It’s impossible to understand or explain Israel’s passive-aggressive responses to the “flotilla crisis” without reference to the ground from which its current leaders emerged. Both the prime minister and the defense minister are dyed-in-the-wool “creatures of military operations.” Both were steeped in the instant-heroism mentality and the commando spirit − the ethos in which a military force shows up at the height of a crisis like a deus ex machina and in a single stroke slices through the Gordian knot.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s public image grew out of the 1972 rescue of a hijacked Sabena passenger plane, during which he was seen standing on the wing of the aircraft waving his pistol. And one cannot imagine the political career of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without Operation Entebbe and the myth-cloaked death of his brother Yoni − a mission so glorious and electrifying that its inspiring charge alone could turn his brother into a star, both as “Mr. Terror” and as a veteran of Sayeret Matkal, the Israel Defense Forces general staff’s elite special-operations force.
Those 1970s rescue operations were seen as the continuation of the largest and most miraculous one of all, the Six-Day War. Although decades have passed since the moral “high” was injected into our veins our leaders have never stopped trying to reconstruct it in order to atone for their ineffectiveness as statesmen. And the greater the number of successive failed missions, the greater the longing for the next redemptive mission that would “heal” the trauma and the bad trip of its predecessor. The next “jackpot” always appeared to be around the corner: if not in Lebanon, then in Gaza; if not in Gaza, then in Iran.
Netanyahu and Barak came into power for the second time, despite each man’s record of failure, on the wings of two contradictory, or complementary, hopes: First, that in combination they would deliver the goods and create the redemptive “operation to end all operations,” the smartest one of all. Second, that they of all people − and not civilian leaders such as Ehud Olmert, Shimon Peres or Amir Peretz, who felt a need to overreact militarily − could gain the maturity necessary for an act of diplomatic courage. But so far they haven’t fulfilled either hope. They have demonstrated both a total absence of courage and inspiration in the diplomatic sphere and an absence of creativity in the use of force. So what’s left?
The failure of the flotilla operation is less troubling than the national “jonesing” that has followed it: the frenetic flitting between the poles of reflexive victimhood − Oy oy oy they resisted, they had knives, swords and other weapons, the activists who were killed were “big-bodied” − and of inert heroism (praise for the restraint and sensitivity that resulted in only nine and not 600 deaths; the desperate attempt to cling to the vestiges of the myths of military prowess and the increased stifling of criticism with the slogan “Quiet, we’re saluting”). All of these, together with a great sense of missed opportunity: the illusion that a “successful” operation − difficult to define and to imagine in any event − would have relieved, even temporarily, a certain existential angst.
All these responses were more intense this week, although in fact they are constant. They are the responses of addicts who are repeatedly denied their fix: the perfect IDF “operation,” or the decisive war, which will stifle any question and complaints (and any need for statesmanship).
Some point to a sea change in the Palestinian, and even the Hamas, leadership, saying that they have finally discovered the advantages of propaganda and statesmanship over violence and terror. Instead of encouraging and wholeheartedly adopting this approach, Israel, which hasn’t changed its thought patterns for decades, is “caught by surprise” and even dismayed. (Recently an intelligence official actually called the absence of Palestinian terror a “propaganda problem”). In the absence of statesmanship, all Israel can offer is another clumsy operation in which it comes off looking like some relic from the 1970s and ‘80s with a commando knife between its teeth. Even worse: It looks like Avigdor Lieberman, Eli Yishai, Moshe Ya’alon and all the rest.
Israel has always complained, condescendingly, that the neighbors it is forced to deal with are Arabs rather than “Norwegians and Swedes.” Now, when it is dealing with Europeans and the entire world, Israel can see how it itself is perceived − and to blush furiously. If it still can.