Analysis from Israel

It’s pure chance that Amir Tibon’s lengthy essay on “Netanyahu vs. the Generals” appeared just 10 days after the Brexit vote, but both demonstrate the same blind spot on the part of the so-called elites. After thousands of words describing the Israeli defense establishment’s years-long, no-holds-barred war against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tibon’s verdict, shared by everyone he interviewed, is that Netanyahu has succeeded in curbing defense officials’ power to thwart his policies. Yet Tibon seems at a loss to explain why the widely loathed Netanyahu was able to defeat the most respected institution in Israel. In fact, the reason is the same one that produced the Brexit campaign’s victory: Experts, however respected, will never be able to persuade voters to disregard the lessons of their own lived experience.

As Tibon readily admits, the defense establishment consists “mostly of men who grew up in the strongholds of the left-leaning Israeli Labor Party” and hold dovish views. Thus they were understandably appalled by many of Netanyahu’s positions, such as that Israeli-Palestinian peace isn’t currently achievable, or that the Iranian nuclear deal was a disaster.

What is neither understandable nor acceptable, however, is that they then proceeded to flout one of the fundamental norms of democracy: Instead of respecting the elected government’s right to set policy, they sought to undermine Netanyahu’s policies in every conceivable way. For instance, at the very moment when Netanyahu’s government was lobbying Congress for stiffer sanctions on Iran, then-Mossad chief Tamir Pardo met with American senators and lobbied against new sanctions, claiming they would cause another Mideast war. His predecessor as Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, “had a direct communication channel with Obama’s first-term CIA director, Leon Panetta, over the head of Netanyahu,” Tibon wrote. While Tibon doesn’t specify what they discussed, Panetta himself, interviewed by Israel’s Channel 2 television in May, implied that Dagan was passing on information about the government’s internal debate over attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. In any normal democracy, both Pardo and Dagan would have been promptly fired for such insubordination–and Dagan might well have been investigated for espionage.

Nevertheless, for most Israelis, the top voting issue isn’t proper democratic norms, but security. And this, remarkably, is where defense officials really lost the Israeli public.

As Tibon acknowledges, the defense establishment overwhelmingly backed the Oslo Accords. But most Israelis consider Oslo a disaster since it led to a massive upsurge in terror. Palestinians killed more Israelis in 2000-04 alone than in the entire previous 53 years of Israel’s existence.

Tibon also acknowledges that defense officials overwhelmingly supported the disengagement from Gaza. But most Israelis think that, too, was a disaster: It led to thousands of rockets and mortars being fired at Israel from Gaza over the last decade, compared to zero from the Israeli-controlled West Bank.

Finally, as Tibon painstakingly documents, almost every single defense official who served under Netanyahu publicly challenged his position on the peace process. They argued that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal should be Israel’s top priority and that it was achievable if Netanyahu would just do it. But most Israelis disagree. They’ve seen the Palestinians reject repeated Israeli final-status offers over the past two decades; they’ve seen the upsurge in terror that followed every territorial cession to the Palestinians, the massive incitement perpetrated by our Palestinian “peace partners,” the consistent denial of any Jewish rights in the Land of Israel. And consequently, like Netanyahu, they have overwhelmingly concluded that peace isn’t currently achievable.

This disconnect between the defense establishment and ordinary Israelis was even more glaring in a riveting article that appeared in Haaretz just two days after Tibon’s piece ran in Politico. It consists largely of interviews with numerous former senior Israeli defense officials about Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in Israel for the murder of five Israelis.

Almost without exception, these officials agreed on two things. First, although the court managed to convict him of only five murders, Barghouti was, in fact, the person in charge of Fatah’s armed wing throughout the second intifada, meaning he was actually responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis killed by Fatah members. And second, despite all the Israeli blood on his hands, he shouldn’t be in jail: Israel should never have arrested him to begin with; once it did so, it should have released him quickly; and having failed to do that, it should at least release him now, or very soon. Why? Because, these experts say, he’s the one who can deliver a Palestinian peace deal.

Needless to say, most Israelis don’t share this enthusiasm for releasing vicious killers. But even more importantly, they don’t buy the theory that a mass murderer is the key to making peace–because Israel already tried that theory 23 years ago, and it failed spectacularly. This, after all, was precisely the argument for signing the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat: Only a leading anti-Israel terrorist had the credibility to make peace with Israel. Instead, it turned out that despite his glib talk of peace in English, what Arafat really wanted to do was what he had always done–kill more Israelis. And there’s no reason to think Barghouti is any different, because he, too, glibly talked peace during Oslo’s heyday, yet returned unhesitatingly to organizing mass murder just seven years later.

But too many defense officials seem to have learned nothing from the Arafat experiment, just as they have evidently learned nothing from the failures of Oslo, the disengagement, and all previous Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Faced with a conflict between reality and their preconceived political notions, they have overwhelmingly chosen the latter – proving that for all their “expertise,” they are no more than human.

And that is why, despite having enormous respect for the defense establishment’s expertise in the narrow field of counterterrorism, Israelis unhesitatingly side instead with the despised Netanyahu when it comes to broader political judgments like the prospects for peace or the wisdom of ceding more territory. Those judgments are based on hard experience, and no amount of “expert” advice will ever trump that.

Originally published in Commentary on July 8, 2016

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It’s Time to Prepare a Military Option on Iran

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.

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