Lessons of the latest debacle

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Imagine the following scenario: In response to threats last summer by Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah to kidnap additional Israelis, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the IDF to strike at Hizbullah rocket launchers along the border, command and control assets in the Bekaa Valley and kill Hizbullah leaders.

After the initial strikes, Sharon announced that the campaign would continue until Nasrallah returned the bodies of murdered IDF soldiers Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Sawayid and kidnapped Israeli drug dealer Elhanan Tannenbaum.

The IDF continued its operations, killing Hizbullah terrorists and destroying its bases while overflying Syrian military installations in Lebanon and Western Syria and besieging Nasrallah.



Seeing that Israel was pursuing a plan to destroy his organization, Nasrallah returned the bodies and Tannenbaum through German mediators.


In the aftermath of the successful campaign, it was revealed that Sharon had a past relationship with Tannenbaum's father-in-law. Would anyone care?


The furor over Ma'ariv's revelation Wednesday that Sharon had business dealings with Shimon Cohen, Tannenbaum's father-in-law, 30 years ago has little to do with the fact of the matter.



Rather, the reason the story resonates with the public is that it is a metaphor for how ill-conceived Sharon's decision to release more than 400 terrorists in exchange for a criminal was.

The story of the Sharon-Tannenbaum connection, which has dominated the public debate since Wednesday morning, does however serve a practical purpose. It illustrates two central problems with Israeli policymaking.


In the first instance, it demonstrates the vacuousness of the decision-making processes Sharon has adopted since taking office in 2001. These decisions, taken far away from government or public scrutiny, are made by Sharon and a few handpicked advisers without political or public critique and presented to us as a fait accompli.


Secondly, the Sharon-Tannenbaum affair lays bare the media's failure to foster public debate on either Sharon's policymaking mechanisms or the policies themselves before they are adopted. In the case of Sharon's insistence on releasing more than 400 terrorists in exchange for Tannenbaum, for instance, it is the security of all Israelis, not the prime minister's political career, that is the principal casualty of the deal.


Yet the media debate before the prisoner swap was approved by the cabinet was superficial at best. Its loudest criticism related to the deal's impact on securing information on missing IAF navigator Ron Arad. The question of how the deal would impact the security of Israeli citizens writ large was largely ignored.


Today, there are three government policies that are equally if not more vital than the prisoner swap to our national security that are also being carried out in the backrooms with little to no public debate. If we are to take any lessons from the Tannenbaum affair, it is to these issues that they should be applied.


First we have Sharon's intention to deploy Egyptian forces in the Gaza Strip after an IDF withdrawal.

According to news reports, Sharon has proposed to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak that the Camp David Accord's security limitations on Egyptian forces along the border with Israel be significantly amended.


Today, the treaty provisions limit Egyptian forces to the western Sinai Peninsula and its forces are barred from deploying near the border with Israel. Sharon now is pushing a plan under which Egypt would deploy thousands of security forces along the border and inside the Gaza Strip. The plan was presented to Mubarak last week by Labor Party leader Shimon Peres.


Speaking this week before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, CGS Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya'alon told lawmakers that the IDF's General Staff is totally opposed to the notion of amending the Camp David Accord in this manner. Ya'alon explained that deploying Egyptian forces in the so-called Philadelphia corridor along the divided city of Rafah would enable Katyusha rockets to be smuggled into Gaza and Katyusha strikes on Ashkelon would force the IDF to launch large-scale ground operations in Gaza.


Of Egypt's gestures toward curbing weapon smuggling along the Rafah border to date, Ya'alon said, "I am not satisfied with the Egyptian action."


The plan to deploy the Egyptian military in Gaza represents a total renunciation of Israeli security doctrine for the past 48 years.


Since the 1956 Sinai Campaign, it has been Israel's policy to keep Egyptian forces away from the border. Israel went to war with Egypt in 1956 after Egypt failed to prevent and indeed sponsored terrorist attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip. In 1967, it was the Egyptian military mobilization on the border that fomented regional war.


The entire rationale behind the separation-of-forces sections of the Camp David Accord was to prevent the eruption of war between Israel and Egypt by keeping Egyptian forces away from Gaza and Israeli population centers.


There has been no government discussion whatsoever of this radical proposal. Apparently the brainchild of Sharon, Peres and Sharon's chief of staff Dov Weisglass, the policy was announced through leaks to the media. Sharon has yet to say anything about this proposal to the public although he is already negotiating it with the US and the Egyptians.


And indeed, there has been no public debate of the issue. All three television channels were granted interviews with Sharon on Wednesday night and not one of them asked him about this stunning departure from a military doctrine he himself was instrumental in shaping.


Will we only have a debate on this after Katyusha rockets rain down on Tel Aviv from Gaza or Egyptian troop movements again precipitate a war?


Then there is the issue of Iran's nuclear-weapons program.


Just this past weekend, Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani threatened Israel again after signing military pacts with the Syrian and Lebanese governments. Speaking in Beirut, Shamkhani said that if Israel strikes Iranian nuclear sites, "I can promise you that Ariel Sharon, assuming he stays alive, will appear on television screens and announce that he regrets this folly. He will suffer and scream out in pain."


Israel's options regarding the Iranian nuclear weapons program are all bad. With the EU busy appeasing Teheran and the Bush administration divided between those advocating military strikes and those advocating adopting the European line, Israel stands more or less alone before the specter of nuclear holocaust. The Iranian leadership has said outright that it does not see its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent force, but rather intends to use it to annihilate Israel.


Israel can either preemptively strike Iran's nuclear facilities; pressure the US to take action against them from its forward bases in Iraq and Afghanistan; or do nothing. Today it would seem that Israel has chosen the third option.


No doubt discussion of this existential threat to the Jewish state should be conducted in secret. But has the cabinet been engaged? Have ministers demanded a presentation on the matter by the air force, military intelligence and the Mossad? Is the Knesset holding hearings on this subject? And while our leaders should make their decisions in private, where are the newspapers and the TV channels and Israel Radio in all of this? Where is a national debate on the threat of physical annihilation? Isn't it better to have this discussion now than after Teheran tests its first nuclear bomb?


Lastly, we have the US plan to democratize the Arab and Muslim world. In recent weeks, the Bush administration has begun to implement its Greater Middle East Initiative. The US h
as launched its Arabic satellite news station Al-Hurra and Radio Free Syria radio station in a bid to bring freedom and democracy to our Arab neighbors for the first time in their history.


What is happening is no less than a revolution, albeit a tentative one, in the way the US views its Middle East policy. If in the past, consecutive US administrations have swallowed the Arab propaganda line that no reforms of their dictatorships were possible until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved, today the Bush administration is rejecting this lie.


Speaking in Cairo this week, Undersecretary of State Mark Grossman said, "The effort for reform in Arab countries does not have to wait until there is a full peace." And what is Israel doing in the face of this welcome and courageous American policy? Our government is rejecting it, by deed if not by word.


By courting Mubarak while he leads the charge against the US initiative to bring freedom to the Arab world we are strengthening Mubarak and his authoritarian government that has made Egypt the epicenter of Arab anti-Semitism and the gravest conventional threat to Israeli security.


Sharon's newest adviser Peres was the first to work to scuttle Bush's June 24, 2002, call for democracy in Palestinian society when as foreign minister he created the fiction that a prime minister hand-picked by Arafat would mark the completion of regime change and democratization.



Minister Natan Sharansky, who was instrumental in convincing the Bush administration to view democratization of the Arab world as a central aim of its Middle East policy, has been shut out of Sharon's foreign policy debate.


And where is the Israeli media? Aside from laconic reports of the American initiative, buried in the back pages of the newspapers and at the tail ends of news broadcasts, never to be repeated, there has been no media discussion of the strategic ramifications of the American initiative.


Rather than support Palestinian journalists who are taking to the streets in droves to protest physical assaults against their colleagues by PA security forces, our journalists went to Ramallah two weeks ago to eat lamb chops with Jibril Rajoub – the man who spearheaded the PA's campaign against freedom in the Palestinian press by torching newspapers and torturing journalists since 1994.


As the US launches the one policy that has a chance of bringing us long-term peace, our policymakers and media elites placate these dictators and woo their henchmen.


There is no doubt that the deal with Hizbullah that brought us Tannenbaum the drug dealer in exchange for 400 terrorists was a mistake. But the best way to rectify the situation is to learn our lessons. We have three tests before us. Our ministers and our media outlets must be called to order. It is time that they do their jobs.


Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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