees will examine intelligence that misled political leaderships, and also the question of whether Bush and Blair duped domestic public opinion and the world in order to justify their decision to remove Saddam Hussein's regime.
In contrast, in progressive, enlightened Israel, nobody is demanding any sort of account from intelligence agencies that claimed during both Persian Gulf wars that Iraq possessed chemical and, apparently, biological weapons. As a result of these assessments, governments led by Yitzhak Shamir (13 years ago) and Ariel Sharon (last year) decided to furnish gas masks to citizens. The result was that millions of citizens were genuinely afraid they could be harmed by lethal weapons against which there were no effective counter-measures.
Israel's political leaders came away feeling proud of what they did. Then deputy prime minister David Levy, who in 1990 spearheaded the decision to distribute gas masks and to protect every residence with plastic strips, believed his actions added glory to his long, magnificent terms of public service; Shaul Mofaz, who was responsible for the state's preparations ahead of the U.S.-British war in Iraq, declared proudly that no state was better protected against a possible nonconventional attack than Israel.
The results ridicule the decisions reached by the political leaderships. To this day, not a trace of nonconventional weapons have been found in Iraq; the huge expenditure made by Israel (NIS 3.5 billion) to protect itself seems, in retrospect, to have been a boondoggle. None of this is mere hindsight: At the time of the events, in 1991 and then in 2003, there were security officials who argued that intelligence reports were false alarms, that the chances of Iraq managing to seriously harm Israel were negligible, and that decisions to equip all citizens with gas masks derived from partisan-political motives, and from faulty decision-making processes in the political leadership.
Many believe it is unfair to challenge in retrospect decisions reached by leaders at times of uncertainty - and it is possible to argue that in security matters there are times when over-preparation is warranted, and that a public must take steps in its self-defense that are commensurate with the potential threat it faces. Still, this philosophy does not exempt its proponent from asking himself: Who is responsible for the erroneous information possessed by Israeli intelligence about the danger posed by Iraq? To what extent did Israel rely on foreign sources? To what extent did it depend on American and British intelligence? How did it come about that apparently authorized people spoke about how the "earth would shake" when Saddam's chemical weapons arsenals were found? Were these honest mistakes, or a deliberately mendacious propaganda campaign? In either scenario, somebody owes the public an explanation.
The catch is that in Israel top-ranking officials, especially elected politicians, aren't judged in terms of their accomplishments and failures; they govern the country on the basis of routine, and public apathy. These same leaders are now responsible for the prodigal expenditure of NIS 6 billion on the separation fence. This fence project, like the preparations undertaken to ward off the horrible threats posed by Iraq, is rationalized by a plethora of rational-sounding defense arguments. The fence project is also buttressed by public fear and distress. And (virtually) nobody asks: Is the fence really the most effective instrument to be used against Palestinian terror? Will the security arguments incorporated in the fence project be refuted during a moment of crisis (precipitated by the firing of missiles, or the development of ways to break through the fence)? Most importantly: Wouldn't it be better to make the concessions needed to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians that would render the fence superfluous, or at least reduce its cost?
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