Israel 101

One of the "victory albums" of the 1967 Six Day War relates admiringly the first operation by the commando group that afterward became Unit 101. In the wake of fedayun (terrorist) activity, the decision was made "to take action against a Jordanian criminal who had committed a number of murders in Israel."

Ariel Sharon set about executing the mission enthusiastically, rounded up eight buddies he knew from the army in a van, and the very next day "they planted an explosive device by a house in the center of the village - and returned" to Israel.

So impressive was the "successful operation" that it launched a whole historic chapter of cross-border "reprisal raids." Never mind if they were a bit amorphous in describing which "house" was hit and who they actually "struck."

There have been huge changes in the international arena and in Israel since the middle of the last century - and one of the most amazing of them is the election of the same Ariel Sharon as the prime minister of Israel. But over these 50 years very small changes have taken place in the person himself and in the general security approach he embodies.

In fact, if we replace the van with an Apache helicopter or an F-16 fighter plane, the "explosive device" with a one-ton smart bomb and the "Jordanian criminal" with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin or Yasser Arafat, we will get the gist of Sharon's "policy" as it still is today.

The range of operations have become monstrous in scope, like the murderous terrorism of the Palestinians, but in their essence these are exactly the same "reprisal raids." There are the same fits of blind rage and revenge that allow unrestrained actions whose level of "success" is as dubious as the level of their logic; there is the same uninhibited, though utterly Sisyphean, pedagogical impulse "to teach the Arabs" by escalating punitive acts until their consciousness is properly burned; there is the same persona; the same vendettas; and he same systematic blurring of any concept of a border and all it stands for - self-discipline, law.

Even in real time there were those who were appalled by the "reprisal raids" and were skeptical of their point as well as of their moral implications. However, even the exponents of this method did not view these acts of revenge and deterrence as the be all and end all, and certainly not as "political meta-strategy."

They were seen as an unavoidable necessity and as a problematic tactic in terms of the moral doctrine of "purity of arms," and the view was that the less said about them, the better.

Even if the political leadership had a secret, ghetto-like admiration for the figure of the "terrifying Jewish warrior" that was embodied by Sharon and his men, the leaders of the country tried to maintain a buffer between them and the wild activity, which was conducted under a pall of secrecy.

Indeed, the myth of Unit 101 was in part created by the discipline shedding moral ambivalence and the wily games of deceiving the legitimate state authority. Here, too, a strange resemblance exists between the minuet that Sharon, as commander of Unit 101, performed around David Ben Gurion and his ministers, and his twisting dance today, as prime minister of Tseael, vis-a-vis the only authority that is above him - the president of the United States.

We see the same cautious skipping around the same "speaking untruth"; the same winks; the same effort to extract legitimization, or at least half a nod of assent, for "forbidden acts" that are already in the pipeline.

Sharon had aged 50 years - he is already far older than "Old Man" Ben Gurion was then. Yet there is something in him that refuses to reach maturity. In large measure he has remained the same wanton youth and whether it's Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin or even an American president - who by age could be his son - Sharon to this day seems to need a father figure who will give him a kind of alibi.

He heeds a respected authority from whom he can get permission, or at least a wink, to run and be naughty - to blow up "a house in the center of the village," to conquer Lebanon, to liquidate the Palestinian leadership.

There is a ludicrous reduction, in which all of "Israeli policy" today boils down to tough-guy reflexes that do not even derive legitimacy from usefulness, only from the question of whether the Americans "will let us or not."

This proves how futile was the hope that Sharon would undergo a metamorphosis and in his old age be transformed into a father figure himself - responsible and broad minded. The government's decisions about removing Arafat, tainted by a private obsession, the inability to move from a military to diplomatic phase, Sharon's personal behavior toward the judicial system in the affair of the campaign donations - and above all the public forgiveness in the face of all this -, only confirm how right Sharon himself was when he said, on his election: "I haven't changed, it's you who have changed."

What may have been appropriate for a commando unit turns out to be catastrophic when it becomes national policy. However, from many points of view, all of Israel - more accurately, the national government - has assumed Sharon's image and become a kind of huge Unit 101. It is vengeful, hot tempered, provocative, lacking boundaries (in all senses), contemptuous of anything suggesting even an iota of conciliation or complexity and, all told, happy to demonstrate what's known as the "narrow head" syndrome.

High political strategy? Far-reaching national goals? An order of priorities in which military force is only one element? Nonsense! The world can turn over, but we will carry out our operations. Let those "big guys" - whether they're named Ben Gurion, Moshe Sharett, George or Condoleezza - break their heads over it.