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Never show weakness

by: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach - Last updated: 2003-09-04

It seems entirely appropriate that Israel's 30th commemoration of the Yom Kippur war should be sandwiched between the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech and the 40th remembrance of the assassination of JFK.

In the 1960s the charisma of JFK, the speeches of MLK, and the stunning military victories of the IDF against armies promising genocide gave hope to the world that the forces of darkness could be defeated.

Since then, while admiration for King and Kennedy have entered the stratosphere, the reputation of Israel has crashed to the ground. While Kennedy and King are hailed as international icons, Israel has arguably become the most reviled nation on earth.

The fall began with the Yom Kippur War, for it was then that Israel forgot that its survival was directly linked to the awe it carried as something almost supernatural, a country that was anything but ordinary.

Pulitzer-Prize winner Theodore White wrote that no insult was greater coming from the mouth of JFK than "He's a very common man," or "That's a very ordinary type." Amid his suffering from innumerable and crippling ailments, Kennedy cultivated an air of boundless energy and superior mystique. Likewise, while being one of the most marked men on earth, Martin Luther King famously declared that he "was fearing no man." He even included himself in a handwritten list of the 10 greatest figures of the 20th century.

Over the same period, however, Israel has made itself pedestrian. To be sure, Machiavelli's advice that it is better to be feared than loved was dismissed by Bertrand Russell as "a handbook for gangsters." But Israel went to the opposite extreme, compromising any sense of awe in an almost desperate gambit to be loved. It clamored for acceptance at virtually any cost, hunkering for legitimacy even if it endangered its citizens, and it sought peace even if meant trading away its holiest places.

No longer on a moral pedestal, even Israel's tourism advertisements today highlight the country's warm beaches and great nightlife rather than it being the place where Abraham walked and Christ taught.

Weakness was the legacy of the Yom Kippur war. Gone were the breathtaking victories against overwhelming armies that stunned the world. In its place were fickle leaders who knew, several hours before, that Israel faced certain attack on the afternoon of October 6, 1973, but held off eviscerating the stacked-up Egyptian and Syrian armies for fear of being labeled the aggressor.

Later, Israel would commit its greatest military blunder when it succumbed to American pressure to release the Egyptian Third Army from certain destruction.

In 1944, Brig.-Gen. Bonner F. Fellers, chief of psychological-warfare operations for Douglas Macarthur, wrote to his boss: "An absolute and unconditional defeat of Japan is the essential ingredient for a lasting peace in the Orient. Only complete military disaster and stinging defeat and colossal losses will prove to the people that the military machine is vincible and that their fanatical leadership has taken them the way to disaster."

But Israel has failed utterly at this psychology of war. It has emboldened the Arabs through repeated and reckless concessions. Had Israel wiped out the Egyptian armies it had encircled and continued its advance to Damascus, it would have maintained its aura of military invincibility and Arab militarism would have been incapacitated for years to come at least.

Instead the Arabs claimed the Yom Kippur War as a victory, and ever since then Israel has been on the retreat. Ariel Sharon, who in 1973 electrified the world with his daring crossing of the Suez Canal, is today yet another embattled Israeli leader desperately struggling to fend off depraved terrorists.

Insecurity is something that can be smelled. Israel, a country once suffused with a sense of destiny, is today riddled with uncertainty and a lack of self-confidence. It has become the supplicant of nations, almost begging to be respected.

In an effort to show the world how desperately it wants peace, Israel has, over the past 30 years, given back the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, entered into abortive talks with Syria to return the Golan, returned the wretched Yasser Arafat to "Palestine," and armed his men to the teeth. Now it is relying on a man whose Ph.D thesis denies the Holocaust to fight Hamas.

Do these sound like the actions of a secure government? And what has Israel received for trading in its reputation of ferocious military toughness for peacemaker-at-any-cost?

Egypt, to whom Israel ceded land three times its size with its considerable oil fields, spews more anti-Semitism through official government organs than almost any other nation on earth. Even hard-core peaceniks are not spared Egyptian odium as the April 2000 cover of Al-Arabi, with its picture of Shimon Peres in a Gestapo uniform, displayed.

To be sure, there has been no war between Israel and Egypt since Camp David. But then the same is true of Syria, and a cold peace and a cold war are nearly indistinguishable from one another anyway.

Critics of the Israeli Left like to point out that Yitzhak Rabin destroyed the Jewish state with his catastrophic concessions to Arafat. They would be more honest to acknowledge that it all started with Menachem Begin, who caved in to the horrendous pressure brought to bear upon him by Jimmy Carter, a man consistently rated by historians as one of America's least successful presidents, and a vociferous critic of Israel till this very day.

Only Yitzhak Shamir, so often reviled as a do-nothing prime minister, understood the secret of Israel's survival: Be strong and do nothing. Stand tall and stall for as long as humanly possible until the Arabs, like the Soviet Union, collapse under the weight of their own corrupt political systems and rickety economies.

As late as 1988 Arafat was denied a visa by George Schulz to even enter the United States to speak at the UN. But five years later, in September 1993, the international pariah was on the lawn of the White House hugging President Clinton and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. It was Israel who elevated this slovenly murderer from the dung heap to the status of world statesman.

The road map to peace has become a trail of burned-out buses and dismembered children. But then, did any sane person believe that a puppet Palestinian prime minister -- who stated from the outset that he would not fight Hamas -- could be trusted to safeguard Jewish life?

Without minimizing the horror, this is all becoming rather tiresome. Dead Jews. More concessions on the part of Israel in a desperate effort to demonstrate that it is not the obstacle to peace. Cease-fires that lead to terrorist rearmament. And then more dead Jews.

John F. Kennedy's first summit with Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961 ended in disaster because Kennedy came like a supplicant. He first appeased Khrushchev with talk of how he had made a "misjudgment" over the invasion of Cuba, then made the astonishing (and erroneous) admission that Soviet military strength equaled that of the United State.

In the words of Robert Dallek's definitive biography of the late President, Khrushchev "seized upon Kennedy's admission of a mistake as an expression of weakness It exhilarated Khrushchev, who took it as another reason to press the case for superior Soviet morality in international affairs...."

Of JFK, Khrushchev later told his comrades, "He's very young; not strong enough. Too intelligent and too weak."

Depressed, Kennedy admitted that Khrushchev had "treated me like a little boy, like a little boy." It was his projection of weakness that famously led to the Soviet leader's belief that he could deploy offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba.

But by October 1962 Kennedy had learned his lesson. With steely reserve he chillingly warned that "any nuclear missile launched from Cuba" would be regarded as "an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."

This time, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union went eyeball to eyeball, it was the Soviets who blinked first.

Some will say that Israel cannot risk antagonizing its foremost ally, the U.S., who is currently pushing it to make further concessions to the Palestinians. They should learn from Martin Luther King, whose effectiveness lay in his ability to appeal to the best in the American people by reminding them of their own noble ideals: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal."

Let Sharon remind Bush, a righteous and courageous leader, that when he pushes Israel to make peace with those who harbor and support terror, he violates his own policies and principles.

Thirty years ago Sharon helped to save the Jewish state when he overrode the orders of well-meaning but clueless military superiors in his desperate gambit to bring the war to Egypt's home turf. Let him now disobey the orders of the leader of the free world, whose own pronouncement against terrorism was magical: "Every nation has a choice to make. In this conflict there is no neutral ground. If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril."