In Other Words

Sharon at War

Boomerang: The Failure of Leadership in the Second Intifada By Raviv Drucker and Ofer Shelah 430 pages, Jerusalem: Keter Books, 2005 (in Hebrew) A stranger visiting Israel during the summer of 2005 could have been forgiven for assuming that the entire country was in the grip of an inexplicable color war. Orange ribbons fluttered from ...

Boomerang: The Failure of Leadership in the Second Intifada
By Raviv Drucker and Ofer Shelah
430 pages, Jerusalem: Keter Books, 2005 (in Hebrew)

A stranger visiting Israel during the summer of 2005 could have been forgiven for assuming that the entire country was in the grip of an inexplicable color war. Orange ribbons fluttered from car antennas and backpacks; blue ribbons hung from lampposts and the handlebars of mopeds. Busy intersections were transformed into recruitment centers, as foot soldiers from each camp thrust ribbons into the unadorned windows of passing motorists. Such were the final days before the implementation of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan, which called for the evacuation of all Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank. In this heady atmosphere, both orange (anti-disengagement) and blue (pro-disengagement) supporters were scouring for ways to demonstrate that the Israeli "street" was firmly on their side.

The release of Boomerang: The Failure of Leadership in the Second Intifada, barely a month before the planned disengagement, appeared to the orange opponents like manna from heaven. The book, the first joint effort by respected left-leaning journalists Raviv Drucker, of Israel’s Channel 10, and Ofer Shelah, of the popular daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, contained the explosive charge that the pullout was concocted more to protect Sharon from a looming corruption indictment than to protect Israel’s national security. Boomerang is the result of hundreds of interviews, the examination of once classified documents, and accounts from top-level officials during the planning stages of disengagement. An immediate bestseller, Boomerang quickly became the favorite touchstone for those opposed to disengagement. For many politicians on the right, the book confirmed suspicions that only self-interest could explain why the "father of the settlements" had betrayed them. A chorus of Sharon’s critics soon called on the attorney general to investigate the allegations raised by the authors.

Although Drucker and Shelah’s wag-the-dog claim ignited a flurry of controversy on both sides of the color war, those looking for a smoking gun will be left disappointed. In fact, shortly before Boomerang‘s release, the newly installed attorney general completely exonerated Sharon on the corruption charge, saying, "the evidence does not even come close." The "proof" of their allegation is gathered from unnamed sources "close to Sharon," and presented oftentimes with no attribution. Without the authors’ detailing exactly whom they spoke to, or a revelation from a close advisor, we are unable to know the truth behind this, their most sensational claim.

What is certain, the authors maintain, is that in late 2003, there was no ready plan for disengagement. There was, however, growing widespread despondency over a spike in Arab-Israeli violence — and a looming corruption investigation that threatened both Sharon and his son. Drucker and Shelah argue that it was these issues, and the latter as much as the former, that prompted the prime minister and his forum of close advisors to decide it was time to pull out of Gaza. According to the authors, it wasn’t just that there were heat-of-the-moment decisions that would later prove to have ominous and long-lasting consequences for Israelis. They claim that it was more calculated; that "many of the things that were seized upon as the truth, explained as the truth, and reported as the truth during these years, were not the truth at all."

The controversy over disengagement — which is only introduced in the last 50 pages of the book — overshadows Drucker and Shelah’s otherwise thorough deconstruction of Israeli foreign policy during the last five years of the Arab-Israeli conflict. At its best, Boomerang is a searing condemnation of how Israel’s upper military and political echelons implemented policy during the conflict. Specifically, the authors dissect how a flawed decision-making process silenced opposing views and looked for tactical successes at the expense of long-term planning and a clear definition of Israel’s strategic goals. As a result, opportunities to stabilize the conflict lost out to a greater willingness to strike back, whatever the consequences.

Drucker and Shelah place culpability for the years of violence on the shoulders of many high-level figures, including Sharon, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Defense Minister and former Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz. If, as the British essayist Thomas Carlyle maintained, "the history of the world is but the biography of great men," Boomerang claims that the reverse is just as often the case; history is determined by the rashness, self-interest, and blindness of leaders who refuse to acknowledge views that clash with their perception of reality. For those who are living through this period — in which keeping a wary eye on fellow bus passengers and submitting to security checks simply to enter a shopping center or cafe is an everyday reality — Boomerang sends an unavoidable and depressing message: Things did not have to be this way.

The authors illustrate several decisions they characterize as "folly upon folly." During a lull in the violence following the late Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s call for a cease-fire in January 2002, Israel launched a targeted killing of Fatah leader Raed Karmi. Until that point, Fatah had refrained from both suicide bombings and attacks within the 1967 borders. Karmi’s death removed those restraints and destroyed perhaps the greatest opportunity to curb the violence, propelling into motion the lethal Palestinian attacks of March 2002 that resulted in more than 120 Israeli deaths.

Boomerang‘s behind-the-scenes perspective at times borders on the farcical. For example, the authors contend that Sharon received the demographic data on the Gaza region only hours before he revealed the plan to the journalist who would subsequently break the disengagement story. Until that point, Sharon still did not have in his hands the number of Gaza residents he intended to evacuate.

In this vein, Boomerang is situated squarely in the genre of books that dissect how, when, and why leaders make the decisions they do. Comparisons between Boomerang and the recent slew of books examining the Bush administration’s policy-making process prior to the American invasion of Iraq, such as Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack and Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies, end there, however. Boomerang’s scope is much wider; it aims to dispel the entire Israeli narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict, that, "We offered them everything, they did not accept it, and there is no one to speak to." However, the deficiency with Boomerang and these approaches in general lies not in their veracity, but in their narrow-minded focus on the minutiae of decisions, isolating themselves from the context and culture in which such events should be viewed.

Boomerang is undoubtedly a penetrating book that offers a harsh character study of Israeli leaders. However, it fails to provide a convincing picture of the last five years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict — not least of all because it treats the Palestinians and the Americans as bit players in an Israeli production. Most important, the disturbing decision-making process that Boomerang assails should be seen less as the product of Sharon’s or Barak’s personal foibles than as the dismal result of Israel’s chaotic political culture, which eschews stable, long-term planning in place of improvisation and a belief that "everything will work out."

Israeli readers were lured to bookstores en masse to gather the messy details of a corruption scandal. What they get instead is a rare glimpse of the forces at work at the highest levels of Israeli politics. And the accolades heaped on Sharon for pulling out of Gaza, even by traditionally hostile bodies such as the United Nations, prove that world leaders and perhaps even the Israeli public may not really care about such suspicions. Long gone are the days when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, during his first premiership, resigned because his wife was discovered to hold a foreign bank account. To many Israelis — on both sides of the color war — allegations of scandal are now met with a shrug of the shoulders and a, "So, what did you expect?"

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