Israel's surge of despair

Top Israeli officials admit last summer's war against Hezbollah was a failure -- and denounce President Bush's actions in the Middle East.

Published February 15, 2007 1:08PM (EST)

Hezbollah operatives plant explosives along the disputed border area between Lebanon and Israel. The Israeli military moves in and destroys them. Israeli and Lebanese forces engage in sporadic gun battles.

It may sound like the prelude to the war waged last summer between the Israeli military and Hezbollah, but it happened just last week. Tensions are running high along the Israel-Lebanon border again, and political and intelligence analysts are predicting another major flare-up of hostilities this spring or summer, or perhaps even sooner. According to Israeli military intelligence, Hezbollah remains firmly rooted in Lebanon and has successfully rearmed -- the Iranian-backed Shiite militia now has even more missiles than it had before last summer's war. To many Israelis, it seems as if that war, and the destruction it brought, were all for nothing.

For many, it is a thoroughly depressing realization. And this sense of depression is not only permeating the Israeli public. A series of recent interviews with current and former Israeli government officials revealed a level of pessimism across the Israeli government that is unprecedented in recent decades. Several senior officials acknowledged unequivocally that Israel lost the war against Hezbollah, and confirmed that this is a widely held view inside the Israeli government -- despite many public pronouncements to the contrary by Israeli leaders.

In light of Israel's close strategic ties with the United States, and particularly with the Bush administration, it has been all but taboo in the past for Israeli officials to openly criticize U.S. policy. But some officials I spoke with also voiced rising fears -- and disapproval -- over the Bush administration's handling of Iraq and Iran. Those officials include octogenarian Rafi Eitan, currently an Israeli cabinet minister, who told me that in the wake of Israel's failed efforts to crush Hezbollah, and with the deepening crisis in Iraq, Israel is in one of the most precarious situations he has ever seen in his seven decades of military and government service. Regarding President Bush's handing of Iraq, Eitan said, "Unless the policy changes, it is hopeless."

The level of gloom inside the Israeli government is accompanied by a creeping sense of paralysis -- one that could be dangerous not just for Israel, but for U.S. interests in the region, and for the Middle East as a whole. A recent conversation with a senior member of Israel's diplomatic corps -- someone with extensive experience in Israel's foreign policy establishment -- left me stunned by the degree of negativity. I have known him personally for several years and have never seen him so down on the country's prospects. "We lost the war," he told me, regarding last summer's conflict. "We all know that," he continued, adding that the failure against Hezbollah is the "core reason" for the deepening pessimism inside the government. This contrasts sharply, of course, with the official government line. As recently as Feb. 1, speaking to an Israeli commission investigating the war effort, Prime Minister Olmert, according to his aides, insisted once again that "Israel won the war."

The senior Israeli diplomat in part blamed Olmert's politics. "Do you know why we lost? Because soldiers don't want to die for these leaders. Who wants to die for Amir Peretz?" he said, referring to the Israeli defense minister, whose qualifications for the job have been called into question. Peretz, the leader of the Labor Party, but who had no real security or defense credentials, was appointed by Olmert last year to ensure the Labor Party's involvement in Olmert's coalition government.

The senior Israeli diplomat's grievances went beyond the Defense Ministry. He lamented the wave of cronyism, corruption and sexual harassment scandals that have plagued the government in recent times. "We live in a corrupt society, where those with merit don't get anywhere," he said. "It's a very sad time for the Jewish state."

I raised this striking level of gloom with another high-ranking diplomat, who told me he was not surprised to hear of it. "There is a lot of frustration right now," he nodded, "and it's not just felt in the Foreign Ministry." He agreed that it was caused by "all the corruption in the political layers, and the perception in Israel that the war was a failure."

Yet, the roots of the seemingly ubiquitous sense of despair may stem more from the goings-on in the corridors of power in Washington than those in Jerusalem.

In December, Daniel Levy, who served as a special advisor to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, told me that the Bush administration's Middle East policies are "just so out of sync with what are good politics for the U.S. and Israel." Those policies, he said, "have led Israel into the most dangerous situation anyone remembers it being in." Levy also pointed out that despite the American president's avowed staunch support for Israel, "Bush has never stepped foot in Israel or the Palestinian territories."

Every year, an influential assessment of the security situation in the Middle East is published by Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center, one of Israel's premier think tanks. This year's assessment, published in January, was not only bleak, but also openly critical of U.S. policy. "The threats to Middle East security and stability worsened in 2006," the assessment announced, because "the American failure in Iraq has hurt the standing of the U.S. in the Middle East." It went on to state essentially that American actions in the Middle East over the past few years have harmed Israeli security. It also argued that the United States should withdraw from Iraq in the near term, rather than add more troops, as Bush's surge plan is now doing. As one of its authors, Mark A. Heller, explained after the report was published, "There is no Israeli interest being served by a continued American presence in Iraq."

These sobering conclusions might provide a jolt to those in the United States -- whether American Jews or conservative evangelicals -- who have supported the Bush administration's policies in part because they were supposedly intended to help Israel.

While the U.S. and Israel clearly are united in the goal of stopping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, some Israeli leaders have lost confidence in Bush's leadership when it comes to that crucial concern. In the aftermath of the release of the assessment, Uzi Arad, the former director of intelligence at the Mossad, added, "With American attention so much focused on Iraq, it comes at the expense of its ability to blunt the slow Iranian progression toward nuclear capability." Last week, I raised these assessments with Eitan, himself a former spymaster who led the Israeli capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960, and who was the handler of the infamous spy Jonathan Pollard in the 1980s. "Sooner or later, a year or two, America will go out from Iraq," Eitan said. "Iran will unite with the Shiites of Iraq -- with or without force -- and then with the Shiites of Syria. Is this good for Israel? No, it is bad for Israel."

Against the backdrop of deepening turmoil in the region, the paralyzing depression within the Israeli government has clearly weakened it. This could play out badly in two different ways with regard to Iran. From a hawkish perspective, it could create a situation where, even if all diplomatic options fail and the United States does not step in, Israel might need to act militarily on its own against Iran -- but the government might be so paralyzed that it might not have the confidence or political capital to launch the incredibly risky military strikes deemed necessary. Perhaps even more dangerously, from a more dovish point of view, government leaders may choose to overcompensate for Israel's -- or their own -- perceived weakness by engaging in a potentially disastrous bombing campaign, without thoroughly weighing the huge risks involved or first exploring all the alternatives.

Several Israeli journalists have written articles recently discussing how Ariel Sharon -- who was plunged into his coma just over a year ago, at a much more optimistic time in the country's history -- would react if he were to awaken today. "We cannot bring ourselves to admit that we are lost without him," wrote Bradley Burston, a left-leaning columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz. "But, for a year now, we have proven just that ... we have lost the ability to avoid wars, just as we have lost the ability to win them."

Indeed, Sharon would have been aghast to observe the current state of affairs: no substantive progress on a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Gaza in the grips of a Hamas government; Sharon's personal choice for army chief having resigned in dishonor after leading a disastrous war; a still-powerful Hezbollah bragging about victory in Lebanon; a demoralized Israeli military -- and, perhaps worst of all, a powerful and emboldened Iran on the rise.

The grim status quo seems to have left many at the top levels of the Israeli government turning their fears and anger inward. They have remained largely preoccupied with political infighting and back stabbing, and with the various allegations of criminal wrongdoing being leveled against many of them, instead of focusing on moving the country forward during deeply challenging times. Prime Minister Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have spent much of this past year engaged in an unproductive turf war over which direction Israeli diplomatic efforts toward restarting the Middle East peace process should go. And, according to many reports, Olmert and Peretz, the defense minister, are barely on speaking terms. Meanwhile, President Moshe Katsav is being investigated because of rape allegations, there are at least two corruption investigations in progress against Olmert -- and a former justice minister, Haim Ramon, was convicted in January of sexual harassment. With the government weighed down by all of this, it is unsurprising that very little seems to be happening in the way of diplomatic progress with Israel's neighbors.

In January, I told a personal aide to one of Israel's most high-profile public figures that I was considering attending the Herzliya Conference, Israel's most important policy conference, where important new diplomatic plans have in the past been floated for the first time. The aide waved her hand dismissively. "This year there's no point going," she said. "There's no substance -- everything is all show right now."

Many Israelis seem to agree with her evaluation of their leadership. In poll results released on Feb. 8, 78 percent of Israelis said they were "unhappy" with their leaders, citing corruption, inexperience and self-centeredness as their main reasons. And 68 percent of them said that their current leaders were worse than those of the past.

In fact, one of the senior government officials I spoke to recently -- usually silent on domestic political matters -- was despondent not only about the current "leadership vacuum," as he called it, but about the prospects for better leadership in the future. When I asked him about the chances that Livni, a skilled diplomat and relatively popular foreign minister, might one day be elected prime minister, he said, "She has no chance. The next prime minister will be a general."

Yet, he was equally pessimistic about the prospects of Dan Halutz, the architect of the Lebanon War. Halutz, who was once widely considered Ariel Sharon's presumptive heir and a future prime minister, recently stepped down from his position as army chief of staff. "He's finished," the senior government official said. And his view was no different regarding the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, who remains highly popular with the Israeli public and is considered strong on national security. "The Israeli people are not stupid," he said. "He had his chance and he failed."

When I asked him who could step in as the next prime minister and change course for the country, he just shook his head and stared into the distance.

To many in or involved with the Israeli government, George W. Bush's presence in the Oval Office was once reassuring. Now, it is increasingly worrying. Back in early 2004, when I started working in the Israeli Mission to the U.N. -- during the first year of the U.S. occupation of Iraq -- one of the senior diplomats there had an autographed photograph of Bush hanging behind his desk. But by the summer of 2005, as Iraq spiraled into chaos, I noticed that he had replaced it, without explanation, with a photo of U2's Bono.

For several years earlier this decade, many in Israeli society and government were avid fans of the Bush administration (to the dismay and even embarrassment of some on the Israeli left). Because of Bush's hard-line Middle East policies and staunch support for Israel's own often hard-line policies under Sharon, approval ratings for the president were often much higher in Israel than anywhere else in the world -- even the United States itself. Recently, though, as the recognition that the last six years may have actually made the situation in the Middle East considerably more unstable and dangerous for Israel, reverence for Bush is quickly diminishing in many quarters.

It might only add to the sense of pessimism and paralysis, then, that there may be little Israel's leaders can do to influence Bush -- who hasn't been swayed on Middle East policy even by many in the U.S. Congress. My former supervisor in the prime minister's office, Ra'anan Gissin, who was Prime Minister Sharon's longtime advisor, used to tell a story that illustrates this current predicament. In the days leading up to the Iraq war, Ra'anan sat in on a meeting between Prime Minister Sharon and President Bush. As always, Ra'anan explained, Prime Minister Sharon was very careful not to directly counsel any particular action to President Bush -- because of the rightful fear that it would be unwise for Israel to be seen in any way as pushing U.S. policy.

Sharon did, however, make one of his beliefs very clear. Whatever the United States did or didn't do in the Middle East, he said, it would eventually leave -- and Israel would be left behind, forced to deal with the consequences.

By Gregory Levey

Salon contributor Gregory Levey is the author of the memoir, "Shut Up, I'm Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government." He is on faculty at Ryerson University, and blogs at Gregory

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