Swings of the Pendulum

Israelis’ opinions sway like a pendulum back and forth. Take for example the public’s take on what it requires to become defense minister.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on December 5, 2006.)

What is it about Israelis? Are they just plain fickle or do they have a problem making up their minds? Like a pendulum, their opinions and moods swing back and forth. There seems to be an inherent instability here; an instability that keeps Israeli politicians, always attuned to the results of the latest public opinion polls, from pursuing a consistent and coherent course.

Take, for example, the qualifications required of the politician who is to fill the position of defense minister. At the time that Prime Minister Olmert tried to stitch together his coalition and reluctantly offered Amir Peretz the position of defense minister, there was initially an outcry that only someone who had held a senior rank in the IDF could adequately shoulder the responsibilities entailed by that ministerial position. This presumably was no job for a “civilian.” Within a short time, however, journalists digging into Israel’s recent history discovered a number of “civilians” who seemed to have done a reasonably good job at that post. Some even argued that the record of “civilian” defense ministers was better than the record of military men who had held that job. Before you could turn around, the additional argument was being made that being defense minister was not such a big deal. After all, there was the IDF – the chief-of-staff and the whole military hierarchy – the Defense Ministry bureaucracy, and whatever advisers the minister would mobilize to assist him. It presumably was an organization that almost ran itself, the defense minister being little more than the titular head of a smoothly running machine. From there, it was only a short leap to the inevitable conclusion that not only could a “civilian” perform adequately as defense minister, but that any “civilian,” no matter who, could do the job. So Amir Peretz was okay for the job.

Until the fiasco of the second Lebanon war. Now it was argued, how could we have allowed an inexperienced “civilian” to hold this position. The catastrophe would have been avoided if we only had a military man heading the Defense Ministry. What we now need is to replace him with somebody who has held a senior rank in the IDF. And the search has begun for politicians who had been generals or admirals, who could replace Peretz. It will probably not be long before the pendulum swings the other way.

In the wake of the Lebanon war, some have come to the conclusion that the source of all our troubles is our form of government. That is another swing of the pendulum. We’ve been through this before. Some years ago it was claimed that the law for the direct election of the prime minister would steady our government and give the prime minister the necessary powers to govern. What a disappointment! The law had to be revoked after the pendulum swung the other way, after a few years of the most unstable governments Israel had seen. But for some inconceivable reason, the Lebanese fiasco has given the pendulum another push, and now it is argued that the very prime minister responsible for this fiasco needs additional powers and his position should be guaranteed for a full four years. Is it any wonder that the present government has adopted this hair-brained scheme and plans to pass such a reform in the present Knesset before the pendulum swings the other way?

Brand new political parties promising everything under the sum seem to appear without fail at election time. Each arouses a great deal of enthusiasm, and each, after a short period of time, leads to disappointment, and disappears from the scene. That pendulum has swung from Ben-Gurion’s Rafi party, to Yigael Yadin’s Dash party, to the Center party of Yitzhak Mordechai, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Dan Meridor; and lately, the Kadima party led by Ehud Olmert. There is little doubt that this latest swing of the pendulum is already reversing and that Kadima will shortly disappear into the scrap heap of history like its many predecessors.

All these swings of the pendulum Israel has managed to survive. But there is one big swing that spells real danger for Israel and its citizens. It was Ben-Gurion who formulated the doctrine that the IDF must fight its wars on the enemy’s soil. His primary concern was the safety of the civilian population. It may be remembered that he refused to approve the Sinai campaign until the safety of Israel’s civilian population had been assured. That was also the IDF’s doctrine during the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the first Lebanon war and its aftermath, and during the second Intifada.

But now we have had a big swing of the pendulum, a complete reversal of Ben-Gurion’s doctrine – now wars presumably have to be fought on our own soil and our civilian population has to pay the price, because we do not want to be “conquerors on foreign soil.” That is what happened in the second Lebanon war, and that is what has been happening for many months while Qassam rockets have been falling on Sderot and the western Negev. Unless this foolish doctrine is reversed, we are heading for serious trouble.

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