The earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan in March were only the last in a row of natural disasters rocking the Far East recently. In 2004, the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami left more than 200,000 people dead and missing. The 2006 Java earthquake and tsunami were disastrous as well.
Why was the death toll in Japan, which suffered no less awesome disaster, so low, compared to the other cases? Because Japan was prepared. It had connected itself to early warning systems, and had built effective means of relaying the vital information to the public in time.
People in Japan received the early warning 30 minutes before the tsunami hit their shores. Not much, but enough to get in the car and flee. If they were given an hour alert, they might have collected some valuables or souvenirs dear to their hearts.
Israelis, on the other hand, are given no less than a five-month tsunami alert. In September, the United Nations General Assembly is expected to accept Palestine as an independent state in the pre-1967 borders. The move will put Israel in an awkward position of an illegal occupier of Palestinian lands.
In light of this, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned in March that “(w)e are facing a political tsunami of which most members of the public are unaware.” According to Barak, who is not known to lose his calm easily, “it would be wrong to ignore this tsunami ... Israel’s de-legitimization is in sight. It’s very dangerous and requires action.”
Well said, except that Barak forgot that he wasn’t a backseat driver, but the one who, together with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was actually holding Israel’s steering wheel. Let’s say he did his share and sounded the alarm. What, then, is Netanyahu doing?
If Netanyahu believes, like one of his predecessors, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, that time is running in favor of Israel, then doing nothing is a wise policy. Let the Arabs spin their wheels as always on the wrong issues, while Israel prospers. If, on the other hand, Netanyahu subscribes to the words of Barak, his close friend and former commander in the IDF elite unit, then doing nothing in face of an impending tsunami is irresponsible.
Netanyahu’s knee-jerk reaction was to do what he always does when he is pressed, namely, to go to Washington. Not to the White House, mind you. Forget about the amazing relationship and personal friendship between President George Bush and Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, or between President Bill Clinton and the late Yitzhak Rabin. Netanyahu, being aware of the frustration of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with the stalled peace process, prefers to go to the House, where, backed by a pro-Israeli Republican majority, he can secure a U.S. veto in the U.N. Security Council, when the Palestinian motion is put on the table.
Securing the American veto is important, because a resolution by the General Assembly is meaningless, unless the Security Council endorses it, and there, the United States has always been vetoing anti-Israeli resolutions. Except that in 1950, in order to bypass a stalemate at the Security Council during the Korean War, because of stubborn Soviet vetoes, then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson initiated General Assembly Resolution 377, known as the “Uniting for Peace Resolution.”
Simply put, in case of deadlock at the Security Council, Resolution 377 — an American invention — makes the General Assembly, where Libya and the United States have the same voice, the executive body, entrusted even with “the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security.”
This is not procedure only. In September the world, through the United Nations, will tell Israel to get out of the West Bank, because it belongs to the Palestinian state. Even if borders can only be defined by agreement between the relevant countries, and not by the United Nations, the expected September resolution will put the onus on Israel.
Netanyahu, instead of going to Washington, should rather stay at home and from the Knesset podium invite the Palestinians and the Arabs to talk. About what? About the “Arab Peace Initiative” proposed in 2002 at the Beirut Summit of the Arab League and re-endorsed at the Riyadh Summit in 2007.
From day one, Israel has rejected that plan, because it had left the refugee issue open. Time for re-thinking. Instead of giving a flat “no”, Netanyahu should now say to the Arabs “yes, but.” The problem with this is that Hosni Mubarak, an important supporter of the initiative, is gone, and the other Arab rulers are busy staying in power themselves. Still, this is the only viable plan around.
Coming to think of it, now that the tsunami alarm has gone off, I suddenly realize how a cliche — or rather, two cliches — can sound so true: It’s too little and too late, but it’s better late than never.
• Dromi writes about Israeli affairs for The Miami Herald.