By Ophir Pines-Paz
On one hand, the storm of condemnations by the top levels of government and now the suspension of Lieutenant Colonel Shalom Eisner from his position for beating an apparently unarmed Danish protester with his weapon, is the right response. On the other hand, this response is cynical and problematic, on several major counts.
First, Israelis commonly complain about the country’s hasbara – well, here it is! Israel has put its best foot forward in the communications effort, and the world saw the result on every channel. Here’s the point: communications cannot turn black into white – that’s a job for Uri Geller. If we want to look good, it starts with good behavior.
The second aspect flows from this. The only way to solve the image problem is to stop fighting yesterday’s wars. People in Eisner’s position, who are based in the high-friction areas, too often see themselves as remote, as if they’re on some isolated island. They also have an obsolete perspective that conflict is just about winning on the battlefield – that the stronger, more powerful party prevails. They fail to understand that we’re in a different world, where the conflict actually is about public opinion. In the arena of today’s conflict, his actions are more damaging to Israel than tanks and military operations.
The ramifications of the incident are serious: Eisner is an influential and relatively high-ranking officer. Many of the decisions flow from his level, not just from the Chief of Staff. But the army careerists in the field in the West Bank don’t understand the wider reality, because from the age of 18, all they know is the military – they view everything through that prism. They don’t know about the world and they don’t know about life. This is not a game and they should be taught about the broader arena. Officers in the field should be taking courses in diplomacy, they should speak with Israel’s ambassadors, and be exposed to sources of global opinion.
The third problem is that blaming Eisner is simply hypocritical. If there had been no video cameras, the Danish protester probably would have sent a letter of complaint and the authorities probably would have ignored it. That’s because the system isn’t sensitive enough to such behavior and moreover, it is just angered by anyone who dares to protest our occupation from abroad. Those who manage this system fail to accept that in the global community, any citizen has the right to protest the longest ongoing occupation in the world today.
But there were cameras, and so the top brass had to issue condemnations and suspend him. All the reactions, from the President and Prime Minister to the Defense Minister and the Chief of Staff, were a coordinated attempt to portray him as an anomaly.
But what if he is not an anomaly? What if there is more than one Eisner? In that case, this incident can actually be an opportunity – to examine and correct our behavior towards protesters who disagree with us, and to make a change beyond one single punishment.
Obviously, nobody wants to ask those hard questions. It’s much easier to just suspend Eisner, but that’s far from enough.
The reality is that we have cultivated militarism so deeply that we look to the Army to solve everything. No one truly believes that any other solution is effective. That is the underlying truth of Israeli life to which most of society subscribes.
No one on the political level told Eisner to behave the way he did. But the political leadership – mainly Netanyahu, Barak and Lieberman – addressed the fly-in in the most aggressive and hysterical way possible, instead of downplaying the whole event. Why were 650 policemen sent to stop dozens of demonstrators? Why did they need such an exaggerated show of force? No doubt, the atmosphere they created trickled down to the Army. The incident may have occurred within the army, but the government must also rethink how it addresses the challenges and protests we face. The way of force is not always efficient, or effective.
Ophir Pines-Paz is a former Member of Knesset from Labor. He has served as Minister of Internal Affairs and as Minister of Science, Culture and Sports.