Sunday, February 03, 2008

Post Winnograd

The old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend applies in Israel today.

The Egyptians are closing the breached Gaza border, but reportedly doing so with the coordination of Hamas. Does this make the Egyptians the enemy of Israel’s enemy? Good question.

According to press reports, on Sunday Shin Bet security services chief Yuval Diskin warned government ministers that the breach in the Gaza—Egypt border could become permanent. Diskin told the ministers that the advantage to the situation is that Egypt would become responsible for the border, not Israel. According to Diskin the Gaza terrorists were now able to smuggle weapons overland rather than smuggling them in through tunnels.

Other commentators have said that Egypt might get stuck with the welfare of Gaza, instead of Israel, which the Israelis would consider a very positive development. The Egyptians reject this option because they are worried about the radicals from Gaza coming into Egypt and bolstering those out to overthrow the present Mubarak administration.

Meanwhile security is high along the porous Israel/Egypt border. Israel expects terrorist attacks by groups who left Gaza through the hole in the wall, entered Egypt, made their way across the desert and are preparing to cross unhindered into Israel. The Israeli/Egyptian border has no fence and stretches for approximately a hundred kilometers. Terrorists could conceivable just walk across the border into Israel. As of now Sudanese refugees looking for work routinely find their way into Israel through this route.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the cabinet on Sunday that Israel had to seal up the border between Egypt and Israel, especially the areas near Nitzana and Eilat. Barak considered this a vital step to insure Israel's security.

A second conundrum in the adage of the enemy of my enemy is my friend is the announcement on Sunday by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is also the head of the Labor Party, that he has decided not to resign from the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

According to his statement, Barak said that he weighed the recently released Winnograd Committee report. He said the report was a very bad criticism of the government and the army, but decided that this was not the time to quit the government. He said that some people would be saddened by this decision but that others would be happy with it.

Labor Party Knesset Member Danny Atom told Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet that he was saddened to hear the news. Atom said he’d spent an hour with Barak on Saturday and informed him that in his opinion Labor had to leave the Olmert government. Barak obviously didn’t follow his advice.

The Israeli press analyzed Barak’s Post-Winnograd options over the weekend. One commentator said that if Barak left the government now it would be an endorsement of Hizbollah’s strength and claims that they had won the war. By throwing the country into new elections, unleashing all of the claims and counter claims in the press, Hizbollah would consider the ouster of Olmert yet another success, and that in resigning Barak would be doing the country a disservice.

Other commentators questioned if the Army would follow Olmert in another war. Still others claimed that the country had grown weak and soft relying more on high-tech dollars and BMW SUVs than the fighting spirit needed to keep the country afloat.

One reporter told Israel Television’s Channel One that in his opinion the army did a decent job of fighting the war, given the conditions, and that Olmert didn’t do that bad a job after all. He claimed that the Winnograd Committee was holding the government and the army to archaic standards no longer practiced in the modern world. According to this reporter the Winnograd Committee was made up of elderly jurists who still held to the beliefs of the freedom fighters of the War of Independence. Those values, according to the reporter, were no longer applicable. Modern Israel was not Israel of 1948, and the report’s mistake was to judge the Army and the government according to the values held sixty years ago, not today. He concluded that the Winnograd Committee was na├»ve.

Many of the pundits and commentators lined up according to party or ideological affiliations. Some predictably called for the Prime Minister’s resignation, others, like Olmert himself, claimed he took the Winnograd report and the criticism of the government in the report very seriously, but that in the end he’d been vindicated in his choice of going to war. Ex-Defense Minister Amir Peretz also said the report proved that he wasn’t to blame for the war, and its outcome. Peretz said that the groundwork for the failures had been laid long before he took over the Defense Ministry, hinting that his predecessors were to blame, not him.

Dr. Martin van Creveld, a military historian who taught for many years at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote in “The Forward,” that Prime Minister Olmert actually did pretty well in the war, and so did the Army. Van Creveld writes about the long history of violence along the Lebanese border, dating back to the late 1960’s when the PLO took over Southern Lebanon.

Van Creveld said the only time there has been quiet along that border has been during the period since the end of the War in Lebanon II. Van Creveld wrote that the UNIFIL force in Lebanon has succeeded in controlling Hezbollah, and keeping them away from Israel’s border.

According to van Creveld this is a major accomplishment, and one that can’t be dismissed. Like the Winnograd Committee, van Creveld said that Olmert was right in unleashing a blizzard of violence on Hezbollah. That unexpected response rocked Hizbollah on its heels, and that terrorist entity has yet to recover.

The liberal commentators against Prime Minister Olmert’s resignation hold out hope that Olmert may be the man who can bring peace to the region, since he has the support of the US, and the Palestinian Authority.

Others say that Olmert has learned the lessons of failure, and that the Army had corrected its mistakes long before the Winnograd report was published. According toVan Creveld, “failure has already come at a price, at least for some. From Peretz through the military’s chief of staff, General Dan Halutz, and commander of the Northern front, Udi Adam, all the way down to several division and even brigade commanders, those responsible have either been fired or resigned on their own initiative.”

So Israel has a lot of friends today. Friends like Olmert and Barak, who are the avowed enemies of Israel’s enemies, and who have decided to stick together in the time of crises. Friends like Egypt, who stepped in to close the gap in the border fence, more to keep the Gazan’s out of Egypt than to help Israel with the Gaza problem, and the PA, who has been so badly battered by Hamas that without Israel’s recognition the PA would have no political standing among its own people.

One only hopes that the old Jewish saw doesn’t apply, the one that goes, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

Time will tell. Meanwhile, Israel has to rebuild the army, get the diplomatic track laid down, and try to implement policies that strengthen the economy, while providing some solution to the consistent threats by Iran to destroy Israel.

In all likelihood Ehud Barak was right. Now is not the time for political maneuvers, now is the time to construct a defense against the existential threats that hover over the country like a cloud of atomic fallout.

Elections will surely be held, but the nation, given the choice of Olmert teamed up with the experienced Barak, or the Likud’s Netanyahu, will probably chose Olmert and Barak.

Barak apparently thinks the country would rather go with the status quo. If the popular tide turns, observers think he’ll call elections in a minute, but only once he thinks he can win.