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When Mistakes Are Worth Making

July 1, 2008

For some strange reason, I remember the scene with clarity.  I was in the kitchen, early on a Friday afternoon about a month ago, cooking Shabbat dinner.  Micha, our youngest, now 15, was hanging out in the living room.  The radio was on in the background, and on the hour, the news came on.  It was over in minutes, and then the music returned.

I hadn’t really paid attention to the news, but Micha apparently had.  “Do you think we’re ever going to get Gilad Shalit back?” he asked.  Without even looking at him, I said, without even thinking, “Of course we are.  Definitely.”

“You don’t know that,” a different voice piped in.  Now, I looked up.  Avi, his older brother, was unexpectedly home.  “We may get him back, and we may not.  How can you possibly say that we definitely will?”  But the conversation was over.  Micha, overjoyed to see Avi, had quickly followed his brother upstairs, and I was left alone in the kitchen.  So I never got to answer Avi.

But had he pressed, and had Micha not been around, I would have said to him, “Why did I say that?  Because when he hears the news each and every day, the only thing that your brother thinks about is the fact that you’re about to get drafted.  And he’s beyond worried; he’s panicked.  Because he worships the ground you walk on.  And he needs to believe, to know.  He needs to believe that you’re going to be OK.  And he wants to know that though he lives in a country that asks its kids to do everything, to commit everything, that country also knows that it owes them everything in return.  And getting them home – no matter what has happened to them – is part of that.”

I never said any of that to Avi, but I recalled that conversation several times during this agonizing week of prisoner exchanges, of returned coffins, of funerals expected but still tear-stained, of Hezbollah celebrations and of all the columnists who insist that the trade was a terrible idea, that you don’t trade Samir Kuntar for two dead bodies, that they were “deeply ashamed to be an Israeli [and] not very proud of being a Jew either,” that we’ve weakened our bargaining position in the future, and, according to Rabbi Menachem Froman, that we’ve even made peace more difficult to attain, that Israel is committing suicide, and that we have now officially given the Hezbollah the crown of victory in the Second Lebanon War.

So, in the face of all the good arguments about how no self-respecting country trades a almost two hundred dead bodies and several living terrorists including Samir Kuntar (who, we should recall, shot a man at point blank range in front of his four-year-old daughter, and then killed the girl by smashing her skull against a rock with the butt of his rifle – and all this at the ripe old age of 17) for two soldiers who were almost certainly dead, how does one justify this decision?  Wasn’t it certainly a mistake?

Yes, in strategic terms, it was probably a mistake.  But sometimes mistakes are worth making.  Take the Disengagement.  It is now clear that the Disengagement from Gaza was a horrifying, costly and still painful mistake.  But – and I realize that this is not a popular position – it was a mistake that Israel needed to make.  It was the mistake that proved, once and for all, that the enemies we face have no interest in a state of their own.  They just want to destroy ours.  That is what Israelis learned, now without a doubt, as a result of the Disengagement.  There’s almost no one left around here myopic enough to imagine even for an instant that further retreats will get us peace.  OK, there are still a few arm-chair peace-niks in the States, insisting that there is simply no conflict that cannot be resolved.  But here?  Precisely the opposite.  Now we know that the right was correct – further retreats will only embolden our enemies.  They’ll demand more.  And more.  Until we’re gone.

The benefits of that lesson are understandably of no consolation to the families who paid so dearly in the summer of 2005, who are still living in temporary housing, whose marriages didn’t survive, whose livelihoods have never been restored, whose children hate the country that did that to their parents – but despite all that, the Disengagement was probably a horrifying mistake that Israel needed to make.  For now we know, even those of us (and I include myself) who were naïve enough to imagine something else.  Peace is not around the corner.  Peace is not a year or two away.  Peace is not possible.  Not now.  Not a year from now.  Not a decade from now.  Because their issue isn’t a Palestinian State; it’s the end of the Jewish one.  We learned that through the mistake we made in 2005, a mistake that we probably needed to make.

And that’s why we had to make the trade this week.  Yes, according to a variety of strategic criteria, the trade was problematic.  It may raise the price for Gilad Shalit (not that those negotiations have been going anywhere, of course).  It may affect future prisoners of war.

But if it was a mistake, it was a calculated mistake, a mistake well worth making.  It was a mistake worth making when we think about what is the real challenge facing Israel.  The challenge facing Israel isn’t to win the war against the Palestinians.  The war can’t be won.  We can’t eradicate them, and they won’t accept our being here.  The challenge that Israel faces is not to move towards peace.  Peace can’t be had.  No – the challenge facing Israel is to learn how to live in perpetual, never-ending war, and in the face of that, to flourish, and to be a country that our kids still want to defend.  And that is what we did this week.

I didn’t watch much of the Hezbollah celebration on television.  I just couldn’t stomach it.  I watched enough, though, to see the crowd cheering a man whose main accomplishment in life has been smashing a girl’s skull with his rifle – after he made her watch while he killed her father.  I watched enough to hear about how Mahmoud Abbas – our alleged peace partner – congratulated the same Kuntar on his release.  I watched enough to chuckle at the sight of Kuntar in a decorated Hezbollah uniform – even though Hezbollah didn’t even exist when he perpetrated his murders and was captured.  I watched enough to be reminded of what (the word “who” somehow doesn’t feel appropriate) it is that we’re still fighting.

But I’ll confess to having watched more than my share of the Israeli side.  On the morning of the trade, I woke up and like many Israelis, I thought to myself, “Who knows, maybe all the intelligence reports are wrong.  Perhaps one of them will walk across the border, or maybe still be on a stretcher.”   Maybe.  This is a county that doesn’t easily give up on hope.  Our anthem, after all, says od lo aveda tikvateinu – “Our hope is not yet lost.”  So I watched the live feed that morning, waiting along with the rest of this breathless nation, until we saw the two black coffins.

And I watched the soldiers standing at attention – and weeping – as the bodies were transported into Israeli trucks and driven into Israel.  I watched the thousands of people who, the next day, lined the roads on the way to the cemeteries.  I watched Karnit Goldwasser’s extraordinary eulogy for her husband (click on the picture of her to watch the video – it’s worth watching the full seven minutes even if you don’t understand Hebrew).   I watched a country that is about life, and yes, even love, not about the celebration of death and hatred.

We did the right thing.  We gave Karnit Goldwasser her life back.  We gave Udi and Eldad the burial they deserved.  We gave their parents some certainty, and with it, the hope that maybe, just maybe, they, too, can start to live again, even with the searing pain that will never subside.  And perhaps most importantly, we showed the next generation of kids who will go off to defend this place that this is not a country about calculus, but about soul.  We showed them what it is to love.  We showed them that we’ll get them back.  No matter what.

And I was proud, not ashamed.  I wasn’t ashamed to be Israeli.  I wasn’t ashamed to be a Jew.  We proved to our kids once again that we’re the kind of country that’s worth defending.

There are those who claim that by making this trade, we’ve now formally admitted that Hezbollah won the Second Lebanon War.  But, really, was there anyone who did not already know that?  Have we forgotten the Winograd Commission and its two devastating reports about the government’s conduct of the war?  Have we forgotten the report that showed that, weeks before Udi and Eldad were killed, the army knew that the reservists they were sending there were sitting ducks, but that no changes in deployment were made?   Have we forgotten the IDF Chief of Staff who left the War Room in the first hours of the war to go sell part of his stock portfolio?  Have we forgotten the most cynical of political arrangements that got us as a Defense Minister a labor organizer who didn’t even pretend to know the first thing about military matters, but who still insisted on playing a role in the conduct of the war?  Have we forgotten the mayors of some towns in the North who fled their own cities when the rockets started to fall?  Have we forgotten the horrific non-use and then mis-use of ground troops, the arrogance of a former Air Force commander who imagined that he’d win the war from the air?  Have we really forgotten already how badly we lost?  Does anyone really imagine that this trade gives them the victory?  Please.

We lost.  We knew that already.  What we did this week is that we did right by the families who paid the price.  We showed that at the end of the day, it’s not only strategic calculus that matters in this country.  There will be other ways to get our deterrent edge back.  We’ll get around to that; there’s sadly no way that Hamas in the West, Hezbollah in the North, Syria to the east of them and Iran off in the distance will not force us to.  We’ll attend to that in due course.

But in the meantime, we showed ourselves once again that this country is about soul.  They won, and we lost.  They celebrated, and we buried.  They cheered, and we wept.  And I’d rather be one of us, any day.

Wednesday night, we drove Micha to the airport to drop him off for his flight to the States.  The radio was on during the entire drive, and we listened to the interviews with people who’d known Udi and Eldad, the constant updates on the plans for the two funerals to be held the following day.  “I feel bad being excited about going on vacation,” he said to us on the road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.  “It’s a sad day here.”

“Yes,” we told him, “it’s a sad day, but it’s OK for you to be excited.  Going to America is a big deal.”  He didn’t say anything.  We got off at the exit for the airport, pulled up to the security checkpoint, still surrounded by all those guys with the submachine guns at the ready, because the war’s not over and it’s not going to be.  I turned off the radio so I could talk to the young woman manning the checkpoint.  After a few quick words, we were ushered through.

It was quiet in the car.  We followed the access road to the departure terminal, each lost in our own thoughts.  I don’t know what Micha was thinking.  But I’m pretty sure that it was about the two soldiers.  About the funerals the next day.  About his brother.  And about America.

We pulled to the curb, still not saying anything.  I stopped the car, and said to him, “OK, buddy, let’s go.”  Micha looked at me.  “I’m really going to miss this country,” he said.

I was stunned.  Not, “I’m going to miss you,” but “I’m going to miss this country.”  And then, if I’d had any doubt before, I knew.  We did the right thing.  If we made a mistake, we made the mistake that we just needed to make.  We taught our kids that we may not know how to end this war, but we do know how to take care of them.

And he taught us, too.  He reminded us that even the kids here understand what an extraordinary country it is that they call home.  That this is sometimes a scary place.  But that it’s also a country that a teenager knows he can love, that he’s going to miss and that one day, he’ll defend.

In the end, that’s what matters most.  Even on the saddest of days.  Especially on the saddest of days.

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