The picture on the front pages of the Israeli newspapers on Thursday should have been of President Bush’s arrival in Jerusalem — after all, it’s not every day that the leader of the free world visits this small nation, to whom U.S. support is so critical. But no: the photograph that graced the cover of Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s highest circulation newspaper, was instead a close-up of a tiny shoe cradled in an adult hand. It was a small sandal belonging to a little girl, which must have originally been white, but was now soaked red with blood with a huge gash down the middle. Clearly it belonged to a child who was one of the 69 people injured, some severely, when a Katushya Grad missile fired from Gaza hit an Ashkelon shopping center. The headline above the picture: “How the Trip to the Mall Ended.”
The bloody sandal was the image that inevitably leapt to mind the same afternoon as President Bush stood and addressed the Knesset, declaring that “the people of Israel have the right to a decent, normal, and peaceful life, just like the citizens of every other nation.”
There was nothing “decent, normal, and peaceful” about that battered little shoe.
Despite the fact that the country was still reeling from the horrific attack, Bush’s hike up Masada in a polo shirt and baseball cap — followed by his stilted, but well-meaning greeting in Hebrew that preceded his speech to the Knesset — were nonetheless comforting to the ears of Israelis hungry for any kind of international support.
“Israel’s population may be just over 7 million. But when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong, because America stands with you. America stands with you in breaking up terrorist networks and denying the extremists sanctuary. And America stands with you in firmly opposing Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Permitting the world’s leading sponsor of terror to possess the world’s deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations. For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”
Ears that were sensitized to the U.S. political scene could detect that while Bush didn’t mention Barack Obama’s name, at least one of the remarks in his speech sounded pointedly directed at the likely Democratic contender for his job.
“Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”
The entire Knesset sat respectfully during the entirety of Bush’s address.
Israel’s own Prime Minister Olmert wasn’t so lucky. During his formal response to Bush, several Knesset members from the right stood up and left the room after Olmert stated, “When we reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, God willing, one which is based on your vision of a two-state solution, it will be brought before this house. … This future peace agreement, I assure you, will be approved by this house and by the Israeli public.”
If the current political buzz is to be believed, it is unlikely that Olmert would be prime minister of Israel on that day, should it come to pass.
With the painfully public unfolding of his latest embarrassing corruption scandal — the latest in a long string of accusations against him — the question political observers are asking isn’t whether he will be replaced soon, but which of his rivals would be most likely to succeed him: Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, or Benjamin Netanyahu.
So while the two events may seem impossible to reconcile, Israel is simultaneously celebrating its achievements over the past 60 years and at the same time experiencing a crisis of leadership and faith both in its political establishment and its much-vaunted military leaders.
Next to the picture of the bloody shoe on the cover of Yediot was an bluntly outspoken opinion piece by veteran military commentator Alex Fishman. He charged that Israel’s political and military leaders were neglecting their most basic responsibility: doing what it had to do to protect the lives of its citizens regardless of how it may look to Europe or the United States. That is, launch a major operation in Gaza. “The military leadership said it was a very bad time for a military operation between Passover and the Independence Day celebrations and would ruin the celebrations. Baloney. The truth is that they are terribly fearful of another military failure, scared of a lack of consensus, frightened of post-war investigation committees. They know what they need to do, but cave in easily to the excuses. They are covering their asses.”
One military failure had already taken place. In what seemed like an inexcusable move by the IDF, a decision had been made to shut down the “Color Red” early warning siren in Ashkelon earlier this week because of too many false alarms. That meant the victims of the shopping mall attack had been caught with no warning — if the siren had been operational, civilians could have taken cover before the Grad rocket hit and the number of casualties could have been significantly reduced.
If that wasn’t disquieting enough, in an interview published Thursday, the Israel intelligence chief estimated that within two years, the rockets will reach Beersheva, an even larger city than Ashkelon.
Perhaps the most unlucky victims of the shopping mall attack were a pair of 14-year-old visitors from Sderot — Meitar Ohana and Ron Avitan — who came to Ashkelon weekly to a radio station located in the mall to broadcast a radio show where they discuss their lives under fire. Just a minute before they were due to begin their broadcast, the missile hit the mall. They told the media, “We were getting ready to go on the air when we heard a huge boom. The entire building shook and there was smoke everywhere. We knew immediately that it was a rocket. We’re used to it.”
First Sderot gets “used to” rocket fire, then Beersheva — and what of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem?
The fact that any teenagers are “used to” rocket fire is an unacceptable situation for this country, as it would be for any other. Until a leader takes action to change it, the Israeli politicians and generals should feel as insecure in their jobs as the residents of southwest Israel do in their homes.
Allison Kaplan Sommer is PJM Tel Aviv editor.