Sunday, October 29, 2006
Observations on AJC’s Mission to Israel, September 4 -7, 2006
The following is my cousin's observations from a recent AJC trip he went on to Israel. He sent this to me, and I think you will enjoy find it very illuminating! ----- The American Jewish Committee’s recent solidarity mission to Israel was an extraordinarily enriching experience. It was hard to tell, superficially at least, that the country was at war only weeks before, subjected to merciless missile attacks that had forced one million people in northern Israel to evacuate their homes. We saw Israel’s vitality everywhere. But the scars of war are not easy to heal, as was apparent when members of our group toured Haifa. (Other members visited Tzfat, Nahariya and other points in northern Israel.) Haifa’s population of 275,000 includes more than 40,000 Arabs, more than half of whom are Christians. The city is known for the good relations that exist among Jews, Christians, and Muslims – and indeed, Haifa has a reputation across Israel as a model in this respect. We toured Beit Hagefen, an educational center that brings youths from different backgrounds together and promotes inter-group understanding. Our host, an Arab Christian, welcomed us warmly and fervently denounced Hezbollah’s leader Nasrallah as a terrorist. We paid a condolence call on an Arab Christian woman whose father had been killed when a Katyusha missile (supplied by Syria) made a direct hit on the building next to her home. The Katyusha is a true terror weapon, used by Hezbollah to target cities and the civilian population. Each missile is packed with ball bearings designed to tear through human flesh. The extent to which the city had been a war front was also brought home to us when we visited the Or Hadash Reform Congregation in a neighborhood high on the slope of Mt. Carmel. What looked like a basement recreation room had been transformed (with the help of an AJC donation) into a modern, well-equipped bomb shelter with an air filtration system to protect against chemical and biological attack. We were told that as many as 100 children had stayed in the shelter each day while Haifa was under fire. In Haifa we also visited Rambam Hospital, the major health-care facility serving the population of northern Israel and best known for its advanced medical research. During the war the Hospital’s entire staff performed vital work around the clock, providing emergency care for wounded soldiers and civilians while not missing a beat in carrying out its regular health-care mission. Doctors, nurses and support personnel saved lives and attended to the needs of the ill and the suffering even as the area around the Hospital came under repeated missile attack. The Hospital itself was fortunate to escape a direct hit. Rambam’s story is one of dedicated and highly skilled people serving humanity irrespective of ethnicity or religion – not only saving life but also advancing life, in the words of AJC Executive Director David Harris, and testifying to the Israeli achievement. To get a view of the security situation, we toured the perimeter of the Gaza border and Chatzerim Air Force base. Yet our mission was filled not only with fact-finding but emotionally moving moments. At dinner on our second evening in Jerusalem we celebrated with IDF soldiers who made aliya from the U.S. on their own and fought in the recent war in Lebanon. The following evening in Haifa we met with the families of abducted soldiers. Moments of exhilaration and anguish followed one another, but if I can speak collectively, most of all we felt inspiration. One of the most valuable aspects of the trip was meeting and getting to know fellow AJC members from around the nation and world. There were some 140 people on the mission, and AJC's staff was simply superb in attending to every detail to ensure each member had an outstanding experience. From our discussions it was quite clear that my fellow members on the mission held views ranging widely across the American political spectrum – from supporters of President Bush to liberal Democrats. Our mission included Protestant ministers, the author Joan Peters and overseas supporters of Israel such as Per Ahlmark, former Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden. David Harris stressed three key points: The importance of maintaining bipartisan support for Israel, across party lines (and not injecting partisan politics into the discussion). The need to be proactive in making Israel’s case, since American support can no longer be taken for granted. The continuing (and growing) need to reach out to non-Jews in America, including recent immigrants, on issues of concern to them directly as well as in regard to Israel. More specifically, the need for concerted action was stressed to help secure the release of the abducted soldiers and to exert pressure on the current Iranian government. The journalist Yossi Klein Halevi made a powerful plea for a public campaign “to put Iran in the dock” -- the type of campaign, he noted, AJC does especially well. A more detailed summary follows of our briefings by experts. Their views varied, but the predominant note was clear: Israel is an incredibly resilient society – a democracy seeking peace despite the implacable hostility of its enemies, and a society whose ultimate source of strength is the commitment, resourcefulness and brainpower of its people. Supporting Israel is more important than ever. Notes on the Speakers during AJC’s Solidarity Mission to Israel, Sept. 4 – 7, 2006 As members of AJC’s solidarity mission, we enjoyed access to the highest reaches of Israeli society – a testament to the importance of AJC’s worldwide role in building greater understanding of Israel’s continuing search for peace and security. We met with Prime Minister Olmert and also with other Cabinet and Knesset members, government officials, journalists, and other prominent Israelis to gain insight about external and internal challenges facing Israel. Lebanon Regarding the situation in Lebanon, most speakers said it was too early to assess fully the impact of the recent war. Prime Minister Olmert spoke of two positive results: First, the war had “changed forever” the situation in the south of Lebanon. The Lebanese army was now in the south for the first time in decades, Hezbollah was in hiding, and an embargo on arms shipments to Hezbollah had been declared by the U.N. Second, the world was now more aware of the danger posed by Iran. Prime Minister Olmert acknowledged that the country (including the previous government) had preferred to look the other way as this threat developed. He and others had been misled by hopes that the nation could largely turn its attention to building a “high-tech paradise.” However, Hezbollah’s attack and kidnapping of two soldiers convinced him and the Cabinet that the government needed to face the danger and head it off before it grew even larger. (He feared that if the threat grew, the government might lose its ability to respond in the future.) Several speakers emphasized the justness of the war from an Israeli perspective. The war was not about territory, but about terror: Israel’s moral position was especially strong since it was attacked across an internationally recognized border on Israeli soil, not ‘occupied’ territory, the journalist Yossi Klein Halevi noted. The war was the fight of a democracy against extremist, fundamentalist forces seeking its destruction, added Ari Shavit of the newspaper Ha’Aretz. Ehud Yaari, Chief TV commentator on the Middle East on Israeli TV Channel 2, discussed Iran’s role in the conflict. He estimated that Iran had invested more than $4 billion in Hezbollah in recent years to build a well-equipped force with more than 10,000 missiles – a force deeply embedded in the civilian population and fortified behind a system of bunkers using some 11 million tons of reinforced concrete. Looking on the bright side, he noted that the Arab states had remained effectively out of the conflict, with even the Syrian army maintaining a defensive posture. Reflecting the current debate in Israel, there was sharp disagreement about what the war had accomplished and how it was waged – particularly about whether it was conducted with sufficient vigor. Uri Dromi of the Israeli Democracy Institute stressed the positive, especially the IAF’s success in taking out the Iranian-supplied longer-range rocket launchers in the early days of the war. He tersely commented, “Enough of a defeatist mood!” Others, however, has a much harsher assessment of the Olmert government. Ehud Yaari said the government had waged war in a “confused, half hearted and improvised” way – and had made 11 major changes in military strategy during the 33-day conflict. (Nevertheless, he pointed out that Hezbollah had suffered heavy losses, including its rocket force and about one-third of its fighters.) Giora Eiland, former head of the Israel’s National Security Council, said that the country’s deterrence had been somewhat eroded. Dan Meridor, former minister, stated that while the results of the war remained “an open question,” there was certainly a gap between expectations and results. Israel’s strategic challenge would increasingly be to adjust and adapt rapidly because the pace of change in the world itself had accelerated and would continue to do so. Generals must take care more than ever against the tendency “to fight the last war.” New unconventional threats had emerged from an Iran developing nuclear weapons and from terrorist-guerrilla forces such as Hezbollah. Rather than pitting tank versus tank, the war in Lebanon was asymmetrical, in which Israel’s armed forces had faced a guerrilla force backed by hostile states (i.e., Iran and Syria). Indeed, Hezbollah had acted as a proxy for these states. Iran There was also considerable discussion of the existential threat posed by the current Iranian regime. Giora Eiland estimated that in about six months Iran would complete the R&D phase of its nuclear program. Thus, there is only a limited window for action to prevent the program from becoming a fait accompli. He discussed three broad options – none good or fail-safe – in response to this threat: (1) do nothing; (2) intensify diplomatic efforts to isolate Iran (while also dangling incentives for ending uranium enrichment); (3) taking military action. Several speakers stressed that a nuclear Iran was not an exclusively Israeli problem – and that Israel must take care to speak softly as far as Iran is concerned. On the plus side, it was noted that a consensus exists in the international community that Iran has lied about its nuclear program. This consensus includes Russia, which while moving slowly on Iran, is moving (in a direction broadly compatible with Western policy). Shlomo Aveneri, professor of Political Science emeritus at Hebrew University, concluded that Iran will not give in to sanctions and Europe will not support or take military action. While there is no silver lining in the current situation vis-à-vis Iran, Giora Eiland added that it will take some time (two to three years or longer) before Iran develops an actual nuclear military capability. Sounding a somewhat hopeful note, Dan Meridor noted that previous nuclear threats from Iraq and Libya had been diffused. He also felt that Russia could be brought on board in dealing with Iran through a more finely tuned diplomacy. The Palestinian Conflict Israel’s strategic challenge increasingly comes from enemies (Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas) who define the conflict in religious terms, Dan Meridor observed. Making a similar point, Ehud Yaari noted that the Arab states were increasingly on the sidelines or out of the conflict – a development that offered some comfort. Shalom Harari, an expert on counter-terrorism and former advisor in the Territories, described the chaos, corruption, factionalism and near anarchy in Palestinian areas. In each major city there are as many as 15 to 20 different armed groups and also powerful families with separate forces of their own. President Abbas has little effective power. The massive smuggling of arms and explosives from Egypt into Gaza represents a growing security threat. The Egyptian government is apparently unable (or unwilling) to stop this traffic. Qassam rockets of longer range are being developed – with a range that would enable them to strike targets well inside Israel, including the vital power generating station near Ashkelon. In Ehud Yaari’s view, this threat will have to be countered through military action to create a buffer between Egypt and Gaza. Little optimism was offered regarding the prospects for peace with the Palestinians, at least in the immediate future. Ehud Yaari observed that Palestinians were abandoning the two-state solution, believing that time was on their side. He regarded Hamas’ current interest in a ceasefire as a tactical maneuver to secure international funding. Gidi Grinstein of the Re’ut Institute (a non-governmental think tank) said there is a consensus in Israeli society on ending control over the Palestinians. He felt the best option at the moment would be to work for a Palestinian state within provisional borders next to Israel. A comprehensive peace was not on the horizon. The prime security issue vis-à-vis the Palestinians remained for the moment combating terrorism and keeping it within “manageable proportions” – a goal that was achievable in his view and would enable Israel to keep its high-tech economy humming and keep vital investment dollars flowing. Ran Cohen, member of the Knesset from the Meretz party, was the sole speaker to advocate withdrawal at this time from the territories captured in the 1967 war (including the West Bank and Golan Heights) as the best path to a negotiated peace. Yet all speakers emphasized the importance of maintaining a strong military posture to have any hopes of peace. Weakness would only tempt Israel’s enemies. The Battle for Public Opinion Colonel Miri Eisen, foreign press advisor to the Prime Minister, discussed the challenges of dealing with the international press during the Lebanon war. There were two completely different wars, she said: an international version and an Israeli one. Images of death and destruction in Beirut dominated Western media coverage. The emotional power of images was difficult to counter with words alone (even in cases when pictures were doctored or staged). While the damage to Beirut was concentrated in one area under Hezbollah’s control through precise targeting by the Israeli Air Force, Western media often gave the impression the whole city had been reduced to rubble. Yet Hezbollah’s fighters, weapon transfers and Katyushas remained largely invisible. In a media environment that generally placed Israel on the defensive, Colonel Eisen strove to tell Israel’s human story – so that the pain and suffering of Israelis would not be ignored or minimized. She focused on a number of simple messages: Israel is a democracy. Israel seeks peace. Israel wasn’t simply threatened but intentionally attacked across an international border. Israel maintains strict guidelines to minimize (and avoid if possible) civilian casualties even when fighting terrorist forces that use civilians as human shields. The price of not fighting terrorism is higher than fighting it. While Israel could not afford to let terrorists hide in civilian areas, attention was also drawn to Israel’s self-interest in minimizing civilian casualties – even by issuing warnings of impending attacks. Ari Shavit said that Israel simply does not have the luxury to wage war as great powers do. He quoted Chief Justice Barak (who has recently retired from the bench): ‘Democracies fight with one hand tied behind their back, but that’s why they have the upper hand.’ The Domestic Front Many speakers commented on the public’s resilience in the face of war. “We surprised ourselves,” said Yossi Klein Halevi. Social solidarity and volunteerism, he added, largely made up for the government’s failures in attending to the needs of the civilian population. He was struck by a number of developments during the war: · Ha’Aretz (on the left) advocated an expanded army thrust into Lebanon. · The Kibbutzim showed that they are still a major source of strength. · Tel Aviv lost prestige by not pulling its weight in the war effort. · The Israeli Arab leadership behaved little short of traitorously (heaping blame for the war on the Israeli government and openly praising Hezbollah), even as average Israeli Arab citizens continued to coexist peacefully with their neighbors. · The existential threat from Iran revealed the limitations of the security fence (successful as the fence has been in reducing terror attacks). Ari Shavit observed that the Israeli people showed themselves to be “strong, impressive and moral” during the war, but that the nation’s political leadership fell short. Unilateralism “was now in a coma.” Calling for a fundamental transformation in the society, Shavit called the Zionist project “valuable and unique,” but also suggested it needed updating to meet the needs of contemporary society. He spoke about the importance of a “bonding narrative to give significance to our collective life,” and concluded: “If we’re not willing to sacrifice, we can’t win.” Yona Yahav, the mayor of Haifa, discussed the city’s achievement in forging good relations across ethnic and religious lines. (Perhaps, he mused, this has something to do with the fact that Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed never visited.) Yet the war revealed strains, even though ordinary people recognized they “were in this together.” He had dismissed the Deputy Mayor, an Arab Israeli, who had expressed support for Hezbollah during the war. This was not a freedom of speech issue, Mayor Yahav explained, but one of acting responsibly during wartime – and the Deputy Mayor had done the exact opposite. Education Minister Yuli Tamir underscored the challenges Israel faces in educating the young when one of every three children is born in poverty. Educational achievement varies widely in different segments of the society (with Christian Arabs and secular Israelis generally performing best). The educational challenge is thus also a social one, and is especially daunting with the immigrant Ethiopian population. On the bright side, she noted that the school year had started on time despite the recent war – another sign of Israel’s resilience and a considerable achievement in itself. Gidi Grinstein outlined five challenges confronting Israel’s “dynamic, energetic” society: Existential threats The economic challenge of competing while not being part of an economic bloc The pressures of sustaining development in a small country with an arid climate The challenge of integration within the Jewish world to sustain Jewish values in an Israeli context Relations with the Arab minority Grinstein emphasized the need for structural political changes to fight corruption and weaken the role of small parties (and combat the fragmentation they bring). A key reform would be to give the party that gets the most votes the right to appoint the Prime Minister. This would lessen the bargaining power of lesser parties and encourage voters to cast their ballots for parties with a realistic opportunity to appoint the PM. To ensure its future, Israel must make the most of its strengths – especially in Grinstein’s view, its “technology and brains.” The “moral high ground” would remain important as well for a nation with Israel’s unique mission: Considerable encouragement can be drawn from growing awareness in the society of the importance of Jewish values and heritage – linked to a broad and deep determination to safeguard and promote the Zionist enterprise as the most important Jewish project in nearly two millennia.