A Deafening Silence

Why is it that in England 50,000 people have demonstrated against the war in Iraq, whereas in Israel no one has? Why is it that in Israel there is no public debate about whether the war is necessary, whereas in Europe, and even in the United States, such a debate is at its peak?

Why is it that in England 50,000 people have demonstrated against the war in Iraq, whereas in Israel no one has? Why is it that in Israel there is no public debate about whether the war is necessary, whereas in Europe, and even in the United States, such a debate is at its peak? Is it possible that no one in Israel has any doubts about the benefits of such a war or that no one fears its dangers?

Israel is again speaking in one voice - the voice of war. As on the Palestinian question, in which uniformity, silence and indifference has characterized public discourse in the past two years, no serious public discussion can be discerned on the critical subject of the impending war in Iraq.

The government is leading and hardly anyone is asking questions. The only sound we hear is of the shuffle of feet of people who simply can't wait for American to do its thing. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, for example, who 21 years ago courageously opposed Israel's attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor, has done a characteristic flip-flop and without batting an eyelash is now urging the Americans to go to war against the same Saddam Hussein. What has changed in the meantime? Only the fact that in 1981 the bomber was Menachem Begin and Peres was the leader of the opposition, whereas now the bomber is George W. Bush and Peres is part of the government.

And even if Peres supports the war, does he have to engage in saber-rattling? No one is asking him about his change of mind. The prime minister and the defense minister are naturally gung-ho on the war. That is their right, of course, but is there no other opinion in Israel? Even if there is, its voice is being drowned out by the noise of the chorus. The herd instinct that has become stronger in Israel since the failure of the Camp David talks in July 2000 and the eruption of the intifada two months later is being manifested on the Iraqi issue, too. The media talks only about methods of self-defense and escape, where the mass graves will be dug and where the residents of Ramat Gan will flee. No one on the current events programs will be arguing against the logic of the war or asking how it will end. Representatives of the Arab-Jewish Hadash party or of Gush Shalom, the peace movement, are of course beyond the pale.

A stranger entering the country would not believe it: Israel is the only country in the West whose leaders support the war unreservedly and where no alternative opinion is voiced, and this holds true while Israel is liable to be a direct victim. Sometimes it seems the protest against the force-feeding of geese to produce foie gras, a just campaign, is far more widespread and far more vociferous than the protest against the occupation or, with all due distinction, against war in Iraq.

One of the vexatious questions that a possible war in Iraq raises was asked last week in the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee by MK Yossi Sarid, one of the few who has publicly dared to express doubt about the need for a war. Sarid wondered what would happen if the war succeeds, Saddam is toppled and the ensuing agitation in the Arab world produces three more Saddams in his place. Apart from Sarid, no one has raised this possibility, and this is of course not the only problematic possibility.

It is possible to agree that Saddam Hussein is a cruel, bloodthirsty ruler and still doubt the wisdom of a war that has the goal of removing him. No one is asking how Iraq suddenly became the world's greatest threat after years in which the defense establishment in Israel claimed that the greatest danger to this country is Iran. How do we reconcile the contradiction between the many voices of reassurance that are being heard in Israel about Iraq (the previous director of Military Intelligence, Amos Malka, said he is more concerned about traffic accidents) with the need to strike at Iraq because of the tremendous danger it poses? Are we talking about a preventive war? What will happen if the U.S. fails and turns tail, in the wake of heavy losses, as it did in Somalia? Saddam will become even stronger. Is he the only brutal leader in the world? What is the course of the obsession that the president of the U.S. has developed about him? And why not give the United Nations another fair chance to resolve the problem? Why does Israel have to be party to this joie de guerre?

The latest example of a war prosecuted by the United States offers little encouragement: Osama bin Laden is apparently still alive, more than 3,000 people, most of them civilians, were killed in Afghanistan and Al-Qaida continues to weave its webs all over the world. Was the war in Afghanistan worthwhile? Smart? Just? How is it different from the war that is now looming? It is self-evident that the U.S. is Israel's most important ally and that this obliges Israel to take a particular position, but not even America could have prevented a critical debate in the country that is known as the only democracy in the Middle East.

The automatic way Israeli opinion is formulated as if the public follows the government blindly should be a source of worry to everyone. It turns out that Israel no longer has a meaningful left, as do all other Western countries. There is no popular opposition and no one is speaking out. And that may prove more dangerous for Israel than the looming war against Iraq.