Jewish Journal

News of the Week

Posted on May. 20, 1999 at 8:00 pm

Most of the people I know in Israel voted for Barak; a few preferred Netanyahu. But on the part of almost everyone, outcome aside, there was a tremendous sense of excitement, of participating in what felt like an intense moment of change.

In Israel, after all, 80 percent of the voting population cast a ballot. In that respect, perhaps above all others, Israel serves as a model of participatory democracy.

Nevertheless, after the celebrations and the excited talk about a new dramatic direction, Israel is still left with its deep-seated conflicts. The leadership may have changed -- and changed profoundly -- but the divisions within the society remain.

In short, while Barak's victory has altered Israel's profile, it is important to recognize that the election has not magically produced a mideast solution, nor turned the nation on its head. Our cover story -- actually a series of reports from our correspondents in Israel -- offers many of the complete details along with a personal reaction from Stuart Schoffman.

Reading Daphna Edwards Ziman's searing description of the conditions in the refugee camp outside Tirana, Albania (see pages 38 and 39) brought home to me what has been clear almost from the beginning of the catastrophe in Kosovo. NATO's stance in Europe is up for grabs.

During the Cold War, NATO's role was fairly self-evident. It was a way for us to maintain an American presence, and dominance, in Western Europe; and not coincidentally to build a military force with which to defend Europe against the Soviet Union should it attempt to move West. There were flaws of course, and a falling out with France but in general, the alliance served its purpose. Europe recovered; we provided military protection.

All this essentially I recall from days when I was a foreign correspondent living abroad and covering NATO and the common market.

Now that the Cold War is over, there is some question about its necessity and purpose in the future. Or perhaps I should say "some question about our role" in Europe as head of NATO.

Under the banner of humanitarianism, we have proclaimed that in Europe at least, we will not tolerate ethnic cleansing or the forced expulsion of a population. That appears to be NATO's statement of principle; what it stands for in this post cold war world.

But on closer inspection, that is not quite correct either. NATO, for example, as a military alliance is unwilling to risk ground troops or the probable death of some of its national troops in order to halt the expulsions and the murder of Albanians in Kosovo.

Nor is there a military central command that is free of the political priorities that govern each one of the 19 nations within NATO. Even the use of air power, including American Apache helicopters, has been restricted because of political differences over policy, role and function. As an effective military force, for defensive or offensive purposes, NATO would seem to be a paper tiger.Not effective; not efficient; and not very threatening.

The irony in all this is that an obvious role for NATO is staring us in the face. Just read the story of this one refugee camp. NATO has the means and resources to serve in Europe as a life-saving force. It could turn its money and its manpower primarily towards helping the refugees. What's needed is not difficult to assess: A great many mobile hospital units complete with medical supplies, doctors and nurses; housing and food and some kind of temporary schooling for the refugee children; meaningful work and classes for the adults; quick and immediate transportation along with plans for at least temporary resettlement in Western Europe and the U.S. There is enough here to keep NATO busy around the clock.

Time is the key variable. The refugees have lost their homes along, in some cases, with family. Most of them have to start their lives anew. Some will not be up to the task and will falter; a number will sink into depression and despair; a percentage will die. NATO in this very specific instance is the organization that has precisely the power and the authority to affect the outcome here; to play a decisive role in Europe.

And let the Serbs just get away with it, some will ask. The answer seems obvious. One can always bomb Belgrade or Kosovo, or all of Yugoslavia, if that provides satisfaction.

But what is more important at this moment: Saving the lives of close to a million exiles or punishing the Serbs? There are no fixed rules or principles to be passed along here to other nations, or lines drawn in the sand. But there is a very real and tangible role for NATO to play on the eve of its 50th birthday. It is as plain as the military screw-ups that bring us ever closer to political disaster...and that results in the abandonment of most of the Kosovars. -- Gene Lichtenstein

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