Pirkei Avos on the Winograd Report
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 9, 2007
There are many ways to read the Winograd Report itself and the accompanying hullabaloo. Of these perhaps the least interesting is as sports event. Unfortunately, it is that aspect of the report that has dominated the front pages of Israeli papers since the interim report came out last week. Will Olmert and Peretz resign? Will Olmert be ousted in a bloodless palace coup by his fellow Kadima MKs aftraid that their fledgling party (and with it their political careers) will be spit out by the voters if they don’t free themselves from the albatross of Olmert? Will the pressure for new elections prove irresistible?
And then there are all the front-page pieces discussing the day’s tactical moves by the main players: Prime Minister Olmert; Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, the would be inheritor of the Kadima mantle; Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, whom polls show leading if elections were held to day, but who has no clear way to bring down the government; Ehud Barak, currently involved in a neck-and-neck race for the Labor Party leadership, and who would probably prefer being a Defense Minister under Olmert to being crushed by his old enemy Netanyahu in new elections. And so on and so on.
Initially, Livni seemed to be the clear winner from the report. Headlines predicted a mass revolt by Kadima MK’s flocking to her banner. But when Olmert secured promises from three coalition partners to bolt the coalition if he were ousted (and thereby bring about new elections), the revolt died with barely a whimper. Meanwhile, Livni, first publicly told Olmert to resign and then declined to leave the cabinet when he refused to do so. She was left looking like a complete political neophyte, with neither the toughness nor the quickness of thinking under pressure that the public will be looking for in a new prime minister, especially as the headlines warn of the possibility of renewed war.
In any event, it is hard to imagine that after reading the Winograd Commission interim report on the havoc wreaked by two politicians with little military background (or, it would seem, understanding) last summer, that the public will be too enthusiastic about a woman prime minister with no military experience.
To compare the political maneuvering and the breathless analysis that goes with it to sports reportage is not to deny that the outcome has immense implications for the future of Israel. Sophisticated armaments have been pouring into Gaza since the withdrawal in 2005, and at an accelerating rate since Hamas’s takeover of the Palestinian Authority last year. Gaza is poised to become another southern Lebanon, with Hamas in the role of Hizbullah. Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi warned last week that there will soon be no alternative to an IDF action within the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile Hizbullah is rearming, and the Syrian military build-up continues apace.
The possibility of going to war again under a prime minister whose failures in the Second Lebanon War last summer were caustically, but only partially, detailed in the Winograd Commission’s interim report (with much more to come about the actual conduct of the war) is surely enough to send shudders down the spine of every resident of Israel.
In addition, a wounded but not yet terminal prime minister may be tempted to indulge in some high-wire diplomatic adventure to win over the press and public opinion. That is what then Prime Minister Ehud Barak did in the months leading up to Camp David, as his poll numbers plummeted. He offered the Palestinians the store – and went way beyond the Israeli consensus – in the search of a dramatic breakthrough. And the result? The outbreak of new warfare with the Palestinians. For his efforts, George Will called Barak "the most calamitous leader any democracy has ever had."
The danger is that Olmert might emulate his example. Already novelist, and left-wing activist A.B. Yehoshua has been quoted as saying that Olmert can stay if he makes peace with the Palestinians.
On the other hand, the danger is that if Olmert quits or is forced out immediately, everyone will forget about the most important findings of the Winograd Commission to date. The interim report lays bare long-standing failures in Israel’s entire decision-making processes and long-range planning. As Jerusalem Post editor David Horowitz wrote last Friday, "The belief that changing a few faces at the top of our political and military guard will be enough to solve our problems is suicidally delusional for the state of Israel."
THE WINOGRAD REPORT CAN PERHAPS BEST BE READ as a mussar shmuess. The very first advice given by the Men of the Great Assembly in Pirkei Avos is:" Be deliberate in judgment" (Avos 1:1).. One who judges hastily, writes Rabbeinu Yonah, is comparable to a deliberate sinner, even if he believed his judgment was correct. Both Rabbeinu Yonah and the Rambam point out the more one thinks about something the better chance one has of discovering new factors that initially escaped his attention and of reaching a more accurate assessment.
Someone who cannot recognize his own fallibility, and take the time to think again is considered as if he willfully perverted the judgment: "One who is too self-confident in handing down legal decisions is a fool, wicked and arrogant of spirit" (Avos 4:9).
The decision to send Jewish boys to war is also one of life and death. Yet the Winograd Commission found that decision was made hastily and on the basis of an emotional response. "The government authorized an immediate military strike that was not thought through," states the report. Thought about at all would be more accurate, writes Horowitz. There was no planning at all. The government’s response was, in Horowitz’s words, "hit back and hope."
From Pirkei Avos we learn the necessity of anticipating the consequences of one’s actions. "[Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai] said to them: Go out and discern what is the proper way to which a man should cling. . . . Rabbi Shimon says: One who considers the consequences of his deeds. . . . " (Avos 2:13). Yet the Winograd report found that none of the most likely consequences were taken into account before deciding to go to war. That Hizbullah would respond to an IDF aerial attack with a barrage of katyushas was obvious. Yet no inquiries were made about the state of Israel’s civil defenses or steps taken to prepare bomb shelters. Even worse, no initial consideration was given to how the IDF could eliminate the katyushas or whether it was capable of doing so. The prime minister and cabinet asked for and received no such plan from the IDF. Not only did those responsible for going to war not think two or three moves ahead, they did not even think about the next move.
A constant theme running throughout Pirkei Avos is the need to take counsel with others. Doing so is an integral part of what it means to be deliberate in judgment: "the more advice, the more understanding" (Avos 2:8). But the Winograd interim report found that all the government’s consultative mechanisms broke down. The prime minister, defense minister, and cabinet (which included three former defense ministers) did nothing to probe the IDF’s plans of action.
Within the IDF too, there was almost no consultation; no gathering to plan for a ground operation against Hizbullah’s strongholds. Though Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, a former chief of the air force, came to the job with no preparation for commanding a major ground operation, he felt no need to consult. The arrogance displayed when he publicly declared that he had no need to rely on a Higher Power, and was content to depend on his own intelligence and determination alone, tripped him up again.
In an interview with Ma’ariv last week, Halutz’s predecessor Moshe ("Bogie") Ya’alon described the position of chief of staff as one that inevitably requires relying on others and consulting with them. No one person can hope to be the greatest expert in every sphere of military operations, he said. The chief of staff must be create a culture of inviting his subordinates to fill in the gaps in his knowledge and make clear that he appreciates their advice and input.
But Halutz could not do that. He could not even admit to himself that there was anything he needed to know that he did not know. "Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? He who learns from every person" (Avos 4:1). It is not enough, writes Rabbeinu Yonah, to possess a certain degree of wisdom or knowledge; one must be a lover of wisdom and seek it from every possible source. . Instead of creating a spirit of teamwork and camaraderie, Halutz the outsider to the army, created an aura of terror, and relied on yes men.
An arrogant person, like Halutz, can never be a lover of knowledge because he is too full of himself to even acknowledge that he lacks anything. "The beginning, or precondition, of wisdom is Fear of Hashem" (Tehillim 111: 10), the ability to acknowledge something greater than oneself.
All middos, writes the Rambam, have a middle path, except for pride. But from pride a person must separate himself entirely. Not only do most aveiros in the world derive from pride, but most of a person’s stupid mistakes and miscalculations. If Halutz had in front of him one simple Mishnah the preparation for war and the battlefield execution would have been immeasurably improved: "Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh said: Be exceedingly humble in spirit" (Avos 4:4).
Taking counsel, in the eyes of our Sages, doesn’t mean surrounding oneself with yes-men. It means finding others who will function like a good chavrusah and challenge all ones thoughts and be prepared even to offer trenchant criticism. "Acquire for yourself a friend"(Avos 1:16), explain the commentators, refers to a true friend, one who seeks hid friends perfection and is therefore willing to reprove him. That friend, Rabbeinu Yonah, stresses, need not even be at a higher spiritual level to offer good advice. It is sufficient that with respect to the matter at hand that he not have the same negios, biases or personal interest. His distance allows him to give clear-headed advice.
Precisely that kind of advice has been absent from Israeli policy-making for too long. Bogie Ya’alon relates in his Ma’ariv interview that the various spinmeisters around Ariel Sharon had completely seized the reins of government. There was no nook and cranny that they did not stick their fingers – even into appointments in the IDF. The major decisions in the Sharon years were made by the Farm Forum, in which Reuven Adler and other advertising execs were the major players. According to Ya’alon, the momentous decision to withdraw from Gaza was made without a single government minister present.
IN A WAY, THE WINOGRAD INTERIM REPORT HAS SETTLED THE MUCH-DEBATED ISSUE OF WHETHER CHARACTER COUNTS IN POLITICS. I do not think for a moment that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Chief of Staff Dan Halutz or all those who did nothing to prepare while Hizbullah armed and trained for six years were oblivious to the national good, which they were charged to protect, or are indifferent to the disaster caused by their failures to prepare. Nor are they unintelligent men.
Yet the Winograd Report, in the chapters setting the background for the July 12 kidnapping, is "nothing but a chronicle of tragedy foretold," writes David Horowitz.
Why did they fail so miserably? One cannot escape the conclusion that the pervasive political corruption, the overweaning personal ambition and greed that have come to characterize our leadership, did them in. It clouded their ability to think straight, even when they wanted to and it was in their interest to do so.
Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz, relates in Bemechitzasam how he once asked the Chazon Ish why he did not hold a certain Torah scholar in the same high esteem that others did. The Chazon Ish replied that the person in question was incapable of rising about his personal self-interest. "A person can have any number of shortcomings and still be considered a great man," explained the Chazon Ish. "But being thrall to one’s self-interest is different. It is not a singe fault, but an all-encompassing blemish. His teaching of Torah will be tinged with self-interest, his davening will be tinged with self-interest, even his acts of chesed will be tinged with self-interest."
If one never learns to control one’s desires and ambitions, one’s thought processes will inevitably be tainted by self-interest. The lifetime habit of viewing each situation through the lens of "What’s in it for me?" corrupted our leaders thought processes and left them unable to focus exclusively on national objectives.
We have paid a heavy price for the moral rot of our leaders. But at least they’ve given us plenty to think about as we learn Pirkei Avos this Shabbos.
Related Topics: War in Lebanon
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