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Cautious CheersThe End of Saddam
By Tekla Szymanski
September 2002: Bush's speech marked the beginning of the end of Saddam Hussein, Israels Channel 1 TV news began its Sept. 13 coverage of U.S. President George W. Bushs speech to the U.N. General Assembly the previous day, in which he called on world leaders to confront the grave and gathering danger Iraqi President Saddam Hussein poses to the world.
Bush Is Ready for Battle, read the Sept. 13 headline in Tel Avivs centrist Maariv. No ifs or buts: The United States is ready to deal with Iraq, the paper cheered.
A U.S. bid to oust Saddam Hussein would be welcome news in Israel. But the countrys response to Bushs increasingly bellicose rhetoric was initially cautious, though tinged with satisfaction that the threat Iraq poses to Israel was once again on the global agenda. For the most part, though, government officials and columnists alike restrained their applause until they could gauge the international response. There seemed to be a tacit understanding among commentators that too enthusiastic a reaction from Israel would undermine U.S. efforts to build a broad coalition for a military strike against Iraq by providing Arab critics of the war with reason to decry the conspiracy between the United States and the Zionists aimed at dominating the Middle East.
Since then, the Israeli media have started to debate in earnest whether Israel should retaliate if Iraq attacks Israel when the shooting begins. Israelis are understandably more nervous now about a chemical or biological attack than they have been since the 1991 Gulf War. The government is distributing gas masks, analysts are debating the utility of sealed safe rooms in the event of a biological or chemical attack, and Israel has become the first country to vaccinate emergency workers against smallpox.
As Alex Fishman wrote in the Sept. 13 edition of Tel Aviv's centrist Yediot Aharonot, Bush's speech started the countdown . Until the end of November, Israel must prepare itself again for the possibility of the use of non-conventional weapons in the Middle East. And on Sept. 17 Ma'ariv reported that Ramat Gan and Bnei Brak, two Tel Aviv suburbs, Are working on elaborate plans to evacuate their citizens if Israel would come under Iraqi attack, and are cooperating to develop a joint morgue.
The speech was to the point and forceful, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres remarked on Sept. 12. By Sept. 17, his own statements had become more forceful. "If the international community does not take a stand against Hussein, Peres told journalists from Tel Avivs liberal Haaretz, It could be a repeat of Europe's mistake when it did not face Adolf Hitler in 1939. Peres described Israel as a loyal soldier in support of the United States in its quest to dislodge Saddam Hussein. When somebody goes to war he knows there are risks. You don't do it out of pleasure but you do it with the deep conviction that by running away from what should be done, you solve nothing and you make the situation worse.... We can imagine having dangers, Peres said. But this is our duty. We belong to the same world. We shall not pass the buck.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has never hidden his desire to be rid of Saddam Hussein, has joined the cheering for the new U.S. focus on striking Baghdad. The Sept. 13 edition of the conservative, English-language Jerusalem Post reported on Netanyahus testimony before the U.S. House Government Reform Committee the previous day: Two decades ago, he told U.S. lawmakers, It was possible to thwart Saddam's nuclear ambitions by bombing a single installation [On June 7, 1981, the Israeli Air Force bombed an Iraqi nuclear facility near BaghdadTS]. But today, nothing less than dismantling this regime will do.
The editors of the Jerusalem Post anticipated that Iraq might offer to comply with the relevant U.N. resolutions, as indeed it did on Sept. 16, but warned that this would only lead to prolonged deliberations and no genuine transparency on Baghdads part. Why, they asked, should inspections prove more conclusive than they did throughout the 1990s? It is doubtful that any inspections or [U.N.] sanctions can succeed, the papers Sept. 13 editorial read. Of all the virtues George W. Bush was thought to bring to the White House, a talent for oratory was not among them . [Since then], he has proved more than eloquent. He has given persuasive expression to necessary policies . From where we sit, the case against Iraq could not be plainer . The U.N. Security Council must now set a tight deadline for bringing Iraq into compliance with all resolutions.
Yehoshua Shemes, in a Sept. 13 article for Tel Avivs Hatzofeh, the organ of the right-wing National Religious Party, denied the need for a U.N. mandate and scoffed at what he saw as the United States reluctance to act. The United States has wasted a year A year ago, the world stood united behind the United States, which had a free hand to do whatever it wanted against the axis of evil in the war on terror. Now, even Americans themselves oppose a war with Iraq . Nonetheless, we can safely assume that sooner or later the United States will attack. It can't go back on its threat. But it has lost points. A strike now will be less effective than it could have been a couple of months ago.
Yediot Aharonot, in a Sept. 17 editorial, suggested that the U.S. administration has not appreciated Israeli comments about the possible consequences of an Iraqi strike at Israel. "Like in a nightmare, the Americans are finding out that it is impossible to house-train the Israelis," the papers editors joked before adopting a more serious tone: "President Bush now needs wide-ranging, global support more than anything . Israel's bursts of energy are a millstone around his neck. Not only is there no prudence here, but real damage as well.
In his Sept. 13 column for Haaretz, the renowned military analyst Ze'ev Shiff also urged caution but expressed certainty that Israel would become an Iraqi target if the United States launched an attack against Baghdad. Israelis, he wrote, must prepare in earnest for a regional war. We have to take into account that outsiders, like Hezbollah, will use the Iraqi situation as a means to attack us . Washington must make sure that Syria will restrain Hezbollah . Moreover, Shiff warned, Israel has to realize that it would be a grave mistake to use the war with Iraq to settle accounts with the Palestinians and with President Yasser Arafat. Any such attempt, even in reaction to a terror attack by the Palestinians once the war on Iraq begins, could undermine the entire U.S. mission.
A strike against Iraq will likely bring back painful memories for many Israelis. During the Gulf War in 1991, Iraq fired 39 SCUD missiles at Israel, which, thanks to their inaccuracy, caused little damage. Then, to everyones surprise, Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir did not retaliate. It was the first time in Israels history that Israel had not returned fire after being attacked.
Few expect Israel to be as restrained this time. As early as November 2001, Sharon made it clear that he would return any Iraqi fire on Israel. In 1991, Israeli retaliation would have threatened the international coalition aligned against Iraq, which included several Arab states. The absence of a coalition now moots that concern.
In a Sept. 17 editorial, Yediot Aharonot posited another reason for the change in Israels policy this time around: Ariel Sharon. "There are many differences between the war on the way and that which we experienced as the Gulf War, the editorial read. Memories [of the Iraqi attack on Israel] will certainly contribute to preparedness and readiness, but it is the contrast between [Shamirs] sagacious leadership [and Sharons] which is leading to increased fears for the near future . This time, it will be more difficult for the Israeli government to remain calm and not take an unnecessary adventurous leap.
None of this has reassured Israelis about what the coming months hold. A letter to the right-wing, pro-settler online publication Arutz Sheva published on Sept. 13 expressed doubts that the United States could paralyze Iraq's missile-launching capability in Western Iraq at the beginning of any offensive, as it has promised to do. That's exactly what these goyim [non-Jews] vowed to do in 1991, Arutz Shevas reader exclaimed. God help us!
Others feared Saddam Husseins removal would destabilize the region. It would be ridiculous to attack Iraq now, Yediot Aharonots Alon Liel fumed on Sept. 12. To concentrate on Saddam [Hussein] will leave less time to deal with two other evildoers: [Osama] Bin-Laden and Arafat, who will get a breather. Iraq might be close to acquiring nuclear and chemical weapons, but as we saw exactly a year ago, you dont even need a pistol to bring down the World Trade Center. If you really want to, a box cutter will do. Any attempt to topple Saddam Hussein needs a broad, Western coalition . Because once Hussein is gone, the entire Middle East will change in unpredictable ways.
Israeli Defense Forces Chief of General Staff Shaul Mofaz is more sanguine. Hussein's downfall could provide a window of opportunity for the Middle East, the Sept. 17 edition of Haaretz quoted him as saying. [It could] push forward negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians."
No Time for Celebrations
By Tekla Szymanski
January 2002: Sharon Wonthe Left Has Collapsed, was the headline on the front page of Tel Aviv's centrist Yediot Aharonot on Jan. 29, the day after Israel held its third election in three and a half years. No words could better describe what happened. It will be a victory, Yossi Verter had predicted in Tel Aviv's liberal Ha'aretz a day before the election, But the victor will not be celebrating. He may be right.
At 68 percent, voter turnout was the lowest in history1.5 million eligible Israelis didn't vote. As one television commentator put it, Israelis believed these elections were forced on them and so stayed away, preferring the beach to the ballots. Israelis are fed up with being forced to cast their vote every year and a half, Alon Goldstein agreed in Yediot Aharonot. In previous elections, Israelis felt that they still could bring about change, wrote Orna Landau in the same paper. Now, because everybody believes in the same things and because everybody knows that nothing is in their hands anymore, nor in the hands of [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon or [Labor party leader Amram] Mitzna, they decided to stay home .The failure of Camp David [in 2000], and the Al-Aqsa Intifada that followed did not just kill the peace process, it also killed the belief in democracy as a system where a vote has meaning and can have an influence. If Israelis could have voted in the Palestinian elections, they would have turned out in droves.
Lev Greenberg, writing in the same newspaper, simply seemed annoyed: There was no reason to hold elections. In a working democracy, elections are held in regular intervals, or when the government fails or falls.
Other precedents were set in this election: This was the first time since 1981 that a prime minister who had called for early elections won. And it was the first time in 20 years that a prime minister was elected twice in a row.
Yet even Sharon seemed to be in a glum mood. Today is no time for celebrations, he said in his victory speech. This is a time for soul-searching, for coming together in unity, for fusing all forces to bring about a genuine victory.
Hardly the speech of a man who had just won a landslide victory. Likud won 38 seats in the Knesset, up from 19 in 1999; Labor won 19, down from 26 in 1999; Shinui won 15 seats, up from 6 in 1999; Shas lost six seats, winning only 11; and Meretz received 6 seats, down from 10 in 1999. Interestingly, Likud was proportionately less favored among soldiers, whereas the Green Leaf party, which promotes the legalization of marijuana, made gains.
Israelis voted Sharon, Arie Shavit concluded in the Jan. 29 Yediot Aharonot, as a show of contempt to Labor, but they also voted against Oslo. Gal Ochovski added in the same paper: Most Israelis suffer from the [security] situation to the point that they have lost their patience. They want a forceful solution that even if unsuccessful won't leave them standing in the rain.
The people are not stupid, Dan Shilon, Israel's most famous TV talk show host, observed pessimistically in the same edition. The people wanted Sharon, the people got Sharon, and they got a lot of him . Sharon wasnt here the past two years. It wasnt he who failed to stop terrorism, it wasn't he who blocked a settlement with the Palestinians, it wasnt he who sent thousands to the unemployment line . This is the dawn of a new morning, as we awake to the chorus of Arik [Sharons nickname], King of Israel .Sharon will continue to rule, terror will increase, peace will die, the economy will collapse, corruption will spread. But in a year or two, the people will again hail Sharonor his successor, Netanyahu.
Many commentators felt that no one won in this election, which Michal Kapra, writing for the Jan. 29 edition of Tel Aviv's centrist Ma'ariv dismissively called a chapter in a sad Latin American soap opera. According to Kapra, voter apathy, the rights ascent, and Labors decline were results of a malaise that has gripped the country since the collapse of the Oslo accords and the Al-Aqsa Intifada.
The voters played the old game, Meir Shelo explained in Yediot Aharonot. The Israeli electorate always votes against something, never for something, always because of yesterday, and never with a look ahead . Nobody voted for a separation fence, for a social state, for transfer, for annexation, for retreating from the territories . We voted against the orthodox, against the secularists, against the elite against the Ashkenazim, against the kibbutz movement, against the settlements, against the Arabs, against the Jews . We voted that way, because the real discourse in Israelas in every familyis never about the future but about what happened. We dont punish the guilty and get rid of the one who brought us to where we are. We voted to keep on arguing . We voted and now we can sit back; soon there will be elections again.
tremendous gains Tommy Lapids secularist Shinui party, which puts domestic
reforms above foreign policy, opened a new chapter in domestic politics. Kobi
Arieli, writing for Yediot Aharonot, was puzzled by their success. I
am dying to get to know somebody who voted for Shinui, Arieli wrote. Who
is he? What does he believe in? Is he to the
Labors defeat had been expected, but the left lost more support than anyone had anticipated. Maarivs Jan. 29 editorial proclaimed that Labor is coming apart. Labor must remember that their responsibility equals the importance of the role mandated to the Likud, Haaretzs editors admonished the same day. [Labor politicians must] stick to their platform, use it to undermine government policies and persuade the public . Their approach offers an alternative that far better serves the national interest.
Matti Golan, writing for Tel Aviv's financial Globes, saw a bright future for Labor in a new coalition with Likud. Labor, despite its loss of power, was handed an opportunity to bring about a historical change in the country: The party can influence the government to restart a dialogue with the Palestinians in search of a political solution. Alsoand not less importantlyLabor can grab the opportunity and be part of a secular government, without the religious and orthodox parties.
Not so fast, warned Dubi Kannengiesser in the Jan. 29 edition of the news Web site Ha'eyal Hakoreh. Labor is trapped in a classic Catch-22: The party is torn between its electoral role of being part of the opposition and its ideological interest to help formulate a moderate policy within a government that is not held hostage by the dictates of the far right . Sharon, in his infinite wisdom, has left the future of the country in the hands of Mitzna, Peres, and Lapid. They will decide what the next government will look like.
Sharon, for his part, has opened the way for Labor to join the government. Immediately after the results came in, he declared that he favored a "unity government" with Labor and/or Shinui over a narrow right-wing coalition. If Sharon fails in this attempt, he might call for new elections. The reason is pragmatic, Israeli commentators said; Sharon fears for his own political survival.
A government without the protective vest of [former Israeli Labor Foreign Minister Shimon] Peres and [former Israeli Labor Defense Minister Benjamin] Ben-Eliezer will put a different Sharon on display before the world, Yossi Verter argued in the Election Day edition of Ha'aretz. The White House wont smile so much in Sharons direction, and Europe will lock its gates to him. The Palestinian conflict could get worse . The large opposition in the Knesset will make Sharon's life miserable . Ministers will not be able to travel overseas because they will need to be present to repel no-confidence notions.
Yediot Aharonot also pointed to dangers lurking in Likuds tremendous electoral gain. Likud can strike the Palestinians to its hearts content, to the point of exiling or killing Arafat, the papers Jan. 29 editorial commented. Still, Yediots editors wrote, Likud is afraid: Likud has rushed to call on the defeated Labor leadership, almost begging them to join them. The reason for this strange phenomenon, the paper suggested, could be that "Sharon is scared of the possible results of enacting his policies . Likud is afraid of Labor [politicians] in the opposition, rubbing their hands and saying: Lets see how you pull through.
The day before, Yossi Verter had made a similar point in Haaretz: Likud fears its victory more than Labor fears its defeat. Likud simply doesnt know what to do in victory without Labor. So, the day after the elections, the defeated party will become a target of stubborn courtship by the prime minister as [he tries] to woo Labor into a unity government.
By Jan. 30, it looked like their predictions were coming true. Maarivs banner headline read, Sharon: I will not form a right-wing government. And a second headline in fat letters over a quarter of the front page announced: Likud is waiting for a revolt within Labor.
No matter what government Sharon eventually cobbles together, it will face daunting political and domestic tasks. Labor and Likud will both have to redefine themselves. The right must...explain and pursue what it stands for, an editorial in the conservative Jerusalem Post argued the day after the election. It must do so on the diplomatic, economic, and social front. The question at this point is how Sharon can use his mandate to recapture the initiative for Middle East diplomacy. The same day, an editorial in Tel Avivs religious, right-wing Hatzofeh added, The electorate delivered a harsh blow to the left; it is up to Sharon to prove that the right embraces a platform and a program for all areas of life.
If he doesnt, Haaretzs Gideon Samet warned, he'll drag the country into political and economic trouble that will make the crises of 2001-02 look like a picnic . The national hourglass is running out the great absurdity of [the election results] is that Sharon has become the only alternative to himself. If he refuses to present it, he wont preside over a government that he can rule. Is this possible? No. Then try to get through the coming year somehow. Afterward, either there will be a change in government at another ballot box, or catastrophewhichever comes first.
What will get us out of this mess? asked Zvi Lavi in the Jan. 29 Globes. In this theater of the absurd, Lavi wrote, Only a war with Iraq will. A threat against Israel will bring about an emergency government. After they learn how to live with each other, maybe itll be difficult for them to separate. We already have an excuse for this scenario: Arent we always knee-deep in an emergency situation?
By Tekla Szymanski
May 2001: It all seemed surreal. After Israel intercepted a Lebanese fishing boat smuggling heavy weapons to Gaza off its northern coast on May 7, stunned Israelis learned that this was the fourth illicit shipment of heavy arms bound for the Palestinian Authority and the first that Israel seized. An outcry came from the Israeli press, which lashed out at the Palestinian Authority for gearing up for war. The purchase of arms in Lebanon should make countries that are sending money to the Palestinian Authority begin asking questions about how part of this money is being used, wrote Zeev Schiff in Tel Avivs liberal Haaretz (May 8). That such weaponry was now believed to be in Palestinian arsenals was interpreted by analysts as a turning point in the ongoing struggle.
The 40-ton Lebanese vessel departed from Beirut and was bound for the Gaza Strip, where it was to have dumped its load at sea, contained Katyusha rockets and antiaircraft and antitank missiles. Even though the Israelis were caught off guard, the purchase of such a vast amount of long-range weapons, which could easily reach Tel Aviv or Ashkelon and even threaten Israeli commercial and military planes, was bound to happen, according to longtime observers. The Palestinians have been running weapons all their lives, a Western security source told Beiruts independent, English-language Daily Star (May 10). Any Palestinian with the necessary money can buy and ship weapons from Lebanon. Its no problem at all.
Lebanese authorities, however, denied any knowledge of the shipment. In response to the capture of the cache of weapons, Israel prepared new guidelines for commercial aircraft landing at Ben Gurion Airport. Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Ahmat Jibril claimed responsibility for the shipmentwhich he said was supplied to him by Iranvowing that more would follow to create a sort of balance of terror between us and the enemy. This is a war of existence, declared the right-wing, religious-affiliated Hatzofeh of Tel Aviv (May 9). We are sick and tired of idiotic talk about security coordination with the Palestinian Authority.
This is another example of seeing the writing on the wall, agreed Uri Dan in the conservative Jerusalem Post (May 10). One person only directs all this smuggling[Yasser] Arafat. While trampling on every clause in the agreements he signed with Israel, [he has spent] tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars since 1994 in order to set up the armed gangs that are fighting against Israel. And Tel Avivs centrist Yediot Aharonot (May 9) added: Arafat is liable to lose his entire world and his not-insignificant achievements.... [He] is seeking to up the ante in the ongoing violence, hence the weapons that were captured. Roni Shaked of Yediot Aharonot disagreed (May 8): There are no reports that link Arafat to the shipment. Jibril sees in Arafat his enemy. His allies are Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Therefore, the shipment was meant for them and not Arafat and his people.
Either way, Alex Fishman opined in the same paper (May 8), the weapons are the tip of the iceberg of what the Palestinian Authority has amassed since 1994, and they point to a dramatic shift in their military ability....Israel has information that links the Palestinian Authority directly to the seized weapons. The London-based Saudi-owned Al-Sharq al-Awsat (May 9) quoted a Palestine Liberation Organization official in Lebanon claiming, Israels aimthrough its intelligence serviceis to drive a wedge between the Palestinian authorities and our Palestinian people in Lebanon. Israel Rosenblat of Tel Avivs centrist Maariv countered (May 9): [The Palestinians] shoot, whine, and hoard weapons.
Ramallahs pro-Palestinian Authority Al-Ayyam (May 10) proposed that Israels fears of heavy weapons in Gaza should yield political moves. Israel is dazed and stunned! snapped Hasan al-Batal in the paper. Even the shadow of a surfboard in international waters seemed like a long shadow of a naval armada....As for the Palestinians, they have always been in a daze....What is the solution? Perhaps the solution can be for the Israelis to stop their raids on free Palestinian areas. This would nullify the Palestinian need to look for weapons like the arms that Israel says it seized.
Meanwhile, the saga of the smuggled arms continued: On May 13, Maariv reported that 42 mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades, and ammunitionpart of the intercepted shipmenthad been stolen from an Israeli army base and transported by donkey to Bethlehem.