Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Hollow Men

The Israelis have messed up big time. And it's not clear who is to blame, and how far back the screw-ups go, and how deeply embedded the erosion of the values which "made this country great" go. An article in today's Haaretz's Gallery section reviews the recent Hebrew language release of Richard Russo's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel "Empire Falls." Russo talks about the disappearance of small town America, and its values. The same small towns that brought American soldiers glory in WWII and in films like Clint Eastwood/Steven Spielberg’s “Flag of My Father.”

Israel has its own meltdown going on. Much as critics in the US say that Homeland Security is winging it with their efforts to prevent terrorism, other critics say that Israel is winging it in their war against the Palestinians and Hezbollah. The recent IDF action in Beit Hanoun accomplished little if anything besides destroying part of Gaza, which some think is a good idea, while other think that only succeeded in angering a lot of Arabs, some of whom may have been amenable to dealing with Israel just so they could work again with the Jews. Israel also killed 50 "Palestinian Activists", among them about a dozen unarmed children.

The cycle of violence continued On Wednesday. Eighteen Palestinians were killed and at least 30 were injured in the Beit Hanoun area of Gaza when a lethal barrage of Israel Defense Forces shells landed on residential houses. According to Palestinian reports, 13 of the casualties were members of one family. Seven children and four women were among the casualties.

IDF officials said in response that the artillery fire was directed at a Qassam launching spot and another nearby spot from where Palestinians planned to launch Qassams.

The EU condemned the shelling. Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert apologized. Minister of Defense Amir Peretz has ordered the army to stop the shelling. Analysts think there will be serious diplomatic fall-out over this apparent mistake.

The IDF shelling came in response to Tuesday's attack by Hamas on Israel. This attack analysts say was apparently Hamas' way to thumb their noses at the Israelis and show them that the week-long IDF incursion into Beit Hanoun had no effect. In the Tuesday attack Hamas activists lobbed four Qassam missiles into Ashkelon, 20 kilometers away from Gaza. The press cited the attack as a Hamas weapons breakthrough. Up until now Hamas constructed the bombs, apparently out of fertilizer and other easily found materials. These weapons which quickly lost their explosive capacity, and Hamas had to fire them soon after they were built.

Experts think that Hamas has figured out how to use other explosives, which they can stockpile and fire when they want. So what did the move in Beit Hanoun accomplish? And an Israeli soldier was killed. By all accounts Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, known for his typical Israeli arrogance, doesn't really have a game plan. He's just winging it.

Secondly, the new reports that hit the Israeli newstands today,say that the crew of the hi-tech Saar 5 missile boat that was destroyed by a Hezbollah rocket during the War in Lebanon II were apparently guilty of negligence. Four of the five radar systems on the boat were malfunctioning and were turned off. No one on the boat was concerned because, according to the report, it was common knowledge among Israeli military circles that the only rocket that could hit the ship was 16.5 meters long, weighed 750 kg., and could only be fired from a truck: the Hezbollah couldn't have such a weapon, thought the commander of the ship. His thoughts, according to a report in today's Haaretz newspaper, were only echoes of what the Israeli Navy high command, and the Chief of Staff, thought.

Back in 2003, according to the press report, the Navy was briefed by Military Intelligence who said that the Hezbollah didn't have access to these weapons. Big mistake. This expensive state-of-the-art boat became an expensive toy in the water. When the rocket hit it, the rear of the ship was badly damaged, and four, count them four, Israeli boys died. The analysis was that the Navy didn't realize that Hezbollah wasn't a rag-tag terrorist organization, but rather the forward troops of a crack Iranian army.

Others likened this mess to a group of teenagers sitting around their parent's expensive sedans and sports cars, parked in a lot filled with Mercedes, Volvos, Jaguars, Mazda 6s, even a Corvette, drinking beer and watching a football game from the back of a Lexus SUV equipped with Satellite TV while a gang of thieves was stealing all the cars in the parking lot. Spoiled rich kids with expensive toys who after they crashed said, 'oooh, I'm sorry.' The Saar 5, in this case, was like the Corvette.

Or take a disturbing report on Israel Broadcasting Authority's Channel One program "Mabat Shani" (Second Look) by Itai Landsberg, a res. Lt. Col in the Army, on a "trenching" tool that has been under examination by the IDF for five years. The American made tool, brought to the Army by a former soldier in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, can dig a trench up to 15 meters deep. This tool, when presented to then Chief of Staff Boogie Yaalon and then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was considered the "solution" to the problem of the tunnels dug beneath the Israeli border, and even those along the "Phildelphi Route" which are still used to smuggle in arms, ammunition, drugs, and people.

But the IDF never ordered the tool, which could have been delivered within weeks. Shortly after one of the presentations of the tool to yet another group from the Ministry of Defense, a massive explosion ripped through an IDF outpost near Gaza killing and wounding Israeli soldiers. The bomb had been placed at the end of a tunnel dug from Gaza. This trenching tool could have discovered the tunnel, and the army could have prevented the attack. And many others.

The TV report broadcast interviews with all sorts of people, including high-level decision makers in the Ministry of Defense. It became clear that someone discovered that another trenching tool was available, and was cheaper, from another contractor that did a lot of business with the Ministry of Defense. A public tender was issued. The other cheaper company won. The TV then showed footage of the second trenching tool, sitting abandoned in a field somewhere in the South of Israel. Problem? It only went down 4 1/2 meters and the terrorists’ tunnels were at least 10 meters.The tool didn't work. Rather than investigate further, the Ministry of Defense simply dropped the "trenching" idea altogether.

This became clear when the plan to buy the deeper trenching tool was brought to then assistant Chief Of Staff Dan Halutz, now the Chief of Staff. According to the TV report Halutz impatiently waved away the suggestion, and said that the airforce could do the job better, and more cost effectively.

The trenching tool was never ordered. The Ministry of Defense didn't want it. Why? The TV report couldn't say for certain. Too many rules and regulations got in the way. Bids, tenders, approved buyers, US made products, whatever. A lot of excuses. A veiled hint at corruption? A hint that perhaps the decisions were based on ego not facts. Who knows? The implication was that the massive Ministry of Defense bureaucracy simply filed the plan away in a corner no one ever looks at. Meanwhile the Israeli boys are still getting killed. The tunnels are still being used to smuggle in greater quantities of more sophisticated weapons. The dangers are still mounting.

Another report on Mabat Shani, that preceded the "trenching" fiasco, was about the IDF "Tunnel Rats", the soldiers who go into the tunnels and ferret out their source. Scary stuff. The bottom line: the IDF never supplied them with the right weapons, or transportation, until four guys were killed driving in a Personnel Carrier with tons of explosives to destroy tunnels, but with no armor! “We knew it was just a question of time,” said one soldier. Why did they continue to do the job? “The job needed to be done. We waiting until they sent us the right equipment, we waited, and waited, but it didn’t come. So we decided destroying the tunnels was more important than the danger, so we just went back to work.” The great Israeli Army came out looking pretty bad, and the Ministry of Defense, which controls this highly respected military force, came out looking worse. “I pushed him to go into this unit,” said the grieving father of one of the deceased soldiers. ”I pushed him to be an officer. Now I’m sorry I did.”

Another report in the papers today had a picture of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the caption that Israel wasn't going to strike Iran alone. The report went on to say that when Israel successfully struck the Iraqi reactor in 1981 there was only one reactor: today Iran has about 200. The odds of hitting them all with one strike were slim. Better not to try, then try and fail, is reportedly the philosophy today. This is sadly the commentary that can be placed at the Army's door in reference to Gaza and Lebanon, they tried and failed. And the failures in planning and execution are did not just started today. This profile of incompetance is something that stretches back at least a decade, or more.

The other night on the anniversary of the assassination of the late Prime Minster Yitzchak Rabin, one of Israel's leading novelists, David Grossman, who lost a son during the War in Lebanon II, called Israel's leaders today the "Hollow Men." Granted Grossman is a staunch supporter of the left-wing Labor party, and has long advocated accommodating the Palestinians through peaceful means rather than war, but still his assessment of the hollowness of Israel's leaders, and by extension much of Israeli society is rings true. Today the values of Israeli society are not to build a Jewish State, to "settle the land", to build a "democracy"; to be 'good people,' but rather the goals are self-aggrandizement, increased wealth and comfort, and selfishness.

The Israeli media published reports on Wednesday that a recent poll showed the public believed that Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was the most corrupt leader to fill that position since the establishment of the State. As if to underline that, the police had to admit that the case they were pursuing a sexual harrasment case against ex-Justice Minister Haim Ramon was pushed by Ehud Olmert's office. What political shinanagins, if any, were being played is cause for much speculation. Five tapes from a wire-tapping of Ramon's officer were finally turned over to Ramon's lawyers. The tapes reportedly cast doubt on the prosecutions case against Ramon.

On Wednesday morning a fancy silver BMW sedan bristling with antennae was pulled up on the sidewalk outside a local medical clinic in Jerusalem's Ramot neighborhood. In Jerusalem many HMOs are in privately rented homes in residential areas. This was just such an establishment, although on a main thoroughfare busy at 7:30 am with cars and buses filled with residents going to work during Jerusalem's rush hour. The new BMW was perpendicular to the curb, half blocking pedestrians the rear-end sticking out onto the road. The car was stuffed in a small space between two cars parked as they should have been, parallel to the curb. Clearly the driver of the BMW didn't have the time, or patience, to drive the extra ten or twenty meters down the road to park his car properly, and legally, so as not to upset pedestrian or vehicular traffic.

One assumed the driver of the car was the chauffer of an important businessman who had gone in for an early-morning blood test, or some other quick examination. Indeed the kepaw-wearing driver in shirtsleeves was chomping on a sandwich, an adolescent girl asleep in the passenger seat, her head against the glass, mouth open, lost in her dreams. The driver though wasn't the chauffer. Rather a local resident who had begun life as the child of Moroccan immigrants, worked his way up admirably through the government system, filling a number of government positions, until he became the director-general of one government company after another. Was his audacious parking habit an indication of how to succeed in Israel? Was this an indication of how to succeed anywhere in the world?

One wonders how a government employee managed to buy a car worth about $100,000, or if the government agency he now heads bought it for him? One wonders about the type of people running these companies, and the country in general? And then, thinking back to the failures of the War in Lebanon II, which none of Israel’s leaders take responsibility for, or the mess in Gaza, or the increasing distance between rich and poor in Israel, one begins to think that David Grossman, irrespective of his political leanings, earned all the kudos heaped upon him as one of Israel's leading voices. These really are the "Hollow Men." The trouble is, they’re in charge of the safety and future of the country.