Says One Israeli General: 'Everybody Thinks We're Bananas'

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Sorry about the intermittent blogging, I'm actually in Israel on a reporting trip, not a blogging trip (I don't think The Atlantic would send me overseas to blog, though maybe that's the next big thing). And what am I reporting on, you ask? Well, you'll have to subscribe to find out.

But: I happen to be around a lot of Israeli generals lately, and one I bumped into today said something very smart and self-aware: "Does everybody in the world think we're bananas?" He did not let me respond before he said, "Wait, I know the answer: The whole world thinks we're bananas." I asked this general if this was a good thing or a bad thing. After all, Nixon seemed bananas and he achieved great things internationally. So did Menachem Begin. This is what the general said, however: "It's one thing for people to think that you're crazy, but it's bad when they think you're incompetent and crazy, and that's the way we look."

There's real pain in Israel today, pain at the humiliation of the flotilla raid, pain on behalf of the injured soldiers, and pain that the geniuses who run this country could not figure out a way to out-smart a bunch of Turkish Islamists and their useful idiot fellow travelers. And no, there is no particular pain felt for the dead on the boat; the video of those peace-seeking peace activists beating on the paintball commandos with metal bars pretty much canceled out whatever feelings of sympathy Israelis might have otherwise felt. Plus, most Israelis are aware, unlike much of the rest of the world, that these ships were not on a humanitarian mission, but a political mission, one meant to lend support to Hamas, which seeks Israel's destruction, so you might have to excuse Israelis for not sympathizing overly much.

Of course, many Israelis feel more sympathy for these Hamasish (a new word!) activists than they do for their own leaders, who steered their small, no-margin-for-error Jewish country into a fairly obvious ambush. The anger is directed at the prime minister, of course, but especially at the defense minister, Ehud Barak, who previously was thought of as a brilliant man, and at the army chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, who is -- or was -- also thought of as smart and clever. Ari Shavit, one of Israel's most important and perceptive columnists, wrote today that:

During the 2006 war in Lebanon I concluded that my 15-year-old daughter could have conducted it more wisely than the Olmert-Peretz government. We've progressed. Today it's clear to me that my 6-year-old son could do much better than our current government. Even a child would have seen the imbalance in the risk-threat assessment in overpowering the flotilla ships. Any smart kid would understand that you don't sacrifice what is important for what is not. But the cabinet did not understand. Under the leadership of Netanyahu, Barak and (Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe) Ya'alon it came to a patently unreasonable decision. It was a decision of complete fools.

I'm not going to predict the political fall-out from this, because I'm not clever enough to fully grasp Israeli coalition politics. But the feelings of shame and embarrassment are palpable, and someone will have to pay a price.

About that shame and embarrassment: I just met with the son of a friend who serves in an elite Israeli army unit, one very much similiar to Flotilla 13, the Naval commando unit deployed so disastrously against the anti-Israel flotilla, and he explained the shame this way: "These soldiers are the best we have. We are Israel's deterrent. People in the Middle East need to think we are the best, and we are the best, except that when we're sent into situations without any intelligence, without any direction, with paintball guns instead of sufficient weapons, with no understanding of who we're fighting. Then we're going to have a disaster. These commandos were beaten with pipes! They came onto the deck (of the ship) one by one down a rope and they were beaten by a mob! Commandos! It's amazing that they didn't kill everyone on the ship, once they regrouped. Just amazing. The whole story is amazing."

Yes it is. And it is a story with deep consequences.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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