image Photo: Flash90

Covid-19 and combat ‘73 – a fair comparison?

Sins of omission and inquiries by commission. Photo: Flash90

Yom Kippur’s shock waves never die




By Amir Oren

Even during the early, springtime stages of the Corona virus crisis in Israel, the comparison with the October War in 1973 came to mind and print. It was obvious that while the military absorbed the lessons of its most difficult challenge, and worked to prevent another such failure, the government was again complacent in a crucial area – public health. Ominous indicators were ignored in favor of a mythic belief in the Israeli ability to improvise and prevail. The two-fisted blow of medical and economic crises brought back the specter of the Agranat Commission of Inquiry, whose report following the war decimated the professional echelon and in quick order pushed Prime Minister Golda Meir to resign and retire.

But the lesson from that lesson took an unpredictable turn. In 1973, the main target for public bitterness and accusations was Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. The charismatic General turned politician was glorified in the 1956 and 1967 wars. He has been in charge of the IDF for more than six years before Anwar Sadat and Hafez Assad launched their combined offensive, which Dayan and his associates knew were planned but assessed as having only “a low probability” of being executed. There was a growing demand among soldiers – hundreds of thousands in the reserved were called up, and many were killed, wounded or taken prisoner – as well as civilians to hold Dayan accountable. Some of his ruling party colleagues believed that if he were to resign, Golda and her cabinet could survive, public anger being satisfied by this sacrifice and rationalizing that there is no viable alternative, Menachem Begin’s Likud just being set up for the coming elections.

Dayan, however, refused to go. He tried to convince the cabinet to vote against a State Commission under the President of the Supreme Court and with powers limited only by the terms of reference set by the government. Failing that, he put up an interesting case to Chief Justice Shimon Agranat and his four co-commissioners. Dayan asked them to forget his world-famous image as military supremo. It’s irrelevant in his current position, he argued – a civilian, whether male or female, could serve as Defense Minister just the same, as  the Minister was constitutionally between the rock of a cabinet headed by a Prime Minister and the hard place of a General Staff monopolizing all information and up-to-date expertise, Dayan himself having retired from active service 15 years earlier. His own candidate for Chief of Staff was rejected by Golda, who installed her own favorite among Army Generals. Poor Dayan was rendered impotent, inviting to share his “Ministerial advice” with the IDF but powerless to impose his views, and thus no more responsible for the consequences than any other minister.

For the 2.5 million Israelis who lived at the time, this was a preposterous proposition. Dayan was the IDF, whatever the technicalities. If the Beatles bombed, could John Lennon hide behind the other three? But the Agranat Commission, which later accounts proved set out to avert the government’s downfall, accepted it. Three senior Generals and several other officers were sacked or demoted. Their political superior, Dayan, survived – for a week or so, after which the elderly, ailing and dejected Golda resigned, taking Dayan down with her.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the most successful poltical survivor in Israel’s history, was surely mindful of this precedent. He knew that if a minister follows the recommendations of the professional level, and it turns out to be disastrous, the officer or official is expected to resign and Parliament is to decide the fate of the politician. This is an English norm, inherited by Israel when the British Mandate over Palestine expired, with a clear distinction between civil servants and elected authorities answerable to Knesset and voters.

It was reasonable to expect, then, that when faced with the enormity of the Covid-19 crisis, Netanyahu will meticulously follow the advice of medical professionals, both for the sake of effectiveness and in order to prepare for the inevitable inquiry. Especially so, because he entered the crisis as vulnerable as Golda was in 1973, with policies which  left Israel unprepared for combat or contagion. Several Comptroller General reports in recent years – when Netanyahu was himself minister of health, in addition to his Premiership – starkly warned of the poor state of hospitals and labs, woefully short of staff and facilities. The past could not be changed (rewritten, maybe). If the present were to be managed properly, perhaps Netanyahu could still salvage his over-all chances.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu stuck by his incompetent Health Minister, Yaakov Litzman, for the duration of the post-election period when he clung to power, though his rival Benny Gantz had a better hand. Litzman was indispensible to him, and when his wishes – certain privileges to his Haredi community – contradicted medical guidance, Netanyahu over-ruled the doctors.

Litzman was ditched only when Netanyahu secured a majority for his joint cabinet with Gantz. A professional – former IDF Medical Corps Chief who also ran a major hospital – was appointed Health Director-General. Another senior medical administrator was recruited as Corona Co-ordinator. But they, too, soon encountered the same problem which bedeviled Israel in the spring – politics, and the importance in staying in office for Netanyahu while undergoing a corruption trial, taking precedence over policy. He has embraced a concept totally in odds with Dayan’s – Netanyahu’s record in various domains, such as Finance Minister some 17 to 15 years ago, he claims, shows that he was right and the so-called experts proved wrong. The issue has of accountability thus came full circle, with the politician boasting he is more qualified professionally than the pros.

The sudden collapse of assumptions and institutions has made “a Yom Kippur-style failure” an Israeli cliche. If the national soccer team fails to qualify in a tournament, shattering hopes and illusions, it will be a sports Yom Kippur. It has become a shorthand for suns of ommision, lack of propr preparation. And where there is an omission, a commission could be set up.

So on one level, the Covid-19 crisis is only one more reason to evoke Yom Kippur, yet it seems different on this year’s Day of Atonement, which for many secular Israelis, who shy away from any religious ritual, takes a particular significance.

Ever since the State of Israel was born by force of arms and armistice in 1948-49, the country has undergone three major shocks – 1973, the Rabin Assassination (immediately compared to Yom Kippur, as warnings were not heeded and Rabin’s security was lax) and now Covid-19. The combination of Yom Kippur – when all traffic stops and no business is open – and national lockdown as a desperate measure in the fight against the spread of the virus, makes for the most dreadful mood in Israel in decades. In fact, since that terrible Sabath, the Sixth of October, 47 years ago.

Netanyahu may be betting on his governing coalition blocking all attempts to convene an Esther Hayut – current Supreme Court President – Commission of Inquiry, and he is anyway facing legal problems, which Golda and Dayan were free of, so a Corona catalogue of ministerial misdeeds is not his biggest and most urgent concern. Prime (and Defense, and Health) Ministers come and go, but Israel is at great cost re-learning the same basic lesson each time. When it flourishes, and indeed makes many great strides, it tends to ignore the need to invest in insurance, to prepare for a rainy, grainy day, which will surely come sometime, somehow.