One of the greatest impediments to teshuva, the ba’alei mussar teach us, is the power of habit (hergel). Habit deprives us of the power of discernment and the ability to think deeply about our actions. Habit can turn us into little more than amoebae responding automatically to the same stimuli, unable to exercise the greatest of Hashem’s gifts to us, our free will.
After the Sin of the Golden Calf, when Hashem informs Moshe Rabbeinu of His intention to destroy the Jewish people, it is not the Sin itself to which He points, but rather to the Nation’s "stiff-necked" refusal to change its ways.
In recent weeks, Israel Jews have witnessed a depressing return to familiar patterns of thought that bode ill for the coming year.
First, there was Shimon Peres’ 80th birthday party. The state picked up the tab to the tune of millions of shekels at the same time a new round of massive budget cuts was being announced for 2004. It was more than a little ironic that even as Peres castigated the government for abandoning the social welfare state he opted for a level of opulence from the state coffers reminiscent of the glory days of Versailles.
The birthday bash drew various former leaders of approximately Peres’ vintage from around the world, as well as attracting a variety of international and local gliteratti, all of whose doings were breathlessly recorded by the Israeli media. The excitement generated by the presence of so many has-beens and never-weres from abroad put me in mind of something Martin Peretz wrote in the early days of Oslo. One of the driving impulses behind Oslo, said Peretz, was the desire to recover Israel’s lost lustre in the eyes of the nations: "These Zionists acted as they did because they valued something more than territory, more even than the protection that territory gives. They wanted recognition of their legitimacy . . . . This is perhaps a weakness of the Jews worrying far too much whether others acknowledge their peoplehood.
At one level, of course, Peretz is wrong. The need for approval and legitimacy from others is not a weakness of the Jews, but rather a weakness of those Jews cut off from the true sources of Jewish nationhood. In any event, far from bringing the desired legitimacy, Oslo did just the opposite. Never have so many mainstream voices around the world argued that the creation of the state of Israel exacted too high a price in Palestinian suffering as today.
The visitor who drew the most attention and the warmest applause was none other that former president Bill Clinton. Israelis – at least those who showed up to celebrate Peres’ birthday – still have not come to grips with the fact that for all his protestations of undying fidelity to the Jewish state Clinton was one of the principal architects of a policy that has now plunged us into three straight years of war.
The former president told the audience. "A few miles from here there are Palestininas living who are not so different from you, who hate terror as you do, who are afraid to, who are exhausted to." That alleged symmetry may have warmed the cockles of the celebrities gathered to congratulate themselves on the good intentions and noble idealism of Oslo, but it managed to get everything precisely wrong.
Every single poll of Palestinian public opinion reveals how radically different Israeli and Palestinian society are. Israelis overwhelmingly support a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; Palestinians state that their national aspirations cannot be fully realized as long as Israel exists. There may be Palestinians who hate terrorism, but if so they have not yet made their voices heard. At most, a few Palestinian leaders have intermittently regretted certain terrorist actions as tactical mistakes. But they have never expressed moral repugnance.
Until the pathological state of Palestinian society is acknowledged, all peace plans are anchored in unreality. Palestinian society is consumed by an unnatural hatred – a hatred so virulent that Palestinian parents overcome the most fundamental instinct to protect their children’s lives and give them over to become human bombs. When those children blow themselves to smithereens, their parents ululate and pass out candies to celebrate their child’s martyrdom and the deaths of Jewish babies. No, Mr. Clinton, they are not very much like us.
For his part, Peres, who once commented that nothing can be learned from history, demonstrated that for some people nothing can be learned period. He used the occasion of his birthday to lash out at all those who did not share his utopian visions for the New Middle East, or who bailed out somewhere along the road of Jewish carnage. "The greatest makers of mistakes in Israel’s history," he called his opponents, while acknowledging no mistakes of his own.
Peres even went so far to declare that Yasir Arafat deserved his Nobel Peace Prize for saying things that no Palestinian leader had dared say before. (Peres has correctly figured out that if Arafat did not deserve his prize, neither did those whom he duped, i.e. Peres himself and the late Yitzchak Rabin.) Peres’ praise of Arafat unwittingly revealed one of Oslo’s major follies: the fetishistic belief in the power of verbal declarations, quite apart from the compliance with the terms of those declarations, as if words alone constitute peace.
In addition, Peres continue to ignore many other things that Arafat said at the same time, such as his declaration of jihad to an Arabic speaking audience within days of the signing of the first Oslo Accords. At the time, Peres offered the risible interpretation that Arafat meant a jihad for peace.
That initial effort at positive spin on the words of Arafat and the actions of the Palestinian Authority was to become Peres’ trademark throughout the entire Oslo period. When the speaker of the Palestinian parliament signed an agreement in 1995 with Hamas, which acknowledged Hamas’ right to carry out any terrorist attacks as long as they could not be traced back directly to the Palestinian Authority, Peres responded first by denying the existence of the agreement, and when that became untenable,downplaying its significance. The Palestinians responded to Peres’ pathetic effort to cover for them with the two 1996 Jerusalem bus bombings that cost Peres his best chance ever of being elected prime minister and brought Binyamin Netanyahu to power.
PERES’ BIRTHDAY BASH was eventually pushed off the front pages by rumors of an impending prisoner exchange with Hizbullah. According to most reports, Israel has agreed to return former Hizbullah leader Shiekh Abdel Karim Obeid, whom it captured from Lebanon in 1989, and Mustafa Dirani, the security chief of the southern Lebanese Amal militia, who is believed to have transferred Israeli aviator Ron Arad to Iran. Dirani has been held since 1994. In addition, Israel has agreed to throw in another 400 security prisoners. In return, Israel will receive Israeli businessman Elchanan Tannenbaum, who was kidnapped by Hizbullah from Europe three years ago, and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers killed in a Hizbullah ambush on the Israeli side of the Lebanese border. Even though Obeid and Dirani were both captured as bargaining chips for Ron Arad, it seems that neither Arad himself or information about him is part of the proposed exchange.
The terms of the proposed exchange suggest another example of the failure to consider long-term repercussions that have so plagued recent Israeli policymaking. There is no question that the exchange would be a tremendous boost to the prestige of Hizbullah at a time that the organization is under pressure as a result of American threats against its two major patrons, Iran and Syria, and has itself been placed high on the United States’ list of terrorist organizations.
Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah will be able to portray himself has having extracted from Israel concessions on Palestinian prisoners that the Palestinians themselves were unable to win, and thereby build up his prestige in the Palestinian refugee camps and throughout the larger Arab world. The exchange will provide Hizbullah with an "incredible amount of legitimacy," terrorism expert Matthew Levitt told the Jerusalem Post’s Matthew Gutman. That is not something that Israel should undertake likely, given that Hizbullah, with an estimated thousand Katyushas aimed at Israel, is the most immediate external threat to Israel.
The hasty and abrupt Israeli pull-out from Lebanon in May 2000 has been cited repeatedly over the past three years by the Palestinians as proof that Israel cannot absorb any level of casualties and will respond by appeasing its enemies. That perception did much to embolden the Palestinians, and another Hizbullah success vis-à-vis Israel can only contribute further to disdain for Israel’s determination.
Even more directly, the high price that Israel is willing to pay for Elchanan Tannenbaum only increases the incentive to kidnap Jews and Israelis anywhere in the world. Tannenbaum himself was lured by Hizbullah while traveling in Europe.
Despite the very high priority halacha assigns to pidyon shevuim, the redemption of captives has always been limited by another consideration: the possibility that a high ransom will endanger other Jews by demonstrating that kidnapping Jews is a lucrative business. For that reason the Maharam Mi’Ruttenberg, one of the greatest of Rishonim, refused to allow himself to be ransomed and died in captivity.
That no price is too high from the point of view of Elchanan Tannenbaum’s family is perfectly understandable. But the government of Israel is charged with balancing the importance of rescuing any Jew taken as hostage against the likelihood that those efforts may strengthen and encourage our enemies and thereby endanger Jews around the world.
If there is a reason to hold Palestinian security prisoners in the first place, then release of hundreds of them has to be weighed very carefully, especially in light of the fact that the two most recent suicide bombings and the Rosh Hashanah eve terrorist attack of Negahot were all perpetrated by such recently released Palestinian prisoners.
Finally, Israel’s obligation to Ron Arad, who was captured while in active military duty, and whom a government-appointed panel recently declared must be assumed to still be alive, is as great as that to more recent captives. Promises from Shiekh Nasrallah to seek evidence about his whereabouts as soon as the present exchange is consummated are worthless. Let him provide that information now.
As we as individuals use these days prior to Yom Kippur to try to break out of our established patterns of thought and behavior, let us hope that our leaders do so as well.