When a prime minister has just lost a war, is dogged by corruption allegations, and sees his popularity ratings in free fall, what can he do?
Why, he can initiate provocations.
A provocation diverts attention, generates headlines, creates the illusion of power, radiates a sense of leadership.
But a provocation is a dangerous instrument. It can cause irreversible damage.
Provocation No. 1: The Northern Frontier
Along the northern border runs a fence. But not everywhere does the fence coincide exactly with the recognized border (the so-called Blue Line). For topographical reasons, some sections of the fence run a few dozen meters south of it.
That is the theory of the situation. In the course of the years, both sides have become accustomed to regarding the fence as the actual border. On the Lebanese side, the villagers farm the fields up to the fence, fields that may well be their property.
Now Ehud Olmert has decided to exploit this situation and reveal himself as a great, invincible warrior. Some explosives recently found a few yards from the Blue Line serve as a pretext. The Israeli army claims that they were put there just days ago by Hezbollah fighters disguised as goatherds. According to Hezbollah, they are old bombs that have been there since before the recent war.
Olmert sent soldiers beyond the fence to carry out a Hissuf (“exposure”) one of those new Hebrew words invented by the army’s “verbal laundry” to beautify ugly things. It means the wholesale uprooting of trees, in order to improve vision and facilitate shooting. The army used the trademark weapon of the State of Israel: the armored bulldozer.
The Lebanese army sent a warning that they would open fire. When this did not have any effect, they indeed fired several salvoes over the heads of the Israeli soldiers. The Israeli army responded by firing several tank shells at the Lebanese position and lo we have our “incident."
The whole affair is very reminiscent of Ariel Sharon’s methods in the ’60s, when he was the chief of operations of the Northern Command. Sharon became quite an expert at provoking the Syrian army in the demilitarized zones that existed on the border between the two countries at the time. Israel claimed sovereignty over these areas, while the Syrians asserted that it was a neutral zone that did not belong to either state and in which the Arab farmers, who owned the land, were allowed to tend their fields.
According to legend, the Syrians exploited their control of heights overlooking the Israeli villages in the valley below them. Again and again the evil Syrians (the Syrians were always “evil”) terrorized the helpless kibbutzim by shelling. This myth, which was believed by practically all Israelis at the time, served as a justification for the occupation of the Golan Heights and their annexation by Israel. Even now, foreign visitors are brought to an observation post on the Golan Heights and shown the defenseless kibbutzim down below.
The truth, which has been exposed since then, was a bit different: Sharon used to instruct the kibbutzniks to go to their shelters, and then he would send an armored tractor into the demilitarized zone. Predictably, the Syrians shot at it. The Israeli artillery, just waiting for its cue, then opened up a massive bombardment of the Syrian positions. There were dozens of such “incidents."
Now the same method is being practiced by Sharon’s successor. Soldiers and bulldozers enter the area, the Lebanese shoot, the Israeli tanks shell them.
Does this provocation make any political sense? The Lebanese army answers to Fouad Siniora, the darling of the United States and the opponent of Hezbollah. In the wake of the Second Lebanon War, this army was deployed along the border, at the express demand of the Israeli government, and this was proclaimed by Olmert as a huge Israeli achievement. (Until then, the Israeli army commanders had adamantly opposed the idea of stationing Lebanese or international troops in this area, on the grounds that this would hamper their freedom of action.)
So what is the aim of this provocation? The same as with all Olmert’s recent actions: gaining popularity to survive in power, in this case by creating tension.
Provocation No. 2: The Temple Mount
Islam has three holy cities: Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. In Mecca this week, the chiefs of Fatah and Hamas assembled in order to put an end to the mutual killing and set up a unity government. While the attention of the concerned Palestinian public was riveted there, Olmert struck in Jerusalem.
As pretext served the “Mugrabi Gate," an entrance to the Haram-al-Sharif (“the Noble Sanctuary”), the wide plaza where the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located. Since this gate is higher than the Western Wall area below it, one can approach it only over a rising bridge or ramp.
The old bridge collapsed some time ago and was replaced with a temporary structure. Now the “Israel Antiquities Authority” is destroying the temporary bridge and putting in its place so it says a permanent one. But the work looks much more extensive.
As could have been expected, riots broke out at once. In 1967, Israel formally annexed this area and claimed sovereignty over the entire Temple Mount. The Arabs (and the whole world) have never recognized the annexation. In practice, the Temple Mount is governed by the Islamic Waqf (religious endowment).
The Israeli government argues that the bridge is separate from the Temple Mount. The Muslims insist that the bridge is a part of it. Behind this tussle, there is a lurking Arab suspicion that the installation of the new bridge is just a cover for something else happening below the surface.
At the 2000 Camp David conference, the Israeli side made a weird-sounding proposal: to leave the area itself to the Muslims, but with Israeli sovereignty over everything beneath the surface. That reinforced the Muslim belief that the Israelis intended to dig beneath the Mount, in order to discover traces of the Jewish Temple that was destroyed by the Romans 1936 years ago. Some believed that the real intention was to cause the Islamic shrines to collapse, so a new Temple could be built in their place.
These suspicions are nurtured by the fact that most Israeli archaeologists have always been the loyal foot-soldiers of the official propaganda. Since the emergence of modern Zionism, they have been engaged in a desperate endeavor to “find” archaeological evidence for the historical truth of the stories of the Old Testament. Until now, they have gone empty-handed: there exists no archaeological proof for the exodus from Egypt, the conquest of Canaan, and the kingdoms of Saul, David, and Solomon. But in their eagerness to prove the unprovable (because in the opinion of the vast majority of archaeologists and historians outside Israel and also some in Israel the Old Testament stories are but sacred myths), the archaeologists have destroyed many strata of other periods.
But that is not the most important side of the present affair. One can argue to the end of days about the responsibility for the Mugrabi walkway or what it might be that the archaeologists are looking for. But it is impossible to doubt that this is a provocation: it was carried out like a surprise military operation, without consultation with the other side.
Nobody knew better what to expect than Olmert, who, as mayor of Jerusalem, was responsible for the killing of 85 human beings 69 Palestinians and 16 Israelis in a similar provocation, when he “opened” a tunnel near the Temple Mount. And everybody remembers, of course, that the Second Intifada started with the provocative “visit” to the Temple Mount by Ariel Sharon.
This is a provocation against 1.3 billion Muslims, and especially against the Arab world. It is a knife in the back of the “moderate” Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Olmert pretends to be ready to have a “dialogue” and this at exactly the moment Abbas reached an historical agreement with Hamas for the formation of a national unity government. It is also a knife in the back of the king of Jordan, Israel’s ally, who sees himself as the traditional protector of the Temple Mount.
What for? To prove that Olmert is a strong leader, the hero of the Temple Mount, the defender of the national values, who doesn’t give a damn for world public opinion.
Provocation No. 3
After Haim Ramon was convicted of indecent conduct, the post of the minister of justice fell vacant. In a surprise blow, after laying down a smoke screen by dangling the names of acceptable candidates, Olmert appointed to the post a professor who is the open and vocal enemy of the Supreme Court and the attorney general.
The Supreme Court is almost the only governmental institution in Israel that still enjoys the confidence of the great majority. The last president of the Court, Aharon Barak, once told me: “We have no troops. Our power is based solely on the confidence of the public.” Now Olmert has appointed a minister of justice who has been engaged for a long time and with a lot of noise in destroying this confidence. Indeed, it seems that this is his main interest in life, ever since he failed to get a close friend, a female professor, elevated to the Supreme Court.
One can see in this an effort by Olmert, a politician who is dragging behind him a long train of corruption affairs (several of which are at present under police and state comptroller investigation), to undermine the investigators, the attorney general and the courts. It serves also as revenge against the court that dared to convict Ramon, his friend and ally. He did not, of course, consult with anyone in the judicial system: not with the attorney general (whose official title is “legal adviser of the government”) nor with the president of the Supreme Court, Dorit Beinish, whom he cannot stand.
I am not an unreserved admirer of the Supreme Court. It is a wheel in the machinery of the occupation. It cannot be relied on in matters like the targeted assassinations, the Separation Wall, the demolition of Palestinian homes, and the hundred and one other cases over which the false banner of “security” is waving. But it is the last bastion of human rights inside Israel proper.
The appointment of the new minister is an assault on Israeli democracy, and therefore no less dangerous than the other two provocations.
What do the three have in common? First of all: their unilateral character. Forty years of occupation have created an occupation mentality that destroys all desire and all ability to solve problems by mutual understanding, dialogue, and compromise.
Both in foreign and domestic relations, Mafia methods reign: violence, sudden blows, targeted eliminations.
When these methods are applied by a politician haunted by corruption affairs, an uninhibited warmonger who is fighting for survival by all means available, this is indeed a very dangerous situation.