Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Boogie's Bombshell

The Chief of Staff (Ret'd) and his new sandals

I just came across an extremely interesting interview with former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe ("Boogie") Ya'alon. In the interview by Ha'aretz writer Ari Shavit, Ya'alon lambastes the political and military leadership in Israel and calls on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Minister of Defence 'Amir Peretz and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz to resign. Some of the revelations that Ya‘alon makes in the interview include that:
  • He hated serving in the army; and

  • That he orders half-pita servings of falafel for lunch;

  • That he advised Sharon to enter into negotiations with Bashar al-Asad in 2003, but that Sharon "preferred" to go ahead with the “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip. Ya'alon implies that it would have been better to ignore the Palestinians and to make peace with Syria or to at least open channels of communication between Asad and Israel so as to create cracks in the alliance between Iran and Syria. [Ya‘alon’s predisposition towards negotiations with the Syrians reflects a common division in Israeli policy circles. Many Israeli policy makers are divided over whether it is preferable to make peace with Syria first, and then with the Palestinians, or vice versa. Since the failure of Barak to come to an agreement with Asad Sr. (or Asad Sr.’s failure – it depends on what you read), the Palestinian track has generally been favoured.];

  • That he appreciates the fact that Israel’s economic stability remains central to its national security and that he continues to oppose an increase in the military budget;

  • That he believes that it is impossible to uproot Hizbullah or to crush the organization, because of its popularity among Lebanon’s Shi‘a. Ya‘alon asserted that he still stands by his now infamous claim before the war, according to which Israel had to wait and let Hizbullah’s rockets corrode on their own. In the interview, he argues that only combined diplomatic and military pressure would succeed in eliminating the threat posed by Hizbullah by turning the organization into an actor perceived as illegitimate by Lebanese themselves. (A recent piece published by Amir Tahery in the Wall Street Journal actually suggests that the IDF offensive achieved this objective. Tahery argues that the war has succeeded in alienating many Shi‘a from the organization and that most Lebanese don’t consider it to have won the confrontation);

  • That he had prepared a plan to fight Hizbullah using IDF ground forces that would act like guerrilla forces and would conquer strategic hilltops in southern Lebanon without tanks and without using the main roads. Ya‘alon claimed that IDF intelligence was aware of the dangers posed by Hizbullah’s bunkers, mines and its anti-tank missiles.
Ya‘alon, who was once vilified by Israeli commentators on the left side of the political spectrum for referring to the Palestinians as a “cancer” in 2003, comes across as an honest person with a good work ethic and a distaste for what he considers the corrupting influence of political patronage on the IDF. The interviewer, Ari Shavit, describes him as belonging to that mythical era when Israeli politics were somehow less corrupt and more idealistic. It’s a theme that is often expressed in Israel and that I heard quite often in late August. Israelis feel that their country is generally mismanaged. They don’t trust their leaders, they think their country is turning into a banana republic (taxi drivers love using that term), but they also blame themselves for not being meticulous workers and they complain about the all-important role of the “kombina” (the working of connections or the use of tricks) in the Israeli job market. Shavit turns Ya‘alon into a living antithesis of new Israeli khafeenikism (a Hebrew neologism that uses the Arabic word khafeef, or “light of weight” to refer to a laid back, irresponsible approach to life and work). It’s worth looking at how Shavit describes his encounter with Ya‘alon:

השנה שלו במכון מחקר בוושינגטון לא ממש שינתה אותו. הוא נותן ליושרה הגאה והנוקשה שלו לומר את דברה כמו פעם. שהרי כל כולו כמו פעם. כל כולו הקשיחות הערכית הבלתי מתפשרת של בן קרית חיים. בן מפא"י ההיסטורית. בנם של אשכנזים עניים, ניצולי שואה פועליים, ששלחו את בנם להתיישבות, לביטחון ולבניין הארץ. להגשמה חסרת פניות וחסרת חוש הומור וחסרת קריצות וקומבינות

His year at a policy research institute in Washington has not really changed him. He lets his proud and obstinate integrity speak as he always has. He has not changed one bit, in fact. He is still the same person with the same rigid, uncompromising values […] the son born in Qiryat Hayim to poor Ashkenazi blue collar workers who were Holocaust survivors and who sent their son [on a mission] to build the country and to defend it […] and on a mission to realize his vision without a sense of humour and without [secret deals] and “kombinot”.
Shavit’s description of Ya‘alon, who serves as a foil for the lazy, corrupted and “Levantine(???)” Israeli, expresses a general malaise in Israeli society about eroding norms and slipping moral standards. The exact same themes about the need to restore the old values of hard work and of Zionist idealism are present in the discourses of people like Avishay Braverman, the brilliant former president of Ben-Gurion University who joined the Labour Party, ran for a seat in the Knesset and embraced ‘Amir Peretz (no small feat for a former World Bank economist!) only to find himself betrayed by the latter and relegated to the backbenches. I think it’s probably about time for Israel to give its Ya‘alons, its Ayalons and its Bravermans a chance.


Amos said...

Haha! At least he didn't get those ugly croc sandals. I think they symbolize everything that has gone wrong with the state and society. Boogie is obviously resisting this new spirit.

Ari Shavit had an article sounding a similar theme, in late August, before the war ended. In Hebrew it was called מה קרה לנו [What happened to us?]. He complained bitterly about Israel's elites, which he sees as having abandoned the country. Here's an excerpt from the English version (the link no longer works):

At the same time, political correctness assumed that Israeli strength is a given. That Israel is insanely strong. Therefore, political correctness disdained any attempt to build and maintain Israeli strength. The defense budget was cut, the values of volunteerism were mocked, the concepts of heroism and fortitude became despicable. Since the Israel Defense Forces was identified as an army of occupation - rather than as an army defending feminists and homo-lesbians from the fanaticism of the Middle East - they had reservations about it, they shook it off and became alienated from it. After all, in the spiritual world of political correctness, power and army have become dirty words.

He ended with the following words:

Israel tried with all its soul and all its might to be Athens. However in this place, in this era, there is no future for an Athens without a speck of Sparta. There is no hope for a society-of-life that does not know how to organize itself to deal with death. Therefore, after decades during which the right and the left and the center took Israeli power for granted and wastefully exploited it, now there is no escaping the need to place the renewed building of Israeli power at the top of the agenda. We are returning to the encounter with our fate; returning to what is decreed by the reality of our lives.

Here in Berkeley, I heard one professor describe it as "reminiscent of things we heard in Europe during the 1930s." I disagree with that. But I am a bit uncomfortable with some of the rhetoric, though I too hope that Israel should give the Ayalons, Bravermans, and even Ya'alons another chance.

What about the "Levantine" issue? There are probably quite a few voices on the left and right at the moment going "I told you so" - what do you expect from these guys (Halutz, Katsav, and Peretz)?

John said...

I think Ari Shavit is right. Israel does not have the luxury of being a European pacifist society, where nation states are passe, nationalism is considered a dirty word and the military is considered some anachronistic institutions for proletarian dropouts and "weird" patriots who serve as their officers.

Noah Kaye said...

Shavit seems a bit of a sucker for the Spartan. Did anyone catch his New Yorker piece on Sharon earlier this year?

It doesn't seem to be available online; but one interesting thing that also came out of that interview, was Sharon talking about how enervated Israeli Jews had become. There was this whole paradox: one the one hand, was this deep identification as a Jew, first and foremost; and second, there was this disgust with the decay of contemporary Israeli society.

I think this is a really interesting idea trending among the Old Guard (perhaps, it seems, not wedded to a particular political ideology.) It would be nice to hear more and follow it.

Amos said...

I think Shavit is right, too. It's unfortunate that the people he is criticizing have been much better of convincing the rest of the world, including the Western academy, of their views. Despite everything that has happened since the collapse of Oslo, so many of these academics still seem imbued with the optimism of the 1990s.

I remember Tom Segev at Princeton on a tour to promote his book Elvis in Jerusalem (a clever take-off on Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem). He read one of the early chapters about Israel having entered the post-Zionist era. Along the lines of: The existential struggles are done, the state and society are finally normalizing (or Americanizing), and everything is gravy. Except that it wasn't. The year was 2001, and as Segev himself acknowledged, much of what he had written was no longer true. It was jarring to compare the cheerful voice of his book with the sober and pessimistic speaker addressing the crowd.

John said...

Shavit seems a bit of a sucker for the Spartan

Noah, I really think you're on to something here. For some reason, the classical analogy really works for me, even if it's only tongue in cheek. I can just imagine the title of Ari Shavit's next piece: "Whither Israel - Sparta or Athens?" Can you guys think of two societies/types in Jewish history? Maybe two different tribes of Israel? Interesting that our friend Benjamin over at antichomsky also invokes Ancient Greece in his discussion of an article published recently by Eitan Haber. Haber, a former advisor to Rabin, blasts Israel's mediocre leaders and Israeli popularism.

John said...

BTW, I heard Ari Shavit speak at the AJC Annual Meeting in Washington DC in 2006 and he looked really down. I think he was sounding the same notes.

I don't really know if it's even about the Old Guard trying to reassert itself. There are a lot of people who've been outside of politics most of their life who really identify with these critiques. Aviyshay Braverman is a key figure in this regard. I think you'll hear more about him in the future. He used to give long speeches about the corruption of the Israeli political system, the increasing vulgarity of Israeli society and the need for values of hard work, etc. He'd give these speeches everywhere he went: at the annual independence day address at Ben-Gurion University, at conferences organized by the AJC and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. His main shtick, however, was the Negev and the periphery - he'd always advocate development and investments in the periphery. In that sense, he was different from the Tel Aviv elite. But he was after all the president of Ben-Gurion University - maybe we could call him a Ben-Gurionist. Many people, including myself, really agree with his message. I was less excited about his moralizing, but I really liked his argument that Israeli society has to be made more competitive, it has to really start thinking about preventing the ongoing brain drain of highly qualified people (especially high tech workers). I remember a conference in 2003 at which people in the audience (really old Israelis - the Labour types that attend Konrad Adenauer Foundation conferences in Jerusalem about peace in the Middle East) practically begged him to enter politics. At that time he still refused - he didn't want anything to do with the political milieu, he claimed.