The somewhat calm demeanor I acquired growing up in the United States has been constantly challenged by living in Israel for more than 31 years. Nowhere is this more evident than in driving. While I try to maintain the basic courtesy and caution imbued in me in the green tranquility of the U.S., it is sometimes impossible in an environment where everyone drives too fast or too slow and stops wherever and whenever they want. In Israel, one must use a nerve-racking driving style to make it safely to one’s destination. Running with the bulls in Pamplona might be an apt analogy. When I drive during visits to the states, I make a conscious effort to shed my acquired road behavior so as not to be the proverbial bull in the china shop.
But this column is not about the very real and dangerous hazards of Israeli roads, which, sadly, cause an average 400 deaths annually. The most successful of the many national campaigns created to grapple with this grave situation was built around the slogan: “Don’t be right, be smart.” In pressure-packed Israel, this saying has caused people to think a bit more when they drive. Late November and early December was one of the most eventful periods I remember in Israel. The increased mortar and missile attacks in the south led to the IDF’s Pillar of Defense operation against Hamas in Gaza. Then the UN General Assembly voted in favor of the Palestinian Authority’s statehood resolution, and the Israeli government decided to begin development in the E1 area of Jerusalem. Of course, all of the election-related, internal political upheavals were sandwiched between these two mega-events.
What does all of this have to do with Israeli driving? Well, the Gaza operation and the UN vote offered an amazing contrast illustrating how the same government in quick succession could so successfully adopt the “Don’t be right, be smart” philosophy and then immediately afterward so totally ignore it. Looking at the issues in-depth, it is clear that in both cases Israel is right. The question is, was Israel also smart? In the case of the Gaza, yes. Had Israel been only “right,” we would have used much more force to eliminate the Hamas armed threat. As long as Hamas rules Gaza, the threat of missiles being fired on our cities and towns will remain a threat.
Israel has an obligation to its citizens to be as forceful as necessary in Gaza. It is a threat no other civilized nation would tolerate. Yet, despite withdrawing from Gaza, Israel is perceived as the bad guy. As Wall Street Journal Foreign Affairs Correspondent Bret Stephens wrote, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than before. During the last full year prior to the 2005 withdrawal, 281 rockets were fired at Israel compared to 1,777 in 2006. At the time of the withdrawal, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised Israel would strike with full force if any further rockets were fired. But Israel didn’t retaliate in full force, and rockets fired at Israel became the new norm.
When Israel’s patience finally ran out in December 2008 with the launch of Operation Cast Lead, Israel was viewed as the aggressor for having broken the status quo. The son of a senior Hamas leader, Masab Youseff became disillusioned with the futile destructiveness of Hamas and for many years worked secretly for Israeli intelligence, preventing the violent deaths of scores of Israeli civilians. When his cover was blown, he went into hiding. Watching a recent television interview with him from a secret location in California, I was struck by his optimism and his conviction that, despite his personal pain, he has taken the only possible path. He says, “Hamas was born to destroy; they do not know how to build. I doubt that they will be able to build a modern state and I hope that this will become apparent to the Palestinians. Taking the Hamas regime down is a necessity. Sadly, it cannot be done without killing many innocent Palestinian civilians because they (Hamas personnel and rockets) are totally embedded in the population.” He adds that “removing Hamas is a necessity not only for Israel, but for humanity.”
This Hamas terrorist enclave makes Israeli responses inevitable. The international sensitivity to civilian casualties — or at least those inflicted by Israel — provides the terrorists with an incentive to provoke an Israeli attack and to maximize civilian casualties. Daniel Greenfield puts the matter well: “The more precisely we try to kill terrorists, the more ingeniously the terrorists blend into the civilian population and employ human shields. The more we try not to kill civilians, the more civilians we are forced to kill. That is the equal and opposite reaction of the humanitarian formula.”
With these severe limitations in mind, the government set out on an operation, limited in scale and modest in its goals, to achieve an extended period of quiet through deterrence, and mobilizing the relevant parties to help prevent continued smuggling of Iranian missiles into Gaza.
The precise and surgical air operation was designed to take out long-range missile sites and Hamas targets. In more than 1,500 sorties, there were 151 deaths, and by Hamas accounts, 110 of these were Hamas operatives. These statistics are a tribute to superior technology, superior skill, a strict moral code and restraint. The vast majority of Israelis wanted the operation to continue so Hamas would be unable to continue to terrorize Israeli civilians. Netanyahu and the government were strongly criticized internally for agreeing to the cease-fire, which Israel did to maintain the grudging international support that will be necessary for the next, inevitable, campaign against Hamas. For all of these reasons, Israel was both right and smart.
Where did the Israeli government go wrong on the UN vote on Palestinian statehood? While this symbolic vote does little to change anything on the ground, it puts up further obstacles to renewing negotiations. And it illustrates the result of the absence of any peace initiative by the government since assuming power in 2009. True, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to negotiate unless the starting point is pre-1967 borders, full right of return for refugees and Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital — issues to which no Israeli government can agree as a starting point. But if the world wants Israel to hold talks with the Palestinians, then Israel should sit down with the Palestinians. This would prove that the Palestinians are simply not willing or able to reach an end-of-conflict agreement with Israel.
The UN vote was the Palestinian attempt to get statehood without paying the price — a commitment to end the conflict once and for all. Had Israel entered negotiations with the Palestinians, then the relevant international community would have seen which side is the real obstacle to peace. Support for the Palestinian statehood motion among Western nations would have been minimal. Israel was right, but not smart.
Following this mistake, the government reacted with a decision to begin the planning stage for development on an area on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. The final status of the Oslo accords did envision this area as having Jewish neighborhoods, but, given the lack of a peace process, the decision was not smart. We are often justifiably defiant at the international community’s hypocrisy and the Muslim world’s hostility. Israelis are tired of apologizing and justifying our actions. The government cannot afford this luxury. It needs to clearly state Israeli policy. But, to be both right and smart, it also needs to do some things not entirely consistent with its stated rhetoric. Israel needs international support to survive and thrive. But, I guess being smart probably goes out the door in an election campaign. Hopefully, brains will start working again on Jan. 23.