In Israel, Iran discussion heats up

Public discussion about public policy is a defining characteristic of democracies like ours. Open discussion and media monitoring are hallmarks of a free societies. Ultimately, the (very) public debate in Israel about Iran could lead to better military, diplomatic, and civil defense policies. More than in previous conflicts, the Iranian threat could hit the home front and the nation's economy.

In past conflicts and crises, there was never this much advanced public discussion. In the first decades of our existence, the Israeli public tended to respect the positions of our political and military leadership, seen as they were as the views of "experts." Challenging the government and, to a greater extent, the IDF's generals, was considered dangerous, especially in times that called for national unity.

While we never viewed our leadership as infallible, there was a certain aura of untouchability arising out of the fact that our leaders, civilian as well as military, "know what they are talking about" and should be allowed to run the wars as best they could  with minimal questioning from the balcony. There was a sense that the average citizen who wasn't privy to all the information could not second-guess our leaders. The media, in most cases and as in most countries until relatively recently, played along with the notion that the leaders know best and the public's role is limited to the election of a good government once every four years. 

For Israel, the armor of infallibility was cracked by the calamity of the Yom Kippur War. The ensuing investigation showed that our leaders were not above making (human) errors. Unfortunately, our nation faces regular challenges, and so confidence was restored not long after by such successes as the Entebbe rescue mission. 

The first Lebanon War (1982) was the first case of major public discussionand dissentduring a time of war. From that moment on, public debate and media involvement in conflict management became a growing phenomenon. It seems that never has this debate been so open and as all-encompassing as today, when the most hotly debated topic in Israel is on the Iran situation. 

With the unprecedented access to information afforded to all by the internet, the knowledge divide between leaders and citizens has diminished. Citizens know more than ever before, and topics that used to be limited to "the corridors of power" are now discussed in what has become a "Town Hall Meeting" society. The knowledge gap between actual generals and arm chair generals is ever narrowing and in a country where we used to joke that every citizen is a Prime Minister, today every citizen is a self-appointed military maven.

The subject matter, too, is now a matter of public concern and thus in the public domain. In the 60s and 70s, generals and politicians were discussing the technicalities of the numbers of redundant aircraft and ammunition needed to wage war. Today the discussion is about the number of civilian casualties and the economic costs of a preemptive attack on Iran, when the burden will clearly be on the shoulders of every citizen-not just those in the IDF. 

With the accessibility and immediacy of information about our military capabilities and our diplomatic policies, Israeli citizens are more aware of the implications of any decision regarding Iran than about earlier matters of war and peace. We are also more concerned. For many, the additional information has heightened rather than lowered our apprehensions. There is even substantial mistrust of our leaders and doubts about the readiness of our military and civilian society in the face of what could turn out to be a violent, drawn-out conflict involving the home front.

The old saying that politicians, unlike mountains, seem smaller the closer you get to them, is part of the reason for growing public mistrust in our government. Of course, Israel is not alone in experiencing that phenomenon. Another reason is the growing number of investigative committees that have become the staple of every military operation in the last decade or so. It seems that after very operation, after every campaign and war, there is an investigation and a subsequent "public beheading" of the top military leadership. That kind of self-flagellation, although sometimes justified, nevertheless does not breed confidence among a society that is asked to put its trust in its elected officials and military heads. 

The mood in Israel these days is therefore one of mixed emotions. While most Israelis agree that debate and public discussion are inherently advantageous in a democracy, there are also many who question the advisability of "outing" discussions that would best be left to the intimacy of cabinet conference rooms and IDF war-rooms. While the vast majority of Israelis agrees that allowing Iran to go nuclear is not an option, there is a growing debate on what we should do about it-pre-emptively strike on our own against the wishes of Washington? Let the Americans lead the charge at their own pace and their own threat assessment? Allow diplomacy and sanctions further time even though they have not brought the expected results so far?  Every Israeli has an opinion (sometimes more than one), every Israeli has concerns.

No matter what scenario emerges, one thing is clear to us: nothing good can come of this conflict. A peaceful resolution in which Iran unilaterally decides to forever abandon its nuclear ambitions is simply not in the cards. Any other outcome will necessarily involve human and material costs for Israel, and most likely for our best friend and ally, the United States. And when the stakes are high, the debate is heated. The information age has made that debate a part of every household in the country.

The High Holidays that we celebrate this month are not merely a good opportunity to have gefilte fish on Rosh Hashanah and a hearty end-of-fast meal after Yom Kippur. For Jews the world over, the holidays are an annual reminder that we are part of a collective, a nation, a people, with a long and eventful history of shared experiences, culture, religion, language and values. In the periods of disunity and discord in our nation's history, we were weak and vulnerable. In the periods of unity and concert, we were unbeatable. Through periods of strength and weakness, our people have survived countless attempts to destroy us. Only our people's continued unity and mutual support will ensure that we will overcome what is certain to be a difficult time for Israel in the coming months and years. A strong bond been Israel and the Jewish communities of the world will give us the strength to withstand the threats against us.

Do not mistake the debate within Israel society for a lack of unity or union of purpose. It is a source of strength for our society's fabric as we prepare to face more difficult times ahead. Shana Tova!

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel office.

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