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Jewish Journal

We Have an Obligation to Speak Out

by M.J. Rosenberg

March 25, 2004 | 7:00 pm

The major reason many American supporters of Israel line up behind the policies of the Israeli government is that they do not want to be in the position of second guessing the Israelis. The feeling is that they live there and have to bear the consequences of whatever policy Israel adopts, while Americans -- living thousands of miles way -- are not affected, at least directly.

That is why some in the pro-Israel community -- people who do understand how destructive the status quo is for Israel -- shrink from doing or saying anything that might be construed as critical of those Israeli policies that perpetuate the status quo.

There are, however, two things that are wrong with this logic.

The concept of "we are one" is a two-way street. Israelis have the right to call upon Diaspora Jews to lend a hand when their assistance is needed. And Jews outside of Israel have the obligation to speak up when they are worried that Israeli actions are, essentially, detrimental to Israel.

The second thing wrong with this logic is that the Israeli government -- like our own government -- is far from infallible. It makes mistakes, including mistakes that have jeopardized the state's survival.

Helping Israel avert those mistakes or change direction after mistakes have been made is a critical responsibility we owe to Israel. Sitting idly by when disaster looms is no act of friendship, let alone kinship.

These thoughts come to mind following my reading of a new book about the Yom Kippur War by Abraham Rabinovich. ("The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East.")

It's not a new story. Anyone involved with Israel -- and who was born before 1963 -- is bound to vividly remember the worst moments in the Jewish state's history. A combined surprise attack by Egypt and Syria succeeded in bringing Israel to the brink of annihilation.

Israel was utterly unprepared for the war. Along the Suez Canal (then Israel's border with Egypt), 500 Israeli soldiers faced 80,000 Egyptians. On the Golan Heights, 180 Israeli tanks faced 1,400 Syrian tanks.

Not surprisingly, Israel's first defenders were, for the most part, wiped out. It took well over a week for Israel to regain the initiative. In the meantime, Prime Minister Golda Meir contemplated suicide, while Defense Minister Moshe Dayan said that there was a strong chance that the state could be lost. By war's end, 3,000 Israelis were dead.

And, according to Rabinovich, it all could have been avoided. According to the official Agranat Commission report on the investigation of the Yom Kippur failure, Israeli officials simply ignored almost unmistakable signs that the Egyptians were preparing for war.

Soldiers on the front reported massive increases in Egyptian activity. Spies told the Israelis that Egypt and Syria were about to strike. And King Hussein actually flew to Tel Aviv to tell the prime minister that war was about to break out.

All the evidence was ignored. Why? Because Israel's political leaders adhered to a strategic view called the "concept." According to that view, Egypt would not attack until it joined in an alliance with Syria and until it had certain Soviet-built weapons in hand.

As far as Israel knew, neither of those conditions was met. Therefore, there would be no war and military calls to mobilize against the imminent threat were ignored. The concept mattered; reality didn't.

The same concept prevented the Israeli government from accepting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's 1971 call on Israel to pull back from the Suez Canal. Sadat said that in exchange for a pullback of just a few miles -- which would enable Egypt to re-open the canal and reap significant economic benefit -- he would begin negotiating a peace agreement with Israel.

The United States thought Israel should seriously consider the offer and dispatched Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco to Israel to convince Meir that Sadat was serious. But Meir rebuffed him. The status quo was just fine.

It was at that point that Sadat decided that his best option was to go to war; if Israel would not reopen the canal, he would. And that is what happened.

Sadat ordered his men to cross the canal, and, following five years of postwar negotiations, the canal -- along with the entire Sinai was returned to Egypt. The concept had cost some 3,000 Israeli lives.

Today, Israel operates under a new "concept." It is that the Palestinians are weak and always will be weak. It is that negotiations are a concession to the Palestinians, a favor one pulls back whenever there is an act of terror. It is that the only effective response to terror is to keep hitting back, avoiding negotiations, despite the fact that for three years, counterterror has not succeeded in eliminating terror.

It is that negotiating prisoner releases with Hezbollah murderers is permissible, while Mahmoud Abbas' request for the same releases is met with foot-dragging. It is, above all, the belief that Israel can secure its future not in collaboration with the Palestinians but in their face.

No one argues with Israel's right to fight terrorists. Without the effective actions of Israel's security forces, who knows how many might have died in the nine major terror attacks that have been blocked since February (including several megaterror attacks). Nor can one argue with Israel's demand that the Palestinian Authority join Israel (as during Oslo) in effectively fighting the terrorists and rooting them out.

But refusing to negotiate is not part of any anti-terror policy, nor is weakening those Palestinian forces most anxious to negotiate a peace agreement. As for clinging to a status quo that is deadly, that is simply indefensible.

The good news is that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza initiative has the potential to break the status quo, although only if Israel's actions are coordinated with the Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians. In any case, it's a good start and represents a far more imaginative approach than the Israeli government had in the 1970s under a Labor government.

The lesson of the Yom Kippur war is that foreign supporters of Israel who sit still in the face of policies they consider to be self-destructive are performing no act of friendship. Who were the real friends of Israel in 1971 -- the ones who told Israel that President Richard Nixon and Assistant Secretary of State Sisco were right when they urged Israel to cut a deal with Sadat? Or were they the ones -- mostly here in the United States -- telling Israel not to yield to U.S. pressure.

The answer is obvious. Friends do not allow friends to behave self-destructively. Israel has the right as a sovereign state to make its own strategic decisions. But we have the right -- no, the obligation -- to speak up when we think that those decisions could lead to disaster for a nation we cherish.



M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis for Israel Policy Forum, is a longtime Washington staffer and former editor of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's Near East Report.

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