Into the Bunker With Ehud Olmert


One year after the newly named Second Lebanon War, Israel's north is back in business. Where 12 months ago the region was shaken to its core by the impact of hundreds of missile hits from Hezbollah, traces of the damage are now hard to find.

Last year, the north was empty, as many of its residents fled south to safety, and tourists were conspicuous by their absence. This August, it's more or less life as usual.

But according to experts in the field of post-traumatic stress disorder, the effects of the Hezbollah onslaught are still there, under the surface. For adults and children alike — especially those who were already in difficult emotional circumstances — the impact of last year's war remains enormous.

Fixing Houses and Souls

According to Professor Mooli Lahad of Tel Hai College and the Israel Trauma Coalition, "the houses are fixed," but the question remains as to whether the souls of those who suffered through the bombardment and the displacement it caused are repaired.

Lahad warns those who would minimize the problem that "the process of healing communities and individuals is more difficult than fixing buildings."

In a presentation to American Jewish journalists visiting the country at the invitation of the United Jewish Communities last week, Lahad and his colleague, Professor Rami Benbenishty of Hebrew University's School of Social Work, discussed research on the question of just how great the impact of the war was on the psyches of Israel's citizens.

What they found was that even though the number of civilian casualties in last summer's war paled in comparison to those inflicted by Palestinian suicide bombers and snipers during the four years of the second intifada, the conflict with Hezbollah devastated Israelis' sense of security more than anything that had come before.

The failure of the government to prepare adequately for attacks on the north — and the fact that the evacuation of civilians was "too late and too slow" — eroded the sense of community and security.

To deal with these problems, a number of programs aimed at shoring up the spirits of those affected were funded by North American Jewry via the United Jewish Communities' Israel Emergency Fund. The fund won the respect of Israelis for acting quickly to help people at the time of the fighting. And it continues to sponsor efforts that deal with problems that linger long after the rockets stopped falling.

The projects range from the purchase of hibuki — huggable stuffed animals — and therapy for traumatized children to providing similar help for firefighters battling post-traumatic stress disorder after their service last summer. Other programs reinforce the sense of identification and pride in the towns and villages of the north, which was undermined, at least in part, by the perception that local government failed its citizens.

Millions of dollars donated by friends of Israel via their local Jewish federations have been invested through the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee to deal with problems that experts such as Lahad and Benbenishty assert are not only serious, but have been partly exacerbated by the lack of faith in government.

But when asked about this in a meeting with journalists who were in Israel to learn more about how the Israel Emergency Campaign had spent the $360 million raised for it, the prime minister of Israel would have none of it.

Speaking on the record, though with the ground rule that his statements may not be directly quoted, Ehud Olmert dismissed the notion that the people in the north had been traumatized, and even questioned the reliability of any psychologist making such a claim. Moreover, he asserted that anyone who would make such a case for the impact of the war was attempting to construct a false sense of the nation's state of mind.

Not only did he flatly contradict the studies that have been commissioned by those tasked by Israeli and Diaspora philanthropic institutions to deal with the issue, he seemingly denigrated the value and importance of the work the emergency fund has been doing all this time.

When this was pointed out to him over the course of several follow-up questions, he backtracked to the extent of allowing that he valued the work of the UJC and its emergency fund, and consented that maybe some people somewhere in Israel might be traumatized.

But Olmert still insisted there was no crisis of confidence, and no reason to be alarmed about the way the war may still be harming many Israelis. Though he was at pains to make no direct criticism of emergency-fund spending, the conclusion that he didn't believe the work was all that important was inescapable.

But the state of denial in which Olmert is living is hardly limited to his oblivious attitude to the facts about the need for aid to the traumatized.

Stonewall Strategy

When asked about any mistakes he might have made during last year's war, Olmert reiterated a stonewall strategy that's all too familiar to Israelis. Though it was his own boasting that he would eradicate Hezbollah and free the two Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping set off the fighting, Olmert blamed the press for inflating the public's expectations of a clear-cut victory that he now acknowledges was always an impossibility.

While the Galilee is quiet now, the attacks on the Sederot region in the Negev from Palestinian Kassam missiles fired from Gaza continue. A day spent in the area talking to a variety of people made it clear that faith in the government's willingness to exercise its responsibility to protect its citizens is nonexistent.

In response, Olmert has only arrogance and a desire to hold onto office, no matter what.

For those who have never had a close-up look at the Nixonesque bunker mentality that appears to characterize Olmert's grip on power, as his poll ratings dip below even the margin of error itself, the gaffe about trauma was all too revealing.

Olmert is right when he speaks, as do other Israelis, of the nation's resilience and ability to carry on despite cruel attacks by an unconventional enemy.

But if some great leaders of the past have minimized their people's troubles in order to rally them for further sacrifices, the problem is that few, if any, here believe he has the ability to deal with Hamasistan in Gaza, a powerless Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, a re-armed Hezbollah in the north, a potentially nuclear Iran or the change for the worse in the atmosphere in Washington for Israel that's largely due to a lack of confidence in Olmert.

A man who prefers to consider the reality of his nation's pain as unworthy of serious attention, who speaks of it as a plot against his political future rather than to acknowledge it as a serious problem — who, if only by implication, denigrates a cause that Jews overseas have rightly prioritized, and in which they have invested millions — is clearly out of touch.

Denial is, as the old joke goes, a river in Egypt. Unfortunately, it appears that its source can be found in Israel, in the prime minister's office.  


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