Analysis from Israel

I know it’s been a busy two weeks, but I’m still waiting for that apology. I’ve been waiting for it ever since the U.S. admitted on April 23 to accidentally killing two Western hostages in Pakistan, and doubly so after a U.S. airstrike allegedly killed 52 civilians in Syria last Friday. Clearly, I don’t expect an apology for the fact that American forces are composed of men rather than angels, and therefore sometimes makes mistakes. But I certainly do expect an apology for the Obama Administration’s refusal to acknowledge that so are Israel’s forces. In the administration’s view, Israel never makes honest mistakes. If Israel inadvertently kills civilians in wartime, then it wasn’t trying hard enough not to do so.

We don’t yet know what happened in Syria, but the drone strike on an al-Qaeda compound in Pakistan is instructive. Administration officials told the New York Times that the CIA had “no idea that the hostages were being held there despite hundreds of hours of surveillance.” Yet they apparently can’t conceive of Israel — in the midst of a shooting war where decisions on whether to return fire must be made instantly, rather than with the benefit of hundreds of hours of surveillance — being similarly unaware that civilians were present at various sites it targeted during last summer’s war with Hamas in Gaza.

Needless to say, American military professionals don’t share the administration’s view. The day after the White House announced the hostages’ deaths; Michael Schmitt and John Merriam published a summary of their detailed investigation into Israel’s targeting practices during that war. Schmitt, a professor of international law, heads the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law at the U.S. Naval War College and is considered a leading expert on the laws of armed conflict (LOAC). Merriam is a U.S. Army Judge Advocate and associate director of the Stockton Center. They were given unusual access to information, like targeting procedures that the Israel Defense Forces usually keeps secret; they were also allowed to observe IDF targeting cells at work and examine combat footage that hasn’t been publicly released. And here’s their conclusion:

Broadly speaking, we concluded that IDF positions on targeting law largely track those of the United States military. Moreover, even when they differ, the Israeli approach remains within the ambit of generally acceptable State practice … we found that their approach to targeting is consistent with the law and, in many cases, worthy of emulation.

They also pointed out that “the nuances of the Israeli approach … can only be understood in the context of the specific operational and strategic environment in which the IDF must fight.” And the complexities of that environment, which Israel’s critics largely ignore, go beyond such simple facts as Hamas’s penchant for launching rockets from civilian homes.

For instance, one key principle of LOAC is proportionality, meaning that an attack is illegal if the anticipated harm to civilians is disproportionate to the anticipated military benefit. But for a country that routinely trades hundreds of terrorists – who then resume killing Israelis – for a single captured soldier, the anticipated military benefit of preventing a soldier from being captured may be much higher than it would be for countries that don’t routinely make such trades, Schmitt and Merriam noted.

Yet the professionals’ view – also voiced by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey last November – never mattered to their civilian superiors. Even a Pentagon spokesman joined the administration pile-on accusing Israel of callous disregard for civilian life, declaring in a news briefing last July that “the Israelis need to do more to live up to their very high standards … for protecting civilian life.”

I don’t expect anything of people who think U.S. drone strikes are no less evil than Israel’s actions in Gaza. But the Obama Administration routinely defends its own civilian casualties as honest mistakes that occurred despite the strictest precautions. And to do that while simultaneously insisting that Israel’s can’t possibly be the same is the height of hypocrisy.

Originally published in Commentary on May 6, 2015

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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