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Of Lessons Not Learned

By this time, Ariel Sharon must be wondering why he is so prone to fits of déjà vu. As “Siege of Muqata – The Sequel” crawls on, the pattern has become frighteningly reminiscent of the Church of the Nativity debacle and the embarrassing original version of The Isolation of Arafat. In both cases, the end result failed to measure up to the PM’s rhetoric and threats, and in both cases Mr. Sharon’s attempt to demonstrate Arafat’s irrelevance backfired to the benefit of the PA chief. In the latest episode – as in the earlier version — U.S. President George W. Bush apparently believed that he was forced into public criticism of Israel in order to protect his at-last-coalescing anti-Saddam Hussein federation.
In diplomacy and in politics, “déjà vu” is often fancy shorthand for “failure to learn from one’s mistake.” In Mr. Sharon’s case, the lesson-not-learned is the “power of time” and the negative force that breeds exponentially when unpopular activities are not completed with alacrity. The corollary is that unplanned results spawned amid the torpor can emerge with force sufficient to overtake the causative action as the primary issue and invert the delineation between aggressor and victim: witness the comparison of column inches devoted to Israel’s arguably righteous motivation on one hand, and the criticism of her response on the other.
This phenomenon is nothing new. The first time the IDF surrounded Arafat’s compound, it was but a matter of days before more than a year’s worth of uncontrolled violence against Israeli civilians was effectively expunged from international reporting in favor of stories critical of what was described as the IDF’s brutal siege. Wanted terrorists became victims of “outrageous” Israeli disregard for the sanctity of the Church of the Nativity as that siege wore on. In fact, some argue that the city-by-city, camp-by-camp pace of Operation Defensive Shield instead of the use of a broad and encompassing West Bank sweep was itself an obstacle preventing the army from maximizing the mission’s results.
It is axiomatic that when a conflict is fought under the lights of international media, the time it takes to carry out the mission is inversely proportional to the degree with which the goals of that mission are achieved. Israel has demonstrated this principle in all of the above scenarios, and even the Palestinians had arguably overplayed the terror card. The constant graphic reporting of the horrific results of suicide bombs sickened viewers world-wide to the extent that Palestinian leaders expressed fear that the profusion of such attacks harmed their cause. The only element that can further intensify this damage is the loss of credibility and deterrence that accompanies the failure to remain true to oaths that are sworn amid the heat of absolute rhetoric. Recanting vows not to negotiate under fire, or reneging on an assurance that troops will remain in place until the wanted are in custody are not only demoralizing but send the unmistakable message that those who are making policy lack direction and resolve.
In addition to whatever will amount to a resolution of Muqata II, the credibility of Israel’s government will soon be tested on such issues as the Wizzani water dispute and the Israeli reaction if attacked by Iraq. Telltale signs of retraction are already appearing in the latter issue with the Prime Minister’s clarification that Israel’s absolute right to retaliate is subjective and dependent upon the amount of “harm” caused. Depends on what you mean by “it”.
In Israel, those who wonder out loud why politicians get away with what has become known here as “zig-zagging” on policy issues are often met with the disclaimer that “politicians are not expected to live up to their promises or demands. They all change their minds.” But should either matter end in an abrogation of avowed policy, that – plus Israel’s existing record of reversals — will cause her to pay a high price in believability among friends and deterrence among foes: two currencies that are ultimately more important than the strength of the shekel against the dollar.
The relationship between rhetoric and action creates the perception. And that perception does, indeed, create the reality.

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