Saturday, June 11, 2011

Reality-Based Policy-Making: The Case of Israeli Hardliners

The U.S. position in the world is declining with shocking rapidity, this dangerously destabilizing decline only poorly concealed by the roar of American jet fighters crossing global skies. The decline is self-induced and will be stopped only by reforming U.S. foreign policy decision-making so as to re-establish it on a foundation of reality, rather than wishful thinking, prejudices, and unfounded assumptions. Even as I was writing a theoretical introduction to this "reality-based policy-making," the Israeli ruling elite was offering a textbook example.

Regimes are coalitions of factions and individuals working together for an ever-changing combination of personal and ideological reasons. So goes the theory. From the right-wing perspective, the Netanyahu regime has been the guardian of the Jewish right to seize back everything their ancestors may once have possessed and the champion of Israels exceptionalism, most importantly its right to have military dominance over the Mideast and tell other countries what arms they might be permitted to possess. From the left-wing perspective, the Netanyahu regime has been an irrationally violence-prone, expansionist gang of racists* that not only mistreats Israels neighbors but endangers Israels own security by its short-sightedness. Whichever side you may be on, that was yesterday; the regime coalition is now visibly fracturing before the worlds eyes into two factions:

  • the Risk-Taking Faction of Netanyahu and Barak wants at a minimum to use the threat of war to intimidate Iran and to distract the world from its efforts to destroy Palestinian aspirations;
  • the Risk-Averse Faction of Dagan wants to avoid full-scale war with Iran to protect Israeli security from the unforeseeable consequences of such a war and is willing to countenance Israels return to its legally-recognized 1967 borders as part of the bargain.
Hardliners all, with a long history of cooperating to pursue the plan of security through force and Israeli expansion, they have nonetheless split publicly and acrimoniously, with charges of irrationality and treason, over the long-term consequences of tactical differences.

Regimes are complex-adaptive systems, wherein nothing is fixed in concrete, and the exposure of this rift within the obdurate camp of Israeli hardliners with whom compromise has always seemed inconceivable is as strong evidence as one is ever likely to obtain that in politics, one should be very reticent to put any group into a category. Whether one approves or disapproves of hardliners, one can hardly disagree with the characterization of hardliners as uncompromising. A hardliner, by definition, has a viewpoint and sticks to it. Yet, here we have the Israeli hardline party splitting over the issue of how much they can get away with.

All Washington figures who have courted Netanyahu while assuming the rest of his coalition agreed with him or did not matter should be deeply ashamed of their professional incompetence. If you have a policy-making role in Washington and have an interest in the fate of Israel or the impact of the U.S.-Israeli alliance upon U.S. national security, then you can consider yourself to have failed if you have not maintained ties with both Netanyahu and Dagan. If you spoke with only one of the two, you did not know the country or government you were dealing with. You have been isolated and tricked.

It is understandable that politicians, mostly ignorant about the realities of international relations, want to be part of the group. In this case, the group means the majority of Congress, which slavishly follows the lead of whatever politician manages temporarily to grab power in Israel. Asking whether this is consistently with U.S. or Israeli national interests only gets you tagged as not being a team player, i.e., you are no longer part of the group and begin to suffer from self-doubts. Team players do not question the group-think mantra.

But suddenly in Israel, the group no longer exists. Regardless of how fanatically fundamentalist you may be about Zionism, right now you must make a choice between two seriously divergent groups, each claiming to have the solution to saving Israel.

Are you, Mr. Congressman or Ms. Congresswoman, willing to sacrifice the security of the American people in order to maintain Israeli supremacy in the Mideast? Fine and good. But you now have a problem. The Israeli military and intelligence chiefs who have guarded Israel for much of the last decade have decided that they need to put their reputations on the line in public to defend Israel from the pernicious effects of the politicians currently in control. Two groups now claim to be the true defenders of Israel: you have to choose, and both groups will tell you that if you make the wrong choice, Israel is in trouble.

For American decision-makers, the lessons are clear: talk to everyone, keep your eyes open, make no assumptions about the nature of any group, be prepared for change. These may appear to be obvious lessons tediously spelled out, but if the Obama Administration does not move very quickly indeed to catch up to the new Israeli political reality, it will cost Americans very dearly.  A patriotic American not obsessed with Israel might be forgiven for wondering why the U.S. has to pay attention to Israeli hardliners in the first place, but the fact is that all of official Washington is and long has been firmly in the pockets of Israeli hardliners. Now suddenly two bitterly divided camps of Israeli hardliners exist. Hardliners all, one group would risk thermonuclear war which would (conveniently for them) inevitably suck in the U.S., while the other would offer historic concessions to protect Israel (and coincidentally the rest of the world) from such madness.

The lives of thousands, if not millions, may well hang on which one wins.
* Readers will no doubt raise eyebrows at the inflammatory terms I have used in this essay, including "racist" and that Netanyahu is out to "destroy" Palestinian aspirations. Read the citations, which illustrate with tiny examples, the broad trends of behavior. Not allowing a social group its fair share of water, not allowing a social group to use the highways, taking the homes of one social group in order to hand them to another social group, burning the olive groves of a social group, using the army to beat up peaceful demonstrators of a particular social group, and refusing to negotiate sincerely with a social group that wants to be treated according to the same standards as the ruling social group are some of the examples of racism common in Israel today - both at the local and national level, which, it should be stressed, seem extremely well coordinated and mutually supportive. The racist illegal settlers and the racist national leadership are of course coordinated; the leader wants the votes of his supporters. To get those votes, he supports the behavior so well described by Israeli writer Yossi Gurvitz:

The vast majority of these cases do not end in death, and pogroms or just abuse of non-Jews which is non-lethal is becoming a non-issue. We’ve become used to it. Pogroms are a daily event, nothing to write home about, as long as they are kept within bounds. It’s a background noise. A dog bites a man. Nothing to see here, move along.

That’s what a low-level terror campaign looks like, when the government lends a quiet hand: Beginning with the never-ending investigations, which make it clear to hoodlums who hesitate to take part they have nothing to fear, going on with the rabbis who provide the ideological framework for these crime whom the police avoid, and ending with the fact that those rabbis are government employees and their yeshivas are publicly funded. In fact, Israel fund “price tag” activities.

If you have nicer words to suggest that still accurately portray the reality of Israeli right-wing behavior, please send a comment. I call it the way I see it and would gently suggest to all the politically-correct folks out there that a bit more honesty in depicting the sins of various famous people would help us see the need to demand that these famous people, who cause all our societies so much harm, clean up their acts.


John Ryan said...


You mentioned Israel's
"legally-recognized 1967 borders."

I am curious to know when,where and by whom these borders are "legally-recognized."

William deB. Mills said...

Interesting question. Perhaps I should have said, "legally recognized by the consensus of most actors" - not including Palestinians, who still do not have a vote.

Apologists for Israeli expansion take the view that Israel cannot return to the 1948 armistice borders because that would be prejudicial to Israeli security, as though only Israel had legitimate security concerns. This has been the historical argument of every conqueror, including Catherine the Great and Hitler. It is both a moral and a logical non-starter. Obviously, Palestinians have an equal right to security. Learning to be civilized is all about figuring out how to share a degree of insecurity with one's neighbors.

As for the legal status of Israel, in 1967 the UN General Assembly called for an Israeli return to its 1967 borders. That would seem both to require Israel to do so and implicitly to recognize Israel’s conquests in 1948 as legal (to the degree that the world has any authority for judging the “legality” of anything). Does not Israel’s rejection of that 1967 UN decision open the can of worms about whether or not it even has the right to the 1948 borders? That complicated issue related to when initial states recognized Israel and when the expansion of Israeli territory ended, I won’t get into here.

I'll point out one other consideration in this whole can of worms. If Israel chooses to argue that it is not required to obey the UN, then Iran also cannot reasonably be so required and could "legally" ignore all UN/IAEA demands for nuclear transparency. Rejecting the rule of law, especially when the rule of law is so imperfect in our world, can be defended as a position, but there are implications that need to be considered.

John Ryan said...

The 1948 borders are not armistice borders. These borders are from the 1947 UN partition plan and the Arabs rejected them. The armistice borders are from 1949- the end of the war in which Israel was attacked by 5 Arab armies.

UN resolution 242 explicitly calls on Israel to "withdraw from territories occupied in the recent conflict." It does not say all the territories and this was deliberate.
It also states that all states have a "right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force."

The PLO rejected that resolution too. Israel, on the other hand, officially accepted it.
Then there was the Arab League summit in 1967 and their resolution that called for "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it."
These rejectionist positions also have "implications that need to be considered."

In light of the above, are Israel's security concerns not understandable? Sure, Israel isn't the only country entitled to have security concerns, but she never posed or tried to pose an existential threat to any other country in the region.
Mind you, Israel is the only country in the world whose very legitimacy is questioned and many Israelis fear that the current conflict is about the 1948 borders and not 1967.

Furthermore, Israel has indeed withdrawn from territories occupied in 1967 and has proposed further withdrawals. The fact that the other side believes these proposals do not go far enough requires resolution through negotiations and compromises on both sides. Not an easy thing by any standards and both sides share responsibility for the inability to resolve this. I am not saying that Israel is perfect, but since we are mentioning legalities, there are certainly mitigating factors involved here.

The comparison to Iran is out of context. Iran's agenda does not include peace and security for Israel or other Sunni Arab regimes in the area. Do you not believe that Iran poses a risk to regional stability?

The reference to Hitler is unfortunate and your point could have been made with equal clarity without it.

William deB. Mills said...

Thanks for mentioning Res. 242. My mistake for omitting it. It would be nice to see Israeli willingness to put adherence to its word on the table with the Palestinians. I suspect the vast majority would gladly negotiate on that basis.

Concerning your point about Israel having never threatened the legitimacy of another country, it has frequently done so toward Lebanon and does so regarding Palestinian aspirations to have a country. Israel cannot look forward to peace without coming to terms with both issues.

You say, "many Israelis fear that the current conflict is about the 1948 borders and not 1967." An interesting and important point that I had not clearly understood.

Your question about Iran posing a regional risk is fundamental. I have discussed it many times, but briefly at the moment, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, and now even tiny Bahrain pose risks to regional stability. Discriminating against or marginalizing is in my opinion more likely to enhance such a risk, so we are by boxing Iran in making matters worse. It is a key issue and deserves far more serious, open-minded attention from decision-makers than it has had. The bottom line is that Iran's regime is fractured, changeable, and open to influence on occasion. We are making it worse than it need be.