Foreign Affairs and Defense
North Korea’s demonstration of a ballistic missile capable of reaching most of the United States prompted gloomy commentary in Israel about the failure to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear program and, by analogy, the seeming impossibility of stopping Iran’s nuclear program. As Haaretz commentator Anshel Pfeffer put it, Kim Jong-un “proved that a dictator who wants a nuclear weapon badly enough,” and is ruthless and determined enough, “will ultimately achieve it.” Yet the North Korean example proves no such thing because it says nothing about the efficacy of the one tactic America never tried: military action, or at least the credible threat thereof.
North Korea has proven, if anyone had still any doubts, that sanctions and negotiations alone can’t stop a determined dictator from acquiring nukes. In contrast, the jury’s still out on military action. It has only been tried twice, both times by Israel, in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. And it’s still too soon to say conclusively that it worked. But at least so far, neither country has nuclear weapons.
Moreover, many of the arguments against military action are fatuous. Take, for instance, the claim that military action is pointless once a country has the know-how to build a bomb, because “You can’t bomb a people’s knowledge out of existence,” as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen said of Iran. That’s true, but it’s completely irrelevant. Knowledge is only one of many components needed to build a bomb. Get rid of the others–like Iran’s heavy-water reactor, its stockpile of enriched uranium, and its centrifuges for enriching more–and no amount of knowledge will suffice to produce nuclear weapons.
Then there’s the argument that military action does nothing but buy time. That’s far from self-evident. Some countries might conclude that the effort of rebuilding their nuclear program only to be bombed again isn’t worth it. But even assuming that’s true, buying time has also been proven to be the most sanctions and negotiations can achieve (except in the rare cases where countries actually agree to give up their nuclear programs).
Thus the relevant question is which course of action buys more time, because the more time you buy, the better the chances of an unexpected development—say, regime change in Iran—that could lead to permanent success. Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor, for instance, bought just enough time for Iraq to make a critical mistake nobody could have foreseen: the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which led to the Gulf War and America’s subsequent imposition of an intrusive and effective nuclear inspection regime.
For two reasons, military action probably buys the most time. First, sanctions and negotiations leave much of a country’s nuclear infrastructure in place, whereas military action destroys it. Rebuilding from scratch always takes longer than expanding or improving existing infrastructure, especially if military action is combined with sanctions to impede the rebuilding process. Second, unlike military action, negotiations always require concessions, which can actually facilitate nuclear progress by allowing countries to do openly what they would otherwise have to do secretly. The Iran deal, for instance, allows Tehran to replace its old, slow centrifuges with fast new ones, so that when the deal ends—or earlier, if it follows the North Korean model and cheats—it will be able to enrich the uranium needed for a bomb 20 times faster than it could when the deal began.
There is, of course, one serious reason for avoiding military action: fear of painful retaliation. That certainly played a role in America’s reluctance to bomb North Korea; the latter’s conventional forces are quite sufficient to launch devastating reprisals against both South Korea’s civilian population and the tens of thousands of American troops stationed there. Various estimates put the potential casualties in South Korea at tens or even hundreds of thousands.
Low-cost military action was eminently feasible when Iran’s illicit nuclear program was discovered 15 years ago. Unfortunately, that’s no longer true (which is a damning indictment of three successive Israeli governments). Eleven years ago, when Israel fought a month-long war with Tehran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah fired around 4,000 rockets and killed 163 Israelis. Today, Hezbollah has upward of 150,000 rockets, including many with longer ranges, heavier warheads, and greater accuracy. Moreover, back then, Syria had no interest in joining the war, whereas today, it might have little choice. Significant portions of what are euphemistically called “Syrian government forces” are actually militias (both Syrian and foreign) that answer directly to Tehran.
Thus, preparing a military option on Iran starts with taking steps to make this option less dangerous, and therefore more feasible. Those preparations must start with making serious efforts to push Iran out of Syria, curb Iran’s conventional missile program, and persuade Europe to finally outlaw Hezbollah (rather than only its “military wing,” as if this were somehow distinct from its political wing).
All of the above are things America should do anyway to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East and thereby restore some measure of regional stability. But the nuclear issue gives these steps added urgency.
Most likely, any military action will end up being Israeli rather than American. America has never taken military action to stop any country’s nuclear program, and decision-makers have often gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid doing so. Even though the sanctions/negotiations track has failed repeatedly, Washington is unlikely to scrap this decades-old, bipartisan policy in Iran’s case. A nuclear Iran simply isn’t the existential threat to America that it is to Israel.
But America must begin working now to make Israeli military action feasible at a reasonable cost. For as the North Korean failure shows, only military action is likely to stop Tehran from following in Pyongyang’s footsteps.
Originally published in Commentary on December 4, 2017
The International Committee of the Red Cross, self-appointed guardian of the laws of war, has embarked on an exciting new online project: destroying the very laws it ostensibly seeks to protect. Of course, the ICRC would put it differently; it would say it’s teaching the laws of war. The problem is that the “laws” it teaches aren’t the actual laws of war, as codified in international treaties, but a made-up version that effectively denies countries any right of self-defense against enemies that fight from positions inside civilian populations. And it is thereby teaching anyone unwilling to concede the right of self-defense that the laws of war should simply be ignored.
The website has four sections – “behavior in war,” “medical mission,” “torture” and cultural property.” But the big problem is the first one, which consists of three questions users must answer correctly to receive a “medal of integrity.”
Question number one: “You’re a military commander. The enemy is hiding in a populated village across the front line. Can you attack?” The correct answer, according to the website, is “no.”
This is simply false. The laws of war do not grant immunity to enemy soldiers simply because they choose to hide among civilians, nor do they mandate avoiding any military action that might result in civilian casualties. They merely require that civilians not be deliberately targeted (the principle of distinction), that reasonable efforts be made to minimize civilian casualties, and that any such casualties not be disproportionate to the military benefit of the operation (the principle of proportionality).
The second question was, “What if you know for a fact that many civilians would be killed? Can you attack?” Since the ICRC had already ruled in the first question that attacking populated villages is never permissible, I’m not sure what purpose this question served; it would only make sense if the answer to the first question had been “yes” and this were a follow-up meant to explore the limits of the license to attack populated villages. But let’s ignore that incongruity and examine the question on its own merits.
The ICRC’s answer, of course, was “no.” But the correct answer is “insufficient information.” As noted, the laws of war don’t prohibit civilian casualties as collateral damage of a legitimate military operation. They do, however, require that such casualties not be disproportionate to the military benefit, and the question doesn’t supply the information necessary to determine whether this attack would be proportionate. For instance, how many civilian casualties does “many” actually mean – 10? 100? 1,000? Even more important, what price will your own side pay if it doesn’t attack? For instance, how many of your own civilians might be killed if you don’t stop the enemy’s rocket and mortar fire?
The laws of war were never meant to be a suicide pact; they do not require countries to let their own civilians be slaughtered in order to avoid harming enemy civilians. But in the ICRC’s version, they do. Its website teaches users that military action which harms enemy civilians is never permissible, so all an enemy has to do to slaughter the other side’s civilians with impunity is set up shop among its own civilian population. By that logic, no action should have been taken to stop, say, the Islamic State’s genocide against the Yazidis, because it operated out of populated villages and couldn’t be dislodged without civilian casualties. Is that truly what the ICRC wants?
Incidentally, using civilians as human shields is a war crime in itself, but you’d never guess that from the website. The implication of the ICRC’s questions is that the laws of war actually encourage using civilians as human shields, because doing so buys you immunity from attack under those very same laws.
Before moving to the third question, the website provides the average scores of respondents from 16 countries on the first two. Unsurprisingly, Israel had the lowest percentage of respondents who gave the “right” answers (followed by America). That’s because Israelis, who are regularly attacked by enemies operating from populated villages, understand better than most that the “right” answers would require them to sit with folded hands while their enemies kill them.
This is highly relevant to the website’s third and final question: “The Geneva Conventions, the core of the international humanitarian law, are now 70 years old. Warfare today is very different; does it still make sense to impose limits in war?” The ICRC’s answer, which I agree with, is “yes.” But limits on warfare will gain wide acceptance only if they still allow for the possibility of effective self-defense. If obeying the laws of war requires letting your own civilians be slaughtered with impunity, no country under attack would agree to do so.
That is precisely the danger of the ICRC’s position. The real laws of war set a challenging but achievable goal: reducing civilian casualties to the minimum consistent with effective military action. But the ICRC’s made-up laws set an impossible goal: avoiding any civilian casualties whatsoever, even if this precludes effective military action. Thus any country that engages in military action would end up violating the ICRC’s laws no matter what steps it takes to minimize civilian casualties. And if so, why even bother to take those steps?
Indeed, this very argument has raged in Israel for years now. Despite Israel’s great efforts to comply with the real laws of war – it “met and in some respects exceeded the highest standards we set for our own nations’ militaries,” a group of high-ranking Western military experts wrote in a report on the 2014 Gaza war – it is repeatedly accused by the UN, “human rights” organizations, and world leaders of grossly violating those laws. Hence many Israelis wonder why they should keep making those efforts, which often increase the risk to their own soldiers and civilians, if they get no international credit for doing so.
The ICRC is not only encouraging terrorists to operate from among civilian populations by granting them immunity; it is also discouraging efforts to comply with the civilian protection measures mandated by the real laws of war. In other words, it’s actually making civilian casualties more likely on two counts – and thereby betraying its own humanitarian mission.
Originally published in Commentary on November 14, 2017
Many people nowadays accuse Israel of being a racist state that considers its Arab minority second-class citizens. I wonder, then, how they explain what happened last Friday?
For the third time in the last two years, Israel threatened military action to stop an attack by extremist Syrian rebels on the Syrian Druze village of Khader. It did so despite the fact that Syrian Druze have sided with the Assad regime in that war, meaning they’re aligned with Israel’s arch-enemies, Iran and Hezbollah; despite the fact that Khader itself has been the source of several anti-Israel terror attacks; and despite the fact that such intervention risks entangling Israel in Syria’s civil war, something it has hitherto tried hard to avoid–and all just because it was asked to do so by its own Druze minority, which was worried about its coreligionists across the border.
To most Israelis, it seems both obvious and unremarkable that Israel should accede to this request. But in fact, though Israel has always considered itself obligated as a Jewish state to try to protect Jews anywhere, it’s not at all obvious that it would consider itself equally obligated to try to protect Druze beyond its borders. Threatening cross-border military action on behalf of foreign nationals aligned with your worst enemies, simply because they’re the coreligionists of one of your own ethnic minorities, isn’t an obvious step for any country. And it’s especially not obvious for a country accused of considering said minorities to be second-class citizens.
Thus, the fact that Israel has repeatedly taken action to protect the Syrian Druze says a lot about the true state of anti-Arab “racism” in the country. But to understand exactly what it says, it’s first necessary to understand the difference between Israeli Druze and other Arab Israelis.
The Druze are ethnically Arab, and their religion is considered an offshoot of Islam. But in their attitude toward the Jewish state, Israeli Druze differ markedly from most Muslim and Christian Arabs. All Druze men serve in the army, whereas Muslim and Christian Arabs generally do not. Druze politicians can be found in every major political party (except the explicitly religious ones), and Druze voting patterns aren’t markedly different from their Jewish counterparts. In contrast, other Arabs generally support ethnic Arab parties that are openly hostile to the Jewish state. Druze overwhelmingly identify as Israeli rather than Palestinian, whereas among other Arabs, the reverse has been true until very recently. Finally, given their superior integration, Druze unsurprisingly feel much less discriminated against than other Arabs.
The Druze consider themselves to be and act as loyal Israelis in every respect, so Jewish Israelis consider themselves bound to show equal loyalty to the Druze. Therefore, when Israeli Druze (some of whom even have relatives in Khader) were concerned about what might happen to their Syrian brethren if the extremist militias succeeded in capturing the town, Israeli Jews–who can readily understand concern for the fate of one’s coreligionists in another country–fully agreed that something had to be done. Hence the army, as it has twice before, warned the extremists that if they didn’t retreat, they would be attacked by Israeli planes and artillery. And the extremists, as they have twice before, got the message and abandoned their attack.
In contrast, Israeli Jews feel far less commitment to other Israeli Arabs because other Israeli Arabs demonstrate far less commitment to Israel. This is obvious in their refusal not only to do military service–something most Israeli Jews could reluctantly accept–but even to do civilian national service in their own communities, because they consider it unacceptable to do anything that might be construed as identification with the hated Zionist state. It is equally obvious in their repeated reelection of Arab Knesset members who, in marked contrast to Druze MKs, routinely refuse to condemn Palestinian terror and sometimes even actively defend it, hurl calumnies like “apartheid” and “genocide” at their own government, and side with the Palestinians against Israel on virtually every issue.
Thus while prejudice and discrimination definitely exist in Israel, as they do in every society, they do not, for the most part, stem from “racism.” Rather, they are a response to the objective fact that many Israeli Arabs demonstrate their contempt for and opposition to the Jewish state on a daily basis. While Israel can and does ensure equality before the law for its Arab citizens, it can’t change human nature. And it is human nature to be less generous and more suspicious toward people who openly side with your enemies than toward those who side with you, because loyalty is a two-way street. Indeed, what’s truly remarkable is that Israel has made such great efforts to integrate its Arab minority despite the barrier posed by Arab behavior.
As I’ve noted many times before, Israeli Arab attitudes toward Israel are slowly changing. As they do, anti-Arab prejudice and discrimination will lessen in the same way that prejudice and discrimination against the Druze already have. And nothing demonstrates this better than last Friday’s incident in Khader, when Israel put its army at the service of non-Jewish enemy nationals across the border just because their Israeli coreligionists asked it to do so.
Originally published in Commentary on November 7, 21017
Ostensibly, winner Avi Gabbay and runner-up Amir Peretz couldn’t be more different. Peretz is a veteran hard-left activist, an early leader of the Peace Now movement, who was advocating Palestinian statehood back when most Israelis still considered the idea anathema. Gabbay is a moderate who once supported Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud party and, more recently, co-founded the centrist Kulanu party. Yet they sounded almost indistinguishable when answering five questions posed by Haaretz (in Hebrew) before Monday’s run-off (an abbreviated English version is here).
Asked about the idea of unilaterally withdrawing from parts of the West Bank, for instance, both men rejected it. “I don’t believe in unilateral withdrawal,” Gabbay said bluntly. Peretz was wordier, but still quite clear. “We won’t continue to settle the territories, but at the same time, we mustn’t forget the lessons of the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza (and also from other conflict areas around the world),” he said.
What makes this surprising is that several Labor-affiliated former senior-defense-officials-turned-activists have been pushing unilateral withdrawal. Among them are former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, the man slated to be Labor’s defense minister had it won the last election, and former Shin Bet security service chief Ami Ayalon, a one-time Labor Knesset member. Thus one might expect the idea to appeal to rank-and-file members.
But Peretz and Gabbay thought otherwise. Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza in 2005 resulted in three wars and 16,000 rockets on Israel (compared to zero from the Israeli-controlled West Bank), while its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 enabled Hezbollah to grow from a terrorist nuisance into a major strategic threat, whose arsenal of 150,000 rockets is larger than that of most national armies. Thus the candidates evidently concluded that even left-of-center Israelis no longer believe the activist “experts” who persist in denying that unilateral withdrawal endangers Israel’s security.
Moreover, both candidates promised to freeze settlement construction, but only outside the major settlement blocs. This is a sharp rejection of the line the Obama Administration spent eight years peddling—that construction anywhere beyond the 1949 armistice lines, even in areas everyone knows will remain Israeli under any agreement, is an obstacle to peace. It turns out even left-of-center Israelis consider it ludicrous for Israel to stop building in the settlement blocs and large Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. They simply don’t buy the idea that construction in these areas, which will clearly remain Israeli, is a legitimate excuse for the Palestinians’ ongoing refusal to negotiate.
No less noteworthy was one glaring omission. Though both candidates promised immediate final-status negotiations with the Palestinians and deemed a peace deal essential, their only stated reason for this position was to keep Israel from becoming a binational state. Neither so much as mentioned the fear that Israel could face growing international isolation if it didn’t resolve the conflict. That claim has been a staple of left-wing advocacy for years. It was most famously expressed by former Labor chairman (and former prime minister) Ehud Barak who, in 2011, warned that Israel would face a “diplomatic tsunami” if the conflict continued.
This argument has been getting harder and harder to make in recent years, as Israel’s diplomatic reach has steadily expanded. But it would have sounded particularly fatuous coming just days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic visit to Israel, which caused many who had previously parroted Barak’s warning to throw in the towel. Typical headlines from center-left commentators included “Where’s the diplomatic isolation?” and “Modi visit shows Israel can improve foreign ties even without a peace process.” Judging by the fact that neither Peretz nor Gabbay mentioned this argument, they evidently think even Labor Party members will no longer buy it.
As an aside, it’s far from clear that diplomatic ties would continue expanding under a Labor government, because center-left governments typically view the Palestinian issue as their top priority, and therefore devote much less time and energy to expanding ties with the rest of the world. In contrast, since Netanyahu’s government believes a Palestinian deal is currently unobtainable, it has invested enormous effort in expanding Israel’s other diplomatic relationships. And that effort matters. As Kenya’s UN ambassador said last week, it’s only recently that “the lights have gone on” in Israel and it has started engaging. Previously, he spent years asking Israeli officials, “Why are you not engaged? Where is Israel?” But the possibility that Labor might choose to focus on the Palestinians instead doesn’t change the fact that Israel clearly can expand its diplomacy even without a peace process.
Finally, Peretz and Gabbay both rejected the increasingly popular argument among left-wing activists that fully integrating Israeli Arabs requires inviting elected Arab parties into the governing coalition, no matter how extreme those parties are. Inter alia, they include one parliamentarian doing jail time for smuggling cell phones to imprisoned terrorists, another who calls Arab policemen “traitors,” and a third who canceled a meeting with American Jewish leaders because he “cannot in good conscience” enter a building that houses a Zionist organization. Gabbay, typically blunt, said the Arab parties’ Joint List “includes anti-Zionist elements … so we can’t cooperate with this composition.” Peretz concurred: “Incidents that have occurred in the Joint List undoubtedly make it very hard to add them to any future coalition. Effectively, the difficulty is so great as to make this impossible.”
In short, both men upheld the traditional view that integration requires bolstering Arab moderates rather than bolstering radical politicians who support terrorists and/or want to abolish the Jewish state. Evidently, they believed any other position would repel Labor voters.
The bottom line is that, even among mainstream left-of-center voters, many ideas pushed by left-wing journalists and activists remain toxic. It’s a point worth remembering for all those foreigners who get much of their information from these very same sources.
Originally published in Commentary on July 14, 2017
Though Israel’s diplomatic situation has improved remarkably, there’s been one glaring and nontrivial exception: Europe. Hence, it’s encouraging to discover that even in Europe, patient, persistent diplomacy can bear fruit if it focuses on a few clear, consistent messages. Consider, for instance, the following recent events:
On any other day, the Wall Street Journal’s report on Tuesday would have been a major bombshell. Instead, it was unjustly overshadowed by the news that Donald Trump had shared sensitive third-party intelligence (apparently provided by Israel) with Russia. Granted, the intelligence story reveals something important about the U.S. president. But the WSJ story revealed something important about long-term trends in the Middle East–and for once, it’s unabashedly good news. Major Arab states have grown tired of having their relationship with Israel held hostage to the Palestinian problem, and they’re actually seeking to do something about it.
The Journal reported that the Gulf States are discussing a proposal to normalize certain types of commercial relations with Israel in exchange for Israeli gestures toward the Palestinians (the report is behind a paywall, but the Times of Israel helpfully provided a detailed account of what the WSJ article said). Two countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have already told both America and Israel that they’re willing to adopt it, the Journal added.
The U.S. Army recently announced that it has horrifying video footage of Islamic State fighters herding Iraqi civilians into buildings in Mosul. The plan was not to use them as human shields–that is, to announce their presence in the hope of deterring American airstrikes. Rather, ISIS was deliberately trying to ensure that American troops killed them, by “smuggling civilians into buildings, so we won’t see them and trying to bait the coalition to attack,” an army spokesman said at a briefing for Pentagon reporters. The motive, he explained, was hope that massive civilian casualties would produce such an outcry that the U.S. would halt airstrikes altogether.
There’s an important point to this story which the spokesman neglected to mention: This tactic is borrowed directly from Hamas. And it was borrowed because the world’s response to successive Hamas-Israel wars convinced ISIS that creating massive civilian casualties among residents of its own territory is an effective strategy. Admittedly, Hamas hasn’t yet been caught on video actually herding civilians into buildings before launching attacks from them. But there’s plenty of evidence that Hamas prevented civilians from leaving areas whence it was launching rockets or other attacks at Israel, thereby deliberately exposing them to retaliatory strikes.
During the 2014 Gaza war, for instance, the Israel Defense Forces warned civilians to evacuate the town of Beit Lahiya before launching air strikes at Hamas positions. But according to Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid, who based himself on interviews with Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas gunmen showed up and warned that anyone who left the town would be treated as a collaborator. Since Hamas executes collaborators, that was equivalent to saying that anyone who tried to leave would be killed on the spot. Thus, faced with the alternative of certain death at Hamas’s hands, most Beit Lahiya residents understandably opted to stay and take their chances with the IDF.
There’s also plenty of evidence that Hamas deliberately launched attacks from buildings where it knew civilians were present. Just last month, for instance, I wrote about a case during the 2009 Gaza war in which Hamas directed sniper fire at Israeli troops from the third floor of a well-known doctor’s home, thereby forcing the soldiers to choose between becoming sitting ducks or shooting back and risking civilian casualties. Unbeknownst to the soldiers, Hamas was also storing explosives in the house (using civilian buildings as arms caches or wiring them with explosives is standard practice for Hamas). Consequently, when the soldiers fired at the Hamas position, an unexpectedly large explosion ensued, killing three of the doctor’s daughters and one of his nieces.
In short, Hamas repeatedly used tactics aimed at maximizing the number of civilian casualties on its own side. Yet instead of blaming Hamas for this, the world largely blamed Israel. Mass demonstrations were held throughout the West condemning Israel; there were no mass demonstrations condemning Hamas. Journalists and “human rights” organizations issued endless reports blaming Israel for the civilian casualties while ignoring or downplaying Hamas’s role in them. Western leaders repeatedly demanded that Israel show “restraint” and accused it of using disproportionate force. Israel, not Hamas, became the subject of a complaint to the International Criminal Court.
Hamas thereby succeeded in putting Israel in a lose-lose situation. Either it could let Hamas launch thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians with impunity, or it could strike back at the price of global opprobrium.
Alan Dershowitz, who aptly calls this the “dead baby strategy,” has been warning for years that unless it “is exposed and rejected in the marketplace of morality, it’s coming to a theater (or school or hospital) near you.” After all, why wouldn’t other terrorist organizations adopt a strategy that has so obviously proven successful?
Now, ISIS has proven his point: It has chosen to deliberately sacrifice civilians rather than employing the more obvious tactic of using them as human shields. Granted, the organization enjoys killing, but based on its track record, it’s also far from stupid. So if it has concluded that dead civilians are more useful than living human shields, it’s because, like Hamas, it considers this a win-win strategy. At worst, America’s reputation will be tarnished, since many people worldwide will blame it for the civilian casualties rather than putting the blame on ISIS, where it belongs. And at best, negative public opinion will force America to abandon the airstrikes altogether.
Nor is the latter hope as far-fetched as it may seem at first glance. It’s true the “dead baby strategy” never persuaded Israel to stop airstrikes against Hamas, but there’s a fundamental difference between the two cases: Israel’s citizens were under direct attack by Hamas rockets and tunnels, and in a choice between sacrificing its citizens’ lives and suffering global opprobrium, any self-respecting country would choose the latter. But ISIS isn’t launching rockets at America from Mosul; the threat it poses is far less immediate. Consequently, the incentive for America to simply back away from the fight if the civilian death toll climbs too high is much greater.
In short, by blaming Israel for civilian casualties that were actually deliberately caused by Hamas’s actions, the world ensured that other terrorist organizations would adopt a similar strategy. Or to put it more bluntly, it ensured that many more civilians would die, because terrorist groups would see a profit in their deaths.
ISIS obviously bears primary blame for all civilian deaths in Mosul. But a portion of that blame is shared by every journalist, “human rights” activist, politician and demonstrator who blamed Israel rather than Hamas for civilian deaths in Gaza–because they are the ones who persuaded ISIS that deliberately sacrificing civilians is an effective way to fight a war.
Originally published in Commentary on April 5, 2017
A review of a comedy of manners set in England in the 1920s wouldn’t seem the obvious place to look to understand why the average Westerner really has no business trying to tell Israelis how to run their country. But two sentences in this New York Times book review encapsulate the problem perfectly: “Historical details, which abound, are often fascinating. (Who knew that beards interfere with gas masks?)”
I’m sure most New York Times readers don’t know that. But virtually every adult Israeli does, other than a few recent immigrants. That’s because almost every adult Israeli either has a gas mask or did at one time (mine still lives in my closet), and many of us have actually worn them. They were distributed nationwide before the 1991 Gulf War, out of fear that Saddam Hussein would put chemical warheads on the missiles he launched at Israel during the war. Israel, incidentally, was one of only two countries Saddam launched missiles at, even though it wasn’t one of the 39 countries actually waging war on Iraq at the time.
Since then, Israel has run several nationwide campaigns to get people to exchange their old gas masks for new ones. That gas masks have an expiration date is another fascinating “historical” detail most Westerners probably don’t know (the campaigns ended a few years ago, after the implosion of both Iraq and Syria reduced the risk of a chemical attack). Israel also passed a law requiring every new house to include a bomb shelter capable of doubling as a sealed room, since ordinary bomb shelters offer no protection against chemical attacks (yet another little-known “historical” detail). That’s one of many factors contributing to the country’s sky-high housing costs, but not one Israelis complain about. In-house bomb shelters are even more necessary today, given the thousands of rockets launched at Israel by both Hezbollah and Hamas over the last 10 to 15 years.
Even Israelis who were children in 1991 undoubtedly remember being woken by sirens in the middle of the night, rushing to makeshift sealed rooms (heavy-duty plastic wrap, tape and damp towels), putting on their masks and sitting for hours waiting for the all-clear. The adults also remember being unable to fall asleep at night while awaiting that siren. The chronic sleep deprivation experienced by people under missile bombardment is another little-known historical detail (somehow, it never seems to interest human rights organizations as much as the sleep deprivation of captured terrorists during interrogations).
As for beards, this being Israel, a public battle raged for months in 1990-91 over whether Haredi men, who normally don’t shave for religious reasons, should be given special, more expensive masks that can accommodate beards, or whether they could reasonably be expected to shave, given that in Jewish law, saving a life trumps most other religious precepts. There was even a high-profile court case by a secular bearded man charging discrimination because Haredim got the special masks while he did not (he won).
Of course, there’s no reason why reviewer Susan Coll or any other Westerner should know any of these “historical details.” Thankfully, no Western country has faced the threat of bombardment with chemical warheads, or even conventional rockets, in more than 70 years. The problem is that so many Westerners who share her ignorance feel fully qualified to tell Israel what it should do, despite not knowing the most basic facts about the security challenges it faces.
If you don’t even know that beards interfere with gas masks, something every Israeli has been forced by hard necessity to learn, or if you see that fact as nothing but a “fascinating historical detail,” what makes you qualified to give advice to a country whose security challenges are so clearly outside your knowledge and experience? What makes you qualified to decide how Israel should cope with the hundreds of thousands of missiles pointed at it? What makes you qualified to insist that withdrawing from the West Bank doesn’t pose a serious risk, or that bombing rocket storehouses in Gaza causes disproportionate harm?
Most people wouldn’t dream of proposing solutions to, say, the mystery of dark matter unless they were experts in cutting-edge astrophysics. Yet hundreds of thousands of people worldwide see no problem with propounding solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite not knowing even elementary facts.
It would be nice if some of those people would evince a little more humility. But as long as they don’t, they really shouldn’t be surprised that Israeli voters keep rejecting their prescriptions.
Originally published in Commentary on March 22, 2017