The faces of the audience in a packed school auditorium near Moshav She'ar Yishuv on Wednesday afternoon were the hollow faces of bereavement. There, hundreds of parents, brothers, sisters, and friends of the 73 soldiers who died in the collision of two IAF helicopters en route to southern Lebanon were joined by army brass, President Moshe Katsav, and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz in honoring the dead on the sixth anniversary of the tragedy.
The images of the victims' faces were projected onto a large screen as their names and ages were intoned by the mellifluous voice of an invisible announcer. One after another: round faces, angular faces, sweet faces, beautiful faces — all full of youth and promise. All dead.
The days after the terrible accident on February 4, 1997 were days of national mourning. Malls, theaters, and restaurants closed down. Flags flew at half-mast. Stone-faced officers and politicians hurried from funeral to funeral.
For its part, Israel's Left was quick to capitalize on the national tragedy to legitimize its call for unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. In so doing, these politicians and political activists intimated that the sacrifice of so many had been a vain and unnecessary one.
Just hours after the helicopter crash, then-opposition leader Shimon Peres set the course for the Left's exploitation of the tragedy that was to follow. Speaking on Israel Television, Peres said, "The time has come to put an end to this involvement in Lebanon. We will end up making the same concessions in the end anyway, but only after more blood has been spilled."
In the days and weeks after the crash, the media gave almost uninterrupted coverage to defeatist voices telling the public that there was no reason for the IDF to be in south Lebanon.
Statements by security officials such as then-head of IDF Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Moshe Ya'alon who explained that such remarks played into the hands of Hizbullah and obfuscated the fact that the soldiers were in Lebanon in order to protect Israel's towns and villages in the north were either given cursory attention or dismissed as opportunistic opining of officers trying to defuse legitimate criticism of the IDF.
So overwhelming was the media's coverage and backing of the campaign for defeatism, and so successful was the manipulation of national grief, that a poll taken a week and a half after the accident showed that 74 percent of Israelis favored a unilateral pullout from Lebanon.
Dr. Ya'acov Katz from Bar-Ilan University, who conducted the poll, explained that the results were the direct consequence of the helicopter crash. "From a psychological point of view it is a very dangerous sign. It means that any unrelated issue can have serious bearing on a matter of great importance. People tend to put things together where there is no connection," Katz said.
EU-financed organizations lobbying for IDF withdrawal from Lebanon such as the Four Mothers group sprang up in the months after the crash. These groups, together with EU-financed politicians such as Yossi Beilin, and with the unstinting backing of the media led by radical personalities such as Shelly Yahimovich, dictated the parameters of political debate in the country on the issue of Lebanon.
We were told to ignore repeated statements by Hizbullah to the effect that it wasn't the IDF presence in south Lebanon but rather the existence of Israel itself that they were fighting. We were told that Hizbullah would somehow magically disappear if the IDF were to just pick up and leave the security zone. We were told that there were but two policy options: to stay and continue incurring meaningless casualties, or to leave.
No attention was given to the notion that there might be another option — to stay and fight, but to do so in a manner that built on the IDF's strengths. That is, abandoning the failed strategy of immobile defenses conceived by Ehud Barak during his tenure as chief of General Staff, and replacing it with small, mobile anti-guerrilla units that could strike Hizbullah forces where they were weakest — in their permanent encampments and along their supply routes. This possibility was never seriously considered.
Three years later, the campaigners for capitulation got their way as then-prime minister Barak ordered the precipitous withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000. They got their way and we were left to deal with the results. As Ya'alon put it in an interview last August, now as Lt.-Gen. and IDF Chief of General Staff: "The potential threat from Lebanon today is much more serious than it was during the period that we were deployed in the security zone. Hizbullah, together with the Syrians and the Iranians, manifests a strategic threat for northern Israel comprised of various types of rockets with various ranges that threaten the population centers of northern Israel."
For their part, the Palestinians themselves have stated repeatedly since the withdrawal that the perception that Hizbullah forced Israel to surrender in Lebanon was the major inspiration for their terrorist war against Israel. According to Ya'alon, "The withdrawal from Lebanon is perceived in the region as a major victory of the Islamic revolution. For this we are paying a strategic price. It impacted the Palestinian situation and in the long run it has implications for the Syrians."
In other words, the decision to withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon was a mistake in every respect. Yet, rather than learning the lessons of Lebanon, Israel's Left, again with media support, has for the past two years been attempting to repeat its policy prescriptions with the Palestinians.
On the eve of a general election, now under the leadership of Labor chairman Amram Mitzna, this camp tells us that we have but two options for dealing with the Palestinians: We can fight on and continue incurring losses until we agree — as, it is said, we inevitably must — to a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria, the Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem; or we can retreat unilaterally, build a fence, and the problem will somehow disappear.
For the past two years and four months, the Left's response to every massacre — a response embraced and advanced by the media — is to pointedly demand that a fence be built around Judea and Samaria like the fence in Gaza.
In so responding, these voices push us into a false reality. In this reality, the Palestinians are only fighting us because we are there. Then too, the Palestinians are incapable of adaptation and improvement. If left to their own devices, if Israeli towns are dismantled and Israeli forces removed, the Palestinian strategic threat to Israel will wither away.
Yet as Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has said recently, the Palestinians' motivation to continue their war for the destruction of Israel remains high. Moreover, he asserted this week that the Palestinians are constantly working to improve their capabilities and, like Hizbullah in Lebanon, the threat emanating from the Palestinian Authority is constantly evolving. Today, for instance, he explains that in addition to the local Palestinian forces fighting Israel, the involvement of external Arab and Islamic forces in the Palestinian terror war has grown.
In exchange for agreeing to sell Arafat arms, intercepted in January 2002 aboard the Karine A weapons ship, Iran has received a foothold in the PA. Fatah cells receive money and instruction from Iran. Hizbullah and al-Qaida also have Palestinian operatives in the areas that receive guidance and instruction from operatives in Lebanon. Terror groups based in Damascus fund and instruct cells in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip. Iraq and Saudi Arabia provide funding and political cover for the war effort.
According to the false reality of the Left, Israel is said to have no ability to act either diplomatically or militarily to change the situa
tion on the ground. We must either continue to cohabit the areas with terrorist forces or we must surrender the territories to terrorist forces. Little attention is given to a third option — of throwing out the terrorists and destroying their political apparatus now constituted by Arafat's government.
Back in 1997, Israeli society was evenly divided between Left and Right. By 2001, support for the Left, as gauged by election results, was down to 38 percent. If today's polls are to be believed, the Left, as constituted by Labor, Meretz, and the Arab parties, enjoys the support of less than one third of Israeli society.
In four days, we go to the polls. Barring any major political upheaval, the members of the 16th Knesset will reflect this balance of forces between Left and Right.
But as the political and media manipulation of public debate on Lebanon in the aftermath of the helicopter crash over She'ar Yishuv six years ago shows, the public must not become complacent in the wake of the election results. We must not allow ourselves to be deceived by voices preaching defeatism. We must not be cowed into believing that bodies of Israeli victims of Palestinian aggression have paved the way for the inevitable establishment of a terrorist state in our midst.
We must not surrender our right to support a policy of victory.
For their part, our political leaders, and first and foremost among them Ariel Sharon, must act in a manner that shows that they have heard the people's message at the voting booth above the noise of defeatist pontificators. When forming the next government and charting its policies, Sharon must acknowledge that two-thirds of the public is rejecting the Left's defeatist message and is counting on the next government to reject both of the Left's policy options — surrender or attrition that will in the end lead to surrender.
The 73 soldiers who died in the helicopter collision six years ago did not die in vain. They died in the line of duty, protecting the country. The two thirds of Israelis that are set to reject the Left on Tuesday know this. The great task of the next government is to demonstrate that it, too, understands the meaning of our losses, by rejecting false realities and placing us on a policy course to victory.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.