Israelis lose faith in governments competence, historian says

The Six-Day War. The Entebbe Raid. Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 1977 European Championship.

So many remnants of Israel’s past involve feats of incredible heroism undertaken with the utmost competence. Perhaps that’s why the obvious blundering and mismanagement of last summer’s war versus Hezbollah has left the nation mired in such a funk.

The war was the latest in a long line of bungled Israeli endeavors, according to Tom Segev, a columnist for Ha’aretz and one of Israel’s most prolific historians and journalists. If the nation’s economy weren’t doing so well, he adds, God knows what would be happening.

He characterizes the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords as a disaster by committee: The Israelis kept funneling settlers into the West Bank, and the Palestinian Authority’s Yassir Arafat used the billions of dollars bequeathed to him free of strings to purchase a trove of deadly weapons and snazzy uniforms for his minions.

And Segev can only shake his head at Ariel Sharon’s handling of the Gaza disengagement.

“It was a very dramatic decision for Sharon, and I think he should have tried to trade this decision with the Palestinians for something. But he decided on a unilateral way of action. As if the Palestinians don’t exist,” said Segev, this semester’s Helen Diller Family Visiting Professor at U.C. Berkeley.

Segev, 62, is bald, bespectacled and lacks only the blazing cigarette holder to fully resemble Hunter S. Thompson.

“Also,” he continues, “the settlers were treated very badly. [The government] was very stupid about the money. As soon as they were willing to go, the government at first offered them decent compensation. Then the government started acting like an insurance company — maybe the window was broken, you get less money. So now it will be very difficult to find anybody who believes the government and will go.

“They should have given them a lot of money,” he says, forcefully.

“This is a problem that could be solved with money. It was not about religion or nationalism, you could solve it with money. But no. Not even that they could do.”

Incidentally, Segev believes the last superlative achievement of Israel’s government was the peace accord with Egypt more than 30 years ago. And now the Winograd report is telling Israelis what they already knew — “This is a really bad war. Now it’s official.”

The national disenchantment with politics, Segev feels, leaves Israel in a dangerous place. Israelis seem more turned off and cynical than outraged, and the situation is ripe for “some crazy, charismatic guy” to redirect the country in a direction of his own choosing.

“It’s dangerous when people don’t believe in the government anymore, in the competence of the government. This is when democracy doesn’t function well. When people don’t get involved anymore and care only for themselves, that’s a dangerous situation,” says Segev.

“Sharon, of course, was the last of Israel’s founding fathers. We are ruled by professional politicians, which I actually thought was a good thing. But this generation of politicians we have now already grew up into this feeling of cynicism. That, I think, is why they are so corrupt, so many of them.”

Segev is bemused by his students’ attitudes toward Israel. Jewish students often take offense at material Segev feels is far milder than the sort of thing he’d read over his morning coffee in the Israeli papers. And Arab students don’t know the first thing about Israel but think all of the Middle East’s problems would disappear if Israel would, too.

“They know nothing but have opinions about everything,” says the author of “Elvis in Jerusalem” and “1967: Israel’s Longest Year,” which will soon be released in English.

“Israel is the only political subject in Berkeley. They don’t even much care for the Iraq war. It’s just Israel — and organic food.”

Tom Segev will speak 4 p.m. May 5 at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, 5:30 p.m. May 8 at U.C. Berkeley’s International House and 8 p.m. May 10 at JCC of San Francisco. For more information, call (415) 512-6293.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.