May 4, 2007

Protesting Incompetence

By Noah Pollak

TEL AVIV — Last night, on one of the first warm evenings of the spring, at least 120,000 Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to declare their dissatisfaction with the Olmert government.

blog6.jpg In a clever use of English, French, and Hebrew, this sign says “Olmert — Go Home.” Photo copyright Noah Pollak.

The catalyst for the event was the release, on Monday, of the Winograd Commission’s report detailing the failures of Israel’s leadership during the war against Hezbollah last summer. (This critique, by Efraim Inbar in the Middle East Quarterly, is also worth reading.) In Israel, there is a long and admirable history of commissions being assembled to examine military failures in painful detail. Before Winograd, as Roger Cohen points out in the International Herald Tribune, “Golda Meir and [Moshe] Dayan were forced out by the findings of the Agranat Commission on the 1973 [Yom Kippur] war, and the Kahan Commission on the 1982 Lebanon war cost Sharon his job as minister of defense and eventually led to the resignation of [Menachem] Begin.” The findings of these inquiries are taken seriously by the public and government alike to a degree that is foreign to Americans. Can anyone imagine hundreds of thousands of people assembling on the Washington Mall to rally for the Baker-Hamilton Commission report, which appears to have only been taken seriously by the media? Does anyone even remember what Baker-Hamilton was supposed to accomplish?

The purpose of the Winograd report is much more obvious: A transparent accounting of what went wrong during the Lebanon war, for public consumption. A reckoning. But the release of the report only partially explains the size of the turnout, or its mood, which was subdued and reluctantly, rarely, boisterous. The larger undercurrent is the feeling that, despite a remarkable economic boom and the containment of Palestinian terrorism, the past year has been a dangerous example of the perils of feckless leadership. The three abducted soldiers remain in captivity; rockets from Gaza land in the Negev regularly; Nasrallah gloats, quite convincingly, from Lebanon; missiles and arms pour into Southern Lebanon from Syria, unimpeded by the indolent “international force” that patrols the area; and Iran races toward the realization of its nuclear ambitions. And there is another source of the worry that pervades Israel. That is the absence, in the post-Sharon era, of Israel’s founding fathers in the country’s political leadership. Almost every one of the statesmen who built this country out of stone and swamp and battle has passed on — and in this test of the new generation, in the Olmert government, Israelis are witnessing the disgraceful spectacle of leaders not only lacking in the wisdom and dedication of the founders, but who also turn out to be corrupt, ignorant of how to lead the IDF into war, and unreliable under pressure.

And so Israel falls back on its strongest asset, its people. Politicians were not permitted to speak at the protest. There was very little 1960’s pageantry to be found last night, and virtually no dumb sloganeering or vapid pacifism. This was a thoroughly middle class protest. The nation’s grown-ups arrived to announce their desire to take the state back from the ambitious dilettantes who had been mistakenly entrusted with power. The Israelis present, from the left, right, and center, wished to save the nation from unseriousness. Last night, the need for competence trumped ideology.

blog1.jpg Photo copyright Noah Pollak.

blog5.jpg Photo copyright Noah Pollak.

Posted by Noah Pollak at May 4, 2007 10:54 AM
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