Gideon Levy adds his voice to the Israeli media dissenters who question Israel’s performance in the aftermath of its attack against Syria last week. As I wrote yesterday, his, Yigal Laviv and Larry Derfner’s are still small voices in the sea of self-congratulation that constitutes Israel’s mainstream media. But it’s often that still small voice of dissent that turns out to be right, witness what happened here in the U.S. regarding Iraqi WMD.
Here is what one of Israel’s finest columnists has to say:
We can rely on friends like the United States: Our faithful ally has once again come to our assistance. Were it not for the American media, we would know nothing whatsoever about that mysterious night. Only because of the United States is the fog now beginning to lift. It is such a sign of weakness that 10 days after the action that was – or was not – taken by the Israel Air Force in Syria, the Israelis were fated to grope around in the dark or to rely on the American media, as if there were no local media here.
The combination of sweeping censorship and media representatives that do not fight enough on behalf of the freedom of information is dangerous. Israel attacks, or does not attack, bombs or does not bomb – who knows? And nothing is said to the people, everything is secret, without any public supervision or accountability. The public is expected to keep quiet and to blindly support its government and army, no matter what. This is an intolerable situation at all events, but the special circumstances of the incident in Syria make the blackout on it especially dangerous.
For months now, the security establishment has been flooding us with incessant warnings about an impending confrontation with Syria. The source of these warnings and the degree to which they can be trusted has never been clarified. The average news consumer knows merely that Syria has proposed peace and has cautioned against starting a war. He also knows that Israel did not relate favorably to the peace proposal and did not even try to challenge it or to examine how serious it was. The situation is explosive, the defense establishment has told us time and again.
And then suddenly one night – boom! Suspicious cargo from North Korea, according to the report in The Washington Post; North Korean know-how for enriching uranium, according to Fox News; an aerial-photography mission, according to The New York Times; or weapons systems and “a big hole in the desert,” according to CNN.
It’s any man’s guess what happened and, mainly, any man’s guess whether such an action, if taken, was at all justified. Did we once again go off on a dangerous and pointless military adventure, as some say – or perhaps it was indeed a necessary and unequaled action? Against the backdrop of the defense establishment’s own warnings about the explosive nature of the situation, such acts can have fateful significance. And if, heaven forbid, a war does break out now with Syria, what will they say? That the situation was already explosive and that that action did nothing to change it? Will we go to war when we do not even know what was, or was not, done in the skies of Syria, in our names?
There are serious doubts here. At the helm of the decision-making process in Israel today stand the prime minister, who has a proven military failure chalked up to him, and the defense minister, who has an innate tendency toward military adventurism. There is no one we can rely on with our eyes closed – certainly not on Ehud Olmert or Ehud Barak. One wants to wipe away the stains of his failure in Lebanon and the other wants to prove he is better than his predecessor. To this must be added a battered army, which is likewise trying to get people to forget its failure. And what about us? We are expected to support them and their actions with our eyes shut…
The Israeli media have unconditionally given themselves up to the smoke screen. It is not the media’s job to weigh the considerations of war; their job is to report. When they do not even try to fight for this, they are not doing their job properly. As was to be expected, the smoke screen is gradually dissipating meanwhile, but not thanks to the Israeli media. Only after everything is clarified will we know whether it was correct to jeopardize ourselves, in a situation that was so explosive, or whether we perhaps got involved in yet another adventure…
I have a number of commenters here who like to trumpet Israeli democracy as a sterling example of how Israel stands out from its neighbors. I too value Israeli democracy such as it is. But I wonder how Israeli democrats can stomach not only the government’s silence, but the ironclad censorship imposed on a supposedly free Israeli media. Any supporter of Israel should always remember that Israel is unlike all other western democracies in that a military censor vets all military related media information. In situations like this, it makes an Israeli newspaper resemble the old Pravda, where readers looked everywhere for hidden meaning to interpret the nation’s political health.
Any of my readers who are pro-Israel patriots should ask themselves whether in a wartime situation they would prefer to live here with the media coverage we provide (which admittedly can be pretty shabby) or in Israel with the utter silence that their media provides.
On Saturday night, I heard Yossi Beilin speak for the first time here in Seattle under the auspices of Find Common Ground and their local leader Barbara Lahav. He is the Meretz party leader in the Knesset and a former justice minister in Ehud Barak’s last government. There is no question that Beilin is absolutely brilliant and a master tactician with sharp analytical skills. There is no question that he has made a tremendous contribution to the prospects for peace in the region. There is also no question that he has that Israeli arrogance that admits to no weakness and bespeaks self-confidence and certitude.
But one thing turned me off big time that night. He was asked by Jeri Rice, a prominent leader of the local Jewish peace community and major funder of Israeli Peace Forum what he could tell us about the Syria attack. Now, I understand as an MK he’s privy to information that we may not be. But his answer nevertheless deeply disappointed. He said he wasn’t going to condemn the attack and had information that prevented him from doing so. He added that as long as the attack did not cause any humanitarian hardship he had no problem with it.
The upshot of his reply was that he knew something we didn’t which allowed him to feel perfectly comfortable with what the IAF had done. Something about the smugness of this irked me.
And this led me to another problem I have with Beilin. He has only one principle: ending the Occupation. Beyond that he seems to have few principles and is open to negotiating just about anything. I felt his support for the Lebanon war up until the very last minute (he turned against it after three weeks) was disastrous for the Israeli left. But I imagine he made a cold calculation that being right on the war was less important than retaining whatever credibility might be lost with the Israeli Jewish public by doing the right thing and savaging the war as he must’ve known he should have done.
I consider myself a pragmatist as well. But I have my limits. And Yossi Beilin went beyond them during the war. And he went beyond them in his rather curt dismissal of Jeri’s question.