The removal of censorship restrictions on Israel’s attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor more than a decade after it happened revealed a serious deficiency in public oversight of the Israel Defense Forces. Since the nighttime bombing on September 6, 2007, Israel has been “ambiguous” about air force operations involving the violation of the sovereignty of nearby and distant countries. On the pretext of trying to avoid embarrassing the enemy and pushing it into reprisals, any public discussion of the army’s primary activity, fighting “the war between the wars,” is prohibited.
Israeli citizens generally find out about Israel Air Force actions from “foreign sources;” videos of burning buildings near Damascus, declarations in the Arab media, or investigative reports by American or British journalists. All those reports are quoted in Israel, and sometimes even get confirmed by general remarks made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or senior army officers about the dozens of aerial attacks conducted by Israel over its northern border.
But a blurry photo of flames or a vague declaration by a politician or senior officer are not basis for a meaningful public debate regarding military operations, their goals and their efficacy. Such debate is vital in a democratic country. When the military censor blocks any reporting on the decision-making process that preceded the cross-border operations, the public is forced to blindly rely on Netanyahu, the members of the security cabinet, and the IDF’s commanders. This “room for denial,” created to prevent an external escalation, also works largely inward, and gives the government and the military immunity from criticism of their decisions and actions.
The long-delayed revelation of the dispute between Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, prime minister and defense minister at the time of the attack on the Syrian reactor, shows that even within the system there can be arguments about the purpose and timing of cross-border operations. The Israeli public, which is expected to take considerable risks even “between the wars,” is entitled to know, certainly retroactively, about such differences of opinion and to draw its own conclusions about the wisdom of cabinet and army decisions, without compromising the secrecy of the action. The impressive success of the attack on the reactor, which was destroyed without casualties or damage on the Israeli side, should not lead us to forget the foundations of democracy.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.
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