America’s Serial Foreign Policy Failures

Every few years for the past forty years, I have found one subject or another to be particularly fascinating. My inquisitiveness has then led me to undertake a major research project that has usually lasted for three or four years. I am now in the midst of another one of these projects. I have spent the last year and a half reading everything I can that in any way relates to what I believe are two key questions:

  • Why have there been so many American foreign policy failures in the Middle East, especially since the cold war ended? and,
  • Since the United States is a democracy with almost unlimited freedom of speech, why has the American public not sought to remedy that failing—especially since those failures have been so costly in lives and national treasure?

What follows is a preliminary assessment and a précis of the vast amount of material that I have been able to piece together so far.

In terms of methodology, from the outset, I understood that I would first have to try to determine whether one of the two subject areas that I was investigating caused the other…or whether there was merely a correlation between the two. In other words, since the same mistakes have been made by both Republican and Democratic presidents, has the consistent failure by American administrations to produce a cogent foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, only been due to a fault in the policy-making system? Or, has it been caused by government outsiders’ inability to correct mistakes both at an early stage and even later while that policy was being implemented? Or, did those two trends develop independently of each other and then only interact at a late stage in their evolution when there was a desire for post-mortems?

Full disclosure: I have to admit that I have also had personal questions that I hoped that this research effort would answer. Specifically, I will soon be entering my jubilee year of living and working in Israel. In recent years I have felt that the efforts I have invested in studying Israel and the region have been paying especially rich dividends; and my work is becoming more incisive and relevant than ever. I have also become particularly successful at predicting the course of events in the Middle East as a whole.

At the same time, though, I have had to witness two very negative and highly-disturbing trends. First, the policies toward the Middle East by most of the great Western democracies have degenerated into a shambles. Second, I have also discovered that the prime market for my writing and analyses— media outlets in the United States—is no longer interested in what I have to say. I therefore cannot help but wonder whether the reaction to my work says something that is relevant about the twin issues that lie at the heart of my study. Is the latest crop of editors more ignorant than those who came before? Or, are there other reasons why editors are less interested in in-depth, non-ideological and rational analysis? In particular, are the editors merely reacting to their markets? For example, have the media’s audiences, as expressed in part by Trumpmania, been sending a message to the administration that careful, rational policy-planning is no longer (or maybe never was) considered to be important by American voters.

Much of what I have discovered has been included in articles that I have written in the past year. However, those articles focused primarily on other issues and this research material was used largely for illustrative purposes. Those articles can be found elsewhere on my blog This article is an attempt to actually focus on the specific issue of American foreign policy-making and to provide both a more encompassing and a more detailed overview of that subject.

In brief, what I have discerned so far is that there is a matrix of relationships between the American public, the American government, American academe and the American media that is even more complex than anything that I have found in the supposedly “inscrutable” Middle East. I’ll go even further. Understanding the Middle East is a breeze by comparison with comprehending how Americans conger up their foreign policies.

In general, the citizens of the United States have yet to come up with a full, coherent set of principles for making domestic policy. For example, each person is supposed to be equal before the law. Yet a disproportionate number of unarmed blacks are killed each year by the police. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that, in the absence of a set of standards by which they live out their daily lives, since the end of the Cold War, the government of the United States and non-governmental bodies in the United States, whether working separately or together, have been unable to come up with and to foster a coherent and comprehensive policy towards the Middle East.

Much of the detail about recent events that I am including in this article has been published in the media and in professional journals; and so some of the details will undoubtedly be familiar to many readers. However, to my considerable surprise, while seemingly millions of words have been used to produce post-mortems on subjects such as the invasion of Iraq, the failure of the US to mediate even a temporary and partial resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and America’s waffling following the outbreak of the so-called “Arab Spring,” I have been unable to find anything of note that discusses whether there is something inherent in the American policy-making system or in American society that has led to such consistency in the production of failures and disasters.

Fortunately, I was able to find a totally different topic that parallels my areas of interest and that has been studied in some depth. It is the epidemic of national, irrational, anti-scientism—which is expressed in many policy-making fields such as how to deal with the reluctance of many parents to vaccinate their children, or the widespread refusal to accept that humankind is altering the climate of this planet. The explanations provided by researchers studying American anti-scientism, especially the analytical fallacies to which many Americans have been prey, have enabled me to create a very useful and effective skeleton for my research. The flesh that I could put on the skeleton came from two primary sources—a careful reading of American history, and the research that I have conducted on the Middle East and the media over almost 50 years.

I now believe that I have done sufficient research that I can safely articulate some fairly firm conclusions. Many of them are both dispiriting and alarming.


Niall Ferguson, in the introduction to his recently-published biography of Henry Kissinger, offers up the following remarkable condemnation of the American foreign policy making fraternity and sorority: “In researching the life and times of Henry Kissinger, I have come to realize that…I had missed the crucial importance in American foreign policy of the history deficit: The fact that key decision-makers know almost nothing not just of other countries’ pasts but also of their own. Worse, they often do not see what is wrong with their ignorance.[1]

I cannot agree more with this observation. However, Ferguson interprets his insight too narrowly. His primary concern after reaching this conclusion is to demonstrate how Kissinger’s profound knowledge of history informed all of his work as a policy advisor. My research has shown that the implications of this reality are far broader and far deeper. Only if one comprehends the impact that this history deficit has had on Americans in general and on American policy-makers other than Kissinger in particular, is it possible to understand how America’s serial foreign policy failures came about. In this case, when I talk about “history,” I am referring less to specific dates and events, and more to how a people’s culture (their values, beliefs and practices) has affected the way they have behaved; and how their behavior during events has affected their culture.

My emphasis on this particular aspect of history came about for several reasons. I have found that too many political pontificators, regardless of whether they are of the left/liberal, realist or neocon persuasions, base their tirades and tracts about Israel and the Palestinians on the same patently false data and assumptions—and have equal difficulty in abandoning these falsehoods even when presented with hard evidence. When I have attempted to counteract this ignorance, I have found that no matter how much effort I put into simplifying and clarifying my discussions about the background to events in the Middle East, my American readers and listeners in particular have often tuned me out. And to top things off, I have yet to understand why I have been consistently criticized by well-known American colleagues for even trying to place events into their historical context…and for trying to explain those events as part of an extended historical process that is underway.

Recognizing that many people are bored by history, I nonetheless now have little choice but to provide some necessary context for dealing with the subjects of my research. The historical material that follows may initially seem abstruse. However, I believe that current American policy-making—the stage when actions are being planned but have not yet been implemented—cannot be analyzed adequately in any other way. In particular, only by comprehending how history has created and shaped the domestic tensions that invariably accompany foreign policy decision-making is it possible to understand why and how the Americans have made so many mistakes in their dealings with the rest of the world.

Some of the origins of today’s follies in American foreign policy-making can be traced to the endemic conflict that arose when those events and models of thinking that were strongly influenced by rationalist individuals such as

  • The Treaty of Westphalia (1648), and
  • The intellectual conceptual breakthrough of Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) and the subsequent cerebral ruminations of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Renée Descartes (1596-1650),

were challenged by those events and models of thinking that were strongly influenced by non-rationalists and anti-rationalists such as

  • Those American Protestant founding fathers who were both devout and who played an instrumental role in the creation of the American national narrative, and
  • The religious “Great Awakenings” (1730-1743, 1800-1840, 1858-1900, late 1960s-today).

The Treaty of Westphalia (or, rather the treaties of Westphalia) brought to an end the religious wars that had convulsed Europe for three decades and had led to the deaths of about a third of the people living in German-speaking regions of the continent. The various treaties were based on what was then the revolutionary proposition that:

  • Europe was made up of co-existing sovereign states whose boundaries were immutable.
  • No state should be allowed to interfere in the internal affairs of another state.
  • Stability on the continent should be fostered through a balance of power among the varying states.

Initially, the treaties applied primarily to existing empires and principalities. However, the main principle upon which the agreements were based—the concept of the sovereign nation-state—eventually formed the foundation stone upon which the entire modern system of international governance was constructed. One of the first of the states-to-come whose system of governance was specifically designed with this model in mind was the United States of America.

Over the years, though, the idea of the sovereign nation state with inviolable borders has been found to be less of a peacemaker than had been hoped. For that reason it has undergone numerous revisions as time has passed. Among other things, those changes have also had a direct impact on how Americans view the world.

Initially, the modifications to the nation-state model were merely designed to ameliorate the impact that one crisis or another had had. One of the first such corrections occurred because the Treaty of Westphalia had made no provision for the possibility that one state (Napoleonic France) could become disproportionately more powerful than the other states—even when most of them were acting in concert politically.

The Congress of Vienna in 1815, which brought the Napoleonic wars to a formal end, sought to overcome that shortcoming by resizing the existing states and principalities and by adding a new, unwritten principle that stability in Europe should be assured by the creation of shifting political alliances that would constantly adjust the balance of power to contend with new events and new political and economic trends. Creating political stability became more important than promoting one form of government over another.

The system established by the Congress of Vienna worked reasonably well for almost a century. However, it eventually could not cope with the sum of a myriad of factors such as political cowardice, competitive colonialism, the asymmetrical modernization of Europe, the growth in populist nationalism, and the social impact of the advent of liberalism, progressivism and socialism. To make a long and very complicated story ultra-short, these weaknesses led to two world wars.

Americans were often appalled at the outcome of Europeans’ political manipulations both prior to and after World War I. Domestically, the reactions by the Americans led to the consolidation of two, existing, competitive schools of thought. One was made up of secular political evangelists who sought to intervene in happenings taking place in venues far away so that they could “correct” the mistakes that had been made there. Others preferred to isolate America from any impact those events might have.

The decision by America to take part in the First World War was the first major step it took to alter its previous preference for isolationism. When the fighting ended, willy nilly, the US ended up becoming a charter supporter of the Treaty of Versailles, which had, among other things, revised the concept of nation-statism to take into account the emergence of ethno-based states in place of the Hapsburg Empire.


After the treaty was signed, the Western political order was controlled by countries that had adopted one of three different forms of governance—liberal democracy, Communism or authoritative nationalism. There was an attempt to overcome the competition for superiority that the cohabitation of these very different forms of governance on the land mass of Europe was engendering. However, residual isolationism led the US to reject the supranationalism that was inherent in the thinking of those who had founded the League of Nations.


Eventually, Europe emerged from the Second World War with two major additions to the continent’s political mix. The United States had effectively become Western Europe’s hegemon. In order to provide legitimization for that reality, Washington now agreed to the founding of the United Nations. However, its distrust of foreigners remained largely intact. For that reason, it demanded de facto control over the UN through the institution of the right of veto.

A second significant change over which the Americans would have no control was the growth in support of a new, humanistic political philosophy that began to sweep through some of the countries in the western part of the European continent. That philosophy seeks to prioritize human rights issues above all others and has led to a dramatic expansion of the terms of the Hague and Geneva agreements. The US ratified those changes, but then, like many other states, ignored the terms of those pacts when they were inconvenient.

America’s behavior as a hegemon and the new European political philosophy actually had common roots. They arose out of the inspirations of Bacon, Locke, Descartes and other thinkers who had emerged during the late Renaissance/early Enlightenment period.

But, crucially, these thinkers’ cogitations had even earlier roots that are too often ignored but that occasionally also have a significant impact on American foreign policy decision-making. By the time that Bacon & Co arrived on the scene, the Renaissance had been underway for just over 200 years. As Yuval Noah Harari has noted[2], one of the major breakthroughs in cogent thinking during that period had come from Amerigo Vespucci—who, among many other things also ended up giving the New World its name.

Vespucci had made several trips to the New World soon after Columbus’s discoveries. Up until his voyages of exploration, mapmakers’ drawings of edges of the known world had petered out to and comingled with broad swaths of meaningless squiggles, drawings of mythical figures and other graphic embellishments that took up what might otherwise have been huge empty spaces. This made the maps reinforce the reigning intellectual concept that everything that needed to be known about the geography of the world was already known.

Vespucci’s maps of the Americas, though, were conceptually different. They included vast white spaces, whose purpose was to indicate graphically that much about the world had remained unknown and was available for discovery.

The maps that had been crafted before Vespucci were dramatic exemplars of a more general mindset of the period. Difficult as it must be for most of us to believe today, throughout the two initial centuries of intellectual reawakening in Europe, one unproven belief had remained steadfast among all the leading thinkers of the age. It was that everything that needed to be known had already been revealed to the ancients. All one needed to do was to search for the appropriate, ancient document. Until that mental block was overcome, a methodical search for new knowledge and understanding would be delayed indefinitely.

Building on Vespucci’s insight, Galileo’s and Bacon’s most important contribution to humanity was, therefore, not so much their actual scientific endeavours as their success in creating an analytical framework that could enable anyone to challenge any belief.

Their framework was formed by two intellectual pillars that were abhorrent to the intellectual censor of the age, the Catholic Church. Those intellectual weight-bearing columns were a belief in the inherent value of skepticism, and an acceptance of the proposition that every human notion about the world may be wrong. Hard as it may be for us to comprehend, until Bacon & Co arrived on the scene, Western scholars simply could not and would not accept the idea that the great thinkers of the past had made mistakes. Bacon, in particular, insisted that one should not accept any idea or proposition as the truth unless it is accompanied by detailed evidence gathered through careful observation. Once this proposition became widely accepted, its impact was huge. For the first time, for example, many of Aristotle’s suppositions were questioned and disproved; and the way was opened to eventually refute almost everything that Galen had written about how to heal the human body.

However, it cannot be over-emphasized that rational thought based on careful observation has never overwhelmed the marketplace of ideas. Far from it. All that these men really did was to kick start what has become one of the greatest conflicts in human history—the battle between those for whom reason and the use of what has come to be called “the scientific method” is the guiding principle directing their thoughts, and those who prefer to rely on a set of untested and often speculative beliefs.

Bacon, together with two of his successors, Isaac Newton and John Locke, had a particularly profound effect on Thomas Jefferson, and therefore a direct impact on the writing of the US constitution and the way Americans think—or the way that they say they think. Jefferson, called these creators of physics, inductive reasoning and empiricism his “trinity of three greatest men.[3]

Of particular importance to my study is Jefferson’s reasoning that if anyone can discover the truth by using reason and science, then no one is naturally closer to the truth than anyone else. One conclusion that he drew from that realization was that those in positions of authority do not have the right to impose their beliefs on other people. The people themselves retain this as an inalienable right of their own. This perception was to find its fulfillment in the Bill of Rights that, especially in the First Amendment, is an adulation of skepticism and a declaration of the right to deny the validity of previously accepted wisdom.

It was this realization that led me to include the second question in my study. For that reason, let me now repeat that question using slightly different wording: If the assumption that anyone can discover the truth is so fundamental to the American system of governance, why have those people outside government had so little impact on policy-making?

The third historical element in the American policy-making process is one that I have not seen discussed recently either by scholars or journalists. It is the powerful influence that is still being exerted on American foreign policy-making by Protestant Christianity. In fact, if I had to name only one historical influence on American foreign policy my first choice would be the secularization of the Calvinist/Baptist religious world view. After all, the European Enlightenment that so influenced America’s founding fathers, was supercharged by Martin Luther’s protests; and the Treaty of Westphalia was the product of the Thirty Years War between Protestantism and Catholicism. The American secular catechism about the right to offer credit without being demeaned as a usurer, the duty to repay loans, the sacredness of labour and the right to gain and keep the wealth emanating from that labour is the direct offspring of what is often called the “Puritan Ethic”.

In its public appearances today, the “Protestant Ethic,” as it is used to formulate foreign policy, may have been scrubbed clean of its most overt religious appurtenances and the evidence of its religious origins. However, the religious/cultural beliefs that inform it remain. As a result, it is inevitable that its true-believer adherents will invariably misunderstand and come into conflict with believers in a different world-view.

My ideas about the continuing influence of Protestantism on American policy-making in general are not entirely new. A century ago, taking his cue from the writings of American founding father Benjamin Franklin, sociologist Max Weber postulated[4] that Northern European Calvinist/Baptist Protestantism was the foundation upon which modern American capitalism and the American economy were built. It is a fact that much, if not most of America’s foreign policy has always been directed towards spreading the doctrine of capitalism and strengthening and protecting American capitalist enterprises.

Arguably, the most simplified and idealized summation of content of modern American foreign policy can be found in a document that continues to influence American policy-making today, but which has been largely forgotten by the public at large and is almost never mentioned in current discussions of American foreign policy-making. The Atlantic Charter[5] was prepared in the wake of a meeting held between US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on August14, 1941, months before the US entered World War II.

The eight principal points of the Charter were:

  1. no territorial gains were to be sought by the United States or the United Kingdom;
  2. territorial adjustments must be in accord with the wishes of the peoples concerned;
  3. all people had a right to self-determination;
  4. trade barriers were to be lowered;
  5. there was to be global economic cooperation and advancement of social welfare;
  6. the participants would work for a world free of want and fear;
  7. the participants would work for freedom of the seas;
  8. there was to be disarmament of aggressor nations, and a post-war common disarmament.

In an act of consummate hypocrisy designed solely to get the United States to enter the war and keep it there, all the allies eventually signed on to the charter—even though none of the regional hegemons such as Britain, France, Belgium and Holland had any intention of giving up their colonies. More importantly for my purposes, though, is the fact that these objectives were never prioritized. This meant that there has never been any indication which goals would or should take precedence if they come into conflict with each other—or if they come into conflict with either domestic considerations, economic considerations or what eventually became America’s all-consuming campaign against Communism. This unwillingness or inability to prioritize then led to endemic incoherence in the foreign policies adopted by successive America governments. For example, America constantly preaches the institution of democracy as the remedy for all political ills. However, it has also shown no compunction about overthrowing democratically-elected governments such as those of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973.

Setting the Work Agenda

Another source of follies is nurtured by the bureaucratic environment in which policy decisions are made.

In principle, the basic list of American foreign policy advisors’ work priorities is set out in the President’s National Intelligence Priorities Framework, which is formally updated every six months. These guidelines are then used to produce the bulk of foreign-policy-related intelligence analyses that land on the president’s desk—the so-called “authoritative” analyses of events taking place in the world that appear, most importantly, each day in the form of The President’s Daily Brief. Those analyses also form the basis for the narratives that the spokespeople at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department are likely to propagate and publicize in the months ahead.

The agenda for the policy-advisors is based on what the president determines are “America’s interests.” Those “interests” can vary depending on whether long-range or short-range issues are foremost in the president’s mind, whether constitutional or other idealistic principles, or economic concerns, determine his approach to policy-making, and how much of a rationalist or a “gut believer” he is.

The nature of the final version of the document is determined by what US Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon called humankind’s “bounded,” or limited rationality[6]. Simon believed that the human mind is inherently incapable of coping with the complexity of the modern world.[7] For that reason, not only are people often caught by surprise by events, most individuals have great difficulty in dealing with the already-existing “big picture.” For that reason, even the brightest people create simplified mental models that they then use to make sense of events taking place around them. Instead of working hard at assembling a jumble of pieces of information into a single, coherent picture, most people—including presidents—prefer to create an image that is to their liking; and then find those bits and pieces of data that appear to support and validate the picture.

In the wake of the 9/11 intelligence fiasco, the RAND Corporation was asked by the US government to prepare an extensive study, which has since been declassified, of what had led to that ignominious calamity[8]. The study determined that the most unresolvable problem American government analysts face is that they can really only expect a proper hearing if they can shape what they have to offer to make it directly relevant to the policy-maker’s existing agenda—and especially only if they can present it in a form that the policy-maker “finds congenial” (my emphasis).

In a separate article by one of the authors of the RAND Report,[9] Gregory Treverton reveals some of the other dynamics that were actually at work among American intelligence analysts prior to another American debacle, the US invasion of Iraq:

“…whether Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in 2002, drives home the point that because intelligence is a service industry, what policy officials expect from it shapes its work. In the WMD case, neither the US investigating panel nor the British Butler report found evidence that political leaders had directly pressured intelligence agencies to come to a particular conclusion. Yet it is also fair to report that some analysts on both sides of the Atlantic did feel they were under pressure to produce the “right” answer: that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

“The interaction of intelligence and policy shaped the results in several other ways. Policy officials, particularly on the US side, when presented with a range of assessments by different agencies, cherry-picked their favourites (and sometimes grew their own cherries by giving credibility to information sources the intelligence services had discredited). As elsewhere in life, how the question was asked went a long way toward determining the answer…Moreover, American intelligence was asked over and over about links between Iraq and al-Qaeda. It stuck to its analytic guns—the link was tenuous at best—but the repeated questions served both to elevate the debate over the issue and to contribute to intelligence’s relative lack of attention to other questions.

“In the end, however, the most significant part of the WMD story was what intelligence and policy shared: a deeply held mindset that Saddam must have WMD… For intelligence, the mindset was compounded by history, for the previous time around, in the early 1990s, US intelligence had underestimated Iraqi WMD; it was not going to make that mistake again. In the end, if most people believe one thing, arguing for another is hard. There is little pressure to rethink the issue, and the few dissenters in intelligence are lost in the wilderness.

The RAND study found that because of factors such as these, and despite the tens of thousands who are employed by the various intelligence agencies, there is a woeful lack of long-term analysis. Most of the work done by these employees is “tactical, operational or current.” They do not attempt to attain a “deep understanding of our adversaries.” (I should add that they also, too often, do not attempt to attain a deep understanding of their country’s friends.) Exacerbating the situation is the fact that too often, analysis within government entities is structured to meet organizational needs, not to deal with issues and problems.

History has shown that another element, one not mentioned in the RAND report, also has a profound impact on the material being made available to policy-makers. Despite being a world superpower, Americans, as I have noted, have remained remarkably insular. The triumphalism that accompanied its victory in World War II, when combined with the Americans’ belief in their uniqueness and exceptionalism, has led to a morbid syndrome often labelled as “NIH” (Not Invented Here), which, in turn, leads policy-makers and policy-advisors to ignore or reject out-of-hand insights and data gathered by people who are not members of the Washington foreign policy-making guild.

Possibly the best example of this syndrome occurred in 1976. At the time, all of Washington was totally preoccupied by the “Red Threat” of the “Evil Empire”—the Communist Soviet Union. However, in that year, a demographer with a fanatical devotion to statistical analysis named Emmanuel Todd published an essay based on an exhaustive examination of every set of numbers he could find about the Soviet Union[10]. He discovered beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Soviet Union was on the verge of a collapse. The prescient article made no waves at all in Washington, however, because Todd had three strikes against him even before he dared challenge such an entrenched and devoutly-held piece of American conventional wisdom. He was French. He wrote in French. And, worst of all, he had been a member of the Communist youth club at his high school.

This American linguistic deficit doesn’t surprise me. A friend who worked for the CIA once told me that almost all the assessments that his office produced on the Middle East were based on what could be garnered from reading the English language press, and only the English language press. I will come back to the language issue in a moment

The end product of all these factors is a frightening one: According to former “spooks” I have spoken to, answers to even the most critical questions are rarely sought by civil service underlings without them having first been assigned to do so; and if for some reason these subordinates happen to be in possession of answers to unasked questions, they do not usually volunteer them. The answers are only offered up if the “client” (the president or his immediate advisors) asks the right question.

The problem that then arises is: How is the “client” to know enough to ask the “right” question?

America’s founding fathers were apparently aware that such a situation might occur. Jefferson may have believed that any person who has the will, the intelligence and the resources to do so can provide the input needed. However, while America’s founding fathers may have been influenced by the great rationalist philosophers, American history has also been marked by successive periods of intense, belief-based public arousal. The best known of these periods are the so-called eras of mass “great awakenings” of religious fervor that have always been accompanied by non-rationalism and even anti-rationalism on a huge scale. During these periods, the scientific method of thinking, as formulated by Bacon and Descartes, had to compete openly for public acceptance with unverifiable religious and other spiritual or ideologically-based belief systems. The first of these “awakenings” took place about 40 years prior to the drafting of the constitution, so the drafters had to have been aware of the dangers that mass irrationality presented.

Incidentally, some scholars believe that we are now in the midst of the fourth such religiously-based “great awakening.” According to their calculations, this latest period of mass irrationality began in the 1960s[11] and heavily influenced policy-making in the White House of George W. Bush. Certainly, many of the positions adopted by the Tea Party today clearly have their roots in the beliefs propounded and promoted by anti-rationalist, true-believing, evangelical preachers.

Because the danger of irrationality was so palpable, the founding fathers created three separate, partly-competitive governing institutions so that public debates based on different sorts of inputs would be fostered. Their system of checks and balances soon expanded when the Bill of Rights, which guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom of the press, was included in the constitution.

However, as I have shown extensively in my other writings, neither the American public nor the American policy-makers are likely to get the kind of information necessary to formulate incisive questions from the popular media today[12].

There are two other bodies that have the resources to independently produce the kind of information and assessments that policy-makers need—think tanks and universities. The material produced by think tanks, though, is very often slanted so that it concurs with the interests and concerns of the think tank’s patrons—both financial and otherwise.

In theory, universities have both the resources and the independence to produce the material needed; and America today is home to some of the most respected research universities in the world.

All the leading universities claim to be working repositories of the approach adopted by Jefferson and his “trinity of three greatest minds”: clear thinking, combined with a respect for evidence — especially inconvenient and unwanted evidence…that challenges our preconceptions[13].” Unfortunately, the universities’ claims, too often, have been false.

To begin with, America has always had isolationist tendencies. In fact, between the end of World War I and a Supreme Court ruling in 1923, it was a criminal offence in about half of the states to teach a foreign language. Today, because of the budget battles in Washington, government support for programmes designed to produce competent foreign policy analysts, has been evaporating. The Foreign Language Assistance Program, created in 1988 to provide local schools with matching grants from the Department of Education for teaching foreign languages, ended in 2012. The previous year, Title VI funding for university-based regional studies fell by 40 percent and has flatlined since then. If today’s Title VI appropriation were funded at the level it was during the Johnson administration, then it would total almost half a billion dollars after adjusting for inflation. Instead, the 2014 number stood at slightly below $64 million[14].

That could explain, in part, why a survey conducted by The College of William and Mary found that a third of the international relations specialists at American universities have no working language other than English[15].

In addition, for historical reasons, the teaching of Middle Eastern studies in American universities has become among the most ideologically-influenced and politically-laden fields of endeavor imaginable. For that reason, it is almost inevitable that many if not most of the graduates of departments of Middle Eastern studies, some of whom go on to work in government, end up making huge errors in assessing events in the region.

One major reason for this phenomenon is that beginning in 1976, in the wake of the second great oil shock, Saudi Arabia’s national income was raised by a gargantuan amount. The Saudis decided to use some of that newly acquired money not only to enhance their political position in the world through such things as massive arms purchases, but also to influence hearts and minds by funding massive educational projects. Madrassahs that teach the fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam were set up throughout the third world. It is those schools that have now produced the Salafist movement that is providing the bulk of the fighters that have joined al Qaeda, ISIS and other radical Islamic movements.

Other monies were directed at establishing endowed chairs in Islamic and Arab studies in leading universities world-wide. That then led American Jewish philanthropists to both strengthen AIPAC as a lobbying arm and to endow university chairs in Jewish and Israeli studies.

Getting one of those plum tenured positions implicitly, if not explicitly, meant promoting the political positions propounded by the funders; and producing graduates who would adhere to the particular political line being funded. Thus, academe, especially when it came to subjects that somehow could relate to issues in the Middle East became increasingly polarized and politicized. The polarization, in turn, led many politically-oriented academics to focus on subjects and policy issues that are of use to political advocates and lobbyists acting on behalf of the moneybags—in place of trying to seek imaginative solutions to seemingly-intractable problems.

Of course not all university positions are externally funded and not all academics have been “bought” or become politicized. However, the expectations that the universities have of people entering into tenure-track positions in social sciences faculties can be even more bizarre and counterproductive for policymaking.

For several generations, scholars in the social sciences have been waging a campaign to have their work recognized as a “science.” For the most part they have done so by using mathematics and statistics where possible. Schools of Political Science and International Relations are no different. This has, in turn, led to the widespread introduction of abstract theories and an emphasis on methodologies in many academic discussions of foreign policy…without there being any concern for whether the discussion has any practical relevance whatsoever.

A no less worrisome recent phenomenon has been the growing demand within both think tanks and universities that international affairs practitioners be assessed by many of the same criteria currently being used in the business world. Increasingly, these specialists are being judged for promotion—to a far greater extent than before—by the number of what are now termed the “actionable ideas” they can create, and the “measurable impact” that they have. Academics have always been afflicted by the “publish or perish” demands of universities and foundations. But, while promotion committees publicly deny it, today, more and more, tenure track teachers are also being increasingly judged by the number of op-ed pieces they can get published, on the number of “likes” that are registered on their Facebook pages, and the number of television appearances they have had.

Aligned with that phenomenon has been the dramatic change that has taken place in the op-ed pages themselves. When they were first introduced in the mid-1970s their purpose was to provide an outlet for policy-oriented research that was new or had been overlooked by the newspaper’s news pages. However, the degeneration from that worthy purpose to verbal entertainment has been swift. For that reason, it is not at all surprising that this part of the newspaper has now been renamed “The Opinion Page.”

The end product of these syndromes has often been appalling at best. I have spoken to many university audiences over the years. Inevitably, when I review the state of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the discussion often gets heated and passionate—especially if devoted activist advocates of one side or the other are present. However, I have found that the more passionately that people speak, the less they tend to know. In a majority of cases, if I ask them if they have read UN Resolution 242, which is the basic text of the peace process, a majority have not done so…and even if they have, they cannot even approximately repeat the hundred or so words that relate to resolving the issue of the Israeli occupation. Likewise, if I pull out a map, almost invariably they cannot use a finger to draw a free-hand approximation of the so-called “Green Line” that is the focus of almost all the boundary negotiations.

One would have thought that the Viet Nam War disaster, which was the product of an unfettered belief in the unproven “domino theory” by some of the best minds that American academe has ever produced, would have taught America’s decision-makers a profound lesson. But that has not been the case. Instead, as Harold Bloom wrote later in his seminal book, “The Closing of the American Mind,[16]” the Classical Canon of Western thought was being replaced by irrational philosophizing and skepticism about standards of truth.

This particular form of anti-rationalism appears to be part of a much broader, deeper and worrisome phenomenon than first appears to be the case. All the evidence points to an ineradicable desire by all too many academics to seek an escape from having to confront and to seek real, effective solutions to seemingly-insoluble problems. They do so by inventing a jargon whose sole real purpose is to hide the intellectual vacuity that lies behind the words and propositions.

Bloom may have been a conservative curmudgeon. But the basic fact is that by the 1970s, rational thinking’s place in the American intellectual cauldron was being supplanted by a group of usually-unprovable beliefs or ways of thinking that undermined the scientific method’s approach to analyzing the world.

The most famous, or infamous of these idiocies was post-modernism and post-structuralism that still have an honoured place in many university humanities and sociology departments.

Instead of seeking factual truth, these theoreticians satisfied themselves with a belief that any narrative is as good as another. What scientists would call “objective knowledge,” the post-structuralists claimed, is a mere “social construction” that is similar to myths and religious beliefs. Furthermore, they assert that facts are made up; there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth; and we are always “prisoners of language” (whatever that phrase may mean).

This set of beliefs was backed up by what came to be known as “political correctness.” In its original form, “political correctness” was a legitimate attempt to eliminate gratuitous insults to women, blacks and other minorities in the United States that had become part of everyday speech. Very soon, however, it deteriorated into an often-ludicrous distortion of the normal use of language, and a descent into nonsense. A classic example of this sort of twaddle was Katherine Hayles’s analysis of fluid mechanics—a dry, “objective,” field of study if there ever was one. Hayles was a professor of literature at Duke University and, even more significantly, a peer-approved, former president of the Society for Literature and Science. The following is how she ended up treating the field of fluid mechanics:

“Despite their names, conservation laws are not inevitable facts of nature but constructions that foreground some experiences and marginalize others. . . . Almost without exception, conservation laws were formulated, developed, and experimentally tested by men. If conservation laws represent particular emphases and not inevitable facts, then people living in different kinds of bodies and identifying with different gender constructions might well have arrived at different models for [fluid] flow[17].”

In Hayles’s exploration of the imaginary wonderland that her neurons had constructed, the very fact that basic laws of nature were tested by men, was a reason enough why the validity of these laws should be questioned. It might be possible to laugh off this kind of writing were it not for the fact that these kinds of beliefs did become all too common in academe and were influencing students’ (future analysts’ and journalists’) view of the world around them….and especially the world of problem-solving. This situation then led to the legitimization of all sorts of bumpf, such as an increased use of euphemisms that ended up blanketing discourse and thwarting honest criticism. My personal favourite example of the new euphemisms introduced at that time was the word “spin[18]” in place of the more direct and honest words such as “lying” and “fraud.”

Most recently, there has been a growing movement in American academe to shut down critical discourse entirely through the increased acceptance of the idea that people should be silenced for innocently enunciating what is now termed “micro-aggressions.” [19] Essentially, anyone in a place that accepts this concept can now claim that anyone who upsets them should be censored. This, of course, then leaves anyone who has successfully used this escapist technique incapable of coping with situations that require clear thinking because they are untrained to do so. When combined with the general dumbing down in American education, this fear of offending becomes a blanket excuse for thoughtlessness.

The results of this approach can be seen everywhere on the internet. More shockingly, these modes of anti-rationalism can now also be found in places that play a significant role in shaping the public’s thinking. For example, the most recent edition of the AP style book, which influences almost everything that is written in today’s established American media, highlights the following admonition “…use climate change doubters or those who reject climate science and avoid the use of skeptics and deniers” (my emphasis). Fascinating, isn’t it that two of the pillars that constitutionally-protected American journalism should now be denigrated by what is, arguably, the most powerful journalistic institution in America.

Since government policy-making is all-too-often the product of a government/academe revolving door, and because unprovable beliefs and “spin” had become so acceptable in other august government bodies such as the Fed, it should come as no surprise that these sorts of mental shenanigans have also been affecting the American foreign policy community. As things have turned out, the foreign policy community has often been even more susceptible to this sort of foolishness than most other government bodies. And the foreign policy community that deals with Middle Eastern issues seems to be the most susceptible of all.

One of the seminal problems in American foreign policy-making that I have discovered is that once a subject has been added to the policy-makers’ agenda, it is shaped so that its objectives accord with existing work patterns at the State Department or the White House. I have never been able to find an example of the opposite case where work patterns were adjusted in a dramatic fashion in order to achieve an objective.

One reason for this is that, almost always, American leaders’ mental models are influenced by one of the most remarkable aspects of American foreign policy-making. Because they have been taught to be so proud of their own system of governance, I have found that American diplomats are almost universally unable to conceive of any need to change their standard operating procedures (SOPs)—even when those SOPs were installed only as a matter of convenience, and even when they are decidedly counter-productive. In particular, policy-makers seem to feel no need to study political systems with which they may be unfamiliar—and especially to investigate whether those systems may have evolved to meet the specific needs of a particular society.

One major outcome of this sort of mindset is the mindless routinization of working procedures. For example, during the Cold War, foreign policy-making was relatively easy because the belief that Communism had to be contained made it particularly easy for “bounded” policy-makers to act almost unthinkingly. American policy-makers could and did divide the world into two camps—“those who are with us and those who are against us.” So-called “neutrals” such as those countries that labelled themselves as “non-aligned” were then either arbitrarily dumped into one of the two categories based on largely irrelevant criteria such as whether they bought Western or Soviet military equipment and how vociferously they objected to America’s practices in developing societies…or they were just ignored or berated.

This desire to treat the world in a binary fashion led the US to appear to be catatonic when the so-called “Arab Spring” sprung. Even today, Americans tend to view the violence in the Arab World in binary terms—Sunni versus Shia, religious versus secular, and democratic versus dictatorial. The fact is that this simplistic approach has led to one disaster after another because the Middle East is not and has never been “binary.” There are dozens of shades and inflections of religion. Even more importantly, the most influential divisions in the Middle East are tribal ones—a subject that I have never seen discussed in depth by any American diplomats or American journalists whom I have met or whose work I have read.

Added to this is the fact that from the time of Woodrow Wilson onwards, American foreign policy has sought to “transform” the world. As the civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen have demonstrated so dramatically, though, the problem that then arises is how should any would-be mediator or international aid specialist approach and cope with the legacy of multi-sided tribalism? The evidence to date is that these events have left the Americans flatfooted.

One reason is that, because it has been their wont since time immemorial, many of the parties to the recent acts of bloodshed in the Middle East have been interested solely in tactical transactionalism, not strategic transformation. In other words, many of America’s allies, such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Turkey and the tribes that live there have had no desire to see the region transformed according to some American-created ideal. The very opposite has been true. Since the violence in the region broke out in earnest five years ago, the main protagonists have been preoccupied almost solely with entering into small-scale transactions that are intended to produce momentary tactical advantages. Thus, the US ended up supporting the Iranian proxy government in Iraq, while opposing the continued existence of the Iranian proxy government of Bashar Assad in Syria while, at the same time, assisting the Saudis to bomb the Iranian proxy Houtis in Yemen.

America’s relationship with Israel highlights a different problem, one that is a totally unlike any that American foreign policy-makers have to deal with elsewhere in the Middle East—or anywhere else in the world for that matter. Israelis do not behave like the Arabs. However, instead of examining and taking into account the components of Israel’s uniqueness, almost invariably, decision-makers in Washington have tended to view Jewish Israelis as a cultural extension of the American Jews with whom they are familiar. Barack Obama is an excellent case in point[20]. Among other things, this leads both the Americans and the Israelis to talk constantly about the two countries’ “shared values,” when, fact, because of their very different histories, there are as many differences in their value systems as there are commonalities. This then leads to otherwise avoidable misunderstandings and tensions.

In some cases, the Americans’ blindness to history and the culture of others, when combined with the routinization of their own working procedures, can be so counter-productive that the actions taken by American officials end up defeating the objectives that a stated American policy claims to be seeking. For example, the American standard operating procedure (SOP) for negotiations focusses on what is called “Track I negotiations” (elites talking to elites) and “Track II negotiations” (small group decision-making).That approach, when applied to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, has repeatedly proven to be not only ineffective, but it has even undermined good government in both the Israeli and the Palestinian camps.

Because of considerations of length, in this article, I will confine myself to just discussing only a small portion of the impact that this factor has had on the Israelis. Israel is a democracy, but not a “normal” one. As I have shown in detail in my past writings, in Israel, there is no majority rule. Instead, for decades, the country has been governed by a succession of federations of minority sectoral political interests. In most cases, each of these sectoral interests is also a federation of sorts that is controlled by an even smaller minority group. Both in intra-party forums and in coalition governments, these minorities make policy trade-offs between each other to such an extent that the needs and interests of the majority are usually ignored. For more than a decade, between 1977 and the beginning of the first intifada in 1987, members of this rationalist majority carried out an extensive debate in the media on how the peace process should be pursued. However, they were ignored by successive American governments that were focused on dealing solely with the governing Israeli elite. Eventually, members of the majority simply opted out of the political system—a situation that, in turn, has further strengthened the influence of the extremist minorities on Israeli governments.

There are many other quirks of the American foreign policy-making that intensify the syndromes I have mentioned. Possibly the most dangerous is the craving for and often the objective need by academics and policy advisors for peer acceptance. One product of the matrix of relations between those who believe themselves to be peers is that, once an agenda item is set, it is almost impossible to remove it from public discussion, no matter how inaccurate or foolish it may be. The classic case was the continued insistence by Washington policy-makers in the1960s that China and the Soviet Union presented a joint threat—at the very moment when the ties between the two Communist states had reached a breaking point. Today, even more absurdly, is the continued insistence by many that reaching a deal between Israel and the Palestinians is the precondition for stability in the Middle East.

The reasons why incorrect perceptions and stupid ideas continue to influence policies are many. To begin with, there is the problem of “sunk costs,” where policy-makers and advisors feel that they have invested so much prestige in a particular position that they come to believe that they can’t abandon it without suffering grievous personal harm. A variant of this feeling is the fear of criticism from colleagues who have also adopted the same position and who don’t want to give it up. A break from supporting colleagues can mean exclusion from what may be a useful and career-enhancing, self-supporting “club” of like-minded aficionados.

The reverse can also be true. Many people need a constant, known foil whom they can bash in support of their side.

The most often proposed solution for this problem is to call for open debate and/or peer review by scholars. However, even in some of the worst cases peer review won’t work if the peers or the general audience, remain committed to the status quo or are committed to focusing on the same agenda item. (General audiences are often fooled because they are not always told whether an academic interviewee or public speaker has a hidden political agenda.)

Advocates have any number of techniques that they use to try to undermine the policy-making checks and balances that may be in place. Their task has been made all the easier in recent years by the dramatic fall in the level of reading comprehension in many Western countries[21], and their schools’ toleration of emphases on “bottom line” conclusions, the increasingly-accepted craving for extreme brevity in writing, and the recent explosion in the use of computer-generated “eye candy” in the form of pictures and dramatic graphics.

Worst of all, attention spans have been falling dramatically. In the late 1950s, Americans were shocked when a study undertaken by the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency found that the average American’s attention span was only 28 seconds. According to a Microsoft/University of Western Ontario study, attention spans had fallen to 12 seconds in the year 2000 and, as a result of the introduction of smartphones to only 8.25 seconds in 2014. This, incidentally is less than the 9 seconds during which a goldfish can concentrate.[22]

A Pew Foundation study has also found that the current generation of internet consumers lives in a world of “instant gratification and quick fixes” which leads to a “loss of patience and a lack of deep thinking”.[23]

To top things off, Phillip Tetlock, who has researched why “experts” so often are as accurate at forecasting events as a chimpanzee throwing darts at a yes/no target, has found that some of these so-called “experts” will go as far as altering data in order to “support the side[24].”

Thus, it is now clear that the Americans’ capacity (capability and will) to formulate thoughtful, rational foreign policies is low; and a supportive environment for high-quality, thoughtful criticism of policy decision-making in real time is, at best, small and possibly insignificant.

Under these circumstances, the use of skilled rhetoric takes on ever-greater importance. The policy-explainers’ attempts to influence both the experts and the general public make use of one or more of the following, well-documented techniques. Over the years, I have found that the techniques of persuasion listed below have provided me with a highly-useful checklist that I now use regularly to assess the validity of any policy proposal (and also any other form of non-fiction writing).

Does the proposal:

  • Use false equivalents? One favourite example everywhere is to compare anyone to “the Nazis.” Another is the misuse of the “fairness doctrine” in order to give one position more value than it deserves.
  • Make selected observations so as to exclude anything that might weaken a given thesis?
  • Engage in “confirmation bias” and “disconfirmation bias?” This includes “tuning in to” or “tuning out” things we want to hear or don’t want to hear. It includes refusing to listen to or accept what people who make us uncomfortable have to say. This affliction is particularly common in media outlets that have taken strong editorial positions, advocates, and those for whom rationalism is not a priority.
  • Appeal to people’s beliefs, not their rationality?
  • Rationalize—try to find reasons for having adopted a position and continuing to support a position that is objectively wrong?
  • Neglect probability, including exaggerating threats and risks?
  • Engage in or play to people’s negativity bias? There is a natural human tendency to pay more attention to bad news than to good news. However, in some cases, when people are craving good news it is also possible to play to their optimism bias.
  • Deliberately try to create a bandwagon effect by carefully choosing an audience and then claiming that there is a majority or a consensus decision on a particular issue?
  • Focus on the current moment without any reference to context or history?
  • Play the game of fact fixation by taking one fact, whether relevant or not, and then building an entire argument around it? One particularly egregious example was the often-repeated claim during the 1960s and 1970s in media outlets such as Time Magazine that because the children of the Soviet nomenclatura were willing to pay huge prices for smuggled jeans, they wanted the American way of life.
  • Induce within people the sense that they are already suffering from information overload so that they will pay less attention to vital details?


A Possible Solution

Clearly, the now well-documented drop in the teaching and use of reading comprehension skills that I mentioned earlier, the drop in attention spans, and the general incapacity by most people to spot the sort of fallacies listed above, has left many, if not most Americans without the tools they need to competently critique the policy proposals that are being raised[25]. They thus become vulnerable to accepting as the truth what professional spinmeisters produce. No less significantly, the absence of acute reading and listening comprehension skills has enabled idiocies of all sorts to flourish in academe.

Quite obviously, it will be impossible in the short or medium term to undo the damage that has been wrought by this mass collapse in comprehension skills—or to prevent future forays into intellectual and analytical folly.

At the same time, however, the situation has reached such a critical point—too many lives and too much treasure is being lost—that some sort of near-term solution must be found and embraced quickly. The greatest single need is for the adoption of some sort of semi-automatic policy circuit-breaker.

Possibly the best remedy for controlling the number, if not eliminating all of the of intellectual fallacies and institutional stupidities can be found in a particularly perceptive lecture that the philosopher Karl Popper gave in 1973 at Cambridge University[26]−at the very moment that post-modernism was making real headway. In it he set out criteria for distinguishing between science and pseudo-science. The most important of these criteria was what he called the “falsifiability” of a theory. He held that any viable scientific proposition must include within it a listing of any and all of the empirical conditions that would invalidate it. Otherwise, he declared, it is pseudoscience. If this same test is applied to political analysis by both the writer and the reader of an assessment or policy proposal, it can be used to determine whether what might best be called “pseudoanalysis,” has been employed in the production of the work in question.

When I reviewed all the American policy failures that I could reasonably research in depth, I found that in each case a test of falsifiability had not been built into the plan when it was first proposed—and no outside critic had formulated such a test. I am not suggesting that foreign policy-making should have the assuredness of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Far from it. However, it is important to remember that one of the reasons why Einstein’s theory was accepted for serious consideration was that, together with its mind-bending assertions, Einstein included a test that could be and soon was used to try to disprove some of his most outrageous-sounding ideas.

My reason for suggesting that the same technique be used in assessing policy-making is that including tests of this sort in a review of a policy suggestion can do one crucial thing: It forces the mind to remain open to new data or to ideas that may end up conflicting with the theory upon which the policy is based. That openness then makes it possible to obey the cardinal law undergirding the scientific method—the requirement that all theories and all the results of a policy be treated as being provisional and subject to alteration at any time. Only in that way can a policy-maker make critical mid-course corrections before a bad policy leads to yet another disastrous conclusion.


[1]Niall Ferguson, Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist, Penguin Press, 2015


[2] Yuval Noah Hariri, Sapiens, 2015


[4] Max Weber; Peter R. Baehr; Gordon C. Wells. The Protestant ethic and the “spirit” of capitalism and other writings. Penguin, 2002


[6] Herbert Simon, Models of Man, Wiley, 1957

[7] This concept has been further explored by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2013

[8] Gregory F. Treverton, C. Bryan Gabbard, Assessing the Tradecraft of Intelligence Analysis,

[9] Gregory Treverton, What should we expect of our spies? Prospect Magazine July 11, 2011

[10] Emmanuel Todd, “The Final Fall: An Essay on the Decomposition of the Soviet Sphere” (La chute finale: Essais sur la décomposition de la sphère Soviétique), 1976.

[11] Robert Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000; John B. Carpenter, “The Fourth Great Awakening or Apostasy: Is American Evangelicalism Cycling Upward or Spiraling Downward,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 44/4 (December 2001), p. 647.

[12] See, for example, Jim Lederman, Battlelines: The American Media and the Intifada, Henry Holt, 1992


[14] Charles King, “The Decline of International Studies, Why Flying Blind Is Dangerous,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2015


[16] Allan Bloom. Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987

[17] N. Katherine Hayles. 1992. “Gender encoding in fluid mechanics: Masculine channels and feminine flows.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 4(2): pp. 31-32.

[18] The term was first appeared in print in its current, politicized form in a 1984 New York Times editorial

[19] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidth, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic, Sept.2015,






[25] In the1890s, farm boys in Kansas could get no more education than the eighth grade. Nonetheless, they seemed to have learned basic skills better than many PhD holders today. The grade eight graduation exam can be found here:

[26] Karl Popper, “Science: Conjectures and Refutations,”

Violence in Jerusalem Part III

 At the first, second, twentieth or maybe even the fiftieth glance, the current outbreak of Palestinian violence appears to be yet another repeat of an old scenario. However, a closer look indicates that there have been many changes to the old script. These modifications appear to be so significant that, if they remain unaltered, they could auger that a revision of Israeli-Palestinian relations may be underway. What those revisions may be, though, is anyone’s guess at this time.

As the period of violence progresses, certain truths have become more and more evident.

  • It has become eminently clear that the old forms of stability—those non-violent periods that were interspersed between increasingly-frequent periods of armed conflict—are becoming shorter because they are no longer tenable. The violent periods, however, no matter how long they last, are also less tenable because, as time passes, they accomplish less and less.
  • Most careful observers will agree that the trigger for the current round of bloodletting was an old and all-too-familiar one—political and diplomatic stasis caused by a failure to make obvious progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
  • Hamas does not tolerate anything more than symbolic acts of violence against Israel that originate in Gaza, but encourages extreme violence against Israel in areas controlled by el Fatah. El Fatah does not tolerate acts of extreme violence against Israel originating in areas under its control, but encourages it in areas under Israeli control—especially Jerusalem.
  • All the leading players in the drama that we have too often and incorrectly come to call “The Middle East Conflict,” have come to treat the dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians as theatre. Each of the performers has been playing the same role for so long that how they act in public, both singly and collectively, has become familiar to all; and the lines that they speak became meaningless clichés long ago.
  • For all these reasons, and as the revivals of the drama increase in number, each celebrity thespian, whether his name be Abu Mazzen, Binyamin Netanyahu or Ismail Haniyeh, now finds that his freedom of action is becoming ever more limited to stretching, as far as possible, the limits that the current political and diplomatic stasis has imposed. However, none of these players has found a way to break through these bonds.
  • The central conclusion that almost all of Israel’s most senior security analysts have come to in the wake of the current outbreak of violence is that the belief, first enunciated by Chief of Staff Dan Shomron during the first Intifada, which has guided Israeli leaders ever since, has proven to be worthless. That belief states that in the absence of real peace negotiations, every attempt should be made to manage the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in such a way that lives are saved. The assessment today is that the dispute cannot be “managed” because a successful manager needs to be able to control, or at least influence, all the important variables. The current round of violence has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that some variables, such as the willingness of lone youngsters to launch knifing attacks on Israelis, cannot be managed.


So, if nothing else, the latest round of violence has highlighted just how great is the dearth of imaginative, domestic leadership in both the Israeli and the Palestinian camps.

With no one capable of creating new policies, the fault lines within each society have become ever more apparent. Sometimes those fault lines are of little concern to anyone except for the members of the specific group through which the cleavage passes. In other cases, though, the resulting splits have had important domestic and even international implications.

A good example of the former can be found in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods. The current round of violence has made the rabbis in these areas absolutely apoplectic—but not for reasons that most people would suspect. Most of the Palestinian knifers have been dutifully following the advice that they have found on the internet (more on that later). Whenever possible, they have been attacking Israeli soldiers and the ultra-Orthodox. The rationale given on the websites is that the uniforms these people wear identify them as Jews. If only they are attacked, the argument goes, knifers can be assured that Arabs will be left unharmed.

This danger led the Israeli authorities to send soldiers into the ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, especially those that abut Arab areas, in order to protect the residents there. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis were beside themselves at this development. They oppose the very existence of Israel because it was not established by the Messiah and does not operate in accordance with Jewish law. They claim that it is their prayers, not the Israeli army, that protects them. According to the leading and most popular Haredi internet website, B’hadrei Haredim, the Palestinians’ attacks on Haredim have made their rabbis fear that their communities are now being sucked into dreaded “Israeliness” because they are being forced to share the same concerns and employ the same forms of protection as ordinary, secular Israelis.

Worse still, the General Staff wanted to assign members of the special ultra-Orthodox-manned infantry battalion to protect the ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods. The generals reasoned that these soldiers would be more sensitive to the residents’ special religious and social sensibilities. That was the last thing the rabbis wanted. They oppose the very existence of such a unit because the members of that unit, by definition, spend their time soldiering instead of studying Torah. So strong is this opposition that the soldiers in this unit switch into “civvies” before going home on leave. Those who don’t are often assaulted by yeshiva students. The rabbis fear that allowing these same soldiers to appear in their midst while on duty would be a sign that the unit had somehow been legitimized…God forbid.

Examples of the second type of situation abound in both the Israeli and the Palestinian camps. For instance, Israeli politicians are finding that because Netanyahu has done nothing to formulate a new policy towards the Palestinians, there is nothing that can be used to rally the public into two clearly-defined blocs that would either be for or against such a policy. As a result, there has been a growing fragmentation of the Israeli body politic. And for that reason, some of the minority groups, and especially the highly-organized, PR-sensitive, extreme neo-nationalists, have gained an unprecedented ability to influence foreign and domestic perceptions of what today constitutes Israeli government policy.

In the opposing camp, Palestinian leaders continue to confuse control over constituents with effective governance. Their ability to control has remained largely intact over the years because they have more guns and more trained fighters. However, the lines of authority that emerge from and the lines of communication with their constituents have become frayed. This has left them uncertain and even confused about how to react in the current situation where teenagers are behaving independently of the systems of command and control that are in place.

More on both these developments in a moment. But first, some additional background.

Over the years, many new ingredients have been slowly added to the old Israeli-Palestinian political stewpot. These additional factors have subsequently further exacerbated what had long ago become an intolerable situation. Among other things, the Israelis and Palestinians have become such familiar enemies that, over the years, they have created some very effective defences against each other’s initiatives.

Their experience in trying to breach each other’s defences has taught at least some of the political leaders just how far they can go now without producing even more counterproductive and possibly disastrous situations. This is the primary reason for the stasis.

However, in some cases, this state of affairs has led some other leaders, especially those contending for the leadership of one or another of the radical political camps, into even greater adventurism. Last summer’s fighting in Gaza produced a particularly salient lesson in this regard. That exercise in bloodshed and ruin, initiated by Hamas’s most extreme wing, accomplished nothing except the destruction of much of Gaza’s housing stock.

In addition, each side also seems to have come to the realization that it has become increasingly difficult for any side to come up with a new and original, non-violent, political lever to use on the other. For example, the Palestinians had once been able to manipulate the foreign press, and therefore Western public opinion, very effectively. However, today, the plain fact is that, following the slaughter going on in Syria and Iraq, and the flood of Moslem refugees into Europe, the Palestinians have found it increasingly difficult to attract the attention of foreign media—even when there is violence—so that they can publicize their grievances.

Another factor influencing perceptions is that the Palestinians have been suffering more and more disappointments at the hands of donors who had promised money but had then failed to deliver on their promises. This has meant that the Palestinians, and especially Hamas, are finally having to decide whether they want to or can afford to continue to act towards Israel as they are expected to by hoped-for patrons, such as regional would-be hegemons Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

And maybe, most of all, over the years, the two sides have simply become too interconnected and too interdependent at the very moment that the two populations have been having less and less personal contact that might otherwise have helped to ameliorate tensions. There is more than just symbolism in the fact that close members of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh’s and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Abu Mazen’s families chose to have medical procedures performed in Israeli hospitals rather than elsewhere, that Ismail Haniyeh’s sister received an Israeli residence permit after she married an Israeli Bedouin, and that Israel chose not to bomb the Hamas command bunker in Gaza during the last war even though they knew where it was located.

In Jerusalem, the employment structure is so integrated that if, for example, the Arab areas were completely sealed off, as Israeli neo-nationalist extremists have demanded, the Egged bus company in Jerusalem would no longer be able to provide even minimal service because a third of its drivers are Palestinian Jerusalemites. Some jobs have become so Arabized that, if Arab areas were closed off, it would be almost impossible to get a car fixed, a tire repaired or a hospital ward cleaned. Hadassah’s hospital would be unable to cope because so many of its leading doctors today are Palestinians. When I recently bashed my head and was taken to Hadassah’s emergency ward, the neurosurgeon who treated me, one of the nurses who assisted him, the orderly who took me for a CAT scan, and the man who cleaned up all the blood I had spilled on the floor were all East Jerusalem Palestinians.

The collapse of the last round of peace talks, which were managed by US Secretary of State John Kerry but which broke down in April 2014, should have acted as a warning of what was to come.

The US special envoy to the talks, Martin Indyk placed the blame for the failure of the negotiations on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s intransigence. His assessment, backed by Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, has since become conventional wisdom. However, it now appears as though Indyk’s portrayal of the reasons for the failure of the talks may have been coloured by personal frustrations; and that conventional wisdom is wrong.

After the negotiations withered into nothingness, there were many subtle clues that should have acted as a caution that the conventional wisdom was faulty. To begin with, the negotiators refused to detail in public what were the precise reasons for the failure of the talks.

The US State Department repeatedly insisted that not one side was to blame but that “both sides did things that were incredibly unhelpful.” However, State’s spokespeople never revealed what those ‘things” were. Most pundits dismissed the spokespeoples’ remarks as simple diplomatic fudging that was formulated and publicized so as not to alienate the two sides. That may be true. However, the wording was also an indication of a far more fundamental problem that Kerry was faced with.

Soon after the negotiations collapsed, I met up with one of the Israeli negotiating team members. When I asked him why the talks had broken down, he told me “We just came to the end of the road. We couldn’t compromise further.”

I had heard lines to that effect so often in the past that I involuntarily lifted an eyebrow. “No.” he interjected, “You don’t understand. This time we actually came to a dead end.”

It took me days of thought afterwards to grasp what his seemingly-elliptical phraseology really meant. It wasn’t easy because of all the “noise” I kept hearing and reading. In particular, it seemed as though everyone who was commenting on the diplomatic failure kept repeating what they had been saying for years…that Bibi was incapable of compromising, that everything depended on Israel’s willingness to give up the occupation, that Abu Mazzen was too weak to make peace… or whatever other mental baggage they were carrying.

However, as time passed, and based on what the Israeli had said, I slowly came to a very different conclusion—that Kerry, in good faith, had gone over every set of compromises imaginable, and could not find a single pair of even insubstantial tradeoffs that was acceptable to both sides. This realization was supported by an observation I had already made. At the end of previous negotiating rounds, most of those participants in the talks had usually issued leaks blaming the other side. However, they would also usually end their off-the-record rant with the phrase “if only….”—as though there might still be a chance of progress the next time.

After carefully reviewing the press reports that were published following Kerry’s departure from the region, I discovered that this time no one who was a party to the talks had used that phrase.

My impressions were strengthened further when former Foreign Minister Zippi Livni did what was expected of her and also blamed Abu Mazzen for the failure. However, surprisingly, and contrary to what Indyk had said, she also asserted that Netanyahu had accepted Kerry’s latest proposal. Her remarks about Netanyahu were not just surprising, they were mind-blowing. Livni, who was a major player in the talks, loathes Netanyahu and, to the best of my recollection, had never had a good word to say about the prime minister in the past decade. Her claim that Netanyahu had been flexible was therefore exceptional.

Other Israelis who claimed to know what had happened implied strongly that the talks had failed for one simple reason. The Palestinians, as had happened in the past, had demanded that final boundaries be determined first. Israel had responded that if final boundaries were to be discussed first, then the Palestinians would have to agree in advance that if an agreement on borders was reached, the Palestinians would announce that they would have no further territorial claims on Israel and no claims about what Israel does within the borders that had been agreed upon. The Palestinians refused. The Israelis assumed that this refusal arose for many tactical and strategic reasons, not least because it would have implied that once a boundary had been agreed to, the Palestinians would have ipso facto given up on their claim that they had a “right of return” to their ancestral homes that had been abandoned in 1948.

The Palestinians could not have agreed to the Israelis’ demands because devout Moslems believe that any land captured by Islamic armies becomes the property in perpetuity of the Waqf, the Moslem religious trust. And, even secular Palestinians would have had problems abandoning a claim to a right to return, which has become a dogma for three generations of refugees and their heirs.

Then, most recently, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington, Danny Ayalon, claimed that the talks had ended in disarray because the two sides had failed to make a grand, precedent-breaking deal. Abu Mazzen had refused to declare that Israel was the nation-state of the Jewish people, in return for Netanyahu agreeing that the June 4 1967 cease-fire lines would be the basis for negotiations on final boundaries. In theory at least, if Kerry did make such a proposal, a deal of such magnitude should have been too good for either side to refuse because each leader had stated repeatedly that the concession he was demanding of the other was absolutely essential for the talks to succeed.

If Livni, Ayalon and the Israelis I spoke to are correct, then the behaviour by both Netanyahu and Abu Mazzen during the past year becomes perfectly understandable. The peace negotiations had gone as far as they could go and had become sterile. This meant that that the two leaders then had to figure out how they could maintain domestic support for their rule despite the barren environment that had been created.

US Senator Stuart Symington once wisely said that no one, not even the biggest superpower, can cope with more than two and a half crises at any one time—two that demand immediate attention and another that can be kept on a back burner, but requires constant watching.

In Netanyahu’s case, he had become totally preoccupied with the Iranian nuclear issue and his inability to manage his cabinet as he wished. In addition, Egypt was engaged in a full-scale war with Moslem extremists in the Sinai and was cracking down on Hamas. This Egyptian policy was also having a major impact on life in Gaza. These Egyptian actions did not demand Israeli participation, but they did require constant, careful attention.

Abu Mazzen’s primary concern was Hamas’s constant attempts to gain supporters on the West Bank at el Fatah’s expense; and the bitter battles for power within el Fatah and the PLO. His primary “backburner” issue was his constant need to ensure that promised donor funds would actually arrive.

As I have already noted, the 2014 summer war in Gaza only served to highlight just how paralyzed the entire Israeli-Palestinian relationship had become. Hamas had hoped to use this open conflict to revitalize the “resistance” and Hamas’s claims to the leadership of the Palestinian cause. However, if anything, the more than 50 day war had had virtually no impact on Israel, on Abu Mazzen or on the rest of the Arab world. During the war, Hamas had thrown all the weaponry and tactics it had assembled over previous years at the Israelis. Nonetheless, Israel chose not to invade Gaza—as Hamas had apparently hoped. Had Israel done so, it would have had to cope not just with all the narrow alleyways that are perfect for snipers and hit-and-run fighters, but also the web of tunnels that Hamas had dug everywhere in the Strip.

The advent of the Iron Dome anti-rocket missile system had essentially enabled the Israelis to sit back, employ artillery and helicopter gunships to take potshots at Gaza, use limited ground incursions to blow up the entrances to tunnels leading to the Israeli border, and wait for Hamas to exhaust itself. In the end, all that Hamas was left with once a cease-fire was agreed to was the massive destruction of Gaza.

Once the cease-fire was declared, Netanyahu chose to simply ignore the consequences of the failed Kerry peace talks; and to ignore the costs of the Gaza war. Instead, in order to cope with his cabinet problems, he called new elections, which preoccupied the Israelis for months; and in order to pursue his preoccupation with the Iranian issue, he chose to heat up even further his in-your-face confrontation with President Obama.

Abu Mazzen also chose to virtually ignore the Gaza war. His preference was to pursue what had long before become his default diplomatic option. He launched well-publicized, but insignificant diplomatic moves that had little substance. Their purpose was to gain recognition for the PA in international organizations. These moves included having the Palestinian flag raised at the UN and issuing threats to take Israel to the International Criminal Court.

Israeli and most Western intelligence analysts say that, because he has been unable to accomplish anything of real substance, Abu Mazzen has lost almost all influence among the Palestinian masses. To counter the image that he has been a failure, almost everything he does is now directed at trying to convince his political cronies and his people that he actually has a grand strategy. He is said to have come to the conclusion—understandably—that the war against ISIS and the flood of refugees into Europe is leading European governments to ignore the Palestinian issue. For domestic reasons, he has always needed to have the European politicians talk constantly on television about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in order to counter Hamas’s claims that he was not pursuing Palestinian national goals.

Therefore, in order to keep the Western public and Western governments focused on the Palestinian issue, he has adopted a formula that he believes will enable him to bring the Palestinian issue to the fore whenever he chooses. According to this Israeli analysis, Abu Mazzen believes that once enough of all the small successes he has had have accumulated into a whole dossier, the Palestinians might finally be in a position to request that the UN Security Council pass a resolution declaring formal statehood for Palestine. Even if that does not happen, though, every time that the proposal is raised again, it can gain Abu Mazzen the publicity he thinks he needs. As well, at any time, he can voice an additional dream that if and when the UN does declare statehood for Palestine, the Palestinians could then ask the UN to also proclaim that Palestine to be a state under occupation—and therefore subject to international support and supervision. In other words, the strategy has been designed to avoid confronting the need to find compromise solutions. Its premise is that the Palestinians, despite what they perceive to be Netanyahu’s intransigence, will eventually be able to accomplish all their basic political aims…and they will be able to do so without the need for formal peace negotiations with Israel.

In other words, from all appearances, by the spring of 2014, both Netanyahu and Abu Mazzen had concluded that the stasis that had set in could not be broken easily, and they would simply have to adopt tactics that would enable them to live with this reality. That thesis was put to the test when, three months later, Hamas, believing otherwise, tried to alter that situation by initiating yet another, now-standardized outburst of violence.

Hamas, at that point was in dire straits and was apparently hoping that another round of well-publicized, open battle with Israel might alleviate some of the problems it was facing. Iran had cut off financial aid because Hamas had felt obliged to support fellow Sunni Moslems in Syria in their fight against Syrian President Assad. Egypt had virtually sealed its border with Gaza and was in the process of destroying the tunnels bringing supplies into Gaza from Egypt. And Hamas was also facing the consequences of donor aid and budgetary funds from the PA that had been promised, but had never been delivered.

For all these reasons, and most galling of all, Hamas had become totally reliant on Israel for the delivery of even the most basic supplies.

Hamas clearly chafed at being in such a position. However, after the fighting ended, it could no longer even fall back on its tried and true way of expressing its displeasure, by firing rockets into Israel. That was because, while the UN might still be able to import some basic foodstuffs into the Strip, the delivery of almost everything else was now under total Israeli control. Most unsettling for Hamas was its dependency on Israel for the delivery of power. For a long while, Egypt had not repaired the high tension line that had once brought at least some electric power into Gaza. And when tiny Salafist groups in Gaza, such as the so-called “Omar Haddad Battalions” fired the occasional rocket into Israel, the Israelis would respond by halting or delaying the delivery of diesel fuel to the sole electric generator in the Strip. The power shortage had then led to widespread demonstrations against Hamas by Gazans who were sweltering under record-breaking high temperatures and who were seeing foodstuffs spoiling in non-functioning refrigerators.

Hamas responded to the restrictions that were being placed on it by the stasis by trying to reactivate its cells in the West Bank. However, Abu Mazzen’s security forces, working in tandem with the Israelis, had little problem quashing those efforts whenever they chose to do so.

Under these circumstances, small, but highly significant events that went almost totally unreported in both the domestic Israeli and the foreign press began to take place. I will note only a very few of these events to give you a taste of what the political stasis was producing.

  • Last spring, at the urging of neo-nationalist, settler-supporting members, the Knesset abolished the Future Generations Commission. That body had been established several years ago with the mandate to review all Knesset legislation, (from bills on education and health to the funding of settlements) to analyze what impact any particular piece of legislation might have on future generations of Israelis. By abolishing the commission, the Knesset effectively declared that all future legislation would be ad hoc, based on immediate political considerations (including those that might have a short or long-term impact on the peace process); and Knesset members would no longer be restricted by, or need to take into consideration, any long-term vision of what the state should look like to future generations.
  • And last spring, just when the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) campaign against Israel was in full swing in North America and Europe, a poll revealed that the prime concern of most West Bankers (54%) was to increase economic ties with Israel. The signing of a peace treaty or a long-term cease-fire was considered to be less urgent. Those polling results should not have been surprising to anyone. An analysis of existing data indicates that, as of this year, more than 40 percent of the indigenous, non-governmental GDP of West Bank Palestinians living under Palestinian Authority (PA) rule comes from Palestinians working legally or illegally in Israel or the settlements. At the time the poll was taken, salaries for Palestinians working legally in Israel averaged 5100 shekels per month, while salaries for similar work in the PA was 1500 shekels per month.
  • In an extraordinary example of the “wisdom of crowds,” Israeli drivers, en masse, have already determined what the future borders of the Palestinian state will look like. The vast majority of Israel drivers have acquired the Waze smartphone app. That Israeli-invented app, maintained and updated by the drivers themselves, directs drivers to use what the drivers themselves believe is the safest and most direct route possible to reach any designated destination—including the use of tertiary and dirt roads where necessary. An analysis by the Israeli traffic police indicates that invariably, and with no external intervention, Waze’s contributors’ consensus directed drivers to skirt around, and where possible, to drive parallel to what almost all experts in the highly specialized and very technical field of boundary-drawing believe will be the future borders of a Palestinian state, if such a state comes into existence.
  • During the Second Intifada, which ran from September 2000 to February 2005, one of the primary sources of gunmen and suicide bombers was the Jenin refugee camp. This past summer, the camp once again became a bloody battleground. However, this time the gunfire and killing was not directed against Israel or Israelis. The bloodshed was the product of fierce battles between heavily armed el Fatah and Hamas supporters.

All these micro-happenings appeared to confirm the findings of public opinion polls in both Israel and in the Palestinian areas that people had become fed up with their leaders, that they held those leaders in low esteem, and that they were choosing to act independently of anything politicians might say or do. For example, a poll by Israel’s Channel 2 found that a whopping 71 percent of Israelis believed that Netanyahu was not doing a good job of dealing with the violence, while another poll discovered that two-thirds of the Palestinians wished that Abu Mazzen would retire.

At this point, a series of significant events took place. Abu Mazzen chose, for the umpteenth time to suggest that he might quit because of the low level of support he was receiving; and he then began issuing a stream of extremist statements that were critical of Israel…including a particularly bitter harangue at the United Nations General Assembly.

He appears to have believed that his statements would be a cost-free, effective response and riposte to Hamas’s claims that he had become an “accomplice” of the Israelis because he had also kept repeating that he remained committed to pursuing his goals without resorting to violence as Yassir Arafat had.

The fact is, though, that his remarks helped to trigger the current wave of bloodshed.

A second event was arguably far more important. The leader of the Northern Faction of Israel’s Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, decided to try to fill the political activist void that the stasis had created. Salah’s group, which is estimated by some analysts to number as many as 140,000 Israeli-citizen, Moslem fundamentalist believers, has a religious and organizational philosophy that is very similar to that of Hamas and Egypt’s Moslem Brotherhood. Like both these organizations, Salah has spent years slowly building up his body of followers by, among other things, providing an alternate set of social services such as health clinics and educational institutions. Those who made use of these services were then organized into three bodies—the Morabitoun, made up of adult males, the Morabitat, a roof organization for adult women, and a youth organization called the Shabab al Islam.

Unlike Hamas activists in West Bank areas under Israeli control, Salah and his followers were careful not to use language in public that might lead to imprisonment under Israeli law. This care then enabled them to avoid arrest for what they did say because they were shielded by Israel’s laws protecting free speech. Most prominent among their allegations was a claim that the Netanyahu government was altering the status quo on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, known to Moslems as the Haram el Sharif, where the third holiest Moslem shrine, the el Aqsa mosque, is located.

One of Salah’s favourite tactics, which fits in well with both Israeli law and Israeli social norms is to position a phalanx of heavy-set matrons from the mourabitat at the gate of the Temple Mount, and make demonstrative Jewish neo-nationalists force their way through the gauntlet while the women scream “Allahu Akhbar” (God is Great) in their ears—as the news cameras roll.

Parenthetically, Salah’s statements and tactics have also had very considerable negative effects on Israeli Arabs. In order to compete with Salah for popular support Israel’s secular, elected Knesset members feel obliged to voice unstinting support for the Palestinians in the occupied territories at the very moment that Jews are being knifed. The behavior and volatile statements of these Knesset members can and does often lead to bloody demonstrations within Israel. This exacerbates the ongoing tension between Jews and Arabs within Israel itself; and those statements then detract from the Israeli Arabs’ constant fight for equal rights. A recent poll found that 54 percent of Israeli Arabs believe that the Arab Knesset members don’t represent them; and 65 percent believe that domestic issues of importance to Palestinians in the occupied territories have a higher priority to these Knesset members than issues of importance to Israeli Arabs.

The third, and arguably the most important event, Israel’s messianic neo-nationalists stepped up their campaign to allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount.

Almost immediately after Israel captured Jerusalem in 1967, Defence Minister Moshe Dayan had published a policy directive about what the Jews could and could not do on the Temple Mount. That directive was based on the supposition that, henceforth, Israel would have national sovereignty over the site, while the Jordanian Waqf (Moslem religious trust) would, as had been the case since 1948, continue to have de facto “religious sovereignty” over the shrine. Unlike the directive that dealt with Abraham’s tomb in Hebron, where Jews were given rights to pray at certain hours for the first time, Jews were forbidden to pray on the Temple Mount. Dayan had based his orders on decisions that had been made by some of the leading rabbis of the time.

However, within a decade of that decision, a small group of religious messianists and hardline nationalists, led by Gershon Solomon, had begun to protest openly at Dayan’s directive. They didn’t get very far, and the existing policy was further entrenched in 1994, when, as part of the peace agreement with Jordan, the Jordanians’ and the Jordanian Waqf’s rights on the site were formally confirmed.

In other words, nothing having to do with sovereignty on the site had changed for more than two decades. In practice, Jews had virtually unlimited privileges to visit the Temple Mount, but not to pray there.

However, almost without any public notice, the number of political activists that supported the idea of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount had been growing steadily. So too had their political power. Most of these activists belonged to the extreme neo-nationalist camp. That camp’s electoral clout was first demonstrated in 1992, when Labour, led by Yitzchak Rabin defeated the Likud, led by Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir. At the time almost all the pundits and the foreign press attributed Rabin’s victory to a popular rejection of Shamir’s intransigence in the peace talks. In fact, the truth was very different. A careful study of the polling results indicates that a large number of neo-nationalists had either abstained from voting or had voted for minor parties in protest at Shamir’s decision to attend the Madrid peace conference.

These same activists did the same thing in 1999. In 1996, a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks had led the Israeli public to elect Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister by a narrow margin over Shimon Peres, who, before the Palestinian attacks, had been considered a shoo-in. However, during his term in office, Netanyahu had felt obliged for diplomatic reasons to implement the Wye and Hebron agreements that had been negotiated by Yitzhak Rabin prior to his assassination. This decision had angered the extreme nationalists and the messianists who had cast the ballots that had enabled Netanyahu to defeat Peres.

Once again, during the 1999 elections, the militant neo-nationalists, angry at the signing of the Wye and Hebron agreements, behaved very much as they had in 1992. This abstention led to a victory by Labour’s Ehud Barak.

Netanyahu emerged from his initial victory and his later defeat with two conclusions that he has never forgotten. They were:

  • The bulk of his potential supporters do not vote for a political platform. Their choice at the ballot box is determined by the level of fear that can be instilled in them.
  • Just as the minor parties can gain disproportionate leverage during coalition negotiations because they hold the balance of power, so too, and for the exact same reason, well-organized, militant factions within a party or within a political bloc can determine the outcome of general elections.

Ironically, the first person to implement a political strategy based on those conclusions was Netanyahu’s nemesis, Ariel Sharon. Sharon, at the time, appeared to be at the end of his political career. However, in one fell swoop, his fortunes were reversed. In 2000, he demonstratively announced that he would soon pay a visit to the Temple Mount. This then provided Yassir Arafat with the final excuse he needed to launch the second Intifada. The fear induced by that violence, and the support Sharon gained from the neo-nationalists following the Temple Mount caper, eventually led to his previously-unexpected election as the head of the Likud…and then to his popular anointment as prime minister. Ironically, as part of Israel’s attempts to quell that round of violence, Sharon ended up banishing the Jews from the Temple Mount for three years.

One of the reasons why Sharon eventually broke with the Likud to form his own Kadima party was that so many tiny factions within the Likud’s governing Central Committee had learned to use the leverage that they had acquired that anarchy and corruption had become endemic in that body.

After Sharon’s disappearance from the political scene as a result of his stroke, Netanyahu was able to stage a political comeback by courting the neo-nationalists whom Sharon, and his successor Ehud Olmert had eventually rejected; and by instilling a fear in potential supporters that Israel was facing existential threats.

Soon after, in 2013, a large number of messianic settlers made a strategic decision to join the Likud party en masse, but to vote in the general elections for the HaBayit HaYehudi party. Even though they were a distinct minority among Likud members, because they voted as a bloc, the settler supporters were able to determine the makeup of the Likud’s Central Committee. Once they did that, they were then able to determine the makeup of the party slate for the 2014 elections. And when, in the end, many of them also decided to throw their weight behind Netanyahu instead of voting for the HaBayit HaYehudi party—which had then led to Netanyahu’s surprising margin of victory—they were able to determine the makeup of the cabinet.

Just as pyramid-building corporate investors use minority stakes in companies as leverage to create huge conglomerates, so too, the messianic neo-nationalists were able to leverage their minority position at each level to create a cabinet that supported them, or least feared them, and was willing to allow them unprecedented freedom of action.

Among other things, the general political environment that Netanyahu had created encouraged cabinet neo-nationalist extremists in the government, especially Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, Culture Minister Miri Regev and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzippi Hotovely to begin to visit the Temple Mount more often, and in the company of an ever-growing group of activists demanding that Jews be allowed to pray there. In keeping with modern political practice, they ensured in advance that they would be accompanied by television cameras ready to record any dramas that ensued. They seemed to be oblivious of the fact that the ensuing videos would be gleefully reproduced on those Palestinian activists’ websites that were intent on promoting the notion that Israel was intent on altering the status quo on the Temple Mount.

On the Palestinian side, another set of events was underway that would eventually create the body of activists from which the teenage knifers would be drawn.

The first intifada, which began in 1987, had initially been a true, bottom-up, popular revolt. It had commenced when a group of angry youngsters had taken to the streets in Gaza to protest what they believed (incorrectly) had been a deliberate attempt by an Israeli truck driver to smash into and kill the passengers riding in a car from Gaza. The rioting quickly spread to the West Bank. The protests were portrayed in the media as a protest against the Israeli occupation. However, even more than that, it was an outburst that had been caused by a youth bulge. Most of the Palestinian population at the time had been below marital age, and no one had even begun addressing the particular issues that the youngsters were facing—not the least of which was the inability of many of the young males to scrape together enough money to pay the bride price so that they could marry.

The rioters, however, faced major problems such as that they had no way to coordinate their activities, no one to act as their spokesman and no money. It took six weeks before the established Palestinian national organizations were able to get their act together and provide the demonstrators with the backing and the services they needed.

One of the conclusions that the Palestinians drew from that period was that if armed conflict began again, the Palestinians would need an organizational base, cadres trained in the preparation of and the use of armaments, and extensive financial backing. From almost the moment that Yassir Arafat arrived to take over rule in the newly created Palestinian Authority that was established under the terms of the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Agreements, he set about building exactly that kind of infrastructure.

As noted earlier, in 2000, Arafat chose to make use of the military and administrative body that he had built in order to renew the Palestinians’ armed struggle. The failure of the Camp David peace talks together with Ariel Sharon’s demonstrative attempt to tour the Temple Mount with a huge coterie of journalists and neo-nationalist messianists gave Arafat a perfect PR platform for ordering his forces to battle.

However, after an initial period during which the Israelis were in a state of shock, and during which they made almost every mistake possible, the very institutions that Arafat had built and that had shown themselves to be so effective during the initial stages of the uprising, proved to be his greatest long-term weakness. The hierarchically-run police and the Tanzim militia eventually provided the better-equipped and larger Israeli security forces with easily-identifiable targets against whom they could launch not just retaliatory, but also preemptive measures.

The current round of violence by individuals is partly a reaction to the failures of the second Intifada. Almost all of the Palestinian attackers this time have no institutional profile. Almost all have no criminal record. None are known to have belonged to a political party. And, most importantly, most have not attracted the attention of the Israeli security services in the past. Therefore, the Israelis have been unable to get intelligence information that once made preemptive arrests, retaliatory closures of whole areas and frequent house-to-house sweeps so effective

Therefore, the Palestinians’ successes to date can largely be attributed to their ability to avoid using PA, el Fatah and Hamas-affiliated bodies. In the not so distant past, both Abu Mazzen and the Hamas leadership had been able to exert crowd control through their use of their respective secret services, police, and armed political militias—el Fatah’s Tanzim and Hamas’s Iz e-Din el-Qassam brigades. Would-be terrorists had little choice but to coordinate their actions with one of these organizations.

This time, however, the needed organization ability and operational planning skills that were once provided by the formal administrative hierarchies have been replaced by the anarchic internet, and especially by the abundance of postings on social media forums such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. Moreover, the use of kitchen knives has eliminated the need by wannabe martyrs to use those hierarchies in order to acquire weapons and explosives.

ISIS, which first began posting video messages about a month after the violence began encouraging the Palestinian to “kill Jews,” has become a wild card. These Sunni extremists, based in Syria, Iraq and the Sinai, have so far played only a bit role in the Israeli-Palestinian drama. That is because it is still preoccupied with its wars in Syria and Iraq. In the past, it largely ignored the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and, at least as of this moment, it has been unable to build a cadre of its own in the Palestinian areas. However, even at a distance, it is having an impact. According to Israeli intelligence, the videos it has posted documenting its successes have played a part in exciting Palestinian youngsters and in providing basic instruction in terrorist methods.

All these factors might still not have resulted in the knifings had there not been a particular confluence of the Jewish and Moslem calendars. Both calendars are based on the phases of the moon. However, the Jewish calendar is “corrected” by adding a leap month 7 out of every 19 years so that the calendar then approximates the solar calendar; and Jewish harvest festivals of Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot can be celebrated at roughly the same, appropriate time each year. The Moslem calendar makes no such provision. Thus, Moslem holidays can fall during any season. This year, the four day Moslem festival of Eid el Adha took place at the same time as the Jews’ 7 day festival of Sukkot—and just after the Jewish NewYear.

Over time, Israel’s messianic neo-nationalists have made it a tradition to visit the Temple Mount during the festival periods, and especially the weeks between the Jewish New Year and the end of Sukkot. This year, the number of such visits went up by fifty percent. In some cases, the Jewish visitors were accompanied by messianic, neo-nationalist cabinet ministers who kept proclaiming that they wanted to see Jews have the right to pray on the Temple Mount.

Having lived their entire lives under a succession of authoritarian leaders, the Palestinians could not believe that these declarations by Israeli ministers were not Israeli government policy. As well, their religious feelings were already heightened by the solemn festival and the anti-Israeli homilies that they were hearing in the mosques. A clash with the boastful Jewish messianists was almost inevitable.

Almost immediately after the stabbings began, Israel arrested 490 Palestinians in Jerusalem alone, while the PA detained an estimated 1000 people in its area of control. But these so-call “preventative measures” have had no visible effect. That is because this time, there has been almost no way anyone could know in advance who will take a kitchen knife out of a drawer and where he or she will choose to attack.

In the past, when crises of this sort had broken out anywhere in the Middle East, the authorities had been able to prevent opposition groups from being formed because of the governments’ capacity to impose press censorship, tap telephones, and break up meetings of potential opposition leaders. With the advent and spread of social media, all that changed. It has been estimated that in Gaza and the West Bank, the number of social media users has doubled in the past five years. Once a critical mass of social media users had formed, tens of thousands of youngsters could surf to get information that would otherwise have been unavailable to them, and log into Facebook and Twitter to find like minds.

It was this development, more than any other, that shaped the more elderly protagonists’ behavior once the fire of violence was ignited. Hamas could not afford a direct confrontation with Israel for the reasons already mentioned, and it could not afford to let Islamic Jihad fire rockets at Israel either, because the Israelis always retaliated by bombing Hamas installations. The Israelis argued that since Hamas was the de facto sovereign in Gaza it must bear the responsibility for maintaining the cease-fire.

Hamas did eventually have to respond somewhat to Islamic Jihad’s craving for action. Islamic Jihad, was under growing pressure from it patron, Iran to do something…and doing nothing might have jeopardized its funding from Teheran. The compromise that the two Palestinian groups reached allowed Islamic Jihad to send youngsters to the wire fence separating Gaza from Israel. There, the youngsters could be filmed slinging rocks and dirty words at the Israelis.

But then, Hamas and Islamic Jihad faced a situation that they apparently had not considered. Under international law, the Israelis could fire live ammunition at the protesters the moment that the demonstrators tried to cross the fence into Israel. Pictures of the dead and wounded being evacuated from the vicinity of the fence were then dutifully posted on the web to show that not just the knifers in Jerusalem were making sacrifices for the cause. However, these videos did not have the same impact as the graphic images that were being produced on the West Bank; and the cost in dead and wounded were becoming intolerably high. So, the demonstrations at the fence were halted.

In any case, at this point, Hamas was far more interested in undermining Abu Mazzen’s rule than it was in hurting Israel. Of course, if it could do both, all the better.

Since the first knifing incidents had begun, Abu Mazzen has used all the force at his disposal to prevent attacks from originating in the West Bank, while encouraging such actions in Jerusalem. His message to the Israelis was, in effect “You won’t let me have a foothold in Jerusalem, so don’t expect me to do there what I do in the West Bank.”

Abu Mazen’s wannabe successors such as the former head of the Preventative Security Services Jibril Rajoub were openly critical of Abu Mazzen’s tactics and strategy. And Hamas has succeeded in encouraging youngsters in areas of the West Bank where it has strong support, such as in Hebron, to begin knifing campaigns of their own.

Abu Mazzen’s sole real success to date in countering his domestic opposition was John Kerry’s decision to make a renewed visit to the Middle East. However, even that visit turned out to be a disappointment. Abu Mazzen had hoped to use the opportunity to try to extract all sorts of concessions from the Israelis. Kerry, though, satisfied himself with extracting a promise from Israel to install closed circuit television cameras to monitor whether Jews were praying on the Temple Mount.

That decision may have helped to get Jordan’s King Abdullah and the Jordanian Waqf off the hook, but it has not resolved the underlying problem. No matter how sophisticated those cameras may be, they will not be able to differentiate between someone mumbling prayers or someone complaining about stomach gas. Moreover, the cameras will enable the Israelis to more easily track youngsters laying in supplies of rocks and Molotov cocktails at the mosques.

In Israel, the whole series of violent incidents has set off yet another round of soul-searching and introspection. The initial reaction was to ask why it was that 13 year olds might even be interested in stabbing other 13 year olds. Israeli psychologists and psychiatrists were soon mobilized by the security authorities in an attempt to try to understand the dynamics that were underway, and especially to figure out why so many of the attackers ranged in age between 13 and 20. Of particular interest was the question: Why have these teenagers been willing to undertake activities that will almost certainly lead to their deaths?

While these medical professionals have come to only preliminary assessments, certain characteristics of the web surfing by those Palestinian youngsters who have already taken part in the violence, have become immediately apparent. One conclusion is that the knifers’ behavior has many characteristics of another well-known psychological syndrome—teenage copycat suicides. Reports of a suicide by a teenager everywhere in the world are very often followed by a rash of suicide attempts by other teenagers.

It is also believed that another important driving force has been the postings by Moslem preachers, who give religious approval to actions against Israel. Particular significance is attributed to the cumulative impact of tens of thousands of Facebook and Twitter postings that have made the teenagers believe that they have communal approval for attempting murder. Other postings that focus on criticisms of the Palestinian leaders and their inability to lift the Israeli occupation apparently entice youngsters to believe that they must take responsibility for their people and that they have been tasked by fate to do what their elders have failed to do.

After coming to a desire to do something, a half hour surf of the web can provide these youngsters with confidence-building information such as how to make Molotov cocktails, how to sharpen a knife, and how to choose the right angle during a stabbing to have the greatest effect.

Of no less interest to the Israeli public is the fact that the recent events have held up a mirror to Israeli society. To begin with, most Israelis have commented on the high level of fear that the “lone wolf” attacks have engendered. At least during the initial phases of the violence, the level of fear among the public has been greater than it was even during the height of the second Intifada or while rockets fired from Gaza were landing in Israeli cities. That may be because the idea of someone creeping up behind you to stab you in the back may be more fear-inducing than the idea that an impersonal bomb may go off in the bus in which you are riding.

That fear has led to a series of embarrassing and even frightening scenes. The extraordinary level of anti-Arab racism that was latent in Israel previously has now been brought to the fore by the violence. Israeli Arabs are being regularly insulted on the streets. Jews have attacked other Jews, thinking that they were Arabs. Secular, Mizrahi Jews who do not wear a kippah have been complaining on television that they now leave their homes only when they need to because they end up being insulted incessantly because they look like Arabs. Worst of all so far, a series of videos were taken in Beersheba’s central bus station when an Israeli Bedouin began to stab and then shoot passengers. An Eritrean refugee was mistaken for an Arab and was shot by a guard and a soldier. As he lay helpless on the floor, a crowd, led by off-duty prison warders and a soldier, began to kick the Eritrean in the head and to beat him with a chair. Even uglier, the beatings were accompanied by out and out hysterical, racist screams by bystanders.

Some members of the Israeli government appear to have undergone their own fits of irrationality at best and hysteria at worst.

These fits highlighted the ever more evident fault line dividing the “present generation” of Likud leaders, such as Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, Interior Minister Silvan Shalom and Energy and Infrastructures Minister Yuval Steinitz from the “next generation” of leaders, such as Public Security (police) Minister Gilad Erdan, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev and Tourism Minister Yariv Levine.

The initial reaction of the security services to the outbreak of violence this time was calculated, sober and cautious. Their response was the product of a thorough self-critique that was initiated after the Second Intifada wound down in 2005. One of the central conclusions of that reassessment was that Israel’s over-reaction when that round of violence began—especially the use of deadly live fire—had actually been one of the prime reasons why the violence gained momentum in its early stages. In particular, the assessment noted that the use of an “iron hand” had led to daily public funerals, which had, in turn, had acted as consciousness-raising exercises and opportunities to mobilize new fighters.

A particularly perspicacious conclusion was that many of Israel’s actions during the height of the violence had been ineffective because the orders given to the army were based on Jewish and specifically Israeli mores and not the mores that are prevalent in Palestinian society. This observation then led the security services to recommend, among other things, that the demolition of homes in which terrorists lived, (a policy dating back to British Mandatory times), was totally ineffective as means to prevent future attacks by other would-be terrorists. For that reason, this decades-old policy was finally abandoned ten years ago.

The security services’ plan for a carefully-measured response to the violence this time was accepted by the “present generation” of Likud leaders, especially Defence Minister “Boogie” Yaalon. However, these party elders eventually had to bow to demands by the more populist “next generation” of ministers in the Israeli cabinet. These populists, with Public Security (police) Minister Gilad Erdan in the vanguard, are primarily interested in catering to the growing body of extreme anti-rationalists in the powerful Likud Central Committee. As a result, a policy of house demolitions was reintroduced and the exits from Jerusalem’s 26 Arab suburbs were sealed off or partially closed.

These cabinet divisions led to some scenes that can only be described as having the characteristics of the Theater of the Absurd. In keeping with the security services recommendations, Defence Minister Yaalon announced that, in order to prevent a re-run of previous funeral riots, the bodies of dead terrorists would be returned to the families for burial if the families promised in advance to hold the funerals at night with only family members present. On the other hand, Internal Security Minister Erdan, acting in response to demands for vengeance by Likud Central Committee members, announced that he would not release any bodies. As of the time of writing, Yaalon had handed over for burial 7 bodies that had been held by the army. Erdan, though, had decided to hold on to the 9 bodies in the possession of the police. Erdan had not indicated what he intended to do with the bodies.

In another peculiar move, Erdan decided to impose a night-time, unannounced curfew in particularly troublesome Arab neighbourhoods. The police’s water cannons were sent in every night to these areas to spray the homes and streets with “skunk water,” a foul-smelling liquid that sticks to whatever it lands on.

Skunk water, and the indiscriminate use of skunk water, possibly more than anything else, symbolizes the current Israeli-Palestinian relationship. That relationship has finally degenerated into a tragedy in which the only themes are fear-induction in the other and retribution by the other. There is no longer even any pretense on the part of any of the players to search for viable solutions. The absence of a reasoned and a reasonable political vision is now leading both sides to meet up at that most intolerable of political crossroads, where a constant, low drum beat of violence replaces both periods of stability and periods of open warfare. This political pathology, in turn, is in the midst of creating a rainbow of shades of mass sociopathy in both camps.


Violence in Jerusalem, Part II

The recent outbreak of violence in Jerusalem and elsewhere has many causes. Unfortunately, there are few politically-viable remedies for those causes that are readily available. Worse still, the few governmental decisions that could ameliorate some of the sources of the violence have been reduced in number because, over the past two decades, the very nature of Israeli politicking has been altered beyond all previous recognition. One central feature of that change is that there are now almost no limits on political behaviour in Israel—no matter how negative an impact extreme political behaviours may have on the government’s capacity to deal with the crises it is facing. Put simply, what had once been considered political and social deviancy has now become an accepted norm in the Israeli cabinet—especially among the neo-nationalists who have provided the majority of cabinet members in recent years.

For millennia, the Middle East has usually provided a happy hunting ground for political-deviancy stalkers. Israel, though, has now become an exception; and the results of this trend are becoming increasingly toxic and tragic.

I have long asserted that it is impossible to comprehend or predict events in the Middle East without being acutely sensitive to the perceptions that the people there have of what is or what should be normative political, social and religious behaviour…and who should and who should not be considered to be an outsider.

In popular parlance, the word “deviant” usually has had a negative connotation because it is often modified by highly-charged adjectives such as “sexual,” because it is a term that is frequently used by authoritarian ideologues to dismiss critics, or because it is often associated with anti-democratic political witch hunts.

However, it is also worth remembering that in situations where communal norms rather than laws dictate or limit human behavior, certain synonyms or synonymous phrases for the word “deviancy” become important positive measures of the value system that is in place in that particular society. One classic example is the British expression “It’s just not done.” This phrase is used to describe situations in which an individual may not have done anything illegal. However, what they have done is nonetheless felt to be unacceptable and should be viewed as contemptable by the majority of the society.

In cases such as these, and when employed in other democratic political settings, the word “deviant” can be used to express an important concept—that even when a society cherishes freedom of speech or freedom of political action, it still has the right to impose both legal and non-legal limits on some forms of political activity. A good example of restrictions imposed by democratic countries on free speech are the prohibitions, both legal and otherwise, that some countries have placed on Holocaust denial.

Worldwide, the number of deviancy hunters tends to rise and fall, depending on how strong is the narrative that binds the particular society together. Weak narratives, or even a fear that the narrative has weakened, can lead to both fear and instability in a society.

All too often, history has demonstrated that a belief that the national narrative may be under threat is often enough to trigger a widespread search for those supposed religious or political or social deviants who are thought to have challenged or rejected the particular society’s narrative about itself. Such searches can often lead to figurative bloodbaths such as was the case when, for example, the US Unamerican Activities Committee was established, or Captain Alfred Dreyfus was put on trial. More often, though, searches for a society’s supposed outliers leads to literal bloodbaths such the Holocaust or the slaughter that Pol Pot initiated in Cambodia.

In each and all of these cases, uprooting deviancy and destroying deviants was believed by national leaders to be an effective antidote to potential anarchy.

In the Middle East today, the most incomparable, aggressive deviant-hunters are the ISIS supporters who take particular pleasure in beheading and crucifying anyone who does not adhere to the organization’s particular—and many would say peculiar—interpretation of Islam. ISIS supporters, in turn, are perceived to be extreme deviants by most of the rest of the world.

Many of the events that take place in Israel can also only be explained by how people there decide who is a deviant and how their deviancy should be treated. The torching of churches, the assault on marchers in a Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem and the attempt at the live cremation of a Palestinian family in the West Bank village of Duma this past summer are recent cases where, for many Israelis, some forms of societal deviancy have been permitted to go too far, and have now crossed a red line and been accepted as criminality.

Regrettably, as is their wont, the popular media treated each of these happenings as discrete events, tied together only by their extreme nature. I am convinced, though, that these individual events are part of much more extensive processes that have been underway for decades. These processes are now having such a significant impact on Israeli society and the Israeli body politic that they are endangering Israel’s very existence as a humanistic community and as the self-governing nation-state of the Jewish people.

The best evidence there is to support this proposition comes from the two institutionalized religious groups that actually raised and supported the aforementioned murderers and arsonists prior to the criminals’ acts of villainy. In both cases, some of the leaders of these institutions did condemn the acts themselves. However, crucially, they did not criticize the beliefs that these same groups had fostered and propagated that had then motivated the felons to act as they did.

One group was the Haredim. In yet another replay of a behavior pattern that has become all too common, the ultra-Orthodox media were ordered by their rabbinical censors to completely ignore the murder of a 16 year old girl by a Haredi man during the Gay Pride Parade. As things were once explained to me by the editor of the Haredi daily newspaper Hamodia, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis have always demanded that their media report the world not as it is, but as the rabbis believe it should be. For that reason, for example, the ultra-Orthodox media never report sexual offenses such as paedophilia on the part of Haredim—and absolutely never even hint about it if the individual suspected of such a crime is a rabbi.

In the case of the murder of the 16 year old girl, the rabbis feared that even a mention of the incident might have encouraged Haredi youngsters to ask their elders to explain the prevelance of homosexuality—a sin strictly forbidden by the Bible. Finally, though, the openly-voiced revulsion by masses of Israelis at this attempt to pretend that the incident had not taken place, was so great that the rabbis did send out a few professional publicists to publicly condemn the act of murder. Crucially, however, these apologists did not even mildly criticize the hate that the killer had felt and had openly expressed towards LGBTQ population for more than a decade.

Arguably, worse still, many Israeli officials and political functionaries from the more mainstream Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi parties, tried to sweep these acts of savagery under the rug by dismissing them all as the activities of just a very few “wild weeds,” (asabim shotim).

The truth, though, is that acts of violence towards non-Jews by Jewish extremists have become endemic in Israel and in the Israeli-controlled territories. Significantly, not only have the authorities done little to punish the miscreants, many of those rabbis who have preached or supported intolerance, such as Yitzchak Ginzburg who heads the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva, continue to benefit from state largesse in one form or another.

My intent in writing this essay, however, is not just to take pot shots at the behavior of this individual or that. I am far more concerned about the deeply embedded processes that created and fostered these individuals’ behavior patterns.

Taken together, these processes have undermined and almost eliminated the limits that Israelis had once placed on what the majority of Israelis had perceived to be non-normative political activity…and thus worthy of penalties such as shunning.

If Israel is to survive as a liberal democracy, it may soon have little choice but to reverse these trends and launch a concerted campaign to define by consensus what today should be considered unacceptable, non-normative behaviour…and which punishments should be meted out to practitioners of such social and political deviancy.

The origins of many, if not most of these processes can be traced back to two specific periods in modern Israeli history when trust in the national leadership, trust in the institutions the national leadership had created and trust in the narrative that the national leadership was propagating were undermined by the leadership’s own actions.

During the first period, in the mid-1960s, the central national narrative propounded by all the major political parties was that all the Jews in Israel were equal; and they had to equally bow to government demands for self-sacrifice in the face of a single, common, ruthless external enemy. It was incumbent upon all Israeli Jews, whatever their ideological differences to act as one so that the nation might effectively confront this external threat. Individualism, it was argued, should be suppressed because saving the group was a more imperative and a more noble act than expressing one’s personal uniqueness. To that end, if necessary, it was “good to die for our country.”

As part of that campaign, the Labour parties’ hegemons of those days officially idolized Kibbutz members as the most heroic protagonists in that narrative.

The reality, of course, was quite different; and the mental discord and psychological dissonance created by the conflict between reality and real human nature, and the demands of the narrative, were felt particularly acutely by two groups. The better known group was composed primarily of newly-arrived immigrants from Asia and Africa. Most had been shunted into farming villages on the country’s periphery or into urban slums that had poor schools, few public amenities such as parks and playgrounds, and weak health care facilities.

These newcomers were looked down upon by the country’s entrenched, Ashkenazi elite for being “backward.” Many members of that elite even viewed the customs and perceptions of these scions of the great Jewish intellectual bastions of Spain and Babylon as a threat to that section in the national narrative that Israel was an island-citadel of modern, advanced, Western values surrounded by a sea of oriental primitiveness. These Mizrahi immigrants were forced to endure countless insults and indignities. For example, the Mizrahi residents of the so-called “development towns” were forbidden by the neighbouring kibbutzim to make use of their swimming pools or their schools lest they somehow contaminate kibbutz youngsters with ideas that ran counter to the idealized socialist narrative that was current in these supposedly egalitarian collective settlements.

The second group is almost totally unknown abroad. However, arguably, it has had an even greater long term influence on Israelis than the revolt by the Mizrahim that eventually drove Labour from office. This second group was led by an extraordinarily talented body of Ashkenazi youngsters who were just emerging from the state school system and army service and were feeling that their self-identity was being mangled by those bureaucrats who had been appointed to promote the national narrative.

For some inexplicable reason, the revolt by these young, usually-leftist-oriented sabras, whose leaders included poets such as Yehuda Atlas, lyricists such as Yonatan Gefen, songwriters such as Yoni Rechter and songstresses such as Chava Alberstein and Yehudit Ravitz, has gone almost unmentioned in reports and history books written about that period—even though the artistic treasury they produced contains some of the country’s most outstanding cultural monuments and mementoes…creations that remain in constant use today. For example, it is the rare secular or modern Orthodox Jewish child who has not memorized some, if not all of the poems contained in Yehuda Atlas’s seminal book HaYeled Haze Hu Ani (“I Am This Kid”).

One reason why this mass of poetry and song may have been ignored by foreigners is that it is so uniquely and essentially “Israeli.” Many of the expressions used in these works, and the scenes from everyday life that are rendered so acutely in words full of emotional connotations, cannot be accurately translated from the Hebrew. Moreover, the rebellion as a whole was unlike any other ever taken by any other people. Unlike revolts led by artists elsewhere in the world in times past, the songs and poems these Israelis produced were not created to be merely a straight slap in the rebels’ elders’ faces. Instead, they were almost entirely directed at the next generation of Israelis who were just beginning to listen to words, to read, and to be aware of the world around them—or as songwriter Matti Caspi put it, this huge body of fine art was created for “those adults who just happened to have been born two years ago.”

In one of the most remarkable and rich cultural explosions in human history, almost every talented writer, poet, and songwriter of that generation devoted more than a decade to producing a massive body of art that was primarily directed at subversively telling children that they had a right to be themselves, had a right to express their emotions, and they need not accept instructions to behave like homogeneous copies of some bureaucrat’s ideal of what a child should be and should believe.

The long-term impact that this artistry had on Israeli society is almost immeasurable. For example, this movement, which aimed at validating a child’s right to individualism played no small part in the growth of the impetuous chutzpah and imaginativeness that experts assert are the primary ingredients in Israel’s transformation into a successful, high-tech, “start-up nation.” A no less important after-effect has been that, once the hammerlock that Labour had had on the national narrative was broken, the party was so shattered that it could not come up with another coherent, original narrative. It then became not just virtually unelectable, but also incapable of enforcing existing political behavior norms.

More on that in a moment.

The second period of upheaval commenced a month or so after the Yom Kippur war ended, and lasted until about 1985. Like the first tumultuous period, the impact of the second period of political turmoil is also being felt in almost every aspect of Israeli society to this very day.

The second phase began when the initial relief that Israelis felt at having survived the Yom Kippur War began to abate; and it ended when the Knesset passed a bill outlawing racism.

Once the soldiers came back from the front lines in late 1973, physically and psychologically battered, they began to demand answers to basic questions such as why the country had been so ill-prepared to fight the conflict, and why those leaders who were responsible for the debacle had not done the normative thing by taking responsibility for their actions or inactions and resigning.

The leaders’ failure to do so—voluntarily and immediately after the cease-fire began—left in tatters significant parts of the national narrative and the ideology that lay behind it, as these myths and ideals had been promulgated by Labour (such as it is the duty of all citizens to take responsibility for protecting and enhancing the common weal). That collapse would soon produce one of the most important processes that culminated in the acts of murder and arson during the summer of 2015.

Until the Yom Kippur War, competition between the various political parties had been based on intellectual battles that had focused on the differences between the comprehensive ideologies that each party advocated. As with most modern “civilized” wars, these “wars of ideas” were accompanied by a set of norms of behavior.

The ideologies that had been employed in the pre-state period and the years immediately after the state was established had been carefully crafted over time to be all-encompassing, coherent explications of the parties’ social, economic, and cultural goals—and the means they intended to employ to reach those objectives. Drafting and adapting those ideologies to contend with new realities as they appeared took enormous vision and hard intellectual work.

The theory that lay behind their crafting was a belief that political parties that were serious about ruling the state had to attract as broad a bloc of supporters as possible. For that reason, party platforms had to include every subject area that a ruling party might have to deal with once it took office. Ideologies were considered essential because during an election, they could be used to get popular approval for priorities for action. That approval then made it easier to carry out long-term planning.

Ideologies also had to be coherent lest competing parties with different ideologies be given the opportunity to ridicule any internal contradictions. It is important to recognize that ideologies differ from political dogmas in that they are designed to attract supporters because of their comprehensiveness. Dogmas, on the other hand, are usually discrete, stand-alone beliefs whose electoral purpose is to retain the loyalty of a narrow band of existing supporters and to attract voters who care only about a very limited number of single issues. For years, in Israel, dogmatic, limited-issue parties were considered to be non-normative.

These ideological wars, which the Zionist parties had conducted ever since the Zionist movement was formed, might have continued unabated, and might even have led to an evolution in ideological thinking, had a new, intellectually-deadening factor—the increasing prevalence of focus-limiting, popular political dogmas—not appeared on the scene.

Once Labour’s claims of moral and ideological superiority were found to be hollow, the major change in the very nature of Israeli politicking that I noted at the start of this essay began to take place. The parties that opposed Labour found that they no longer needed to fight for power by arguing about the relative merits of the multitude of details contained in broad ideologies. Instead, they could confine themselves to boasting about a few narrow doctrines that they held dear…and to offering up a few populist nostrums for the deep ills that beset the country.

Once the loyalty to intellectual rigor disappeared, every aspect of daily life that could be politicized became influenced by short-term political exigencies. This then meant, among other things, that duties and responsibilities for the common weal were no longer based on axioms and principles that were not just integral to a party’s ideology, but were also held by other parties. Instead, government budgets that enabled Israel’s politic actors to behave as they wished were authorized following negotiations between dogmatists who were willing to trade “concessions” about items that were not included in their narrow list of demands for those expressions of their tenets that they did care about. Governments then became federations of narrow sectoral interests, and the non-legal, but previously-binding principle of “majority rule with protection for minorities” evaporated.

It is important never to underestimate just how important ideologies had been in the creation and establishment of a viable state. Largely because of the willingness of Israel’s citizens to act on the basis of their respective ideologies, by the time the 6 Day War broke out, Israel had survived major wars and economic boycotts, had created a relatively solid economic infrastructure, and had found work for over a million immigrants. When the conflagration began, the country was on the cusp of changing from being an underdeveloped country to being a developing country.

Linguistically, that doesn’t sound like very much, but in practical terms it meant that the country had reached the point where it had to undergo revolutionary and socially-disturbing changes if the momentum of development was to be maintained. For example, the country, if it was to increase productivity and grow the national weal, would soon have to give up its previous policy of encouraging import substitution. Instead, it would have to focus economic activity on those export-oriented fields where it had a relative advantage over all the other societies in the world. In so doing, however, it would have to countenance and make adequate preparations to cope with the loss of tens of thousands of jobs that workers in non-competitive industries had once viewed as lifetime sinecures.

By the time the Yom Kippur War had begun six years later, a new cohort of largely native-born Israelis, acting on the basis of the ideological upbringing that they had received, had positioned itself to take on the challenge of leading the state through this period of potential domestic convulsion. Its members had reached maturity, had gained experience in public service in the military and the bureaucracy, and were now seeking higher office. However, the country’s political leaders, some of whom had been in office since the 1930s, were refusing to give up their plum positions. Almost without exception, the leaders of each and every party refused to organize an orderly generational transition of responsibility and power by announcing that they would soon be vacating their seats of influence and for that reason they would begin working together with and mentoring those in their 30s and 40s during the new generation’s last phase of training for public service,

The first party to be afflicted with the consequences of this syndrome was the National Religious Party (NRP). During the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the party’s leadership had been made up largely of European-born rationalist ideologues who had been exposed to the European Enlightenment and who sought to adapt religious Jewish Orthodoxy so that it could cohabit with European-style political and social liberalism. To that end, the influence that rabbis could bring to bear on the party’s activities was limited severely. The clerics were permitted to comment on how religious law might be strengthened or weakened by a particular political act, but they had no special standing when secular issues of state, such as healthcare or foreign policy were being debated.

However, following the establishment of the State Religious School System in 1953, the rabbis who were appointed to be school principals were handed a new power base from which they could and would reverse that party principle. Once they gained power, they succeeded in altering the way that the party behaved on a whole range of issues. Among the many changes in party behavior that they wrought, they succeeded in abolishing certain norms of political conduct that had been in place for decades.

The school that would prove to be the most influential of all was the boarding school yeshiva at Kfar Haroeh. It was there that a small, elitist group of teenagers, which called itself Gahelet (coals), began the process that would alter religious Zionism beyond all recognition. These youngsters, in a search for self-esteem and self-definition, rebelled against their parents’ moderation and willingness to compromise, and what they saw as the religious Zionist movement’s obsequiousness in the face of secular labor’s hegemony. Like many of their age, they sought out clear-cut definitions and decisions, and absolute consistency in everything they did. They very quickly became more strict in their religious practice and in questions of modesty than was the norm among religious Zionists at the time. They emphasized Torah study instead of discussing social issues (which had been the focus of the dominant Hapoel HaMizrahi wing of religious Zionism in general, and especially of the popularly-revered, ideologically-driven religious kibbutz movement in particular).

By the mid-1960s, religious Zionism was facing a rebellion by its young people, a weakening of its public status and a crisis of identity. It was at this point that a minor rabbi, working in a decrepit yeshiva began to gain influence until he would become the guru for most of the religious Zionist movement. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook was the scion of the great religious leader of the early Zionist period, Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook. He had inherited the leadership of his father’s yeshiva, but had remained a very minor figure within the religious Zionist movement; and the yeshiva had become an insignificant backwater of influence and learning.

His pronouncements initially were largely ignored because he appeared to be speaking in otherworldly or Delphic oracular terms. It was only when individuals and rabbis found that they could not find rational solutions to the spiritual problems that they faced, that they began to look for mystical solutions such as those that the younger Kook was proposing.

These followers were attracted by Kook’s simple but compelling message: The establishment of the State of Israel was the beginning of the messianic era. Thus the state, including its institutions, were holy. For that reason, the state and the operative instruments of state should be shaped and then directed by religious law. Most importantly, the sacredness of the Land of Israel required that all of it be settled by Jews. To do otherwise would be to delay the redemption of the Jewish people everywhere. Kook sermonized that it was therefore incumbent upon all religious Jews to play an active part in ensuring redemption through religiously-driven, political action. Actions of this sort need not be limited by previous beliefs.

While his widely-revered father had believed that holiness was a potential latent in the Jewish people, Kook the son took the holiness of the Jews as a fact. This may seem to be an abstruse difference in positions by the two men, but it had practical consequences. The younger Kook argued that the Jewish people was holy, and so too was the whole land of Israel. The Jews’ return to the land was therefore an integral part of the process of redemption for the Jewish people as a whole. For that reason, conquest of all the land was essential if the process was to continue. To Kook, reactions to this conquest by non-Jews were irrelevant.

Among those who became his acolytes were Rabbi Haim Druckman, who was in charge of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, and the group of Gahelet youngsters, some of whom would go on to become the state religious school systems’ principals while others would found the Gush Emunim settler movement.

In what was probably his biggest break from NRP tradition, Kook preached that contrary to the secularists, and even his own father’s cautioning that unchecked narrow nationalism could lead people into moral dangers, the Jews could not create a state like any other because the Jews were a nation set apart from all the others.

Kook’s yeshiva-cossetted young followers lacked both life experience and political and administrative knowhow. However, these seemingly-negative attributes freed them to adopt tactics and strategies that had previously been considered publicly unacceptable. They were then able to use those tactics to effect enormous changes in the Israeli political landscape. Among the boons they brought to the country’s otherwise staid political playing fields was an irrepressible fervor, and a close relationship with school principals who had access to thousands of potential “field troops” and government-funded goods such as school buses. Those advantages were soon topped off by having a floundering Labour party as a political neighbour.

Of the three gifts that these youngsters had been granted, the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the Labour party was by far the most important. In retrospect, Labour’s descent into what was rapidly becoming an expediency-driven netherworld was far more important than many other more-publicized features of the Kookists’ settlement campaign, such as the settlers’ “natural” alliance with the Likud.

By the time that the NRP’s Young Guard was making its dash for power within the party in the mid-1970s, Labour was well into the process of becoming fossilized. Following Yitzchak Rabin’s resignation as prime minister in March 1977, it had become incapable of addressing any of the urgent national exigencies with which it was being confronted.

Labour’s deterioration had actually begun much earlier—in the 1960s. But that process had been accelerated by the 6 Day War. Although the country and the party had been awash in self-praise after the war ended, the party was facing an unprecedented challenge because the government had launched the war without any prior planning for what it would do with the territories it had captured. Among Labourites, that reality was being exacerbated by one of the unresolved conflicts that had divided the socialists since David Ben Gurion’s decision in 1948 not to capture the Whole Land of Israel.

The Ahdut HaAvodah faction headed by Yitzchak Tabenkin and led in the cabinet by Yigal Allon, together with some of the Mapai party’s leading intellectual lights such as poets Natan Alterman and Haim Guri, as well as many of the Mapai party faithful who had organized themselves under the rubric of the “Hug Ein Vered,” were ardent settlement supporters.

They and many less activist socialist party supporters were caught in a bubble of nostalgia that focused on what they believed had been the golden age of the Zionist enterprise—the “Watchtower and Fence” (Homat u’Migdal) illegal settlement campaign of the 1930s. One feature of their bathing in this now-mythologized past was the self-satisfied pleasure they took in watching and in silently—and even openly—applauding what they perceived was a replay by the NRP’s Young Guard of their battle against the British decades earlier.

What they failed to take account of was that the Young Guard was not just equating the legitimate government of the modern State of Israel with the hated British colonialists, the youngsters were appropriating, but also significantly altering, one of the central beliefs that had driven the 1930s battle against the Mandatory authorities. The 1930s pioneers had been convinced that justice was on their side because they believed that they were answering to a higher calling—a historical imperative…the realization of a nineteen century old Jewish dream of renewed statehood. Therefore, they believed that they were fully justified in breaking any laws restricting the Jews right to settle in their ancient homeland.

The Young Guard’s twist on these fond memories, however, could not have been more dangerous. Unlike their 1930s models, the would-be settlers believed that they were not just swearing loyalty to a higher calling, but to a higher authority—God. In other words, the youngsters of the 1970s were openly challenging the right of the democratically-elected government and institutions of the now-established Jewish state to pass laws and make judgments that restricted their behaviour.

The youngsters’ dash for power and influence might have been mitigated and even limited had they been confronted by an organized and unified opposition. However, the Labour Party, the only body that might have offered itself up as an effective opposition, had fallen into the pit of policy-making directed solely by political convenience.

Beginning in the 1930s, Labour had become an expert in the art of governance by political expediency. However, to his credit, Ben Gurion, following the establishment of the state had tried to replace the party’s belief that everything can be politicized with what has since come to be called “statism.” For example he abolished the political parties’ militias and their separate school systems.

However, when push came to shove, the party always fell back into its old ways. Probably the best example occurred in early 1976. In December 1975, the NRP’s Young Guard had begun holding a sit-in in the old Ottoman train station in Sebastia near Nablus demanding that its members be permitted to settle in the northern West Bank for the first time. In the belief that accommodating these protesters would lead them to support a Labour-led government after the next election, Shimon Peres negotiated a deal that allowed the settlers to move to a nearby army camp. Soon after, they were granted land for a proper, government-funded new settlement.

For that reason, Peres, not Ariel Sharon can justifiably be called the “Godfather” of West Bank settlement. Significantly for the purposes of this article, in the years that followed, Labour, because it was always seeking the NRP’s support to form a coalition government, never launched a campaign to criticize and undermine the settlers subsequent illegal acts such as when settlement activists established outposts on Palestinian-owned land and when they forged documents claiming that land on which they had established unauthorized outposts had been sold to them by Palestinians.

Despite Peres’s efforts, Labour lost the next election. At that point, it became catatonic. The party’s state of shock was so intense that it was never able then and is still not able to get over its 1977 defeat. At the back of their minds, Labour Party functionaries have remained convinced that Yitzchak Ben Aharon, the veteran socialist politician, was right. In the wake of the 1977 debacle, he had declared, without even a shred of irony, “The people have made a mistake!”

Labour had not only made a series of mistakes that had led to its defeat at the polls, once the older generation was finally forced into retirement, and even after its 1977 defeat, it had failed to confront many of the existential issues that the country was facing…in large part because it had become embroiled in constant leadership struggles that sapped its strength. Henceforth, it became so preoccupied with its internal party divisions that it had little time or energy to do real work. For example, between 1996 and 2015, it replaced the party leader ten times and gave the helm of the party to eight dfferent individuals.

Worse still, it could never accept the position of being, in British-style parliamentary terms “the loyal opposition.” It invariably tried, whenever the opportunity presented itself, to join a so-called “national unity government.” That was because its leaders were under constant pressure from party functionaries and party king-makers such as “Fuad” Ben Eliezer, to join cabinets so that the party could get jobs to distribute to party power-brokers.

In addition, during the early 1980s Labour, like the other socialist parties in the world was going through a series of crises brought on by the failure of many of its favoured economic and social policies. However, unlike the European socialists, the Israeli Labourites put very little if any effort into redesigning their policies so that they could respond to the challenges that major events such as the economic crisis that had been set off by the OPEC oil embargo, and the globalization of the world economy, had created.

Parenthetically, it appeared for a short period, during the government led by Yitzchak Rabin in the early 1990s, that this self-pitying approach to politics might be reversed. During those few short years, his government did try to rejuvenate and reconstruct a comprehensive ideology. However, Rabin’s murder cut that project short.

Labour, of course was not the only influence on the NRP Young Guard’s approach to practical politicking. Menachem Begin’s success in assembling his first coalition government taught the Young Guard a salient lesson that it and Begin’s other religious coalition partners, the Haredim, have never forgotten and have put to effective use ever since. Even though these two religious groupings are small, they can and usually do hold the balance of power in coalition governments. Even more importantly, they quickly realized that they can reasonably expect to hold the balance of power in future governments no matter which of the larger parties leads the ruling coalition.

This has given both groupings disproportionate power which they have used to considerable effect. No less importantly, the young NRP politicians learned when they were members of Likud-led “national unity” governments, that Labour was actually loathe to oppose spending on the settlers Not only that, later, even when Labour was out of office, and when it had the opportunity to change budget allocations in the Knesset Finance Committee, it was also loathe to oppose spending on settlement. In both cases the party feared that it might need the NRP to form the next coalition government if it won the next election.

A political, ethical void had been created. And so it should come as no surprise that the Supreme Court felt obliged to become more active in adjudicating whether the settlers’ actions conformed to both Israeli and international law. It tried to counter the Young Guard’s belief that everything could be politicized in pursuit of their God-directed goal with a belief that in order to preserve the country’s humanism, everything, in the words of Chief Justice Aharon Barak, should be “judiciable.” In the absence of an effective political opposition to the settlers’ illegalisms that might have otherwise taken up the cudgels in defence of the rule of law, this conflict between the Supreme Court and the settlers set the stage for the court to become the primary bulwark against what had previously been considered social deviancy. This adopted role has subsequently led to bitter battles between the settlers and the judicial system—and attempts by the settlers’ supporters to put limits on the Supreme Court—that continues to this day. Ironically, it would also lead to the elimination of what had once been irrevocable and long-standing norms of political behavior.

Although he was a dedicated supporter of the settlers, Menachem Begin was also an outspoken supporter of the rule of law. However, he was so preoccupied with security and defence issues that he seems to have totally failed to have noticed that, after the electoral victory by the Likud in 1977, his own party was going through its own ideological collapse. The largely-Ashkenazi Likud leaders, who had been imbued with Zeev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist philosophy, were finding that their new Mizrahi supporters, who had given them victory, were totally uninterested in the subtleties of the party’s European-style, liberal ideology. They were concerned with a very narrow list of issues led by their desire to punish Labour, their concern about Arab threats, and their push to advance themselves socially and economically. Not wanting to alienate them, the Likud would make no effort to indoctrinate its new voters into its political creed.

It was at that point that the battle over ideology ended—not with a bang, but with a series of whimpers as the remaining ideologically-driven Labourites and Revisionists began to die or retire. As a result, henceforth, all the country’s political parties, except Labour, Mapam and the Communists, but including all the Arab parties, shifted their efforts to focus to what all political parties world-wide had usually done when their nations’ central narrative had begun to collapse—emphasize all those things that can be included under the rubrics of nationalism, the supernatural and the conspiratorial. Despite the obvious ideological challenge that the neo-nationalists had created, Labour contented itself with being the ideology-free, dogma-free, default “not-Likud, not-settler” party.

In one of the first moves that led the Likud, to begin abandoning its Revisionist ideology, when it formed its first governing coalition, it chose to ignore two central tenets of its ideological founder’s basic philosophy—Zeev Jabotinsky’s fervent secularism and his belief that the Arabs under Israeli suzerainty should have equal rights. Soon, that latter decision would lead the Likud to accept the settlers’ demands that it turn a blind eye to the settlers’ growing extremism—extremism, that, among many other acts, included the uprooting and destruction of Palestinian olive groves. True Revisionists would have considered such destructiveness to be deviant behavior patterns, and thus unacceptable.

In the past, the Zionist Movement and the State of Israel had provided suitable venues for attracting and fostering aggressive, if non-violent, political and religious deviancy-hunters. Probably the best-known such hunter was David Ben Gurion, who, during the pre-state period fought bitterly with the Irgun Zva Leumi and the Lechi terrorist undergrounds; and who famously declared, after the state was founded, that he would form a governing coalition with any party “except Herut (the Revisionists) or Maki (the Communists)”…whom he believed should be shunned even though they had been elected to the Knesset.

Soon after the state was founded, Israel developed and then for many years afterwards made extensive use of a unique linguistic way of labelling political deviants. The labelling process itself was quite straightforward. It began with someone declaring that a political party, or even a single individual, was a “Saman Yemini,” which can be literally translated as “a right sign.” The term was invented by Palestinian, Jewish volunteers to the British Army who were demobilized following the end of World War II and subsequently became politically active in the run-up to national independence.

In British army parlance, the term referred to the person whom everyone else in a squad or platoon used as a marker when lining up on the parade ground. When transferred to the Israeli political parade ground, the term was used to refer to the most extreme individual or political party whom the labeler believed was still publicly acceptable as a political negotiating partner. Thus there could be a leftist “right sign” and a rightist “right sign.” For example, to Ben Gurion, Mapam was the left-wing Saman Yemini and the Liberal party was the rightist Saman Yemini.

In general, anyone who was perceived to be or was labelled as being more extreme than the Saman HaYemini of the day (as Ben Gurion did with Maki and the Herut party) was automatically determined to be a political deviant who could be subject to penalties such as public derision and political isolation.

Significantly, though, the term “HaSaman HaYemini” could be used very flexibly and the person or group so labelled could change as the definition of political deviancy was altered over time, or as the individual or group changed its modus operandi.

For example, Ben Gurion, by his choice of a relatively moderate, right-of-centre Saman Yemini, had effectively declared that Herut was beyond the pale. However, once Ben Gurion left office, and especially during the period leading up to the Six Day War, the language used by Labour party officials when referring to Herut underwent a subtle, but significant change. Herut was soon referred to by Labour as the Saman HaYemini. Eventually, this subtle change in word usage enabled Menachem Begin to join the National Unity Government established to cope with the 1967 pre-war emergency.

Labour could do so because the party had initially allowed Ben Gurion to impose his personal choice of who should be the Saman Yemini on to the party. Once he left office, party officials felt free to alter that choice when the need arose. However, Herut and its leader Menachem Begin had also altered their behavior to make it accord with the norms adopted by all the other parties including the Communists.

During the early days of the state, Herut was a relatively easy target for exclusion because, among other things, Menachem Begin, in 1952, had led a mob that had attacked the Knesset after Ben Gurion had signed the reparations agreement with West Germany. Ben Gurion could thus deride Begin as anti-democratic. His favoured way of doing so in the Knesset was to always refer to Begin, not by name, but as “the gentleman sitting next to Mr. [Yohanan] Bader,” (who was the deputy leader of Herut).

After Ben Gurion’s departure from the prime ministership, Labour needed a more general, and less personalized definition of who should be the Saman HaYemini. By consensus and without any formal vote, it eventually decided that one criterion for becoming a Saman Yemini should be whether the individual, no matter how extreme his or her position might be on other issues, was nonetheless a supporter of adherence to democratic rule and the rule of law. That informal redefining of who was the Saman HaYemini, together with Begin’s later behaviour as a devout parliamentarian and as a supporter of the court system and the rule of law, then enabled the Labour party to accept Begin’s presence in the national unity government that was formed prior to the outbreak of the 6 Day War.

The use of the term HaSaman HaYemini to define the limits of legitimate political behavior in Israel came to an apogee in 1984 and almost immediately began a steep descent in 1985.

In 1984, the Central Elections Committee, which is always chaired by a Supreme Court judge but whose members are representatives of the parties elected to the Knesset, had sought to prevent Meir Kahane the extremist American-born rabbi, from running for a Knesset seat. His electoral platform had included calls to expel Arabs, revoke the Israel citizenship of gentiles and ban Jewish/gentile sexual relations and marriages. However, the Supreme Court struck down the Committee’s decision, arguing that no existing law prevented a candidate from holding such views. In reaction, in 1985, the Knesset passed a law outlawing “racism” and the right of racists to run for public office. Although made with the best of positive intentions to protect democratic rule, the twin decisions by the Supreme Court and the Knesset had an almost immediate and profoundly negative impact on Israeli politics that has now culminated in the murders of the Dawabsheh family in Duma.

In effect, the decisions of the Court and the Knesset turned what might be called “normative” Israeli politics into what I have already described as “judiciable” politics. Up to that time, the British principle of “It’s just not done,” which, as noted earlier, is based on norms not law, had been a fundamental controlling mechanism regulating Israeli political behavior. In 1977, for example, Housing Minister Avraham Ofer committed suicide, rather than face a police investigation into charges of corruption. Soon afterward, and even more spectacularly, Yitzchak Rabin resigned as prime minister after his wife, but not him, was found to have held an illegal bank account in Washington.

After 1985, that approach to politics, based on unwritten norms, disappeared and was replaced by the principle that a politician should only be condemned if he or she is found guilty by a judicial court of transgressing a specific law.

The first examples of what this change in limiting political behavior would augur came when the next election rolled around in 1988. Prior to the balloting, the Central Elections Committee dutifully forbade Kahane from running for office on what was an as yet unproven assumption that a court of law would find Kahane guilty of racism.

However, that same committee, in a spectacular example of confused thinking, hypocrisy and political opportunism, did allow Rehavam Zeevi, a decorated war hero, to run for office…even though the intended outcome of his platform, which called for the Arabs under Israeli control to be “transferred” to other countries, was almost identical, in many ways, to that of Kahane.

From this point on, the use of the term “HaSaman HaYemini” virtually disappeared from use because it had become obsolete and irrelevant.

In a third, critical decision—and possibly as a result of the decision to allow Zeevi to run for office—the Committee, for the first time in Israeli history, allowed a virulently anti-Zionist, hardline, extremist Islamist party to also field a list of candidates.

A precedent had been set. Henceforth no politician would consider it his or her duty to create a marker that would easily indicate when a politically-motivated act would be considered to be an act of social or political deviancy. In practical terms, the message that was sent to all those engaged in political activity was: Everything is permissible so long as no evidence can be found that can be used to convict you in a court of law.

With a Saman Yemini no longer available to serve as a boundary marker of political behavior, it should therefore come as no surprise that, over the years, the opposition to Kahanism also eroded to the point where a self-declared Kahanist, Michael Ben Ari was elected to the Knesset in 2009.

No less interestingly, in the 1990s, after a protracted court battle, Shas party leader Aryeh Deri was convicted of gross corruption. He was found guilty by a court, served his time in prison, and retired from public life for ten years as the law required. However, when that time period was over, he decided to try to take control of Shas once again. The question that then arose was whether Deri, having served out all the punishments dictated by law should be permitted to not only run for office, but also to serve in a cabinet again. The alternative demanded by many civil organizations was that a norm… that a convicted felon should be forbidden from holding public office…should apply in cases of this sort. The position of the legalists was eventually adopted by all the political parties. That informal decision declared, in effect, was that norms should have no role to play once all the legal sanctions on a person have been applied. Deri ran for office. Shas was elected to the Knesset. And Deri became the Economics minister.

In the absence of markers, agreed to by consensus on what constitutes political deviancy, Israeli political language underwent a massive upheaval. That upheaval in language then had profound domestic policy and international diplomatic consequences that have been insufficiently recognized.

This linguistic revolution has been led almost entirely by supporters of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories in order to support their political aims.

Since this process began, those who oppose settlement, but who also support the principle of free speech as an absolute ideal, have been caught in a bind. Willy-nilly they have had to go along with the neo-nationalists’ linguistic manipulations, which then weakened their ability to fight against settlement in public fora.

The use and misuse of political rhetoric, which includes creating euphemisms, altering the definition of commonly-used terms, obfuscating, and employing bombast dates back at least to ancient Athens. In recent years, those Israelis who have declared themselves to be “rightists” have become masters in the use of each of these verbal arts.

In the past few years, the settler supporters’ primary rhetorical objective has been to try to delegitimize all those who do not adhere to their political beliefs (including those who are generally considered to be right-of-centre). As part of a multifaceted campaign, the extreme neo-nationalists have increasingly employed the word “leftist” as their most commonly-used pejorative…without defining precisely what they mean by that term. As well, they have tried to eliminate any vestiges of the old-timers’ use of a Saman Yemini.

There are precedents in Israel for the use of this form of political warfare. Probably the best prior example of the use of this tactic is the still-ongoing and largely successful attempt by the Orthodox to delegitimize the Reform and Conservative Jewish religious movements. Among the Orthodox leaders’ successes is the fact that today many Israeli secularists, as a result of the linguistic tactics used by the Orthodox, have come to believe that there are only two legitimate states of being—orthodo religiosity or secularism.

It is a mark of the Israeli left’s ongoing weakness that it has been unable to counter the settlers linguistic strategizing. For example, during the last election, Labour (now relabeled as “The Zionist Camp”) felt obliged to call itself a “centrist” party. Since Netanyahu’s reelection, and instead of preparing a long-term political plan of their own, the Israeli left wing’s self-proclaimed intellectuals such as Omri Nitzan and Yair Garbush have responded to the neo-nationalists long-term planning with repulsive, petulant insults that have included political and social inanities such as berating traditional (usually Mizrahi) Jews as people who “kiss amulets” and “prostrate themselves on [saints’] graves.”

This failure has had serious real consequences. Probably the most important has been a failure to find a substitute for the role played by the Saman HaYemini. In this way, by forcing the elimination of the use of a Saman Yemini that could act as a marker demarcating the beginning of politically and socially unacceptable behaviour, public criticism of the most extreme nationalists abated. This has since enabled the most extreme nationalists to effectively acquire immunity even from criminal acts.

The current wave of violence in Jerusalem is a product of this development. That is because, among other things, the group of social deviants otherwise known as the “hilltop youth” who long ago crossed the line into criminal behavior, have nonetheless been permitted to roam freely destroying Palestinian property, have been sheltered by the settlers, and have been treated affectionately by many settler leaders without the young criminals or their adult accessories being sanctioned in any way. Most importantly, although this has resulted in thousands of documented assaults on Palestinian persons and property over many years, the assailants and their accessories-before-the-fact have been left unhunted by both the police and the military.

The excuses used by the Israeli government and security services about why this is so have been feeble at best. The police and the Shin Bet have claimed that they know the identities of those who have committed crimes against Palestinians. However, they also assert that they have been unable to bring the Jewish terrorists to trial for three reasons. The Palestinians “contaminate” crime sites by mulling around them, and so evidence for use in court cannot be gathered. The Jewish suspects choose to remain silent during interrogation. And bringing a case to court would often compromise sources.

The authorities’ arguments are undermined by the fact that these same conditions hold true when incidents of Palestinian terror are being investigated. Nonetheless, the Israeli security services have had an exemplary record of bringing such cases to trial and securing convictions. Apologists for the security services claim that this is because the Shin Bet can use techniques such as “moderate pressure” when interrogating Palestinians that they are forbidden by court precedent to use on Israeli citizens.

However, that argument too is undermined by the recent notable successes the police have had in securing convictions for some of Israel’s crime bosses. As has been the case with the “hilltop youth,” for years, the police denied that organized crime existed in Israel. Then, when that claim could no longer be defended because the press had uncovered whole crime networks, the police contented themselves with supporting FBI investigations of the activities of Israeli criminals operating in the United States.

Only when these same criminal gangs began mutual public assassinations that threatened, injured and even killed innocent civilians in Israel, did the police become as successful in securing convictions of the criminal gang leaders as they had been in imprisoning Palestinian terrorists.

Certainly, the criminal gang leaders were at least as knowledgeable about how to deal with police investigations as the hilltop youth. The difference is that the police began their intense pursuit of the criminal kingpins only after the public had begun to put pressure on the law enforcement authorities in the wake of the “accidental” murder by a criminal assassination team of a young mother of two; and car bombings of criminals by other criminals began endangered the lives of ordinary Israelis walking down the street or relaxing on the beach.

In other words, it was only when the public created its own markers of what was now considered to be absolutely unacceptable deviant behavior (rather than accepting the police argument that “normal” deviant behavior should be dealt with using existing procedures) that the security authorities felt compelled to find solutions to their previous inability to act.

The very same sort of scenario that led to the police crackdown on the crime bosses was finally enacted when Jewish arsonists torched the Church of the Loaves and the Fishes near Capernaum on Lake Kinneret. This church has been a particularly popular site for hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims who visit Israel each year. Although the police had been unable to solve other cases of arson attacks on churches, it solved the Kinneret case within days after both the Vatican and the Israeli tourism authorities demanded immediate action.

There is now documentary evidence that, in the wake of the current outburst of Palestinian violence, Israeli soldiers have actually been protecting Jews from the extremist settlement of Yitzhar who have begun throwing stones at Palestinians in nearby villages.

Israeli security authorities are now concerned that this violence by Jewish settlers against innocent Palestinians may exacerbate current tensions and lead to greater violence on the part of Palestinians. Not only that, the first rains of the farming year (the yoreh) have now fallen. These showers signal the beginning of the winter planting, but especially of the olive harvest season. Since the use of a Saman Yemni ended, this period of the year has become a favoured time for attempts by young Jewish extremists to try to either steal the crop or to cut down the trees.

It now appears that the settler leaders are making a concerted effort to divert attention away from these criminal activities. According to former Knesset member Aryeh Eldad, himself an ardent supporter of the settlers, both the official representatives of the settlers and the extremist youngsters can only benefit if Jewish violence against Palestinians leads to greater violence by the Palestinians. This is because, as Palestinian violence builds, settler leaders invariably then use the opportunity to demand more settlement and more government support for settlement as “the appropriate Zionist response to Palestinian attacks on Jews.”

These well-organized media-friendly protests then tend to have the secondary effect of redirecting journalists’ attention to easily-interviewed settler leaders and away from hard to record crimes the hilltop youth may be committing at the same time.

There is considerable hard evidence to support Eldad’s allegations. Most notably, immediately after the latest round of knifings by Palestinians began, the head of the council of settlers in Samaria set up a well-publicized and journalist-popular protest tent outside the prime minister’s residence demanding that, in response to the killings, the government approve the establishment of new settlements.

It quickly became clear to one and all the type of political trap that the settlers were setting up. For that reason, and unsurprisingly, soon after the tent began attracting the first camera crews, the prime minister’s office leaked a story (that has not yet been verified in Washington) that the US government has warned the Israeli government that it will react harshly if Netanyahu bows to the settlers’ demands. Specifically, according to the leak, the US would let France know that Washington would no longer oppose or veto an already-existing French proposal to have the UN Security Council pass a measure declaring all Israeli settlements to be illegal.

Israelis wishing to limit the growing circle of violence, could do much by launching a campaign for the reinstitution of the position and role of the Saman HaYemni, which the settler’s supporters have labored so long and so successfully to eliminate from the Israeli political landscape. The purpose behind appointing a Saman Yemini would be to, at a minimum, reverse the current policy of turning a blind eye to the extremist Jewish youngsters’ violence against Palestinian persons and property. The reestablishment of a new Saman Yemini by popular will could well have the same impact on the security authorities that the massive public protests had when the intramural criminal killings gathered momentum. It would be a public declaration that, despite the efforts by settlers to protect and coddle the hilltop youth, the young Jewish criminals’ activities are considered by the broader public to be an act of social deviancy deserving of real sanctions.

Jerusalem On A Knife-Edge

The current round of Palestinian-initiated violence has been going on long enough that it would once have been reasonable to expect that, by now, the daily reporting of events would also be accompanied by attempts to place these events in context. However a combination of a change in the nature of journalism and the increasing desire by the protagonists to play what they believe are self-protective blame games have prevented an open and broad discussion of many of the substantive issues that have produced the violence.


Journalism has changed beyond all recognition in the past decade. Internet publishing has led to a plethora of new news and opinion outlets. However, there has been insufficient advertising to support old-fashioned, well-researched, multiple-sourced journalism. Today, web sites specializing in the news rely more heavily than ever on young, tireless workers whose writing and editing skills can be bought cheaply. These drones are expected to crank out huge amounts of what is euphemistically termed “content” to very tight deadlines. They therefore have little time, and their bosses are unconcerned, with dealing with issues in depth. Events and statements by politicians, officials and protesters are usually reported accurately because of a fear of libel suits. However, too often the content producers have neither the time nor the experience to check the veracity of the statements or to provide background or context to the events taking place and the statements being made. Some wags have come to call this new craft “churnalism.”


Partly for that reason, politicians and officials have found it easier to obfuscate than ever before; and their flaks and acolytes have found it easier than ever to pass off self-serving fluff as serious “advocacy.”


Try as I might, I have yet to see any serious attempt to explain comprehensively why the current round of Israeli-Palestinian violence has broken out. With that in mind, I have decided to craft three articles to highlight at least a few of the issues involved. The first two are intended to provide some historical background, while the third will attempt to provide some current context for the events that are taking place.




Five years have now almost passed since the so-called “Arab Spring” began. Tens of thousands of articles—and maybe even more—have been written about the upheavals taking place throughout the Arab world, including the West Bank and Gaza. However, I have yet to find a single reference to what I believe is one of the most elemental issues that the violence has raised.


That issue is: “How can and how will the Middle East finally cope with the legacy of the Ottoman Empire?” If one looks closely, those Arab countries that strayed the most from the Ottoman model of rule, but did not implement true democracy, were the ones that witnessed the most bloodshed.


In almost all aspects of governance, it is almost impossible to overestimate the long-term impact that the 700 years of Ottoman rule has had. The very idea—that the Ottoman way of doing things is still having an impact on events in the Middle East almost a century after that empire was dismantled— should actually come as no surprise. After all, the Ottoman Empire was one of the most successful exercises in political governance in human history; and so it would be strange if at least some of its most salient features did not continue to have an atavistic hold on people.


The dynasty was founded in 1298 and reached its peak of power in 1567, when it controlled the Levant and also ruled over large chunks of Eastern Europe. To give you some idea of its size at that time, 37 modern states have since been carved out of the lands once ruled from Istanbul.


Unsurprisingly, the empire did go through a whole series of ups and downs; and by the end of the 19th century, it was derisively referred to by Europeans as “the sick man of Europe.” Nonetheless, it took a massive military campaign by the British, the French and their allies during World War I before the empire finally collapsed.


Historians have tended to emphasize the mistakes the Ottoman rulers made after the 16th century. But the fact is that the Ottomans had to have done something right to have lasted as long as they did.


Recently, political pundits have focused almost single-mindedly on the post-Ottoman period, and especially the impact that the recent Arab revolts have had on what is generally termed the “Sykes-Picot Agreement.” The terms of that bilateral agreement enabled the British and French, after World War I, to carve up the Ottoman Empire and establish their own colonial rule in the Middle East.


As part of that process, the new colonialists chose to impose a new system of rule based on a concept that was almost totally foreign to the residents of the Middle East—except in one respect.


In general, the Europeans tried to recreate European-style nation-states, but could find no adequate, popular replacement for the centralized, authoritarian leadership structure that had been created by the Ottomans, and which had remained in place for so long. At the end of their tenure, the colonialists did try to introduce that other strange Western import called “democracy,” as a replacement for authoritarianism. However, democracy never really caught on because most of the residents of the Middle East continued to perceive of themselves in macro socio-political terms such as “Arabs” or “Moslems,” or in micro political terms such as being a member of this extended family or that, or this clan or that, or this tribe or that.


Democracy has difficulty in taking root when either or both of those approaches are present. The former tends to reduce minorities to the status of second class status, while the latter tends to lead to social fragmentation and inter-tribal conflict.


Worse still, though, instead of creating nation-states in a logical fashion by gerrymandering their borders in such a way that the resulting states would be based on existing natural affinities such as ethnic and religious attachments, the colonialists drew boundaries that were convenient for themselves and their commercial and political interests. Those new boundaries created instant social instability as religious and ethnic groups that had been at war with each other for centuries, were then forced to live under the same national roof. Once these states gained independence, only ruthless, authoritarian governments could control those endemic quarrels and the hatreds they engendered.


And worst of all, the colonialists actually invited authoritarianism by retaining many of the institutional features of the old, Ottoman system of rule. Most of those institutions were fundamental pillars of the Ottoman’s strategic approach to governance. So long as they remained in place, the Middle Eastern body politic was left with only three real choices—true democracy, authoritarianism or instability…the very things we see in such sharp relief today.


The reason why the colonialists continued to employ those institutions was that they couldn’t figure out—or made no serious effort to figure out—what to replace them with. This then led to incoherence in the way the colonialists ruled the countries under their control, and eventually to the social unrest we see today in all the countries once ruled by the British and the French. The result of that legacy in most of the Arab countries—and in the areas captured by Israel in 1967 including East Jerusalem—has been misrule on a grand scale


It is therefore well worth briefly reviewing the strategy that the Ottomans had adopted that made them so successful, before going into detail about how the same elements that made up that successful strategy have since produced the instability we are now witnessing.


The strategy can be boiled down to three basic elements. First and foremost, the Ottomans produced and then consistently maintained control over the central political and social narrative. That narrative stated that the world is divided up, not according to geographical regions, as the Europeans, with their long history of petty baronies and a landed aristocracy maintained, but by religion. The Empire, therefore, was viewed as a single political entity. Islam was the primary religion of the empire. However, any religious minority could retain any and all of its beliefs and laws relating to an individual’s personal status so long as the individual adherent to that religion paid a special head tax and so long as his or her beliefs did not include a self-felt need to call for overthrowing the empire or challenging Islamic religious supremacy. This narrative had the effect of obliterating any reference in public political discussions to such potentially volatile subjects as historical ethnic or nationalistic loyalties.


Second, in order to formalize and provide an institutional basis for that creed, the Ottomans adopted what was called the millet system of governance. It was a comprehensive, strategic system of political governance that was actually invented in Persia by the Zoroastrian Sassanids in the 4th century. Under this system, political and social communities were defined by the religion of their members. Each recognized religious community was then given almost complete freedom to set its own laws and to levy taxes to pay for the running of communal and religious institutions.


Conveniently, because the sultan was considered to be a caliph, he essentially had the last word on all political and religious matters relating to the Moslem majority within the Empire—regardless of whether they lived in Armenia or Egypt.


Third, stability was ensured by the creation of a hierarchical social system where each individual was held responsible for everyone below them on the social ladder. The religious leaders, for example, were held responsible for the behavior of the members of their religious grouping as a whole. Control over individuals was effected by making each individual responsible for or dependent on the behavior of someone else. Parents were held responsible for whatever their children did or did not do. Clan heads were held responsible for the activities of all the members of their extended families. Tribal leaders and mukhtars, (village heads in places where several clans resided) were held responsible for what the clan heads did or did not do; and so on and so forth.


This hierarchical approach produced many benefits. Probably the most important of these was that it led to clear lines of communication and control between the lowest levels of society and the Sultan’s court.


The system did begin to come under threat with the growth in the concept of nationalism in Europe in 19th century, which, among other things, led to nationalistic revolts against Ottoman rule in Greece and the Balkans.


More significantly for our purposes, though, very soon, European nation-states, in their search for wealth, influence and power in the Middle East began to meld their modern concept of nationalism with the archaic Ottoman view that societies were divided by religion. This then led the Europeans to project themselves as protectors of the various minority Christian religious communities within the Ottoman Empire. Thus the Russians unilaterally took on the role of protector of the Eastern Christian communities, while France came to view itself as the protector of the Roman Catholics. At a later stage, the British chose to take on the role of protector of the tiny Protestant communities.


As might be expected, this then led to what were, in effect, proxy wars within the Empire between competing European countries. The best example of this phenomenon was the so-called “Candlestick Wars” that broke out in the 1850s in places like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Eastern Orthodox priests supported by Russia and Roman Catholic priests supported by France began to engage in huge fisticuffs over who had which rights to the shrines they shared. Which group could sweep which floors? Which group could use which stairway at particular times? And who could fix what needed repairing. As the Israelis have found to their frustration, dismay and disgust when they captured these shrines in 1967, those battles continue to this day.


Parenthetically, today, this same desire by the Europeans to influence events in the Holyland has come to be based on a new form of religion—the belief in humanistic pluralism (whatever that may mean) as the solution to all religious or ethnic problems.


The British, once they took actual control over colonial Mandatory Palestine, made almost all the mistakes they could have when they tried to fashion an amalgam of existing Ottoman practices and more modern forms of governance. They did introduce some important, new, modern features of governance such as centralized town planning. But, at the same time, in order to protect their own authoritarian form of rule, they also kept many elements of both the social hierarchy and the millet system largely intact. Thus, for example, personal religious matters and many matters of civil status such as marriage, divorce and burial were left to religious courts and associations.


The actual practice of governance, therefore, was largely tactical in nature, designed to alleviate short-term problems—not strategic and based on a long-term vision. So, for example, when the number of Ashkenazi Jews began to outnumber Sephardi Jews in Mandatory Palestine, the British agreed to the appointment of an Ashkenazi chief rabbi in addition to the existing Sephardi one—rather than introducing a real alternative such as civil marriage.


When Israel was established, the system was modified once again—but not eliminated. Democracy became the formal form of rule in Israel. However, the religious courts were kept intact; and Israeli officialdom continued to maintain communication links with the country’s Arab citizens through consultations with the Mukhtars—even though these Arabs were at least titularly being represented by Arab members of the Knesset.


This whole grab bag system was thrown into disarray when Israel captured east Jerusalem in 1967 and then decided to annex not only the Old City, but also many of the Arab villages that lay close to the previous municipal boundaries of the city. The result was an even more confused and confusing situation than had existed under the British or their Jordanian successors. The Arabs in the eastern part of Jerusalem were given the right to vote in municipal elections and the right to take advantage of Israel’s social security net. However, they were not automatically awarded Israeli citizenship. This meant that, unlike all the other Arabs living within the country’s boundaries (including those living in West Jerusalem), they had no rights to elect Knesset members of their own.


What this meant in practical terms was that the civil service bureaucracy continued to use the communication links to the mukhtars that had been in place since Ottoman times when it suited officialdom. However, the links between the East Jerusalem’s Arab population and the Israeli political echelon were left hanging.


With no clear vision of how everyone in the city should be treated, the Israeli government’s approach to Jerusalem’s Arabs became ad hoc at best and more often flighty.


In some ways, it was almost—but never absolutely, functionally—identical to the way that the Ottomans had behaved toward the minorities spread throughout their Empire. Israel first created a narrative…that Jerusalem had now been united forever, that all its citizens would be treated equally and that all the religions present in the city would be free to practice as they always had. To that end, and among other things, the government formally adopted the ruling of the IDF’s Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Goren that Jews were forbidden to pray on the Temple Mount. The millet system was also maintained.


Very soon, though, some of these remnants of the Ottoman system began to unravel. Because Jerusalem, at least in theory, was run by the rules of democracy, and because the Arabs refused to take part in elections, they had no official representatives who were mandated to bring their needs and desires to the attention of the political echelon. They thus lost their ability to influence both policy and budgeting within the city.


In effect, the Jews became the authoritarian ruler over the Arab areas of the city. However, two-way communication between the rulers and the ruled, one of the most important pillars of the Ottoman, British and Jordanian authoritarian system, was weakened. For that reason, from then on, the Israeli political echelon became blinded to, or, even if they were informed of developments taking place in Arab sectors of Jerusalem, deliberately chose to ignore the massive changes taking place in the newly-conquered areas of the city.


Many of those changes were the product of even greater changes taking place in the Jewish part of the city.


In 1967, Jerusalem may have been a quiet backwater of a city, where the residents turned off their lights at 10:00 at night and took leisurely naps from 2-4:00 in the afternoon. However, because of the university and because the huge national civil service that was headquartered in the city was largely manned by Central European immigrants, it was also an exceedingly cosmopolitan city. It is hard for people today to conceive of such a thing, but Jerusalem at that time supported four high-quality non-Kosher butchers.


Initially, the newly-absorbed Arabs in the city merely added to the city’s cosmopolitan character. Many of the city’s long-time residents had had Arab friends prior to 1948, and some, especially the Haredim and some older, liberal Jewish intellectuals, made a special effort to reestablish acquaintanceships with their Arab counterparts.


In 1967, the Arabs made up about 25 percent of the city’s population. What few people recognized at that time—or even since—was that during the time when the Jordanians controlled Jerusalem, East Jerusalem was also a backwater. The Jordanians had put most of their development efforts into strengthening Amman and the southern Jordanian Bedouin supporters of the Hashemite throne…at the expense of the Palestinians and the cities on the West Bank. However, in order to provide the manpower needed to cope with the needs of the tourist industry, they had encouraged residents of Hebron to move to Jerusalem. Hebron is a deeply religious city, and Hebronites tend to be both clannish and insular. More significantly, Hebronites are particularly strongly protective of Moslem rights to the Temple Mount. That devotion would have a major impact almost 50 years after the conquest, when Messianic Jews broke with Rabbi Goren’s and the Haredi rabbis’ rulings, and began to try to pray on the Temple Mount.


The single most important policy that the Israeli government adopted was to begin building new suburbs for Jews along the edges of the new city boundaries. The intent was basically twofold—to unite the city physically and demographically and to surround the main Arab areas with a wall of Jewish residences; and to ensure that there would be a steady stream of Jewish immigrants to the city through the provision of cheap housing. The officially-declared intent of the town planners and their superiors was to maintain the 25 percent Arab-75 percent Jewish ratio of residents in the city.


The mayor of the city at the time, flamboyant, Hungarian-born, Vienna-raised Teddy Kollek, was actually opposed to much of this construction. He wanted a dense, European-style city that would require much less new, costly infrastructure. For that reason he much preferred to simply fill in the open spaces within the existing city first. However, he was over-ruled by the central government. Today, more than half of the Jews who live in Jerusalem are domiciled in these new suburbs.


Significantly, no provision was made in the central government’s plans for the natural growth of the population in the Arab areas of the city. Today, because of their high birthrate, because of Arab Jerusalemites’ “intermarriage” with West Bankers, because of the need for workers to build homes for Jews, and because of “illegal” immigration into the city of West Bankers seeking jobs and a better life, they make up about forty percent of the city’s population.


Worse still, no thought was given to retaining the city’s cosmopolitan sensibility. Kollek did try to remedy that situation by establishing the Jerusalem Foundation, which he used to funnel donations into secular cultural projects such as the Jerusalem Theater. In addition, he also tried to ensure that new Jewish neighbourhoods would have a mix of religious and secular residents Moreover, he endeavored to build strong contacts with the city’s Arab residents by appointing sensitive individuals such as Meron Benvenisti and Amir Cheshin to maintain continuous contact with the mukhtars.


However, in the end, Kollek’s vision could not survive a whole series of external events that were beyond his control. Those events, when combined, led to a series of long-term processes that changed Jerusalem beyond previous recognition.


In particular, two elections would seal Jerusalem’s fate. The first was the victory by Berlin-born Shlomo “Chich” Lahat, who became Tel Aviv’s mayor in 1974. The second was the victory of the Likud in the 1977 national elections.


Until Lahat’s election, Tel Aviv may have been the country’s major cultural and commercial centre, but it too was a somnolent city with an aging and declining population. Lahat, though, was determined to turn it into a European-style open, vibrant city—and, over time, he succeeded. This then made it a Mecca for young secular Israelis. The advent of Israel’s high-tech industry, which had been centred initially in Haifa, but which soon moved to the greater Tel Aviv area, helped to accelerate that process. That is because high-tech produces not just well-paying jobs for young people, it is housed in large, commercial office buildings that pay a lot in municipal taxes…which, in turn can be used to fund more cultural institutions that make the city even more attractive to young new-comers.


In Jerusalem, the very opposite occurred. Once the Haredim joined the national government following the Likud’s victory, their primary interest lay in fulfilling a dream that dated back 1600 years to Yehudah HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishna. HaNasi had introduced the idea that Torah study is the equivalent of prayer, and thus men’s lives should be devoted to Torah study whenever possible. Reality, especially the need to earn a living, had made that idea largely a pipe dream for centuries. However, the Haredim, once they joined the government, came to believe that they could now fulfill that dream for the first time.


To that end, the newly-arrived Haredi members of the cabinet began to demand public financing for new yeshivas for unmarried students, increased child welfare payments, and subsidies for married men studying in Kollels. Haredi members of the Jerusalem city council were also able to then wrangle all sorts of concessions such as municipal tax abatements for the poor, and free pre-school education.


As this process gathered momentum, another phenomenon took place. At the very moment that Jerusalem was beginning to attract ever more Haredim to the city, the percentage of the Haredim who worked, and thus did not need all these government payments and tax abatements, fell from 70 percent of the ultra-Orthodox population to 26 percent. For that reason, less and less money was then available to fill the municipal treasury. The quality of municipal services began to deteriorate. Young Jerusalem secularists, who would otherwise have been in a position to pay municipal taxes, began to flee the city for Tel Aviv, thus exacerbating the situation even more.


Another phenomenon that was also taking place at the same time would eventually have a major impact on the situation. Israeli governments at the time were showing almost no interest in strengthening the rule of law. Warnings that organized crime was growing in the country were ignored, as were the illegal settlement activities of Gush Emmunim in the West Bank. Within certain parts of Israeli officialdom, what can only be described as a “cult of illegalism” began to blossom.


The basis of that cult was a belief by the authorities that they could turn a blind eye to illegal activity if they could find no practical solutions to a problem…or if it was politically or economically inopportune to implement solutions that could or had been found.


As that belief took hold and began to affect policymaking, those Jewish settlers who had trespassed on and even illegally-seized Palestinians’ lands began to view the use of the law to restrict their behavior as the work of their enemies. Very quickly Jerusalem’s Arabs found that despite the fact that the Jewish authorities were refusing to allocate land and building permits to them, they too could build homes illegally without fear that those homes would be torn down under court orders.


Soon, multi-story apartment complexes began appearing in already-crowded areas such as the city’s sole refugee camp at Shuafat.


As well, and as already noted, at the same time as the deterioration in the rule of law and the flight of secular Jews from Jerusalem was gathering steam, high birth rates were increasing the ratio of Arabs to Jews in the city. However, both the central government’s and the city council’s focus on the city’s Jewish citizens, and the increasing municipal deficit meant that fewer and fewer resources were being allocated to the city’s Arab residents. As I just mentioned, no plans were made to house the increase in Arab residents. As well, few schools were built in Arab areas, and roads and sidewalks were left rutted.


Essentially, a political vacuum had been created, which the PLO then sought to fill. It began establishing institutions of its own in the city, including a local headquarters housed in a building called Orient House and run by Faisal Husseini—a grandson of the former mufti of Jerusalem.


When the first intifada began in 1987, Jewish Israeli politicians took pride in the fact that Jerusalem’s Arab areas were generally free of the violence that had beset the West Bank and Gaza. This, however, was largely the product of continued residual, but increasingly weak contacts between Kollek and the police, and the neighbourhood mukhtars. This success in limiting violence in the city, however, then led to monumental hubris, whose consequences are only now being felt.


On the one hand, Israeli officials claimed that Jerusalem was less susceptible to violence because its Arab residents have a higher standard of living than those in the West Bank and Gaza. However, at the same time, these same officials did everything they could to prevent the city’s Arabs from maintaining that higher standard of living. Their rationale was that, if the city became too attractive to Arabs, there would be too great a growth in the city’s Arab population. That is the primary reason why the issuance of home building permits to Arabs was restricted; and municipal services in Arab areas of the city were kept to a minimum.


The situation in the Arab neighbourhoods began to deteriorate even further following Kollek’s electoral defeat in 1993. New mayor Ehud Omert’s coalition with the ultra-Orthodox was marked by extensive financial mismanagement. Moreover, large-scale violence finally did come to Jerusalem in the wake of the outbreak of the second intifada in the year 2000.


That intifada had wide-ranging consequences. For example, Jerusalem’s tourist industry virtually collapsed, as did much of the rest of the tax-revenue-enhancing leisure sector of the city’s economy. This put increasing strains on the city’s budget and led to even more cutbacks in the municipal services provided to Arab areas.


The decision to build a security fence that would run the length of the West Bank and through Jerusalem, in order to control the movements of potential terrorists had a particularly dramatic effect on the Arab sector of the city. At the time, it was estimated that the proportion of Arabs in the city had risen to 34 percent of the city’s residents. However, as noted earlier, as soon as construction of the fence began, an estimated 40-60,000 West Bankers, fearful of their economic future, took up residence in Jerusalem illegally—thus bringing the de facto proportion of Arab residents in the city up to almost 40 percent.


This then put unbearable strains on the housing pool in East Jerusalem.


Worse still, the new fence split several Arab areas, leaving parts of those areas still within the city boundaries, but cut off by a massive concrete wall from the rest of the city. Residents of these areas, who had previously had to walk only a few meters to get to the other side of their village, now found that they had to drive as much as 12 kilometers and had to go through a police checkpoint before being able to visit families and friends.


This situation then led to a cascade of problems. The housing shortage became a major source of tension. But rather than regulating building in an orderly way by creating a master plan, the authorities, by now devotees of the cult of illegalism, allowed a further, massive growth in illegal building, especially in the Shuafat refugee camp and those areas left orphaned by the fence. However, because the buildings were illegal, not only did the city have to forgo applying municipal taxes, no legal connections could be made to the water and electricity systems. Pirate connections led to frequent breakdowns in those systems.


Critically, the authorities did nothing to alleviate the deteriorating situation. The police rarely, if ever, entered the Arab areas. In the absence of law enforcement bodies, gangs of youngsters and clan-based criminal gangs began to take control of increasingly large areas of east Jerusalem. As a result, although there are no official figures on this subject, residents of the Shuafat camp relate that there are murders in their camp almost every week.


The fear of violence created by overcrowding then led garbage collectors, and electricity and water technicians to refuse to come to collect waste or to make repairs unless accompanied by armed guards; and the electricity and water companies refused in principle to repair any illegal pirate connections.


As well, because of the break in communications between the authorities and the mukhtars, the village elders have lost whatever legitimacy they might have had as local leaders—especially among the young. The strategic Ottoman-built communication channel that had lasted for hundreds of years and which was crucial to maintaining social stability had collapsed.


As a result, the cornerstone of the mukhtar structure of governance, the system of social control based on mutual dependency, also fell apart. This phenomenon would eventually lead to the advent of 13 year old Palestinian knife-wielders.


An alternative system might have been available to fill the leadership vacuum that had been created. There were attempts by local social and intellectual leaders to set up alternative grassroots movements. However, these efforts were mown down by the Israeli authorities for fear that these groups were or would become political vehicles for el-Fatah and Hamas.


These and other negative processes that had been underway for some time were exacerbated when the ultra-Orthodox rabbis chose to seize power at city hall by using their bloc voting to elect Haredi Uri Lupoliansky as mayor in 2003.


Almost immediately upon Lupoliansky’s election, in the Jewish areas of the city, ultra-Orthodox residents, abetted by the municipal authorities, began moving more and more into secular Jewish areas; and the flight of secular youngsters to the coastal areas increased dramatically. This then led to a further deterioration in the capacity of the city to maintain tax revenues. No less importantly, over the years, the secular Jewish residents of suburbs along the seam between Jewish and Arab Jerusalem, such as Neve Yaakov in the north, and Armon Hanatziv in the south of the city had developed friendly, informal ties with neighbouring Arab villages. The Haredim who bought into these neighbourhoods, though, had no interest in maintaining those contacts, and so the isolation of the Arab areas from the rest of the city increased.


As well, because the ultra-Orthodox officials in city hall were uninterested in anything taking place in the Arab areas, what few contacts had remained with the mukhtars, were cut. Then, to top things off, the increased allocation of municipal funds to Haredi institutions and causes meant that although by that time legal Arab residents made up almost 37 percent of the city’s population, only 7 percent of the city budget was being allocated to providing services to Arab areas. Among other things, at the very moment that the city was witnessing a youth bulge in the Arab areas, there was almost no new school construction.


Massive school overcrowding meant that about 40 percent of Arab students dropped out of school; and of those who reached grade 12, only about 40 percent had been schooled sufficiently to pass their matriculation exams.


This then led to growing frustration by young Arabs who could see no future for themselves, and the final breakdown of the mukhtars system, because the village elders could no longer fulfill their traditional roles of bringing complaints to the attention of the authorities and get results.


The destruction of even the smallest grassroots action groups then left young Arabs without any legal vehicle for expressing their increasing frustration.


That void would soon be filled by an unexpected source. Although considerable publicity has been given to the growth in strength by Hamas in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the fact is that the Shin Bet has been quite successful in discovering and smashing underground Hamas cells. What the Israeli authorities were totally surprised by was the move by Israel’s own Islamic Movement, and particularly its extremist Northern Branch, to fill the vacuum that had been created. The Israeli authorities should actually not have been surprised at all. After all, the Ottoman system that Israel itself had adopted in 1967 had been built on three pillars—control of the political narrative, a social hierarchy based on mutual dependence, and the division of the universe according to religion.


With the mukhtar system in disarray and with the Israeli narrative that the city was undivided having been shown to be a fiction, all that the Arabs were left with was their belief that communal loyalty and attachment should be based on religious fidelity. Increasingly, devout Moslems were coming to believe that the contest between the Jews and the Arabs was not a political one at all, but rather a religious one.


Hamas and the Israeli Islamic movement were greatly assisted in their endeavor to propagate this belief by the actions of extremist Jewish neo-nationalists.


In particular, and as I previously mentioned, after the 1967 war, the IDF’s Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Goren, basing himself on extensive rabbinical precedent, had declared that the Temple Mount should be off-limits to Jewish prayer. However, beginning in 2003, extremist neo-nationalist rabbis, led by Hebron Jewish community leader Rabbi Dov Lior, began to openly question that ruling. Initially some Jews began offering prayers on the Temple Mount quietly. However, by 2014, many were doing so openly and stridently.


Worse still, some of those Jews engaged in praying were extremist, neo-nationalist politicians who always made sure that their forays onto the Temple Mount were recorded by television news crews. The news clips that then made their way to the air were almost immediately copied and rebroadcast on extremist, Islamic, internet, social media web sites that have wide followings in both Israel and the West Bank. Unsurprisingly, extremist Moslem preachers began to use the videos as a way of rallying the masses to come out and “defend the el Aqsa mosque against Jewish encroachments and plans by Jews to alter the existing status quo.”


During this same decade, Jewish settler groups began stepping up their efforts to acquire apartments in Arab areas of the city—especially in those areas close to or adjacent to what is often called “the Holy Basin”—the meeting place of the Kidron and Hinnom valleys that surround the ancient City of David and the Temple Mount..


These activities then gave Raed Salah, the Israeli Islamic Movement Northern Branch’s leader the opening he had been seeking. Unlike the Hamas organizers, Salah, as a full-fledged Israeli citizen, was shielded by Israel’s laws protecting free speech. He soon began leading the campaign alleging that the Jews were trying to seize control of the Temple Mount and the adjacent Holy Basin. This was a claim that resonated particularly strongly among the disaffected young and those devout Moslems who had come to work in the city from Hebron.


The stage was being set for the perfect political thunderstorm that would soon engulf the eastern part of the city. All that was needed were a few more developments—and they were not long in coming.


Arguably the most important of these was a decision in 2009 by the Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and their supporters, to try to take control of the Likud party. They began joining the Likud in droves. This then enabled them to pack the party’s central committee, and eventually the party slate, with their supporters—and more importantly, drive out the old-time Revisionists who had supported extensive contacts with and equality for Israel’s Arab citizens and residents. During election time, though, the settlers’ supporters voted for HaBayit Hayehudi—effectively giving them control over two parties in the Knesset.
This eviscerated the moderate wing of the Likud and the ideologically-driven Revisionists, which then led Likud Knesset members, in their competition to retain their place on the party slate, to make ever more extreme statements about Arabs, to openly support those Jews seeking to move into Arab areas near the Holy Basin and eventually to actually try to pray openly and before the television cameras on the Temple Mount. As noted, all these activities provided the best fodder imaginable for Raed Salah and Hamas propagandists.


The situation was exacerbated when the leaders of HaBayit Hayehudi, especially party leader Naftali Bennet and the then Minister of Housing Uri Ariel, began in 2015, increasing the stridency of their remarks about Jewish rights to the Temple Mount. As members of the government, they were perceived by the Arabs in Jerusalem to be voicing government policy.


Coming as they did after the failure of the most recent set of peace talks, their statements reinforced a growing belief among the Arabs that there would and could be no political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.


That long-standing belief had already been intensified in June 2014, when 3 Israel teenagers were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank. After weeks of searching, their bodies were found. During the interregnum between the kidnapping and the discovery of the bodies, young Arabs, who had found jobs in the western side of the city, began to be assaulted by gangs of extremist Jewish thugs as these Arabs returned home late at night after working in restaurants or in other places.


Then the war in Gaza during the summer of 2014 also had a major impact. Despite the massive damage inflicted by the Israelis on the Gazans, Hamas emerged from the war with a narrative that resonated strongly among the disaffected Arab youth in Jerusalem. Their version of events was that the Hama leadership had been untouched by the Israeli attacks and that Hamas had resolutely succeeded in confronting the Israelis as no one else had ever done in the past. This resoluteness and a willingness to continue to use violence, Hamas propagandists, argued, should serve as a model for Jerusalem Arabs too.


As I have shown often in the past, under circumstances such as these, all it takes is a small spark for violence to erupt. The spark this time, however, was a very large one. The day after the three kidnapped Jewish youngsters were buried, three Israeli youngsters kidnapped, beat and then burned alive a Jerusalem Arab teenager, Mohammed Khedeir. Not long before, the Israeli authorities had reinstituted a policy of destroying the houses of those Arabs found to have engaged in murderous attacks on Jews. When the homes of the Jews who killed Khedeir were not destroyed, the city’s Arabs took that act of omission as the final and absolute sign that there was no, and there would never be, equality between Arabs and Jews when it came to treating criminality.


Compounding the problem further was a decision by the government at that very moment to begin construction of a new Jewish suburb on Givat Hamatos. That decision meant that the only primary road enabling Palestinians to travel easily between Ramallah and Bethlehem would finally and permanently be cut. In effect, it was a declaration by Israel that a political solution to the division of Jerusalem had been wiped off the peace-making agenda.


Almost immediately, all the violence that had previously been confined to the Arab neighbourhoods burst out into adjacent Jewish suburbs. It should have come as no surprise to anyone that one of the primary targets of the rioters was the ultimate symbol of the Jewish narrative about a united city—the light rail that ran through both Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods.


In an act of utter stupidity that only reinforced the Palestinians’ perceptions that Jerusalem was a divided city, the police were ordered by the government to set up roadblocks at the entry points and exits from Arab neighbourhoods. Fortunately for everyone in the city, the police were wiser than their impetuous political overlords and the roadblocks were dismantled as soon as the politicians’ eyes shifted direction.


The violence in East Jerusalem began to abate somewhat in December 2014. The winter rains and cold night-time temperatures, combined with an increase in the number of border police in East Jerusalem did dampen the Arab youngsters’ enthusiasm for rock-throwing. However, all the factors that had led to the outbreak of violence remained in place. Thus, the current round of violence should be viewed as a continuation of the open conflict that erupted in 2014, and not as something new.


So, in sum, over a period of more than forty years, the Israelis have managed to destroy one of the most important pillars of Ottoman rule—the mukhtar system of universal dependency. However, it has found nothing to replace it with. The current mayor, Nir Barkat, is trying to spend a bit more money on projects in the Arab sector of the city However, he simply does not have the amount of money he needs. And after so many years of neglect, it would take a massive and massively-expensive rehabilitation plan to make even a dent in the current situation.


The only available, possibly-effective alternative—democracy—has been rejected by the Israelis and Palestinians alike. The Jerusalem Arabs do not want to participate in municipal elections for fear of being branded “collaborators.” And Israel refuses to allow local, organized, Arab political activity for fear that it will enable Hamas and other terrorist-supporting groups to institutionalize their presence in the city.


For years, the Israeli authorities were convinced that Arab violence in the city would eventually die down because the Arabs would fear losing their jobs. However, the ranks of the protesters have now been taken by three groups—youngsters wielding rocks and Molotov cocktails who are considered to be too young to be subject to criminal law, lone would-be killers who are being influenced by calls for personal jihads that are being posted on social media web sites, and Israeli Arabs who are answering the call to defend the Al-Aqsa mosque with their bodies.


As happened so often before, the Israeli government has ordered more Border police into Jerusalem to control the violence. However, none of the underlying issues that precipitated this round of stone-throwing and the knifings of Jews in the Old City are being dealt with. For example, in early 2015, the city of Jerusalem did finally give names and house numbers to the streets in the Shuafat camp. However, that did not result in mail deliveries to that area for the first time. The only known use that has been made of this development is that the city has begun to demand payment of municipal taxes even by the owners of illegally-built dwellings, and the Shin Bet has found it easier to discover the whereabouts of protesters and arrest them.


For that reason, even if there is a near-term reduction in the level of violence as the government hopes, the underlying issues will remain unresolved. And even if the coming rains again dampen the current level of rioting, it is highly likely that Jerusalem will see a renewal of the violence once the ambient temperature again matches the heat of passion that has become endemic to the Arab areas of the city.

A Critical Issue About the Iran Agreement That Has Never Been Discussed

In mid-August, I wrote a short article laying out what I thought were some genuine concerns that people should have about the recent agreement with Iran.


Normally, I would have posted the article on my blog. However, because I believed that the subject matter should be discussed urgently by a broad public, I chose to submit it to several major media outlets (including The Globe and Mail, The Atlantic, and Foreign Policy). They would have automatically rejected the article had a Google search revealed that it been published or posted elsewhere.


The version I sent them is posted below.


In what I believe is a very telling example of how the media treats issues related to the Middle East, the article was simply ignored by the editors in question. In other words, it was rejected without even the courtesy of a reply. However, beginning three weeks later, the basic issues that led to my concerns were raised in headline stories in the Daily Beast and The New York Times. A chronologically organized display of those articles, is also repeated below.


Please note that the references to CENTCOM in these articles refers to that US military command that is responsible for assessing militarily-relevant events taking place in an area that includes both Israel and Iran.


As well, and of particular significance is the fact that in none of the articles in either The New York Times or The Daily Beast is there any reference at all to the implications that the scandal that describe may have on the Iran agreement.


I am relating this story not because of sour grapes, but rather because it raises yet again what I have long believed is one of the most fundamental issues in modern journalism and in the functioning of modern democracies. It is an issue that has been largely left unaddressed by all those who study and comment on international relations: Who sets the agenda for public debate?


Long-time readers of my analyses may recall that one of my greatest criticisms of the media/US government nexus is that the agenda for most of the media almost everywhere in the free world is invariably set by the daily briefings held at the White House and the State Department. Media outlets and pundits may disagree about the position American officialdom takes on these issues. However, crucially, usually, it is only after issues have been raised at those two venues that they become subjects for media coverage and public discussion.


Rarely, as in the case described by the Times and the Daily Beast, a subject can become a matter for media coverage if it is the product of an open revolt by Washington insiders… and the substance of their revolt is leaked to the press.


The consequences of this reality are both shocking and severely troublesome to me. Not only do major issues remain unaddressed until they create crises that might have been avoided, conventional wisdom based on wholly incorrect assumptions continues to determine public perceptions of and public attitudes towards events because there is no format easily available for providing new data that challenges that so-called “wisdom”.


For example, as I have tried to show in my writings, most of the public’s attitudes towards Israel—both positive and negative—are the product of highly inaccurate and even warped perceptions about that country. The passions that have led to the current BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) campaign against Israel is but one case in point.


On a more macro level, the horrendous follies the US has committed in the Middle East in recent years—and continues to commit—can be traced directly back to this same syndrome.


No less worrisome to me is the fact that this social and political affliction plays into and supports another frightening phenomenon—the polarization of public debate. I have found that, increasingly, so-called “debates” are nothing more than recitations by each participant of “talking points” that these people have assembled in advance. No attempt is made to listen to or to respond to substantive material the other person may have presented.


It has become every clearer to me that people are no longer interested in dealing with substantive matters. More often than not, their primary concern is invariably to assemble new justifications for the talking points that they otherwise repeat incessantly.


This then makes them all the more susceptible to being influenced by the way that data and assessments are massaged to produce the untruths described in the articles below.


I think that there is one important reason why my article was not published. Phillip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania, who has made the largest study ever of pundits and the forecasting industry has found that much of the analysis in the press that is produced and edited in the United States is created with the intent of solidifying the author’s social position among co-believers. Virtually every op-ed writer, if asked, will say that this or her primary concern is to discuss where America’s interests lie. Clearly, the editors to whom I sent my article seemed to believe that raising the issues I laid out in my article would not be considered by their peers in Washington to be in America’s interest.


I, however, remain convinced that the issues that I voiced should be of significant concern to anyone who cares about the threat of instability in the Middle East.


I leave that to you, the reader, to judge.


The Hyper-Critical Issue Missing From The Netanyahu-Obama Debate

By: Jim Lederman

US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are currently engaging in one of the bitterest media wars ever fought.

Each has assembled whole brigades of political allies and so-called “experts” to support or vilify the agreement that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) have negotiated with Iran.

Surprisingly, though, and for as yet inexplicable reasons, one of the most important, if not the most important factor that should determine the final outcome of this war has disappeared from the public debate that has accompanied the leaders’ sparring. Crucial to the success or failure of the agreement is the still-open question of whether the United States has the capacity (capability plus will) to fulfill the unwritten but universally-recognized role that has been assigned to it by all the agreement’s signatories.

From all the evidence currently available, the answer to that question is a resounding “probably not!”

To date, all the arguments that Netanyahu and Obama have enunciated for and against the agreement have been based not on fact but on speculation. The primary arguments have centered almost wholly on such total unknowables as whether the Iranians will keep to the agreement, whether the Iranians can be kept from building nuclear weapons after the agreement is over, and whether the P5+1 will be willing to re-impose sanctions on Iran if Iran breaks the terms—or violates what the members of the P5+1 think is the intent of the terms—of the agreement.

The stakes on who is right could not be greater. Power patterns in the Middle East and Israeli-American relations could be affected for years, and maybe even for decades to come.

As Netanyahu claims, Iran could very well use the money it receives from the lifting of sanctions to carry out secret projects directed at designing nuclear weapons, designing vehicles to deliver those weapons, and sponsoring terrorists as they have done in the past.

However, Obama has countered that America’s use of force in the Middle East in the past has not only failed to achieve any positive results, it has cost his country over a trillion dollars in national treasure and thousands of soldiers’ lives. The only way to break this cycle, he claims, is through the use of diplomacy that he has initiated.

Whether the agreement will work in practice, however is almost totally dependent on whether any Iranian violation of the agreement’s terms can be discovered, publicized and penalized before the consequences of those violations become irreversible.

Although the revelations by Edward Snowden have made it appear to many that America is capable of assembling all the world’s secrets, the fact is that American efforts to both gather important facts in the Middle East and to interpret accurately the data that it does assemble has been undistinguished to put it very mildly.

President Obama has promised to one and all that America will be capable of uncovering any attempts by Iran to breach the agreement. However, both Netanyahu and the Sunni Moslem rulers in the Middle East are justifiably skeptical.

The historical record shows beyond any shadow of a doubt that the US has too often failed to gather important information, has failed to analyze existing data correctly, and has then failed to act when accurate assessments have been made.

For example, historians still debate whether the intelligence assessments used to justify the American invasion of Iraq were the product of faulty intelligence gathering and analysis or whether the data available was massaged to fit White House desires. It makes no difference which scenario is true. The results were disastrous.

Worse still, the lessons that should have been drawn from that failure seem to have had no effect when the United States later chose to withdraw its forces from Iraq—an act that set the stage for ISIS’s horrendous acts of slaughter, rape and pillage.

In another telling incident, the Syrians almost succeeded in completing the construction of a plant designed to process plutonium into warheads. The US initially failed to detect the reasons why the plant was being constructed, and later, as President George W. Bush revealed in his memoirs, refused to accept as “definitive” clear evidence, in the form of photographs and soil samples that the Israelis had gathered, that the installation was an Iranian-financed, North Korean-built plutonium processing installation. It did so so that it could then use that lame excuse to avoid bombing the site.

The installation was finally destroyed by Israeli fighter jets in September 2007.

The most recent incident occurred in the last week of July, when American officials admitted that the most wanted man on their list of “Most Wanted Men,” Mullah Omar, had actually been dead for two years.

All these facts raise a seminal question: Considering America’s documented history of ineptness in gathering data on the Middle East, in interpreting it and acting sensibly on the real data available, why have both the advocates who favour the Iran agreement and those who oppose it refused to address the issues that that history ineptitude raises? I think I know the answer, but I would first like to hear the opinions of those more cognizant with the workings of Washington than I.




The Daily Beast


Nancy A. Youssef Campaign&utm_term=*Situation Report

‘Cancer Within’

09.09.159:00 PM ET

Exclusive: 50 Spies Say ISIS Intelligence Was Cooked

It’s being called a ‘revolt’ by intelligence pros who are paid to give their honest assessment of the ISIS war—but are instead seeing their reports turned into happy talk.

More than 50 intelligence analysts working out of the U.S. military’s Central Command have formally complained that their reports on ISIS and al Qaeda’s branch in Syria were being inappropriately altered by senior officials, The Daily Beast has learned.

The complaints spurred the Pentagon’s inspector general to open an investigation into the alleged manipulation of intelligence. The fact that so many people complained suggests there are deep-rooted, systemic problems in how the U.S. military command charged with the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State assesses intelligence.

“The cancer was within the senior level of the intelligence command,” one defense official said.

Two senior analysts at CENTCOM signed a written complaint sent to the Defense Department inspector general in July alleging that the reports, some of which were briefed to President Obama, portrayed the terror groups as weaker than the analysts believe they are. The reports were changed by CENTCOM higher-ups to adhere to the administration’s public line that the U.S. is winning the battle against ISIS and al Nusra, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the analysts claim.

That complaint was supported by 50 other analysts, some of whom have complained about politicizing of intelligence reports for months. That’s according to 11 individuals who are knowledgeable about the details of the report and who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity.

The accusations suggest that a large number of people tracking the inner workings of the terror groups think that their reports are being manipulated to fit a public narrative. The allegations echoed charges that political appointees and senior officials cherry-picked intelligence about Iraq’s supposed weapons program in 2002 and 2003.

The two signatories to the complaint were described as the ones formally lodging it, and the additional analysts are willing and able to back up the substance of the allegations with concrete examples.

One person who knows the contents of the complaint said it used the word “Stalinist” to describe the tone set by officials overseeing the military’s analysis.

Some of those CENTCOM analysts described the sizeable cadre of protesting analysts as a “revolt” by intelligence professionals who are paid to give their honest assessment, based on facts, and not to be influenced by national-level policy. The analysts have accused senior-level leaders, including the director of intelligence and his deputy in CENTCOM, of changing their analyses to be more in line with the Obama administration’s public contention that the fight against ISIS and al Qaeda is making progress. The analysts take a more pessimistic view about how military efforts to destroy the groups are going.

The large number of analysts who complained to the Pentagon inspector general hasn’t been previously reported. Some of them are assigned to work at CENTCOM, the U.S. military’s command for the Middle East and Central Asia, but are officially employed by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The complaints allege that in some cases key elements of intelligence reports were removed, resulting in a document that didn’t accurately capture the analysts’ conclusions, sources familiar with the protest said. But the complaint also goes beyond alleged altering of reports and accuses some senior leaders at CENTCOM of creating an unprofessional work environment. One person who knows the contents of the written complaint sent to the inspector general said it used the word “Stalinist” to describe the tone set by officials overseeing CENTCOM’s analysis.

Many described a climate in which analysts felt they could not give a candid assessment of the situation in Iraq and Syria. Some felt it was a product of commanders protecting their career advancement by putting the best spin on the war.

Some reports crafted by the analysts that were too negative in their assessment of the war were sent back down the chain of the command or not shared up the chain, several analysts said. Still others, feeling the climate around them, self-censored so their reports affirmed already-held beliefs.

“While we cannot comment on the specific investigation cited in the article, we can speak to the process. The Intelligence Community routinely provides a wide range of subjective assessments related to the current security environment. These products and the analysis that they present are absolutely vital to our efforts, particularly given the incredibly complex nature of the multi-front fights that are ongoing now in Iraq and Syria,” said Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, U.S. CENTCOM spokesman. “Senior civilian and military leadership consider these assessments during planning and decision-making, along with information gained from various other sources, to include the insights provided by commanders on the ground and other key advisors, intelligence collection assets, and previous experience.”

Two of the officials who spoke to The Daily Beast said that analysts began airing their complaints in October in an effort to address the issue internally and only went to the inspector general when that effort failed. Some of those who complained were urged to retire, one official familiar with the report told The Daily Beast. Some agreed to leave.

In recent months, members of the Obama administration have sought to paint the fight against ISIS in rosy hues—despite the terror army’s seizure of major cities like Mosul and Fallujah.

“ISIS is losing,” John Allen, the retired Marine general charged with coordinating the ISIS campaign, said in July.

Top of Form

“I am confident that over time, we will beat, we will, indeed, degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in March, using the government’s preferred acronym for the group.

“No, I don’t think we’re losing,” President Obama said in May.

Yet a growing group of intelligence analysts persisted with their complaints. For some, who have served at CENTCOM for more than a decade, scars remained from the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq, when poorly written intelligence reports suggesting Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, when it did not, formed the basis of the George W. Bush administration’s case for war.

“They were frustrated because they didn’t do the right thing then” and speak up about their doubts on Iraq’s weapons program, the defense official told The Daily Beast.


The Daily Beast

09.20.159:00 PM ET

Exclusive: This Is the ISIS Intel the U.S. Military Dumbed Down

The intelligence pros said killing certain ISIS leaders might not diminish the group and that airstrikes might not be working. The bosses didn’t like those answers—not at all.

Senior intelligence officials at the U.S. military’s Central Command demanded significant alterations to analysts’ reports that questioned whether airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS were damaging the group’s finances and its ability to launch attacks. But reports that showed the group being weakened by the U.S.-led air campaign received comparatively little scrutiny, The Daily Beast has learned.

Senior CENTCOM intelligence officials who reviewed the critical reports sent them back to the analysts and ordered them to write new versions that included more footnotes and details to support their assessments, according to two officials familiar with a complaint levied by more than 50 analysts about intelligence manipulation by CENTCOM higher-ups.

In some cases, analysts were also urged to state that killing particular ISIS leaders and key officials would diminish the group and lead to its collapse. Many analysts, however, didn’t believe that simply taking out top ISIS leaders would have an enduring effect on overall operations.

“There was the reality on the ground but it was not as rosy as [the leadership] wanted it to be,” a defense official familiar with the complaint told The Daily Beast. “The challenge was assessing whether the glass was half empty, not half full.”

Some analysts have also complained that they felt “bullied” into reaching conclusions favored by their bosses, two separate sources familiar with analysts’ complaints said. The written and verbal pressure created a climate at CENTCOM in which analysts felt they had to self-censor some of their reports.

Some of the analysts have also accused their bosses of changing the reports in order to appeal to what they perceived as the Obama administration’s official line that the anti-ISIS campaign was making progress and would eventually end with the group’s destruction.

Lawmakers and even presidential candidates seized on the allegations of politicizing intelligence as the White House tried to distance itself from the very strategy it has been pursuing.

Army General Lloyd Austin came under withering bipartisan criticism on Wednesday when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that after spending at least $43 million over a 10-month period, the U.S. had trained only nine fighters to confront ISIS in Syria.

Senators were dumbfounded that the nearly year-long effort had produced such paltry results, calling it “a joke” and “an abject failure.”

Officials: Second hack exposed military and intel data

WSOC – Charlotte, NC

Senator John McCain, the committee chairman, called Austin’s testimony “grossly distorted” and said the general was attempting to convince senators that the military was making more progress against ISIS than he believes it is.

Asked whether he had ever ordered changes to intelligence reports, Austin replied, “Absolutely not.”

The Obama administration is now considering modifying the Syrian train-and-equip program, while the White House attempts to portray the president as having always been skeptical of it.

“There was the reality on the ground but it was not as rosy as [the leadership] wanted it to be. The challenge was assessing whether the glass was half empty, not half full.”

Meanwhile, Pentagon investigators are examining the back-and-forth between the intelligence bosses at CENTCOM and the analysts, which created a paper trail. Favorable reports had fewer comments written on them, and requests that were more critical showed heavy questioning, the two officials said.

The altering of intelligence led to reports that overstated the damage that U.S. strikes had on specific ISIS targets. For instance, strikes on oil refineries and equipment were said to have done more damage to the group’s financing of operations through illicit oil sales than the analysts believed. Also, strikes on military equipment were said to have set back the group’s ability to wage combat operations, when the analysts believed that wasn’t always the case.

The altered reports made ISIS seem financially weakened and less capable of launching attacks, the analysts allege.

The CENTCOM supervisors “did not like the reports on the impact [of the airstrikes] because they didn’t believe it,” one military adviser familiar with CENTCOM operations told The Daily Beast.

The Defense Department inspector general has been conducting interviews at CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida, in order to determine who in the command’s intelligence directorate may have distorted or manipulated the intelligence reports, some of which eventually made their way into materials briefed to President Obama. Investigators have pulled CENTCOM personnel one by one into private interviews to get to the bottom of the allegations and determine who was ultimately responsible for changing intelligence reports, according to individuals with knowledge of the investigation.

The inspector general has confirmed that the investigation is focused on the CENTCOM intelligence directorate, or J2. Multiple sources told The Daily Beast that the head of intelligence, Army Major General Steven Grove, is named in the complaint, as are several other senior officials at CENTCOM. The tone of the complaint is said to be harsh and highly critical of senior officials’ leadership and actions.

The U.S.-led coalition to fight ISIS has conducted 6,863 strikes in the year-long campaign in Iraq and Syria, according to Pentagon statistics.

No evidence has emerged that military commanders at CENTCOM who make decisions about airstrikes read the reports and then changed the number of strikes as a result. However, the generally optimistic reports may have stalled debate about whether the strategy needed to be re-examined or changed.

Defenders of CENTCOM noted that however optimistic the reports were, they are just one of many factors commanders would have considered when assessing a strategy. A CENTCOM spokesman said that while he couldn’t discuss ongoing investigations, there’s a robust system of assessing information, and it doesn’t rely solely on one assessment.

“The intelligence community routinely provides a wide range of subjective assessments related to the current security environment,” said Air Force Colonel Patrick Ryder, a CENTCOM spokesman. “Senior civilian and military leadership consider these assessments during planning and decision-making, along with information gained from various other sources, to include the insights provided by commanders on the ground and other key advisers, intelligence collection assets, and previous experience.”

The Pentagon investigation has led some CENTCOM analysts to fret that launching their complaint will end up tainting the credibility of their reports for years to come, the very thing they were trying to avoid by calling out their bosses.

Still others worry that the inquiry, which could take a year, will not aggressively seek to hold accountable those who changed the reports.

Several sources told The Daily Beast that Austin has warned his subordinates not to retaliate against anyone who spoke out, helping mollify a tense environment at CENTCOM.

The alleged cooking of the intel books on ISIS became a point of discussion in the second televised Republican presidential debate last week.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee pointed to the CENTCOM analysts’ complaint during a discussion of national security strategy. “If you don’t have good intelligence that is reliable and honest, you won’t have good intelligence and you cannot make good decisions,” he said.


Military Analyst Again Raises Red Flags on Progress in Iraq


WASHINGTON — As the war in Iraq deteriorated, a senior American intelligence analyst went public in 2005 and criticized President George W. Bush’s administration for pushing “amateurish and unrealistic” plans for the invasion two years before.

Now that same man, Gregory Hooker, is at the center of an insurrection of United States Central Command intelligence analysts over America’s latest war in Iraq, and whether Congress, policy makers and the public are being given too rosy a picture of the situation.

As the senior Iraq analyst at Central Command, the military headquarters in Tampa that oversees American military operations across the Middle East and Central Asia, Mr. Hooker is the leader of a group of analysts that is accusing senior commanders of changing intelligence reports to paint an overly optimistic portrait of the American bombing campaign against the Islamic State. The Pentagon’s inspector general is investigating.

Although the investigation became public weeks ago, the source of the allegations and Mr. Hooker’s role have not been previously known. Interviews with more than a dozen current and former intelligence officials place the dispute directly at the heart of Central Command, with Mr. Hooker and his team in a fight over what Americans should believe about the war.



Gregory Hooker is critical of reports on the ISIS fight.

Mr. Hooker, who declined to comment, has been an Iraq analyst for more than two decades. Some on his team were at Central Command, or Centcom, when American troops poured into Iraq in 2003. The analysts remained focused on the country long after President Obama officially ended the war in 2011.

“This core group of Iraq analysts have been doing this for a long time,” said Stephen Robb, a retired Marine colonel and a former head of the Centcom Joint Intelligence Center. “If they say there’s smoke, start looking for a firehouse.”

The investigation has repercussions beyond the question of whether the American-led bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria is succeeding. The allegations call into question how much the president — this one or the next — can rely on Centcom for honest assessments of military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and other crisis spots.

In some ways, the Iraq team’s criticism mirrors the disputes of a decade ago, when Mr. Hooker wrote a research paper saying the Bush administration, over many analysts’ objections, advocated a small force in Iraq and spent little time thinking about what would follow the invasion.

That dispute was separate from the battle over flawed intelligence assessments by the C.I.A. and other spy agencies that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Central Command did not contribute significantly to those assessments.

Several current and former officials said that it was the two most senior intelligence officers at Centcom — Maj. Gen. Steven Grove and his civilian deputy, Gregory Ryckman — who drew analysts’ ire with changes in draft intelligence assessments. But why the assessments were changed remains an open question. Some analysts suggested that leaders in Tampa feared that reporting bad news might anger the White House. Others described an institutional bias that makes it hard for the military to criticize its own operations.

Centcom’s leader, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, was chosen for the job in part because the White House regarded him as a steady, cautious loyalist who would execute military operations in the Middle East with little drama — an especially important consideration after the contentious relationship between the White House and Gen. James Mattis, the previous Centcom commander. General Austin gave testimony last week to the Senate Armed Services Committee that was roundly criticized by some lawmakers as being an overly positive assessment of the war’s progress.

Centcom’s mammoth intelligence operation, with some 1,500 civilian, military and contract analysts, is housed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, in a bay front building that has the look of a sterile government facility posing as a Spanish hacienda. In banks of plain cubicles, the analysts try each day to measure the progress of war.

That effort has long been difficult, particularly in campaigns without traditional armies and clear battle lines. During the war in Vietnam, generals were criticized for measuring success in body counts. In the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, the military issues daily reports that suggest tactical victories but offer little hint about how the war is going.

“One airstrike struck an ISIL tactical unit and destroyed an ISIL cache, three ISIL fighting positions and one ISIL motorcycle,” a report this month said. “Near Ramadi, one airstrike destroyed an ISIL vehicle.”

Brian Hale, a spokesman for the director of national intelligence, played down the significance of Centcom’s conclusions in shaping the thinking of senior policy makers, including Mr. Obama, about the war. In a statement on Wednesday he said that Centcom and other military commanders do not provide “broad or strategic assessments.”

The success of daily airstrikes, experts say, can give the illusion of progress, particularly for Centcom commanders who are judged in Washington on their ability to carry out a successful mission. Iraq analysts, officials said, are less optimistic.

“You can get pulled into watching the laser dot on a target and watching it blow up,” said Kevin Benson, a retired Army colonel who teaches intelligence analysis to officers at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. “After that, it can be hard to hear that you’re not making progress, because you saw it.”

Analysts like Mr. Hooker and his team are supposed to be immune from such pressure because they are employed by the Defense Intelligence Agency. In practice, though, the analysts are reviewed by officials at Centcom.

Although critics have suggested that the bombing campaign’s stalemate proves the need for more troops in Iraq, colleagues say Mr. Hooker’s team is not advocating that approach. “I don’t know anyone outside of a political commercial who thinks we need to send large numbers of troops into Iraq,” said one intelligence official who has worked closely with the Centcom analysts.

Instead, analysts say the dispute centers on whether the military is being honest about the political and religious situation in Iraq and whether a bombing campaign can change it.

Current and ex-officials said tension about how to portray the war’s progress began almost at the start of the campaign last summer, when Mr. Obama authorized strikes against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and later expanded the bombings to Syria.

Early this year, one former official said, Mr. Hooker’s team concluded that, despite public statements to the contrary, airstrikes against Islamic State-held refineries had not significantly weakened its finances because it had built makeshift refineries to sell oil on the black market. But the finding was not distributed outside Centcom, the ex-official said.

Over this past year, analysts felt pressure to keep their assessments positive. In order to report bad news, current and former officials said, the analysts were required to cite multiple sources. Reporting positive news required fewer hurdles. Senior officials sent emails cautioning against using pessimistic phrases that they said were more likely to get attention, according to one former official. In some instances, officials said, conclusions were completely changed.

Anger among analysts grew so intense that in the spring, Mr. Hooker’s civilian boss, William Rizzio, confronted his superiors about the problems. Mr. Rizzio, a retired Marine colonel who had gradually come to take the side of the analysts in the dispute, had meetings with General Grove and Mr. Ryckman. It is unclear what transpired in the meetings, but three people with knowledge of the situation, who, like some others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter is part of the inspector general’s investigation, said the result was that Mr. Rizzio was punished for siding with the analysts. He was temporarily reassigned, and analysts were left wondering what happened to him after his name was scraped off the front of his office at Centcom’s Joint Intelligence Center.

Mr. Rizzio, who has since returned to his position, declined to be interviewed.

His concerns gained a more sympathetic hearing several months later, when officials began speaking to the Pentagon’s inspector general, who opened his investigation in July. Officials would not say if Mr. Hooker was the first analyst to do so.

The inspector general’s investigation turned a quiet matter into one of the most high-profile intelligence disputes since officials issued new rules that encourage dissenting views. Those rules were intended to prevent a repeat of the debacle over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The investigation has put this team of analysts, who for years worked in relative obscurity, at the center of a dispute that has the attention of intelligence officials across the government.

“Signing onto a whistle-blowing complaint can easily be a career-ender,” David Shedd, a former acting head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, wrote in a column this week on Defense One, a national security news website. “The nation’s analytic professionals are watching closely to see how it is handled.”






The Chasm Separating Israel From Europe and American Diaspora Jewry

I don’t normally like to talk about my health. But, this time, I must make an exception. You see, I’ve been getting a very sore neck lately because, after reading so many of the current news stories in print and watching videos of so many of those same news stories on television, I have been shaking my head back and forth in wonder far too much.


Here are just a few of what seem to be a tsunami of totally wondrous and seemingly disparate news stories about Israel that I have encountered lately.


At the New York conference run by the Jerusalem Post, Caroline Glick, who has never allowed facts to get in the way of her dogmatic opinions, charged former army major general and former head of the Mossad Meir Dagan and former chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi with having failed to carry out the orders that had been issued to them by Prime Minister Netanyahu and the then Defence Minister Ehud Barak to call up the reserves and to prepare for an attack on Iran in 2012. In effect, she was implying that they had committed a breach of duty and possibly even treason.


When Dagan quietly responded that the reason for the supposed disobedience was that the orders had been issued illegally, he was loudly booed by the more than 1000 people in the audience. The jeering audience members seemed unwilling to countenance the very idea that the two generals who were on stage with Glick, and who each had likely done more for Israel than everyone in the audience combined, had acted as they did because they knew with certainty that Netanyahu and Barak had broken Israeli law.


Extraordinary as it may seem, Israeli ex-military men were being put in a position where, before an American civilian audience, it was they who had to defend democracy, buttress the idea of civilian control over the military and champion generally-accepted principles of good government.


As Dagan patiently tried to explain amidst the cat-calls, under Israeli law, only the security cabinet (at a minimum) can declare war. With great patience he made the seemingly self-evident point that in a democracy, a collective of the people’s representatives—not the professional military and not autocratic leaders—should be the only ones to initiate the use of state-sponsored violence.


In this case, and in a move that was perfectly attuned to that most basic principle of democracy—the rule of law—the two generals, after they had been given their orders, had demanded that they first be allowed to address the whole cabinet. Significantly, after hearing the generals’ argument, the cabinet chose not to approve the Netanyahu/Barak proposal.
At about the same time that the meeting in New York was taking place, Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine published an interview with Barak Obama; and, soon after, Goldberg himself was interviewed by David Rothkopf, the publisher of the magazine Foreign Policy in order to clarify some of the points Obama had made. From both publications, it would appear that Obama, a church-going Christian and the son of a Moslem father, thinks that he knows more about Jewish values than Israelis do. And without even a trace of facetiousness, Goldberg boldly declared that, in his opinion, Obama is the most “Jewish” President that the United States has ever had.


Then, not long afterwards, Aaron David Miller, who was a senior member of the American team that tried to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, published another article in Foreign Policy in which he tried to speculate how it was possible that the Israelis, according to a well-respected poll, are the 11th happiest people on earth—far happier than the Americans or the Brits.


The best reason Miller could come up with was an assumption that the Israelis get a high just comparing themselves to the people who live in Arab and Moslem states that surround them.


Soon after Miller had published his cogitations, the special committee set up by the UN’s Human Rights Council to investigate whether Israel had committed war crimes during the most recent bout of fighting in Gaza published its final report. The committee, as expected, charged Israel with having committed such crimes. However, it also admitted that it had made that judgment without having been given all the evidence it needed to do so.


More importantly, to my mind, when I checked the report, I discovered that the committee members hadn’t even considered how real soldiers elsewhere in the world have behaved under similar circumstances. In other words, the committee had no factual baseline to use as a check on the theories, suppositions and propositions that had popped into their heads as they reviewed the data that they had assembled.


I could go on and on. But the main point I want to make is that each of these news reports is about Israel, and at least at first glance, they all seem to describe very different sets of circumstances in which the country is involved. However, a closer look shows that they have one obvious commonality. They all involve perceptions that non-Israelis have formed about Israel…perceptions that cannot be validated by any facts that are available, but that these individuals have accepted as truths.


Each of the writers I have mentioned (and many others I could just as easily have noted) is well known, is a trend setter, and has a great influence on how Israel is perceived and judged by other non-Israelis. Nonetheless, although I have diligently researched the subject, I have been unable to find a single well-thought-through article that traces how these individuals’ observations about Israel are formed…and especially why their assessments so often diverge radically from the reality that can be pieced together from even an elementary perusal of the raw data available.


I cannot over-emphasize just how important this subject is, because only by exploring this issue in depth is it possible to explain the chasmic gaps in understanding that have developed between Israel and many of the democratic states it wants to befriend, and the often even deeper crevasses in understanding that have opened up between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.


In the past, I have invested a lot of effort in studying and explaining the Israeli side of the story—especially the shift by settler supporters from comprehensive, generally-thoughtful Revisionism to narrow, dogmatic neo-nationalism, the collapse of Labour as an effective, alternative political voice, and the growing insularity, stupidity and narrow-mindedness of Israel’s policy-makers.


Now, however, I would like to examine how and why some of Israel’s main interlocutors behave as they do.


My basic thesis for why there is such a widespread misunderstanding of what makes Israelis tick and what makes them behave as they do is an adaptation of the theory of human cognition that has been laid out by the Israeli-born Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman believes that people think in two distinct ways. What he calls “System One” is by far the most prevalent one. Under that system, we use all sorts of mental shortcuts to rapidly arrive at conclusions. This results in a huge saving in time and energy, but, obviously, it can lead us to adopt as the truth some very wrong ideas about the world around us. The second type, System Two, requires us to slowly and methodically think things through before coming to a conclusion. The drawback is that thinking this way takes a lot of time and huge outlays of energy that may not be available.


My own codicil to Kahneman’s theory is that, in both cases, unless we are acutely aware of them, all the input that we use when we apply both System One and System Two is first passed through a set of historical, social, political, ideological and especially cultural filters. Too often, this filtering is intense and ends only when people feel comfortable with the perception of reality that they have created—even if that perception, in fact, bears no relationship to the actual reality.


Only very rarely do people take the enormous effort needed to stop the filtering and go back to the raw data available in order to examine whether a clear assessment can be made…one that is not distorted and made hazy by the filters we carry with us. No less importantly, only through a careful examination of which filters are in use by speakers and writers who are trying to influence us is it possible to comprehend why each different group of Jews and gentiles adopts the positions it does with regard to Israel.


The two most common filters that people use are the value system of the culture of which they are a member, and the audience whom they wish to reach after they have made their assessment.


Almost invariably, even if the individual in question belongs to an organization numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands, or even if he or she putatively addresses an audience of hundreds of thousands, that individual’s true audience rarely numbers more than a handful of people.


I will use myself as an example of what I am talking about.


I am particularly sensitive to this entire subject because, in order to make a living, from the day I began to write professionally, one of my most important tasks has been to reconcile the data that I gather with the demands that editors bring to my work. Although, at times, my theoretical audience numbered in the millions, I was always writing for no more than two or three people at most—the ones who had the power to decide what I could broadcast or publish.


Because their usual mandate is to make reasoned assessments of what they read and see, editors are the most archetypical news consumers. For that reason, and because of my long experience in dealing with many, many editors, I have been able to make, what I believe is a fairly accurate assessment about how people digest the information they receive.


To begin with, I believe that on average, editors do think like other, normal sentient human beings. The only big difference between them and other news consumers is that they have to make assessments about the news more often and they get paid for doing so.


I have found that, almost invariably, the position an editor adopts when the subject of Israel arises has very little to do with the reality in which Israelis find themselves, and a great deal to do with the editor’s own personality. Good editors are able to put their own thoughts and preconceptions on hold while they digest the data that they receive. The vast majority, however, are highly influenced at all times by the culture of which they are a member and the audience or two or three people to whom they have to report. Their culture includes accepting certain other media outlets as authoritative sources of information and judgment.


Once their favourite filters are applied, the position that most ediors, like most other people, adopt with regard to Israel is very often the product of a default mechanism—not the result of careful analysis and cogent thought.


In other words, too often, editors, like most other people, use Kahneman-style System One thinking, not System Two thought.


What do I mean when I use the term “a default mechanism?” Quite simply, once a person uses all the short-cuts that Kahneman points to and the filters that I speak of, people usually come to believe that whatever is left, so long as these often disparate and incoherent leftovers can nonetheless be fashioned easily into a comfortable narrative. That narrative, no matter how simplistic, conspiracy-laden or horrendously convoluted it may be, is then considered to be the truth. The idea that other crucial information may remain to be discovered rarely enters their minds


The chasms and crevasses that I noted at the beginning are a direct product of the difference in perceptions that people hold after that have arrived at the narrative that they feel most comfortable with.


I now want to examine two such gaps in perception—the one that now separates many Europeans from Israelis, and the one that separates Israelis from most Diaspora Jews.


But before doing so, I need to lay out what I believe is the essence of Israel’s political world. For more that forty years, I have been trying to come up with an easily digestible description of Israel’s peculiar and often seemingly-indescribable political landscape…and last week, in a serendipitous moment, it finally came to me. In almost every way I can think of, the Israeli political ecosphere resembles a tropical rainforest that is extraordinarily complex, whose multitude of parts are exquisitely, synergistically intertwined, and which all too often has been subject to predation by those who do not care to study it or do not care about its future survival.


Among those who have been most guilty of not studying the Israeli political jungle properly are the West Europeans.


I have chosen to use the non-Russian-influenced Europeans as my first case study because their motivations and actions are highly transparent; and so their thought processes can be traced relatively easily. Furthermore, these Europeans, in general, are not inherently anti-Israeli and usually do not carry with them any historical prejudices against the State of Israel that might otherwise explain why they act towards the country as they do. They can thus provide a model and baseline for studying the way others, including Diaspora Jews, relate to Israel.


The recent attempt by France to get the EU to try to impose a broad framework for negotiations on the Israelis and the Palestinians is an excellent example of how ignorance can produce scenarios that are actually counter-productive to the aims that proposers of a solution to the Israeli-Arab dispute have enunciated.


By any rational analysis, the Israeli-Palestinian issue should be way down on the Europeans’ list of priorities. After all, that continent is now almost totally overwhelmed by an avalanche of crises that include, but don’t stop at, the flood of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean, the radicalization of the Moslems in Europe, the threat to international instability caused by the advent of ISIS and el Qaeda, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the weakening of the economy of most of the EU countries, the almost complete collapse of the Greek economy, the Russian seizure of the Crimea, Putin’s not-so-secret war in Ukraine, the Russians’ harassment of the Baltic states, the inability of the Europeans to agree on a boost in defence budgeting to 2 percent of GDP to meet the Russian challenge, the ecological cost of over-fishing…and many other things.


According to all the evidence we have available, for the most part, the Europeans have been largely unable to find solutions for these possibly existential problems. However, there are thousands of politicians and tens of thousands of bureaucrats in Europe who somehow have to justify their right to hold down their current jobs and the salary that accompanies those jobs.


Precisely because they have been unable to resolve so many of the far more immediate and pressing issues with which they are faced, the Europeans’ current attempt to rejuvenate the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations became many of these officials’, bureaucrats’ and pundits’ default option for justifying their existence. And it became a particularly high priority because the Israel-Arab dispute is structured in such a way that it is an almost ideal vehicle for performing the task of justifying one’s exstence.


To begin with, despite everything that has been published about the dispute, the audiences that these officials need to relate to most, whether they are institutional bean counters or political wheeler-dealers, are basically ignorant of the reality in which the Israelis and Palestinians live. Their expertise is in the fields of bean-counting and political wheeler-dealing, not political anthropology.


Therefore, it has been fairly easy for these officials and the journalists with whom they have constructed a symbiotic relationship, to construct a narrative to suit their audiences cultural comfort zone and their own particular needs. Anything said to a broader audience via a news conference or other public statement is mere slop-over stuff that was invariably originally prepared for the tiny core audience that these officials are seeking.


Secondly, from a purely technical point of view, the Israeli-Palestinian story requires only a minimal amount of thought on the officials and politicians part to assuredly trigger a System One response on the part of the targeted audience. All they need to work on are a set of remarks that can elicit emotional responses that are sufficiently strong that they overcome any residual desires audience that members may have to undertake substantive thinking.


And, maybe most importantly, precisely because the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is about a subject that is, to paraphrase Neville Chamberlain, underway “in a place far away of which most people know little,” these officials know in advance that almost anything they do or say, and especially any mistakes they make along the way, will be, relatively speaking, socially, politically and economically cost-free to themselves.


However, as I have already noted, whatever these officials do or say must relate to their audience’s native culture and the value system that accompanies it.


The process that led to the proclamation of the EU’s basic values began very soon after World War II ended. The leading political, economic and social thinkers on that continent at that time felt driven to try to find a way to prevent the sort of calamities that had twice brought previously unimaginable wreck and ruin to their countries in less than half a century.


The Americans had already undertaken a similar intellectual search. In keeping with their cultural values that favour mechanistic solutions to political and social problems, the Americans had quickly adopted two extraordinarily generous and successful technically-based policies—the Marshall plan that enabled the economies of the countries that had been devastated to be rebuilt, and the decision to found NATO in order to protect Western nations against another bout of military aggression, especially from the Soviet Union.


The Europeans, however, because of their cultural background, felt the need to take a different, more socially-oriented tack. As part of that effort, they helped create three remarkable initiatives. The first was to sponsor a set of revisions that were made in 1949 and 1954 to expand the Geneva and Hague conventions respectively. The aim of these changes was to strengthen a notion that was already in the process of becoming widely accepted on the continent. That idea is that rational people can construct a comprehensive code of international law that can govern the behavior of all countries. For decades now, many Europeans have believed that such a code, if properly and sensitively put together, can be acceptable to all cultures and…even when those countries are engaged in murderous mutual violence.


The second was to establish the European Steel and Coal Community in 1951. This project was an attempt to eliminate state-initiated violence and war by weakening what the Europeans had come to view as the main cause of wars—nationalism and its European-invented by-product, nation-statism. The vehicle that would be used to accomplish this objective was the replacement of narrow autarkic nationalism with mutual dependence created by supra-nationalism. The ultimate aim, as French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman put it when the treaty establishing the Steel and Coal community was signed was “to make war not only unthinkable, but materially impossible” by creating permanent interdependence.


The third was a decision to give up control of the colonies that the Europeans had established in Africa, Asia and the Americas. The invention of new technological means of communication in the 20th century, especially motion picture film and radio, had made wide swaths of the public both in Europe and in the colonies perceive that the continued possession of colonies is immoral, and should be the subject of opprobrium wherever it is detected.


Very soon, history books used in schools were rewritten to accord with this new zeitgeist. One by-product of this historical revisionism was the installation in a whole generation of European children of a rejection of and a sense of deep guilt at what they were taught their nationalist, colonialist, warmongering, forefathers had done.


A new political orthodoxy had been born


However, the instructors of this new ethos also needed to create a new form of rhetoric that could be used to explain, explicate and propagandize their new weltanschauung. Earlier this year, I pointed out that the rhetoric chosen, especially by those on the left, was based on a set of expressions that were first employed by the early Church fathers in the 4th century, but which had been secularized to accord with modern Europeans’ ideological needs.


Significantly for Israel today, most of those expressions were part of a literary and rhetorical canon that was originally designed to demean and denigrate the Jewish culture from which Christianity had evolved. I think that it can be successfully argued that the anti-Jewish texts and subtexts of the early the Christian fathers’ writings have remained part of the European collective unconsciousness…and for that reason, expressions that derive from that collection of arguments can be used very effectively in creating an muchly-desired, emotional reaction by the public in support of criticism levelled at the ways Israel, the nation-state of the Jews, behaves.


Put simply, by the mid-1950s, the Europeans, and especially European officialdom, had come into possession of both a comprehensive social and economic ideology, and a vehicle for expressing it. This was a significant achievement by any measure.


However, that did not mean that all the old behavior patterns would somehow disappear.


Among the behavior patterns that remained was a tendency to turn the initial post-war political writings of brilliant, imaginative and ground-breaking figures such as France’s Jean Monet into the secular equivalent of holy writ and thus to create a new, rigid Orthodoxy. Another was to employ what I called in one of my books “displacement.”


One of the most common phenomena that I have found in my years as an analyst is that when a society has difficulty in discussing an existential or severely troubling issue, it often does so by discussing the same issue, but only in reference to another country. For example, the Belgians have yet to reconcile or forgive themselves for King Leopold’s abominable behavior in that country’s Congo colony. But they rarely talk about it. Instead some of their politicians and almost all of their press focus incessantly on what they claim are the evils of the Israeli colonization of Arab territory.


Only by recognizing and understanding all of these factors is it possible to understand the way in which Europe’s relations with Israel evolved. In basic point form:


  • European officials needed a vehicle to justify their existence
  • That vehicle had to feed into the perceptions of and satisfy the needs of these officials’ immediate audience.
  • Therefore, it had to be accompanied by ideas that had become orthodox beliefs.
  • Only two or three accepted dogmas—those most favoured by the target audience—were usually needed to provide a focal point for the vehicle.
  • The subject of the exercise had to be a group that appeared to either agree with or disagree with the reigning orthodoxy of the target audience.
  • Likewise, another easily-defined and easily-pictured group that took positions that were totally at odds with the first one had to be included in the planned scenario in order to provide a foil for the first group. In other words the vehicle had to include clear descriptions of who were the “white hats” and who were the “black hats.”
  • The proposals made did not have to be tempered by reality checks because the initiators of the proposals did not have any long-term, personal stakes in the outcome. That was because they knew in advance that they would not suffer any penalties if their proposals were actually adopted, implemented and ultimately shown to have been a failure or even counter-productive.


All the factors that I have just mentioned have combined to produce a by now widely-accepted narrative in Europe that Israel is inhabited by and run by an ugly, nationalist, aggressive, war-mongering, colonialist society. Not only that, Israel is governed by criminals. In particular, because of its settlement policies, the country is operating in contravention of the Europeans’ prized and adored international law.


Of course, in order to provide an appearance of balance, the officials always also point to what they usually describe as a band of a few brave Israeli and Jewish Diaspora souls who are willing to challenge the Israeli status quo.


Note that the Israeli centre, and its concerns with the subtleties, nuances and ambiguities of the situation in which Israel finds itself, is completely ignored. That is because officialdom everywhere considers itself to be an elite of movers and shakers. Therefore, they believe, all diplomacy and policymaking should be directed at influencing other elites. The hoi polloi are best ignored because they can act in embarrassing ways and say embarrassing things.


If I can come back to my central metaphor for a moment, the Europeans behave like a group that chooses to live in a closed lodge that is on the edge of the rain forest. Every once in a while they decide to send small raiding parties into the jungle with instructions to pick the lowest-hanging and most-reachable fruit they can find. Any branches that may be broken or torn in the process can be ignored because there will be no penalties applied to the pickers for having done damage to the trees.


Strange as it may seem at first, a not dissimilar process of division and criticism between Israeli and Diaspora Jews is also proceeding apace at this moment. For lack of time, I will focus now only on American Diaspora Jewry.


The different historical experiences they have undergone and the different milieus in which they live have led Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews to employ very different sets of filters in their day-to-day lives. This has then led almost every definable Diaspora Jewish group and community to perceive many issues in very different ways; and also to perceive many of those same issues in ways that differ from most Israelis.


In order to understand this dynamic, it is important to recognize and to take into account the fact that Ashkenazi Jewry, which essentially controls the vast majority of both Israeli and Diaspora Jewish discourse, has not had a unifying, comprehensive set of values since the rebellion by the Baal Shem Tov in the early decades of the 18th century. Since that first major division, which took place almost entirely in Eastern Europe, Ashkenazi Jewish society everywhere has been defined by its factionalism.


Even more importantly, not long after the Baal Shem Tov began his preaching, another, even more radically-inspired division got underway in Central Europe. In Berlin, the German Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelsohnn, became the first Jew to try to adapt traditional Jewish thought to the concepts that had emerged from and were continually evolving as a result of the gentiles’ intellectual revolution that has since come to be known as the “European Enlightenment.”


The process that Mendelsohnn began gathered momentum in Western Europe with the arrival on the scene of Napoleon and his granting of unprecedented freedoms to Jews in the lands his troops occupied; and it was given further impetus in both Central and Western Europe by the political and social rebellions in Western Europe in 1848. In Germany, for example, some Jews acquired a secular university education for the first time—at least in those subjects that they were allowed to study.


Unsurprisingly, soon after this revolution had gathered speed, yet another split developed…this time between the modernizers and those reactionaries, led by German Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who, unlike the Eastern European Haredim, chose not run away from the challenges raised by the modernizers.


Because the general environment created by Catholics and the Orthodox Church leaders in Eastern Europe was totally stifling and conservative, it took until the mid-19th century for the Jewish Enlightenment that was initiated by Mendelsohnn to develop any momentum in Eastern Europe. But in keeping with what had by then become a Jewish tradition, by the late 1880s, two new major and bitterly competitive secular political movements had emerged out of the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment movement in Eastern Europe—Hebraist Zionism and the Yiddishist Bundism. The Zionists believed in Jewish nationalism, while the Bundists were convinced that the Jews’ future lay in adapting to the gentile world around them.


It is significant that at that very moment a massive emigration by Eastern European Jews to the New World had begun in earnest. Partly because America was so welcoming but also so unprotective of the labouring classes, socialist Bundism became the primary ideology of the masses of the Eastern European Ashkenazis who chose to immigrate to the United States.


For a while, though, especially after Israel was founded and had emerged triumphant from its War of Independence, it appeared as though Bundism in North America would eventually die out. In the United States, the passage of the first generation of American-born Jews out of the manufacturing sector of the economy and into the professional, managerial and trade-based middle class, the resulting steep decline in Jewish trade unionist activism, the vilification of socialism in American political discourse, and the refocusing of Jewish activity on the synagogue and the JCC rather than one the Jewish political movements such as the Farband and Habonim all pointed in that direction.


However, by the 1950s, the second and third generations of American Jews were actually in the process of trying to meld their grandparents’ Bundist ideals and the semi-Bundist values their parents had inherited with those embodied in the American constitution. The end product of that effort, prior to the invention of neo-conservatism, was that very special political beast, which is usually referred to as Democratic Party-voting American Jewish liberalism. Among other things, adherents to that particular ideological grouping played a major supporting role in both the anti-Viet Nam War movement and the fight for equality by American blacks in the 1960s.


Crucially for these neo-Bundists, a new dynamic among Jews almost everywhere got underway during the traumatic 3 week waiting period prior to the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day War. The threat to such a huge number of Jews, especially so soon after the Holocaust (during which Jews had been largely hapless in trying to save their co-religionists) had become so palpable that these neo-Bundist, often-fervent American loyalists felt that they could not ignore that threat. For that reason, a great many of these same American Jews, who had had only a passing interest in Israel in the past, began to more openly support the survival of the Zionists. Significantly, they did so as a human rights, right-to-life issue, not a Jewish nationalist one. Once the war ended, the pride created among most Diaspora Jews by Israel’s monumental victory could henceforth not be ignored by even the most diehard America-first Bundists.


For that reason, and for a very short while, especially during the interlude from the Six-Day War to the period immediately after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, it appeared as though most of modernized world Jewry had reversed its previous tendency towards factionalization and had actually found, in theirsupport of Israel, a common political language.


However, even before the 1973 war began, the advent of Israeli settlement policies in the occupied territories, initiated largely by the socialist Ahdut HaAvodah faction of Labour, the urban Mizrahi faction of the national religious movement in Israel, and the Herut faction of the newly created Likud party was bringing about a major Zionist political realignment that would soon be taken to even greater extremes by some Jews in the United States.


In Israel, Menachem Begin succeeded in creating a coalition of disaffected Mizrahi and Sephardi voters, classical Zionist Revisionists, and Labourites who believed in the right of Jews to possess the Whole Land of Israel. Although Begin was a devout ideological Revisionist, the first casualty of this realignment in Israel was the Israelis’ previous attachment to comprehensive political, social and economic ideologies. Well thought-through ideologies were soon replaced by narrow emotionally-driven dogmas—especially about how Israel should deal in the medium and long terms with its possession of the areas it had captured during the 1967 war.


To continue my tropical forest metaphor…The intellectual ruminations, especially by the Labour, Revisionist, Liberal and Mizrahi parties that had led to the creation of the forest in the first place, came to an abrupt halt. For decades, each of these groups had labored to polish their carefully-thought-through masterplan for how such a forest should look and operate. The result of their combined and competitive intellectual and physical handiwork had been the assemblage of an extraordinarily complex political biosphere. However, the next generation had been less interested in the fine points or even the underlying or over-riding rational why certain elements within the forest had been created and even nurtured.


Labour’s heirs wasted most of their energies trying to determine who would lead the next group to enter into the forest; and so they rarely bothered deciding what they would do once they actually entered the undergrowth and the green canopy.


The scions of the other major groups preferred to focus only on over-cropping those economic, social and political commodities that would give them the most immediate benefits. Most cared little about studying what would best sustain the ecosphere that had been created with such thought and care.


It was almost inevitable that under these circumstances, when faced with the seeming polarization of the political system in Israel, that the American, liberal, Bundists-turned-sort-of-Zionists would become ardent supporters of the land for peace camp that Labour claimed to be leading.


By a quirk of fate, a young black lawyer and law professor would become attracted to and become close friends with those secular Jewish intellectuals at Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago who were active or charter members of the Bundist-turned-Zionist political pole. And it was through them, prior to his election as President of the United States, that he became acquainted with and absorbed what he came to believe was the single and singular value system that underlay the Jewish religion.


In this sense, he behaved much like those anthropologists who enter a forest, discover a tribe of natives that they find appealing, and then, with no further exploration, declare that these tribal members should be viewed as representatives of the entire human population in the forest.


Compounding this elementary logical fallacy of believing that a part must represent the whole, when he finally had to confront the other tribes in the forest, Barak Obama failed to recognize that, in Israel, public attitudes on the subject of land for peace have always been far more detailed, and infinitely more nuanced and subtle than the ideas and observations that are propagated most Israeli politicians, almost all foreign journalists and foreign diplomats.


Even though many of his advisors were Jews, because there is almost no communication between ordinary, Hebrew-speaking Israelis and English-speaking Diaspora Jews about these details, Diaspora Jewry took at face value what little they did hear about Israelis from third parties. Then, crucially, the information that did arrive was then passed through the American Jews cognitive filters


In the United States, the easiest filter that Jews there could apply was their personal attachment to the ideals espoused by either the Democratic or the Republican Party. The most extreme examples to emerge from this filter were the virulent anti-Zionists who have become supporters of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement and the hyper-nationalists who booed Meir Dagan. Somewhat more moderate groups included those Jews who became associated with the American neo-Conservative movement, in the case of supporters of the Republican Party, and those who joined J Street, in the case of Democratic Party supporters.


Interestingly, is generally well known by political cognoscenti that the most ardent leaders of the neo-Conservative movement turned out to be former American Jewish Trotskyites like Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol.


However, the no less extraordinary shift that occurred when the seemingly-silenced Bundists in the United States emerged from what turned out to be a political pupa stage, and reappeared in public forums for the first time as Zionists, has not been recognized at all.


Had that happened, it would then have come as no surprise to anyone that the approach to the Arab-Israeli dispute that was taken by these neo-Bundists has borne a remarkable resemblance to that being taken by those liberal, secular Europeans who were not inherently anti-Zionist. That is because, as I have already pointed out, both the liberal, secular leftist European groups and the liberal, secular Bundists were originally fashioned by the very same events that took place in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuriws.


With all this as background, it should now be easy to comprehend much of what else occurred following the 6 Day War.


Almost immediately after that war, virtually all the existing American Jewish organizations, whether mainstream or not, felt obliged to reorient at least their rhetoric, if not that ideologies, so that they would not be left behind by the Israeli juggernaut whose dramatic, Hollywood-like vicissitudes were producing highly emotional responses among Diaspora Jews everywhere.


The leaders of the so-called mainstream American organizations such as Bnai Brith and AIPAC, though, found that they were being confronted by a seemingly unresolvable problem. In the wake of the 1977 Likud victory, both Israeli propagandists and the media were making it appear as though there were only two basic Jewish political camps in Israel—those who were for trading land for peace, and those who were opposed to it.


As I have pointed out, the fact is that the majority of Israelis didn’t fit completely into either of these narrowly-defined blocs. However, the propagandists from the two blocs in Israel nonetheless succeeded in making the majority of Israelis virtually invisible to American and other foreign eyes by declaring that this huge group was “irrelevant” because its members were “self-involved,” “indifferent,” “disengaged,” and “apathetic.”


The leaders of most of the mainline American Jewish organizations then found themselves in a fix. The last thing they wanted was to appear as though they were representing the position of only a part of Israeli and Diaspora Jewry. Without an all-encompassing Israeli group to actually affiliate with, the leaders of most of the big establishment American Jewish organizations were in danger of losing the broad-based philanthropic support on which they depended.


These leaders, just like the European officials I have spoken about, needed a way of justifying the six figure salaries that they were receiving. And like the European officials, the fact is that for all their boastful verbiage, the financial backers upon whom these institutional leaders depended, actually knew very little about the Arab-Israeli dispute. However, these “gevirim” (in traditional Jewish parlance) did have very strong opinions about the political values of the country in which they lived.


Therefore, the American Jewish institutional bosses, just like the European bureaucrats and officials, found the easiest way out by picking the most reachable, low-hanging fruit that appealed to the donors upon whom they were dependent.


Although I haven’t actually conducted a survey, from conversations I have had with them, I doubt very much whether any of the biggest donors to American Jewish organizations has actually ever read UN resolutions 242 and 338 that set out the framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. But I did come away from those meetings with the distinct impression that most have been caught up to one degree or another in the movement towards political polarization and towards the adoption of dogmatic political orthodoxies that has afflicted the United States since the days of Newt Gingrich in the 1980s and 1990s.


It is thus perfectly understandable that, almost without exception, all the paid leaders of the biggest secular Jewish organizations chose what they thought was the easiest way out by declaring that they would support whichever government—in other words whichever group of politicians—was elected in Israel. However, in doing so, and to the great relief of the Israeli political hacks, they too they ended up ignoring and therefore silencing the bulk of the Israeli population.


If I can continue with my metaphor, American Jewish leaders decided that they would support whatever group could legitimately claim that it was managing the forest, regardless of whether this group also included illegal loggers, slash and burn aficionados or hunter-gatherers out to take whatever they could get.


In conclusion, I personally find it fascinating that, as the use of the internet and social media forums grew, many people predicted that for the first time in history, people would be able to learn from a vast variety of postings on the web about all the elements that had created a complex and otherwise seemingly unfathomable situation. This would then enable them to carry on a rational debate about the relative merits of any suggestions that were being made. However, as every survey has now found, virtually everybody, because of their predilection for System One thinking, and their filters, prefers to seek out only those postings that reinforce those narratives that are already their heads. Professional sociologists call this “confirmation bias.”


This then leads the narratives being used by Diaspora Jews to often differ considerably from the ones being used by Israelis. As time passes, the differences in the narratives become more and more blatant.


It has taken an Israeli Jew living in the United States to come up with an explanation for this phenomenon that is so incisive and so accurate. Put in modern American English, Khaneman discovered that at least when it comes to Diaspora-Israeli relations, keeping things simple makes you stupid.


Israel in the Wake of the New Coalition Government

I have long held that, with the notable exception of a very few types of natural disaster, events don’t just happen by themselves. They are invariably the product of processes that have been underway for a long time.


Several processes, which have been underway both within Israel and outside it, have now combined to produce the events we have been witnessing recently. Too often, though, these events are being treated as unique occurrences instead of as interim climaxes to existing patterns of human behavior that may continue well into the future.


One reason for our failure to recognize the underlying patterns is the fact that sometimes the events that occur happen so quickly, and in such rapid succession, that it is difficult for anyone to absorb their significance and make sense of their meaning. In other cases, such as the ones we are witnessing now, so many processes may be climaxing at the same time that it is difficult to judge what their ultimate joint import will be and what this then portends for the future.


So, in an attempt to draw some very broad conclusions about where the events we have been witnessing of late may be leading us, I would first like to review some of the events and a few of the processes that have been underway for some time and that have also reached a climax in recent days, months and years.


Many of the events I will review have been reported on extensively in the Israeli media as discrete news items. Many have also raised hackles here and there. However, far more importantly, I have discovered that when these individual items are treated as parts of a jigsaw puzzle and then assembled into a whole, they provide a portrait of Israeli politics and Israeli society that I find to be profoundly discomfiting.


I’ll start with a series of very recent news events that can be roughly grouped together under the rubric of “The evolution of the prime ministership and Israel’s executive branch.”


It is a subject about which I could talk constantly for days, weeks and months without any difficulty…but I will try to be brief.


The recent election and its aftermath have created a fascinating analytical problem that seems to have led to widespread confusion about what Prime Minister Netanyahu is really doing and what he really wants. Put simply, all the factual evidence available points to at least two, seemingly inevitable, rational deductions that are…polar-opposite conclusions. The first is that Bibi Netanyahu is politically weak and therefore subject to the predations of his coalition partners. The second is that he is so politically strong that he can do almost anything he chooses to do.


According to all the laws of logical reasoning, one of those inferences must be patently false. However, at least at this moment, both of these conclusions appear to be true. I’ll come back to these conclusions in a moment.


But even before I address the question of how two diametrically-opposed, logical suppositions can coexist, I must, in all fairness, warn you that I will have to make forays into a part of the political world that most people hate—the unbounded intellectual terrain of nuance and ambiguity, which is often dismissed by critics as the world of “inside ball” or “navel-gazing.”


Here goes.


Although she has no foreign policy experience whatsoever, Tzippi Hotovely has been appointed the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. Although she only holds the title of deputy minister, Hotovely has stated with total confidence that she has been promised by Prime Minister Netanyahu that she will have the power to act as though she is the actual minister. If that is so, then it would appear, at least on the surface, that Bibi Netanyahu is now perfectly willing to set Israel up for a diplomatic disaster of monumental proportions.


Hotovely has done nothing so far to belay the suspicion that she is, in her purest essence, a diplomatic pyromaniac. Otherwise there is no rational explanation for why she has succeeded so marvelously and so quickly in making Israel’s diplomatic posture in the world far worse than it ever was before.


Her first policy directive to the ministry staff was an instruction that during their contacts with world diplomats they must emphasize Israel’s historical and Biblical ties to the West Bank and thus its right to never have to give up any occupied territory.


It is particularly interesting that she delivered her address in front of the television cameras just prior to the visit to Israel by the head of the EU’s foreign relations department, Federica Mogherini.


I personally cannot think of another moment in the whole of Israeli history when an Israeli official’s remarks were more ill-timed. At that very moment, Mogherini was trying to explore whether or not Netanyahu was for a two-state solution (as he claimed after the election), or dismissive of the idea, (as he explained to voters /during the election campaign).


Furthermore, Israel was in the midst of intensive efforts to kill or at least delay a French initiative that would unileterally lay out the broad terms of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians; and the EU was also in the process of deciding whether to have any and all products imported from the Jewish settlements in the West Bank to be labeled as such. To top things off, there was a constant stream of television news reports warning that most European countries were becoming hotbeds of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement.


All these European initiatives have been strengthened in recent weeks because Israel has been unable to convince anyone outside the country that it really both wants a two-state solution that will eventually end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank…and that it is not responsible for the halt in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.


Hotovely is a true religious and political believer, but even she must have had difficulty in believing Netanyahu’s promise to her—if, in fact, he has actually made such a promise. After all, when he cobbled together the current government, he supposedly, and I emphasize the word “supposedly,” handed over responsibility for the primary policy-making functions of the foreign ministry to five other ministers—and then appointed his personal honcho, Dore Gold, as the foreign ministry’s director general.


I think that it is clear to any sane observer that this sort of personnel manipulation is the political equivalent of castrating gnats.


Here, in somewhat greater detail, is what we have been told to believe.


Netanyahu’ final cabinet appointment was to anoint Gilad Erdan as the Minister of Internal Security. However, following Erdan’s demand, Netanyahu has supposedly also handed Erdan the additional task of dealing with national strategic affairs, and what is euphemistically called “Public Diplomacy”…(in other words, propaganda).


Earlier, Bibi had appointed Transport Minister Yisrael Katz to also supposedly deal with national intelligence. I have used the word “supposedly” in this case because that announcement was so blatantly counter-factual. Among other things, it was certainly not accompanied by any declaration that the country’s civilian intelligence apparatus, (in other words the Mossad and Shin Bet) is about to leave the confines of the Prime Minister’s Office, where it has been ensconced since Israel was founded. Moreover, there was also no formal notice that the national strategic planning authority, otherwise known as the National Security Council would also be removed from the Prime Minister’s Office or that Military Intelligence would be removed from the purview of the Defence Ministry.


And to top things off, to the best of my knowledge, neither Katz nor Erdan has any background in dealing with either strategic or intelligence issues.


The perennially popular Israeli entertainment trio called “HaGashash HaHiver (The Pale Scouts) needed only two words to elicit howls of laughter when they used to skewer happenings such as this one. The first was their repetitive use of the term “Isra-bluff”—which, I think is a self-evident summation of events such as these. The second was the term “ke’ilu” (which, literally means “as though”)—as in “it’s as though” these ministers had been appointed to actually do something.


But his recent appointments of Katz and Erdan are not the only examples of Netanyahu’s ongoing penchant for engaging in Ke’iluism.


Originally, there actually was a Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Intelligence. In part, it had been carved out of the foreign ministry’s research section and had been sculpted to serve an urgent, highly-important and even existential need. It was created to enable Dan Meridor to gain the status and access necessary so that he could draw up one of the country’s most important policy documents, a national strategic assessment and a national strategic plan for the future.


The last such plan had been prepared by Ben Gurion in the early 1950s and was hopelessly out of date.


Meridor did prepare such a document, but, to the best of my knowledge, it was never presented to the cabinet for debate because it contained material and suggestions that would have apparently made the extreme neo-nationalists in the cabinet go ballistic.


Be that as it may, my main point here is that, according to people in the know, Meridor is believed to have spent half a day every day reading security reports and analyses, in preparation for meetings later in the day with security officials and academics to discuss how this mass of material could be transformed into practical policies. Whether Erdan and Katz will have the time to engage in party politicking, run their huge and important ministries, attend Knesset sessions, and also put in the kind of work that Meridor did is beyond me.


I have emphasized the assignment of the strategic affairs and intelligence portfolios to Erdan and Katz because, like all the examples I want to use here, these acts were part of a much broader and more encompassing political process.


When Meridor was deprived of a safe seat on the Likud party’s slate during the party primaries, the ministry was taken over by Bibi’s favourite acolyte, Yuval Steinitz. Under Steinitz, the ministry had a grand total of 14 staffers including the minister’s driver, the director-general, the minister’s private secretary, the minister’s media advisor and the ministry spokesperson. All these positions are what are called in Israeli political jargon “personal, trusting appointments”—a euphemism for cronyism.


The Ministry, under Steinitz had become such a laughing stock that, following this past election, he had demanded and did finally get what may turn out to be a real portfolio, the Ministry of Water and Energy…that is, if Bibi does not choose to take those matters under his wing and turn that portfolio into a ke’ilu ministry as well. In any case, ke’iluism quite obviously provides those participating in this kind of shadow puppet show with real emotional comforts. Otherwise, there can be no explanation for why Steinitz also persuaded Bibi to supposedly put him in charge of the battle with Iran as well.


But that’s not all.


In another venture in ke’iluism, titular responsibility for Israel’s crucial and critical dialogue with the United States has now been handed to Interior Minister Sylvan Shalom. What relations with the US have to do with the Interior ministry—and what that ministry’s staffers to add to such a dialogue in terms of content—is anybody’ guess.


Shalom’s appointment to take charge of talks with the Americans is said to be a form of compensation to Shalom for the Interior ministry having been stripped of one of its primary functions—national planning…which has been handed to the finance ministry. In this way, Netanyahu seem to have assumed that he could assuage Shalom’s bruised ego by trading an exercise in virtual reality for real reality.


To further compound this foolishness, Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jews—another important responsibility that had once been within the purview and mandate of Israel’s diplomats—has been placed in the hands of Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin. Elkin has performed yeoman service for Netanyahu as a party whip and spokesman, but it is difficult to see how he can relate to North American Jewry that is overwhelmingly Reform or Conservative, and quite left-leaning, when he is Ukrainian-born, has had little or no previous contact with Western Jews, and is both Orthodox and a settler.


To add to all this, it is important to recognize that anything that is really sensitive and important to Netanyahu has always been, and will probably continue to be handled by his closest unelected associates, especially his personal lawyer, Yitzchak Molcho.


With all this in mind, just imagine what now awaits a foreign diplomat who is seeking to understand, for example, how Israel intends to deal with the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement. In its simplest form, any strategy to deal with that problem would have to involve tracing who is running and funding the movement, establishing a clear policy to counteract the effects the movement is having, and deciding how to approach foreign governments and how to mobilize world Jewry to act on Israel’s behalf. As things stand now, that poor diplomat would find it difficult to know who to phone first…or last.


Because of a lack of time, I won’t be able to discuss the many other examples of Netanyahu-style Isra-Bluff, such as the obviously false promises he has made to his non-Likud coalition partners. However, I cannot end off this section without at least briefly referring to another particularly disturbing example of Netanyahu’s penchant for Ke’iluism.


One of the more reasonable conclusions that one can come to in the wake of the recent elections is that the Israeli body politic remains more concerned about existential security issues than it is about existential economic or social issues.


Fair enough. That is a judgment call by the public, which is also, at least titularly, the country’s sovereign.


The thing is, though, that, by law, the existential security issues that Israel faces are supposed to be discussed in the small Cabinet Committee on Defence and Security. By law, this committee has responsibility for such “minor” duties as deciding whether to launch a war, what Israel’s defensive posture should be in the wake of the growth in Islamic jihadist fanaticism, and whether even a bit of the military’s huge annual spending can be diverted to social issues.


Under Netanyahu, however, that committee has been bloated to the point where it now includes half of the members of the cabinet—most of whom are clueless about national security issues. Even more absurdly, one of the few real cabinet experts on security, the Kulanu party’s Yoav Galant, who once was a serious candidate for the post of chief of staff of the IDF, only has the status of being an observer on the committee.


Now we come to another broad, absolutely fascinating subject, which also climaxed during Netanyahu’s latest exercise in coalition building. It is a subject that most certainly cannot be labelled and laughed-off as an “Isra-Bluff” act—which is precisely what makes it particularly worrisome.


Bibi’s first and only absolute demand of all his coalition partners this time around was that they vote strictly according to his instructions on any issue bearing on the media and the telecommunications industry. One reason for this demand was to protect the freebie daily, Yisrael HaYom, which was established by Netanyahu’s good buddy, American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. It is not unfair to say that, on anything related to Bibi, Yisrael HaYom has become the Israeli equivalent of Pravda during the height of the Soviet Union.
During the previous Knesset there was an attempt by some opposition lawmakers to trim Yisrael HaYom’s wings by requiring all Israeli newspapers to charge a sale price. Bibi was horrified and is now making sure that such a thing never comes about—at least not so long as he remains in office.


But that wasn’t all. At the same time, Netanyahu chose to make the cost of keeping Channel 10 alive far greater by reinstalling a huge payment that the television station, which had often been highly critical of Netanyahu, will soon be forced to lay out in return for keeping its license. Netanyahu has already disassembled Kol Ysrael and Channel 1— the public radio and television stations. So, his imposition of the fee, which had earlier been deferred, was a clear warning to both the commercial Channel 10 and Channel 2 stations that he had the ability to turn his displeasure at their news coverage of him into a sword of Damocles that can be held over their heads whenever he chooses.


A third worrying feature of Netanyahu’s reign as prime minister has been his effective disembowelment of the Knesset.


At this moment it is almost impossible to discern what function the newly-elected Knesset will play in policy-making. In theory, one of the Knesset’s primary functions is to oversee the activities of and the policy-making decisions of the cabinet. It supposedly does so by having standing committees review any legislation that is brought to the Knesset for approval.


A general rule of thumb used over the past few decades holds that a Knesset member who is really interested in fulfilling that duty can only effectively do so if he or she is a member of no more than 3 committees. The main reason for this is that it takes time to prepare for such meetings. Among other things, there are statistics that need to be perused, state comptroller reports that have to be read, special, relevant research studies that have to be annotated, and meetings with constituents that have to be held to see how the public is reacting to any particular subject under discussion.


Of course, historically, all Israeli governments have tried strenuously to maintain as much opacity as possible. However, over the years, there were a sufficient number of serious, opposition committee members that one of the primary jobs of committee members who belonged to the governing coalition was to watch and listen carefully to what these gadflies had to say so that the government was not be blind-sided by the opposition.


Under Bibi, though, it appears as though he, like Orthodox religious true believers, fears that his followers might have their brains polluted if they were to even hear what those whom he believes are political heretics have to say.


That may be an unnecessarily-cynical observation, but it is one of the few explanations I can come up with for why some Likud Knesset members have now been appointed to 5 or more committees.


In practical terms, this means that, even if they do show up for a committee meeting (which for many is a rare occurrence), they will only have time to make a prepared statement and vote as they have been told, before moving on to the next meeting that they will have been scheduled to attend.


At this point, having reviewed all these events, I can now address the seeming conundrum that I mentioned at the very beginning.


Israeli pundits have declared that all the acts and factors that I have just reviewed have been the product of two things—Netanyahu’s inherent political weakness, which has been caused by the fact that his coalition has the support of only 61 members of the 120 seat Knesset, and because he made a botch of his negotiations with his coalition partners.


In particular, the commentators have pointed to the seemingly huge concessions that he has made to the ultra-Orthodox, to the fact that he has gutted several ministries in order to meet the demands of some potential ministers, to the many promises he broke, (such as the one in which he promised Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat that there would be no minister of Jerusalem affairs), and to the fact that he has felt obliged to hand over some ministries to people who have no prior experience in that particular ministry’s field of endeavor.


All these observations and the conclusions that have been drawn from them are valid. However, I assert that all these facts can also point to a diametrically different and no less valid conclusion.


If one looks closely at everything Netanyahu has done, it seems obvious to me at least that the end product of all of Netanyahu’s wheeling and dealing is a situation in which the prime minister has managed, by gutting ministries, by buying off coalition partners, by adding new responsibilities to the Prime Ministers Office, and by making promises that he has already shown that he had no intention of keeping, to take almost absolute control over every policy issue that is of interest to him. In other words, his manipulation of the coalition, his weakening of some important ministries, his weakening of the Knesset and the fact that many coalition members are now totally dependent on him keeping his promises if they are to have any successes to show their supporters when the next election rolls around, have enabled him to become the most authoritarian and dictatorial prime minister in Israeli history.


That is scary. But here is another process that is underway that is even more mind-boggling. To be fair, it is one in which Netanyahu is only peripherally involved (although it is one that he took advantage of and manipulated during the last election campaign).


At the beginning of this month, President Rivlin delivered what was obviously a carefully prepared speech that he seems to have intended to use to set out in the clearest manner he could what he believes is one of the central threats facing the nation. He warned that Israel has failed to create a single, unifying, national identity. Instead, it has, by his count, now produced 4 “tribes”—the Arabs, the ultra-Orthodox, the national religious and the secular Jews.


Rivlin railed against what he called the “tension, fear and hostility” with which he claimed each tribe viewed the others. What he called “the new Israeli order” had replaced an older order that had been based on the idea that one group, which was made up of a majority of the country’s citizens, could find common ground after they had experienced army service, while the other population groups remained minorities. But now, because of the difference in their birthrates, the 4 tribes were in the process of becoming more or less equal in size, and so the ability to find a set of beliefs and behaviours that could be presented as the view of the majority had been lost.


It is important to recognize that Rivlin was voicing a theme that has been a central one since the country was established, and the ingathering of Jews from the Diaspora began. Initially, in the early 1950s, the country was described by many Israelis as being divided into 2 tribes—the Ashkenazi socialists who ran the Labour party hegemony, and everyone else.


Then, in the late 1960s, the country was said to have been divided into Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Arab and Orthodox Jewish religious tribes.


After that, and for a while during the 1990s, the immigrants who had just arrived following the collapse of the Soviet Union were also viewed as a separate tribe.


Most recently, Israeli pundits have criticized Shas leader Arieh Deri for having tried to revive the idea of a separate Mizrahi tribe.


It is possible that Rivlin’s particular take on tribalism is not so much a warning as an attempt to counteract a very different, but growing public perception of Israel as a tribal society. In other words, he may be saying, in effect, that things may be really terrible, but they are not as horrendous as other make them out to be.


From everything they have said, the folks to whom he could be referring seem to believe that the country has long been divided into geographically-based tribes. If one combines all that they have said publicly, their thesis is that there is an independent state or province called Tel Aviv, which encompasses most of the Dan region and whose capital is said to be the area known as “North Tel Aviv.” According to this analysis, the rest of the country, which is referred to as “the Periphery” is divided into Haredi, Arab and poor Mizrahi counties that are unproductive, produce little in tax revenue, and so prey parasitically on Tel Aviv. Worse still, like Eritreans trying to cross the Mediterranean to get a better life in Europe, the Israeli “Peripherites” export their children to Tel Aviv…thus overburdening the area’s infrastructure and driving up the price of homes.


According to this reading of the political landscape, the West Bank is also divided into two, separate, geographical parts. One is an amorphous assemblage of Arabic-speaking areas about which Jews know little except that these human agglomerations each day disgorge thousands of potential terrorists disguised as construction workers into Tel Aviv Land. The other part of the West Bank is populated by a federation of Jewish settlements, whose residents are engaged in two professions—trying to take over the IDF’s officer corps and plundering the public treasury in order to support their suburban life-style.


In other words, and more seriously, there is now a pervasive belief throughout the country that depending on how you slice and dice the Israeli population, the country is divided into separate, increasingly inter-bred populations whose members live in the same, clearly-defined geographical areas, wear similar clothes, eat similar foods, take part in similar rituals and think similar thoughts.


It was quite clear from his intonation that Rivlin was deeply pained by the tribal picture that he was portraying. But as so often happens when such divisions appear in a society, Rivlin, the same week that he delivered his speech, actually went on to foster such divisions by supporting the demands being made of him by at least one of the tribes that he himself had identified. Like so many other apologists in Israel, he apparently believes that political bravery must be rationed…and to have done otherwise would have been politically inopportune.


To make a long and exasperating story very short, the Israeli Conservative movement had long been involved in a project to prepare disabled youngsters to hold a joint Bar Mitzvah ceremony. This year the Ceremony was supposed to have been held in Rehovot. However, the city had just elected a Haredi mayor who objected to Conservative rabbis taking part in the ceremony. An idea was then broached that the ceremony be held at the President’s Residence and that it be officiated by both a Conservative and an Orthodox rabbi.


In the end, however, Rivlin apparently caved into political pressure from one or more of the Orthodox religious tribes and refused to allow a Conservative rabbi to take part if the ceremony was held at his residence. His spokesperson then had the gall to charge the Conservatives with “obstinacy” for having wanted to officiate within the context of a programme that they had initiated and run for 20 years.


I have spent a considerable amount of time on the issue of modern Israeli tribalism because I believe that Rivlin’s concern is real and the subject is a very important one.


I have long been convinced that one of the primary reasons why the Jews have survived for so long is that, in 721 BCE, Sennacherib conquered the 10 tribes that had formed the Kingdom of Israel. He then dispersed the area’s population throughout the Assyrian empire. At that moment, Hebrew tribalism, which had existed since Jacob’s sons had begun their sojourn in Egypt, was destroyed.


Many Jews have treated the expulsion of the 10 tribes as a great national tragedy.


My take on this event, though, is very different. After the fall of the Israeli capital of Samaria, there were only two tribes left—Judah and tiny Benjamin. For convenience sake, the two tribes came to view themselves as a single family. As a result, eventually, these remaining Hebrews became known as the Judeans, or, later, Jews.


This has great significance for us today because it provides us with a compelling reminder that for thousands of years afterward, when circumstances arose that could have led to major divisions among the survivors of the Assyrian Holocaust, the perception of belonging to a single social and religious entity invariably defeated or at least mitigated otherwise destructive centrifugal tendencies that arose from time to time.


The reappearance of tribalism today, in whichever form it takes, should thus be particularly worrisome to those concerned with Israel’s survival.


And here I am not just talking about things like the Haredim’s refusal to serve in the army. To my mind, of far greater import has been the tribalists’ profligate waste of human and financial national capital in pursuit of their narrow and often selfish interests.


We saw yet another example of this phenomenon during the most recent coalition negotiations. Almost immediately after the latest government was formed, the Education Ministry announced that class sizes in the public school system would be raised from 32 pupils in some schools to the almost unteachable number of 40 students in all schools. The reason? A shortage of funds caused in no small part by coalition partners’ demands for multi-billion shekel payments to their sectoral institutions.


That was the same reason why, during Netanyahu’s term as finance minister (under Sharon) and later as prime minister, the number of hospital beds per capita had dropped by 12 percent, the cleaning staffs in many hospitals were inadequate to deal with the workloads that they had been given, and some hospitals were averaging 100 percent occupancy even during the non-flu months.


One of the side-effects of burgeoning tribalism has been a breakdown in what had once been compelling national norms. This judgment may seem to some to be extreme. However, recently, the news pages have also been full of a whole series of highly-relevant, but seemingly-discrete news items that, individually and collectively, support this proposition.


One series of news items dealt with the both the comptroller’s report and the suit by Netanyahu’s house manager, which focused on many huge personal expenses for things such as thousands of shekels worth of artisanal ice cream that the Netanyahus had charged to the public treasury. These claims for reimbursement were apparently the product of an updated belief by the Netanyahus that l’état c’est nous.


Another seemingly-endless slew of news reports has focused on how corruption has become a contagion that has spread like an epidemic through municipalities, the national civil service and the police force…and had even reached the prime minister’s office during Ehud Olmert’s term in office.


Yet another series of reports has focused on demands by some, including the current justice minister, to circumvent Supreme Court rulings and make even the country’s constitution subservient to short-term political interests.


Finally, the latest series of news items has focused on the declaration by the current culture minister that she is quite willing to withhold public monies from any artist whose political views and interests do not accord with her own.


As I stated at the very beginning, I believe that there is an intellectual cord that ties all these seemingly disparate events together. It is the very same one that I dealt with in a different context a month ago.


Western political thought has come to differentiate between modernism and tribalism by focusing primarily on how the society in question deals with three issues—whether that society believes in and actively supports, equality, freedom for the individual and the rule of law.


History has shown beyond any shadow of a doubt that, as tribalism grows and becomes ever more entrenched within any political entity that once considered itself to be liberal and democratic, the very nature of social intercourse in that entity undergoes major changes and those three subjects of discussion are the first to be affected.


I am not conspiracy theorizing here. Tribes are invariably made up of people who are true believers in certain dogmas. Their belief in those dogmas, especially when those beliefs are is not subject to criticism or other forms of restraint, is what binds each set of tribespeople together. A crucial moment occurs in any society if and when the tribalists choose to emerge from their self-regulated cocoon and enter the public arena. If such an event does take place, the tribalists, from that point onward, then invariably base their all behaviours and actions on two factors—their own priorities (regardless of what the majority may need and want), and assessments they make of what they can practically accomplish.
The assault by fervent neo-nationalists on the existing judicial system in Israel is one excellent example of this dynamic. It began with a full-frontal, dogmatic, verbal attack on the Supreme Court, and then segued into an attempt to introduce legislation that would make the judicial system subject to political whim.


In this way, these reactionaries have essentially launched a full-scale campaign to replace existing national values that were fostered by Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin with political dogmas. As part of that operation, they have now also been trying to insert what they believe are like minds into positions where they can influence how the country relates in practical terms to such subjects as equality, personal freedom and the rule of law. For example, the national religious tribe has now placed one of its members in charge of the justice ministry, while a national religious faction running on a platform to increase the weight given to so-called “Hebrew Law” or Halacha is now vying for election to the governing body of the Bar Association.


As I noted last month, in non-tribal societies, negotiations and deal-making are usually directed at transforming and unifying those societies by finding common ground and creating mutually-acceptable compromises. These discoveries then become norms that can then be and usually are accepted as binding by the vast majority of the population. In the final stage, they become a form of behavioural glue that binds such societies together.


In countries where tribalism predominates, all the deals between the different groups are transactional. In such cases, the intent of each of the parties is not to expand the common weal, but to gain a relative advantage over the other groups.


This latter form of bargaining is precisely the type of deal-making that we witnessed during the most recent coalition negotiations. Few if any of the clauses in the coalition agreement dealt with matters that could unify the body politic. Almost all the deals that were struck dealt with special and often socially-divisive favours that the government would henceforth be obligated to bestow on the sectoral tribes that make up the coalition.


I have spent a lot of time discussing the issue of growing Israeli tribalism because I believe that it presents a greater clear and present danger to Israel than do the Arab armies that surround the country.


As I have mentioned often in the past, tribalism is not a new feature of Zionist politics. The early, socialist, Ashkenazi Zionist leaders were ardent supporters of political tribalism. For example, if you didn’t have a Histadrut red membership booklet, you had difficulty in getting a job that was tied in any way to government spending.


One of the great benefits to the Israeli body politic that arose from the Likud’s defeat of Labour in 1977 was that the tribal stranglehold that Labour had had on Israeli society was finally lifted.


Unfortunately, that same sort of political tribalism is now returning—albeit in a different form.


In the past, Israel’s leading political tribes, such as the Socialists, the Revisionists and the Liberals, were differentiated in the public’s mind by what appeared to be their dissimilar ideologies. The fact is, though, that for all their very real differences, the tribes’ beliefs also had many things in common. Most were based on a belief that secularism should form the basis for modern political activity. And most were the direct product of considerations and thought processes that had emerged during the European Enlightenment.


However, the Israeli public’s fixation with secular Zionist ideologies that were based on Enlightenment teachings waned in the 1970s and early 1980s. When these battles over ideology dissipated, discussions over the values that had underpinned those ideologies also became less frequent.


As time passed, the old belief systems were initially replaced by an American import—a focus on individualism.


However, this new emphasis on individualism could not fill the vacuum that had been left by the sudden disappearance of the value-based beliefs upon which all those old secular ideologies had been based.


If one accepts Rivlin’s thesis that Israel is now made up of four tribes, Arabs, and Haredim, National Religious and secular Jews, then Israelis are no longer both united and divided by intellectually-formed ideals, but by emotionally-based ethnic and religious attachments.


As an aside, I find it particularly fascinating that, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Polish and Russian-born socialist hegemons, in their attempt to preserve their heavy-handed control of Israeli society, tried to instill in the minds of the other Ashkenazis in Israel the fear that Israel might become “Arabized” by the Mizrahi Jews who had been flooding into the country. By “Arabized,” they meant that Israel would soon lose its attachment to European Enlightenment secular ideals, and especially those ideals that focused on fostering modernity, secularism and economic advancement.


I think that there is a delicious twist of history in the fact that that three of the tribes identified by Rivlin have, in fact, been formed by Ashkenazim, not Mizrahim—and that two of the three, the Haredim and the national religious camp, are deeply opposed to the secular, Enlightenment-based ideologies that the majority of Israel’s founders held so dear?


Having said all that, what broad conclusions can one then draw?


If we now combine all the factors and observations I have just mentioned, the end-product is a striking portrait of a nation that is trying to cope with being positioned both geographically and politically between the West and the Arab Moslem world. While in its public posturing it projects itself as a member of the West, increasing evidence points to a very different process that is underway. As I think I have just shown quite clearly, in very many ways, Israel is in the process of becoming a mirror image of the nations that most closely surround it.


In support of that thesis allow me to briefly combine in a few short sentences some of the main points that I have just been making.


Like its neighbours, Israel now has a leader who is becoming increasingly authoritarian. And he, like his neighbouring counterparts, is putting strenuous efforts into controlling the media and into turning the local legislature into a rubber stamp.


At least two Israeli ministers today have come out in favour of restricting freedom of artistic endeavor and thus freedom of speech.


At the same time, the leading religious figures in Israel have been increasingly behaving like tribal chieftains.


Not only that, like the sheikhs in Arab states, the most extreme rabbis have rejected modernism in favour of obscurantism.


Many other leading Jewish religious figures have declared that land, once captured by Jewish-led armies, can never be ceded to others…because it had once been promised to the Jews by God. In this way they very much parallel the imams who declare than any land that had once been captured by Moslem armies automatically became the property in perpetuity of the Waqf, the Moslem religious trust.


And, of course, corruption and cronyism in the highest reaches of Israeli society has become endemic, if not yet as bad as it is in Arab states.


I am not saying that one can now equate Israel with its neighbouring Arab states.


However, clearly, there is a process that is currently underway that is moving in that direction; and it has to be recognized and confronted if Israel is to survive as a modern nation.


Space in the Middle East

Last time, I noted with great sympathy that most people have become totally confused about the events taking place in the Middle East. Since then, that confusion has risen to unprecedented levels…not least because US jets bombed the Iraqi city of Tikrit in order to aid the Iranian-supported Shiite militias doing battle there while, at the same time, the Americans were also providing technical aid to the Saudis who had launched aerial attacks on the Iranian-supported Houtis in Yemen.


Similarly, and no less confusingly, Iran’s attempts to produce nuclear weapons, its support of the Assad regime in Syria and the military and financial aid it is providing to terrorists in the region are all directed towards achieving a strategic goal—hegemony in the Middle East. However, the US is trying to treat each of these otherwise-complimentary goals as discrete issues that require different approaches. It is trying to reach a strategic compromise agreement with Iran on nuclear issues, at the same time that it is opposing Iran’s strategic support for the Assad regime in Syria, and it has made no effort to limit Iran’s support for terrorism.


In my previous piece, I made the point that the current, high level of confusion about events in the Middle East was the product of two major factors that have been largely ignored by the media and professional political analysts alike. They are the very different perceptions that the protagonists in the Middle East have of such basic concepts as “time” and “space.” My basic point is that, because Western perceptions of these concepts are so unlike those of Middle Easterners, everyone who is not familiar with the reasons that led to the gaps separating these mental frameworks is left not just confused, but also often frustrated and angry.


Last time, I analyzed the impact that the different concepts of time were having on foreigners and locals alike. This time I want to delve into the issue of space—and how concepts of space, especially as they relate to landholding, also lead to frustration, unfair and inaccurate judgments and even anger.


The origins of the differences over the role that space plays in Middle Eastern perceptions can be traced back to the early 7th century. At that time, Anatolia, Mesopotamia and the Levant were governed by the Byzantine and Persian Empires. In the areas immediately adjacent to these empires—in the European part of the defunct Roman Empire and in the Arabian Desert—warring tribes held sway.


In the Arabian desert, though, a new religion and social order was in the making. In an attempt to reduce the bloodletting that had been endemic to tribal governance, Mohammed created a novel concept of human relationships. He preached that all the people of the world should be united under the umbrella of a new, universal religion, (Islam)… and that this innovative political order would be ruled by a single individual, called a caliph. Although the caliph was expected to consult with a council of religious scholars, he would always have the final say on all secular and religious matters.


Within a hundred years, the adherents of the new faith had conquered all the lands on the southern side of the Mediterranean, as well Mesopotamia, Persia and parts of the Indus Valley.


In Europe, a multitude of Germanic tribes had conquered all of the European part of the former Roman Empire and now ruled an entire continent. By the time that Mohammed had begun preaching, most of the German tribes had also been converted from paganism to a new, universal religion. In their case, it was Catholic Christianity. However, based on the principle “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God that which is God’s,” the new order in Europe separated religion from secular rule and created a governing duopoly whose to leading religious and secular figures often openly competed for power.


One major difference between the two conquerors that has a direct impact on events today is that the original settlers of many of the lands conquered by Rome believed in the joint holding of land by whole communities. However, the German tribes adopted a very different policy on landholding, believing that any land that was conquered in battle (or taken by fiat) belonged to the acknowledged secular sovereign, who could then apportion it to anyone he wanted to.


Before Mohammed, the tribes in Arabia also had a very fluid concept of territorial boundaries and believed that political geographic boundaries were determined by either contractual agreements or by the ability of a hegemon to defend a particular piece of territory by force of arms.


However, in the wake of Mohammed’s preaching, the armies of Islam marched under the belief that any land, once conquered, belonged to the Waqf, the Moslem religious trust…in perpetuity. Men could make use of the land, but conquered lands could never be the sole property of any man. That, by the way, is one reason why, today, ISIS has tried to abolish the frontier separating Syria from Iraq…and is threatening to invade Spain after it has completed the conquest of what it views as that part of the Islamic world that is being ruled by heretics. ISIS claims that it has the right and religious duty to retake Spain from its Christian conquerors and return it to its rightful owner, the Waqf.


Parenthetically, it is worth noting that those who insist that Israel is solely responsible for the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations should take into consideration that one of the central reasons for the failure of all of the foreign-mediated peace efforts is that Hamas believes that not only are Moslems not permitted by God to accede to the Jewish conquest of Palestine, they have a religious duty to the Waqf to retake all of the land occupied by the Jewish interlopers…by whichever means are necessary.


One important thing that united both sets of conquerors was the manner by which the human sovereigns assured the loyalty of their armed forces. These forces were encouraged to constantly engage in battle to enlarge the area titularly controlled by the human sovereign. Like the Roman legions that also engaged in constant border wars, if the armed forces of the Germnic and Arabian tribes won battles, they were paid off by being allowed to plunder the newly-acquired territories. If they failed in battle, they were still rewarded (and kept from trying to undermine the sovereign) by being awarded land grants as payment for their efforts.


During the preparations for the 1973 war, the same promise was made to the soldiers in the Syrian army. It has also always been implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the Palestinians’ propaganda directed at their militants.


In other words, the control and acquisition of space was and still is a fundamental feature of the rule by authoritarian groups.


Within a few centuries, that approach to space began to change in Europe…with major repercussions that would eventually lead to the political cleavage between the West and the Arab world that we are witnessing today.


The first major event in this process actually took place in the Arab heartland


In the 11the century, while Europe was in the depths of what has come to be called “the Dark Ages,” the Moslem World was still in the midst of what has come to be termed its “golden age” of inquiry and scientific experimentation. That golden age had been based on an eagerness by some caliphs and commoners to rediscover and then to adhere to the practices necessary to engage in a replication of ancient Greek learning—especially the use of philosophy to seek the truth. However, in the 11th century, a mystic preacher named Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī, attracted a huge number of followers after he began railing against the use of philosophy as a tool to seek the truth. To al-Ghazālī, the truth was already available to anyone who studied Allah’s revelations to Mohammed.


Very quickly, al Ghazali’s position was adopted by almost all Moslems. As a result, the massive Moslem experiment in seeking knowledge and in inventive religious interpretation came to an end.


Two centuries later, however, a painter and architect living in Florence named Giotto di Bondone, began a polar opposite movement of intellectual renewal that came to be known as “The Renaissance,” which eventually led to one of history’s greatest exercises in intellectual experimentation—a centuries-long event we have come to call “The European Enlightenment.”


One of the first products of that that openness, however, was a split in Christianity that then led to hundreds of years of religious warfare.


Many attempts were made over the centuries to find an exit from this cycle of violence. However, it was only after hundreds of years of intense and deliberate thought—as well as innumerable bloody failures—that the “enlightened” Europeans could come up with a reasoned solution that was based on a firm foundation. That foundation was the belief that individuals, and by extension whole nations, had certain inalienable rights. One of the most important of these had to do with what is otherwise considered to be a totally amorphous entity—space. In particular, the Scottish contributors to the Enlightenment proposed—and America’s founding fathers accepted—the belief that, contrary to the beliefs of the Germanic, tribal-originated European aristocracy, anyone had the inviolable right to hold property without the fear that it would be taken away by force.


That belief began to be formalized finally during the Congress of Vienna in 1814. In 1848, the civil revolts that spread through Europe gave further impetus to the growing belief in the West that the nation-state is the ideal framework for the practice of politics.


Today, the entire formal world order is based upon that concept—that the fundamental political unit in the world should no longer be considered to be the tribe or the religious or ethnic grouping as before, but rather the secular nation-state. Every major political or economic forum today, whether it be the UN, the Red Cross, or the Arctic Council, is always referred to as an “inter-national” body. In other words, each of these assemblies is made up of separate nation states, which come together to discuss common problems and issues of common concern.


As the idea of nation-statism began to strengthen in the West, so too did the belief that the best system for domestic rule within such states should be liberal democracy. These twin intellectual movements, however, passed the tribal, religiously-intolerant, aristocratically-governed Moslem world by entirely.


It is significant that the Zionist movement came into existence at the very moment when the belief that the advent of democratically-ruled nation-states could lead to the containment of human violence in the world, was gaining momentum in Europe and North America. In fact, Theodore Herzl’s basic premise in founding the Zionist movement was that only by establishing a liberal, democratic, republican nation-state of their own could the Jews begin to cope with the problems created by Europe’s endemic and often violent anti-Semitism.


Unfortunately, by trying to establish that state right in the middle of the geographical fault line that separated Western beliefs in secularism, democracy and the rights of nation states, and the Moslems’ beliefs in religious authoritarianism and religious imperialism, Herzl doomed that state-in-becoming to a violent future.


As the belief in the secular nation state began to gain more and more adherents in the West, those intellectuals, diplomats and politicians who had been studying and experimenting with that system of governance eventually found that nation-states could only function well if two basic conditions were met. First, the country had to have internationally-recognized boundaries. Preferred boundaries were those that followed natural geographic features such as a river…rather than irrational, standstill cease-fire lines that were open to dispute as had usually been the case in the past. Second, the country had to have either a population that was largely homogeneous when it came to language, religion or ethnic origin; or its citizens had to have an almost universal common belief in the inherent value of multiculturalism and the need for formal legal protections of the rights of minorities.


This reasoning, however, could only come to real fruition in Europe after World War II. Following that war, and based on the practical political lessons that had been learned over centuries, central Europe was formally separated from Eastern Europe by the riparian Oder-Neisse line; and massive population transfers took place in central Europe. In particular, millions ethnic Germans who had lived for centuries in what became Poland and Czechoslovakia were forcibly sent to reside in Germany.


Even then, though, it took several decades more before the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, Albania and Romania were finally turned into free nation-states that used democracy as their means of choosing national leaders. No less significantly, it took a similar length of time before the so-called “Christian Democratic,” religiously-based parties began to lose their political power in those western European states where there were Catholic religious majorities.


A side-effect of that political reorientation, caused to a very large extent by the growing belief that there was such a thing as inalienable national property rights, was the divestiture by Europe’s nation-states of their colonies. That divestiture was also accompanied by two huge population transfers–between India and Pakistan, and, of Jews from Moslem-governed states.


Ironically, almost immediately after the population transfer within Europe was completed, the same nations that had engaged in it supported the revised Geneva agreement that has since forbidden any other country from carrying out a similar enterprise.


Another Western legacy of this period was the formation of the United Nations, which, by its very nature, imposed the idea of nation-statism on the whole world. From the moment the United Nations was founded on October 24 1945, no ethnic or other political body could find legitimacy without being accepted as a nation-state member of the United Nations.


As well, and as an outgrowth of the decision to found the UN, decolonization by the European colonial powers began to gather strength. The form of decolonization that was adopted, though, created new problems.


As a parting gift so that their former colonies would achieve instant legitimization by the U.N., the European imperialists chose to declare that the lands that had been under their control were now nation-states. Significantly, though, the primary preconditions for real nation-statehood—ethnic homogeneity or popularly-accepted legal protections for minorities—were rarely, if ever present in these new countries. Worse still, in many cases, the boundaries of these states were the same lines that had been used during colonial times. The important thing to remember is that those frontiers had often been the product of colonial bureaucratic needs, not the result of an effort to determine the space that particular ethnic groups could legitimately claim as their “homeland” or a desire to use easily-perceived features of the landscape to define the space that a multi-cultural political body could legally occupy.


Nowhere were these particular features of liberal, democratic, nation-state self-governance more lacking than in the Arab Middle East, which was still under the anti-intellectual spell that had been cast by al-Ghazali almost a millennium before.


The first step in the relatively short process that led to the UN accepting all the Arab states of the Middle East as members of that body began during the First World War. It was then that Britain and France signed what has come to be known as the Sykes-Picot agreement. That agreement was designed to enable those two militarily-victorious countries to carve up the Ottoman Empire into League-of-Nations-mandated, geographically-bounded spheres of influence. However, the physical boundaries of those spheres of influence were not drawn in such a way as to take into account the landscape or the ethnic origins of the native populations. Their purpose was to resolve bureaucratic problems that had arisen when British and French officials, sitting thousands of kilometres away had sat down to draw up the map of their respective spheres of influence.


This exercise ended up creating such disasters-in-the-making as the new countries of Iraq and Syria. Neither of these newly-declared countries had ever before existed as separate political entities; and both were geographical agglomerations that had been the home of dozens of competing religious and ethnic groups for centuries.


Incidentally, another of the many other preposterous ideas that grew out of the European bureaucrats’ blindness and ignorance was the boundary that eventually separated British-controlled Palestine from the French-controlled entity to its north. What later became Israel’s northern border was not determined by some prominent feature on the landscape such as the Zaharani or Litani rivers. Instead a wholly artificial line was drawn so as to include as many Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian villages as possible within the new, wholly artificial nation-state of Lebanon that was in the process of being created by French fiat.


At that time, the French perceived themselves to be the protectors of the Catholics and the Orthodox churches in the Middle East. For that reason, they wanted to include as many Catholic and Orthodox Christians within their sphere of influence as possible. The only reason why more Christian villages in the northern Galilee such as Ikrit, Gush Halav and Birim were not included in the area of French control was that the Bible-believing British Protestant politicians of the day demanded that their colonial rule include all the area described in the Bible as running “from Dan to Beersheba.”


Therefore, the line that was drawn on the map was a wholly irrational compromise between two groups of bureaucrats who were totally oblivious to the implications of what they were doing.


In December 1948, the UN consolidated many of the principles that had come to be considered as basic requirements for the formation of liberal nation-states in the form of a written statement of belief that was titled “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” However, because of opposition from a majority of the UN members, (which at that time were led by governments that were either monarchical, communist, authoritarian or colonialist), that document was never made into an actual international law that would be binding on all UN members.


Interestingly, though, there were two parties that were seeking UN recognition and legitimacy who were bound to accept most of those principles in return for being declared nation-states by the UN plenum. A short precis of what eventually appeared in the Universal Declaration of Human rights had already been inserted into the November 1947 Partition Resolution that called for the British Mandate in Palestine to be divided into three separate political spaces…one Jewish, one Arab and one (Jerusalem) under international jurisdiction.


I had always wondered why Israel’s Declaration of Independence lacks the majesty of similar documents such as the American Declaration of Independence. It was not as though the country, upon its inception, lacked poets capable of soaring language…or other outstanding wordsmiths. For example, many Hebrew language giants such as Natan Alterman and Avraham Shlonsky, were both in their prime and close to the ruling Labour Party leadership when the document was written.


I finally found an answer to my wonderment in a recently-published book on the history of the crafting of that document, written by Dov Elboim (Hebrew only). It showed in detail that David Ben Gurion’s primary concern when writing the Declaration of Independence was to word the document in such a way that it would affirm most of the principles that had been set out in the Partition Resolution as being the sine qua non for the Jews and the Arabs to acquire and keep possession of particular spaces in the world. In practice, that meant that, in order to satisfy the UN’s criteria for legitimacy, the language of the Declaration had to be legal and down to earth, rather than visionary and poetical.


Parenthetically, I find it both interesting and instructive that while Israel made the Partition Resolution’s preconditions the subject of the first document that the Jewish state produced, the Palestinians never produced an equivalent document.


Be that as it may, and of significantly greater importance to Israel’s citizens, Israel’s leaders have had to spend a great deal of time pondering how best to use the space available beyond Israel’s boundaries in order to protect the Zionist state. For example, David Ben Gurion formulated what was then called the “Trident” or “three circle strategy.” He sought to neutralize, in part, the diplomatic and political power that those Arab states that were immediately adjacent to Israel’s frontiers (the first circle) and those states that bordered on the states that were adjacent to Israel (the second circle) by fostering relations with countries such as Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia (the third circle).


In also find it fascinating that while Israel acknowledged the importance of the value system inherent in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for purely domestic political reasons, the Israeli Declaration of Independence has never been included in the list of laws that are slated to be part of the country’s constitution if and when a constitution is finally passed by the Knesset. That is because the religious parties have always found the UN declaration to be too liberal for their liking.


This has now created spatial problems that the country’s founding fathers never appeared to have considered. First, the absence of an Israeli Bill of Rights is being used by the so-called BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement in Europe and the rest of the world to try to delegitimize Israel’s very existence. More importantly, though, because of the fierce opposition from Israel’s religious parties to any bill that smacks of formalizing human-proposed rights in place of heavenly-ordained injunctions (mitzvoth), when human rights issues have been brought before the Supreme Court, it has had no choice but to rely often on international treaties, signed by Israel but drafted in other jurisdictions—or the Declaration of Independence which is not a law at all—as guides when handing down precedent-making judgments.


This anomaly has since led nationalist extremists in Israel to become increasingly critical of the Court’s rulings. These extremists are now pressing the new Likud-led government to pass a law that would enable the Knesset to more easily circumvent the Supreme Court’s rulings.


However, their vehemence has now raised the following question: If the Court at some future time chooses to base a ruling on the elements included in the Declaration of Independence or a foreign-formulated treaty, and if the Knesset then passes a law abrogating the Supreme Court’s judgment, would that not also, ipso facto, invalidate and abrogate the Declaration of Independence or the treaty on which the judicial ruling was based? And would that then make Israel, and the Jews’ possession of land in the Levant, illegitimate?


I have needed this long introduction and digression in order to provide the background necessary to understand the political problems that the issue of space creates in the Middle East and to show just how complex spatial issues can be even when they relate to a democratic nation-state such as Israel.


Here are two, real-time examples of ways in which this complexity affects other states in the Middle East.


First, it has become fashionable to speak of most of the Arab states in the Middle East as “failed states”—unless they have economies that can rely on oil extraction. I argue, though, that they cannot be considered to be “failed states” because they have never even tried to adhere to the criteria that the UN set out in the Partition Resolution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Therefore, if one uses the UN definitions of a nation state, as laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, most Arab countries cannot be thought of as ever having been legitimate, modern nation-states.


Not only that, that there are only a very few “naturally-bounded” states in the Middle East that have the potential for being treated as true nation-states. In fact, there is only one Arab state that has true natural borders. The Nile Valley is bounded by a swamp to the south, the Mediterranean to the north, an almost impenetrable desert to its west and, depending on how one marks things, either a long waterway or an almost formidable desert to its east.


With the possible exception of the Persian Gulf Emirates, which existed even before the time of Mohammed, the formal, internationally-accepted boundary of every other Middle Eastern state, whether it be Iraq or Syria, or Libya or Algeria is an artifice that was created by long-gone colonial masters. The best evidence for this is the fact that the lines drawn on UN maps have now led a long-standing war in the Western Sahara and to the conflicts we now see raging in Libya, Syria and Iraq.


But before continuing with my macro-geographical survey, I need to review how Israel’s borders were created to give you some idea of how irrational and ad hoc border demarcating can get in the Middle East.


Israel’s peculiar history has produced a boundary (and thus spatial) problem that is so complex that it almost defies explanation:


To the country’s south, the totally unnatural boundary with Egypt was drawn up by British colonial mapmakers on what can only be viewed as a whim. Although it is not defined by any prominent geographical features, that line has, nonetheless, since been legitimized by the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement.


However, an extension of that line, around the Gaza Strip, has remained a totally artificial construct. That bouhndary is the product of the 1949 cease-fire agreement. Following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the space we call the “Gaza Strip” became the residence of a homogeneous ethnic population. What complicates matters there is that the de facto ruler of Gaza today, Hamas, does not accept the legitimacy of the line that encloses Gaza. It believes that not just Gaza, but all of Jewish-occupied Palestine should be recognized as Waqf-held territory.


I think that it is also interesting in this regard that while almost the entire world is seeking what has been called a “two state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hamas’s continued, independent hold on the Gaza area, would de facto, require the equivalent of a three state solution—a special issue that I have never heard mentioned publicly.


But to continue with a description of Israel’s borders…


Two widely-separated parts of Israel’s eastern boundary, along the Arava and Beit Shean valleys, were also, initially, the product of a standstill cease-fire line agreed to in 1949. They have the advantage of being demarcated by river beds, and so it is no wonder that they were eventually legitimized when Jordan and Israel signed their peace pact.


The line delineating the middle part of Israel’s eastern frontier was initially also the product of the 1949 cease-fire agreement. It was the product of an agreement signed under the authorization of the UN, but it contained no easily-pictured geographical features. Although the line contained almost all the negative features that a standstill cease-fire line can produce, it was accepted as binding pending the resolution of the condition of war that had created it.


That 1948 cease-fire line was replaced, de facto, by another one that was the product of another standstill cease-fire line—the one that created in the wake of the 1967 war. Unlike the 1949 standstill cease-fire line, the current post-war frontier does have an outstanding geographical boundary—the Jordan River. However, because that line is not the product of a diplomatic negotiations and has not been sanctioned by the UN, it is not considered a legitimate frontier by most of the rest of the world…even though the nation-state that had occupied land between the 1949 and 1967 lines, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, gave up all its rights to the area—except for a tiny enclave that the Arabs call the “Haram el Sharif” and the Jews call “The Temple Mount.”


And just to complicate things even more, you must remember that the Jordanians are not the only nation-states that demand extra-territorial rights in the area that Israel captured in 1967. The Greeks, the Russians, the Vatican, the Armenians and the Ethiopians do so as well.


Now, just to add a dab more spice to this spatial stew,


  • In 1967, Israel unilaterally altered the municipal boundary of Jerusalem and then proceeded to annex the city to its territory. No one in the world has accepted that spatial change.


  • Part of the rest of the central section of Israel’s eastern boundary was altered by the 1994 Oslo Accords. However, the Accords had declared that these changes were merely “temporary.”


  • No legitimate additional change can be made unless it is agreed to by the Palestinian Authority, which has yet to acquire the status of a legitimate nation-state.


  • The PA cannot acquire such a status without Israeli agreement. It has been trying to circumvent the need for an Israeli agreement by appealing directly to the UN. It has so far had some measure of success.


  • However, the decisions made by the UN General Assembly have produced one of the greatest spatial and political anomalies of all time. Those decisions have accorded the Palestinian Authority many of the privileges normally accorded a nation-state even though that virtual state is not bounded by boundaries recognized by anyone.


Israel’s Northern border has been demarcated by the UN, based on the Sykes-Picot agreement. However, that boundary is not considered to be the final, definitive line either. That is because Israel took possession of an area called the Shaba farms in 1967. Israel considers the farms to be Syrian territory. However, that area is considered by the UN to be disputed territory because Lebanon and Syria’s boundary in that area still has to be determined in talks between those two countries.


But that is just the beginning…


The rest of Israel’s current boundary with Syria is the product of negotiations conducted following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. That deal replaced the 1967 cease-fire line, which had replaced the 1949 cease-fire line, which had officially replaced the Sykes Picot line.


As part of the post-1973 disengagement agreement, Israel not only withdrew from the salient it had captured during the Yom Kippur War, it also withdrew from several points of land it had captured in 1967 and had held as part of the stand-still cease-fire declared at that time. Of particular interest today is a spatial anomaly in the map that was drawn up under the guidance of the mediator, Henry Kissinger. The map that was drawn up to accompany the disengagement agreement contained a buffer zone of insignificant size. Nonetheless, even though it is just a tiny area amounting to only a few hectares, it could end up drawing Israel, unwillingly, into participating directly in the Syrian civil war…with all the myriad consequences that that would entail.


Please pay attention to what follows because it is a model and case study of just how complex and dangerous even seemingly-insignificant mini-micro, almost atom-sized spatial issues can get in the Middle East. The number of relevant facts I am about to relate have to be multiplied geometrically when macro spatial issues such as the ISIS takeover of swaths of Iraq and Syria are discussed sensibly and in detail.


The buffer zone I have just mentioned is officially Syrian territory. However, under the disengagement agreement, neither the Israeli nor the Syrian army is allowed to enter it. The only village in that zone, called Hadr, is inhabited by the Druze. The Druze religion, which is a 17th century breakaway from Shiite Islam, holds that its members must be loyal citizens of the country they inhabit. Thus, the Druze serve as loyal and honoured soldiers in the Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian armies; and, as a result have, on occasion, had to go to war against each other.


When not fighting for the country they inhabit, though, the Druze are passionately loyal and maintain blood ties to each other.


The Druze on the Israeli-held part of Golan Heights are in a particularly strange position. They have lived under Israeli suzerainty since 1967, but have remained wholly loyal to the Syrian government, in part because the UN has not recognized the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation of the Golan.


Both Israel (the country) and the Druze (as a religious sect living in Syria and in the Israeli-ruled Golan Heights) have tried to avoid becoming participants in the Syrian Civil War. But that is now becoming more difficult than ever. During the recent fighting on the Golan, the extremist Sunni el Qaeda offshoot, Jabhat el Nusra captured the buffer zone, and within days, killed 37 of the Druze living in the village of Hadr.


Even though Hadr is officially inside Syrian territory, Israel has refused to allow the Syrian army to retake that zone by force because that would have been a breach of the disengagement agreement…and would thus have set an unwelcome precedent.


The Israelis may have disliked the idea of creating such a precedent, but by refusing to allow the Syrian soldiers into the buffer zone, they were laying the groundwork for what may potentially be an even more unacceptable event. The Jabhat el Nusra jihadist fighters present an immediate and permanent danger to the Hadr Druze villagers because this el Qaeda affiliate views the Druze as heretics, subject to the death penalty for their beliefs.


So, in order to protect the Druze villagers, who as I have mentioned, have remained loyal supporters of the Assad regime, Syria allowed Hizbollah, which is not a party to the Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement, to enter into the zone in order to take on Jabhat el Nustra.


Initially the Israelis turned a blind eye to that move. However, in return for taking on the task of protecting the Druze, and with the support of Iran, upon which President Assad is dependent, Hizbollah tried to set up an operations base in the buffer zone…and, in fact, tried to attack an Israel patrol moving along the fence separating the buffer zone from the Israeli-controlled Golan.


In response, Israeli aircraft bombed the Hizbollah contingent in the buffer zone. However, this then made the Druze in the zone once again subject to the predations of Jabhat el Nusra because there is now no armed group in the immediate area capable of protecting them. Both Israeli Druze reserve soldiers who loyally carry out the orders of the Israeli government and the Golan Druze who oppose the Israeli government’s rule on the Golan have now entered into secret negotiations with the Israeli government to be allowed to cross the Israeli-Syrian boundary on the Golan in order to do battle with Jabhat el Nusra should the Druze in the buffer zone appear to be in immediate danger in the future.


This request has put Israel in an almost impossible position. The Israeli Druze have been loyal citizens and brave fighters on behalf of the Jews. It is not unreasonable of them to demand that they be permitted to defend their own co-religionists…especially if Jabhat el Nusra is attempting a micro-Holocaust-like mass slaughter. The Golan Druze are loyal Syrian citizens and would want anything they did, including fighting Jabhat el Nusra, to be widely publicized in order to show that their allegiance is still to the Assad government.


But now things get really sticky.


If Israel were to give either the Israeli Druze or the Syrian Druze who live on the Israeli-occupied Golan permission to cross the frontier, the Syrian government, and its Hizbollah agents, would then be able to claim that Israel had broken the disengagement agreement. This might then lead them both to claim justification or breaking the disengagement agreement sometime in the future.




With all that in mind, I will now try to address, in the most simplified way I can, the implications of and the consequences of some of the spatial issues that have arisen in the region in recent weeks.


Up to now, every internationally-recognized treaty and political agreement that has affected residents in the region has been between nation-states. One of the singular advantages that this model provided to all the parties that accepted it is that it created stakes and penalties for adherence to the agreement that were easily explained, monitored and acted upon. Simply put, international legitimacy for any one state was made dependent upon each state respecting the space of other states and not crossing other states’ boundaries. This then fostered the idea that deterrence, the threat that punishments could be inflicted by on individual states by the world community, could become a formidable political, economic and military tool to create political stability in the region.

However, in the past 60 years or so, new political, social and economic movements have arisen that threatened to undermine that hope. The first was nationalist terrorism.


When various forms of terrorism began to gain momentum in the mid-20th century, the nation-states most affected could still deal with the problem within the international nation-state framework. The states under assault could do so because, with the exception of small anarchist groups such as Bader-Meinhoff in Germany or the Weathermen in the US, most of the terrorist groups, whether they were the Sandinistas or the PLO, invariably ended up working within the confines of the existing national-state model. That was because, in their attempt to earn international legitimacy their central claim was that they were using violence only in order to gain their national rights.

Because the claims from by the attackers and those who were attacked still fit into the nation-state model, Israel, for example, felt perfectly justified in attacking those nation-states from which the terrorists set out. It thus launched its Sinai offensive against Egypt in 1956 as a response to the Fedayoun attacks coming from Egyptian-controlled Gaza, and bombed Jordan in 1969 after the PLO began its cross-border raids in the Jordan Valley.


Recently, especially as globalization has gained momentum, world-wide economic sanctions, a non-violent form of punishment that can be applied in unbounded space, have been applied to Iran and, most recently to Russia for having undermined the framework of deterrence and the nation-state order.


Most recently, though, a new type of non-state actor has emerged. Unlike previous terrorist groups, it is less susceptible to the spatial penalties that have been applied in the past. These new Moslem universalist jihadists do not just challenge the government of an existing country and maybe that country’s neighbours or nation-state allies, they first and foremost are challenging the entire existing word political order because they reject the very idea of the nation-state as the foundation stone of the world political order.


The Israelis’ reaction to all the events that have been swirling around them has been unclear and even confused. Because of the changes that have taken place in Turkey and in Iran in recent years, it has had to give up Ben Gurion’s “third circle” or “Trident” strategy. But it does not appear to have found anything to replace it with.


Dan Meridor spent several years crafting a new strategic posture for Israel and, after consulting with virtually every strategic expert in the country, even produced what is said to have been a 240 page detailed proposal for what Israel’s strategic approach to the world (and especially the Middle East) should be. However, for reasons that are still unclear, Prime Minister Netanyahu has refused to openly discuss the conclusions that Meridor came to or adopt them formally.


As a result, Israel is now at sea with a maelstrom raging around it.


The same appears to be true of the United States, the primary hegemon in the Middle East.


Virtually all of America’s foreign policy since that country’s founding—and certainly since Woodrow Wilson’s term in office—has been based on promoting the liberal democratic value system that was included in its Bill of Rights.


George W. Bush’s disastrous attempt to promote democracy in Iraq was one such effort. That same belief structure also lay behind President Obama’s hesitancy to recognize the government of President el-Sisi in Egypt.


Historically, though, these attempts to transform the politics of whole regions of the world have been sporadic at best. When push came to shove, (in other words when America’s economic interests were at stake), the so-called “realist” streak in American foreign policy-making invariably took precedence.


President Obama appears to have been very uncomfortable with having had to reconcile America’s ideals with its self-felt need to take a realist approach to relations with foreigners. His attempt to pivot to Asia, which is based on real and important American strategic and economic concerns, also appears to be an attempt to escape what are obviously the distasteful diplomatic clutches that this conflicting idealism versus realism duality, as it is being played out in the Middle East, has created.


His discomfort has been most in evidence this past month in America’s relation with the Saudis. Not only are the Americans now challenging the Saudi position on Iran’s nuclear arms posture, for the first time, the Americans are less willing than ever before to take almost sole responsibility for protecting one of the world’s most persistent violators of the rights set out in the US constitution.


Ironically, and in obedience to the greatest and most profound regulator of political behavior—The Law of Unintended Consequences—all the events that I have just enumerated, have now brought the Americans and the Israelis closer together than ever before.


The media’s coverage of Barack Obama’s and Binyamin Netanyahu’s backbiting would appear at first and even at its twentieth glance appear to have created the very opposite situation. However, if one looks closely at the latest moves emerging from Washington, it is clear, at least to me, that the White House has now adopted the Israelis’ approach to Middle East diplomacy…which, in turn, is a modified form of one type of diplomacy that has been used in the region since time immemorial.


This form of diplomacy eschews American-style idealism and visionary thinking. In other words, it now appears that for at least the immediate future, the Americans have given up their long-standing practice of trying to transform the entire region to accord with America’s self-image as a liberal democratic nation-state.


Instead, the Americans have been copying parts of the primary Israeli diplomatic model as it has evolved in practice.


Although many Israelis have welcomed the idea of a comprehensive regional peace agreement, such as the one proposed by the Saudis, Israel’s immediate need has been to deal separately with the discrete tactical and strategic military threats it has had to face. Particularly since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the violence by Hamas that followed the pullback, every diplomatic incident that Israel has been involved in has become an event that Israel perceives requires intense negotiations.


This Israeli “transactional diplomacy” has been at odds with and has created untold tension with the Americans, especially when the Americans tried to press ahead with their “transformational” diplomatic efforts.


Stripped to it bare bones, transactional diplomacy is based on the proposition that each geographical space presents unique problems that must be dealt with individually and separately. Unlike transformational diplomacy, no over-arching theme can be used to guide and bind any these individual sets of negotiations into a whole.


For that reason, any appearance of coherence can only be detected after many of these events have past.


This approach to politics produces the following kind of real-life scenario:


For almost two decades the Saudis have been holding secret talks with Israel in order to coordinate their opposition to the American approach to the talks being held with Iran on nuclear issues. However, at the same time, the Saudis have also been funding extremist Salafist bodies that support terrorism against Israel. In other words, each diplomatic initiative is not necessarily expected to support another initiative. As a result, the differentiation between friend and foe that is such an integral part of traditional diplomacy and traditional alliance-building is fudged and sometimes disappears completely.


The Israelis, in keeping with this new set of rules have responded to the Saudis in kind. They have willingly held talks with the Saudis about the Iranian issue, but they then have also felt free to bomb Saudi-sponsored charities in Gaza.


Now, the US has begun to adopt a similar approach. As we have seen recently, and as I mentioned at the very beginning of my remarks, the US bombed one space (Tikrit) that was held by Sunni Moslem extremists in order to support the attack being launched there by Shiite militias. However, at almost the same moment, Washington was also willing to help the Saudis, who are Sunnis, target the Shiite-supported Houtis in Yemen.


In other words, Israeli relationships, and now, increasingly, American relationships in Middle East today are being adapted to longstanding diplomatic practices in the region. In the same way that the two have begun to recognize and apply the perceptions of time that are found in the Shuk, they are now also recognizing and adapting themselves to the perceptions of space that are found in the open-air markets.


Put in the simplest terms possible: In the Middle East, one doesn’t negotiate a global agreement for a set of benefits, such as a 15 percent discount from all of the merchants in a bazaar. One negotiates a separate deal with each separate stall-keeper at each vending space each time one needs a set of goods or services.


It is a terribly time-wasting and inefficient way of doing business, but it does work. In fact, it is the only tactic that works in this space called “The Middle East” because everyone else in the neighbourhood is doing things and acting in this same way.

A Guide to the Perplexed: Middle Eastern Time

There is an ancient Chinese curse that goes: “May you live in interesting times.”


Based on the flood of news that we have been witnessing in recent months, it would appear as though those who have cursed us have been working overtime. We have been inundated by so much news and so much spin on the events that have been taking place in the Middle East in the past few years that I think it is fair to say that many, if not most people, have been left totally confused.


To coin a metaphor, most people are now in a position that is similar to what happens to normal, sane, rational individuals when they look at a pointillist painting up close. All they can see are little blotches of paint that seem to have been laid own anarchically. It is only when they step back that they can begin to detect shapes and patterns.


When I stepped back from looking closely at the Middle East this time, what I saw was a tableau of multiple images and scenes, each of which could have been a separate picture in its own right, but, when taken together, they provided a unifying, coherent depiction of a particular place at a particular time. It was as if Breugel had met up with and gone into the picture painting business with Pissaro.


Unless one does step back, because of the sensory overload being produced by sights and sounds that the Israelis, the Syrians, the Iranians, the Americans, the Europeans, the Russians, the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Iraqis and the Yeminites are producing, the only self-protecting alternative to this kind of information overload is a retreat into a state of self-induced mindlessness.


Our DNA has simply not prepared us for coping with things such as a recent UNICEF briefing that claims that the violence taking place between the Syrian border with Turkey and the Jordanian border with Syria and Iraq has produced the “greatest human tragedy” since World War II.


But what does that phrase mean?


When you take into account Pol Pot’s massive slaughter in Cambodia, and the genocides that have taken place in venues such as Rwanda and part of Congo, It certainly must be is saying a lot. All told, according to UNICEF, (which deals only with aid to children), fourteen million children have been affected by the violence in the Middle East in one way or another. Seven and a half million children have been uprooted. And at least two and a half million children have lost four years of schooling.


And obviously, children are not the only ones who have been affected by the violence.


The Palestinians outside Palestine are one of many such groups being affected by the violence. They have largely avoided supporting one or another of the armed militias and armies. Nonetheless, even they, like so many other would-be non-combatants, have been swept up in the furies that have descended on the region. For example, the Yarmouk refugee camp just outside of Damascus, which was once a bustling suburb of the Syrian capital that housed 350,000 people, is today empty of non-combatants.


The death and destruction everywhere in Mesopotamia is almost immeasurable and inconceivable to the normal mind.


When destruction and upheaval take place on the scale we have been witnessing, numbers and words tend to lose all meaning.


The secret to beginning to cope with and to understand what is going on is to avoid treating these events, whether they be the ISIS takeover of Mosul or the Houti assault on Aden, as discrete occurrences. Instead, as I keep repeating over and over, the individual events must be treated as but one tiny point on the arc of one of the processes that have been underway in the region for a long time. And in the Middle East “a long time” can mean a two or three millennia.


As I keep repeating over and over to foreigners—and as they reply over and over to my assertions with blank faces or outright denial—one of the few constants and truths in the Middle East is that history is not something that happened (as in the past tense of the verb “to happen”), it is forever present in the day-to-day lives and day-to-day thinking of Middle Easterners. Based on my experience, the primary reason why foreign mediation efforts fail with such regularity is that the would-be mediators rarely, if ever take into account the impact that history has on Middle Easterners every day.


The kind of process tracking that I recommend basically involves examining the context in which an event takes place, and then tracing that historical, cultural, social or economic envelope back to its origins.


Having said that, however, I must admit that making sense of what is currently occurring is more difficult than usual because there is something special about the situation we are witnessing at this time that is different from the other crises that we have witnessed in recent decades both in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. The current onslaught of news stories emanating from the Middle East is the product of one of those special, if not too rare junctures of human history when a large number of processes come to a head in the same general area at the same time.


Under these circumstances, normally accepted ways of analyzing the events taking place break down. In an almost Einsteinian fashion, standard analytical concepts of time and space become warped. And it is then that conventional wisdom—the political equivalent of Newtonian physics—can no longer provide answers to questions that arise.


Unfortunately, even when confusion is at its greatest, most people resolutely continue to believe whatever the conventional wisdom of the day may be. One reason for this, as Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman points out, is that the alternative, rethinking things from first principles, simply takes too much work.


Another reason is that conventional wisdom is usually the product of a very human weakness. Its creators and adherents invariably claim that it is based on empirical observation, combined with rational analysis. As Josh Kerbel, the head of methodology at the US Defence Intelligence Agency points out, most of this kind of analysis is produced by using four basic rules.

The first rule states that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. Therefore, one can understand the whole by first looking at the pieces separately and then adding them together.

The second rule states that behavior tends to be repetitive. Thus future behavior is likely to be similar to past behavior. It is this rule that encourages analysts to reason by analogy and extrapolate past patterns—often indefinitely—into the future.

Rule three states that there is usually a clear and identifiable cause-and-effect relationship between actions and outcomes. It is this rule that encourages analysts to seek and find simple causal chains. “A” led to “B”, which led to “C” etc.

The fourth and final rule states that there is proportionality between input and output—that a small action will lead to a small outcome or effect, and that a large input will lead to a large outcome. It is this rule that encourages analysts to discount the importance of unique conditions at unique moments in time.

The thing is, though, in complex situations such as the ones we are now witnessing—when many closely interrelated processes are coming to a head at the same time—those rules simply don’t hold.

For example, contrary to rule two, behaviours are not repeating themselves. When, before ISIS began its current reign of terror, was the last time that you saw mass beheadings on television?

Other events we have been witnessing on television also defy clear identification of simple cause-and-effect dynamics…which is rule three. For example, contrary to what many sociologists claimed when Moslem youngsters in Europe began to join the jihadi movements in Syria, not all of these young men and women were the products of economic deprivation. Some had lived prosperous middle class lives.

And certainly, contrary to rule four, many of the human behaviours that we have been seeing have been the product of unique conditions that were present in a unique place at a unique moment in time. For example, the bloodletting in Syria began after the people in the southern city of Dera’a began peacefully protesting over an incident in which the security services had pulled out the nails of ten youngsters who had painted graffiti on a wall. Nail-pulling by Syrian security agents was not a new phenomenon. However this time that same action became a trigger for widespread protests because Deraa’s residents, and millions more throughout the country, had had a far deeper gripe—the fact that the government had been unable to alleviate the impact of six years of drought.

And finally and most importantly, what we have been seeing in the past three years is certainly not the end-product of the sum of its parts. There have been both positive and negative synergies that have produced a whole slew of totally unanticipated events.

Added to these four factors is the very important fact that there is also a strong tendency in all individuals and by all nations to filter events through their own personal and their nation’s unique experiences and beliefs. I have long held, for example, that when American policy-makers get up in the morning, draw the curtains and look outside at the world, what they end up seeing is a slightly distorted, but nonetheless totally recognizable image of themselves as it is reflected back to them by the glass panes that separate them from the real world beyond. It is that misperception of the world—that everyone really wants to be “just like Americans” (whatever that term may mean)—that has then led so many of America’s “best and brightest” to encourage their country to enter into one tragic folly after another.


Likewise, the Europeans, in the wake of two disastrous continent-wide wars during the last century, have developed a total and sometimes violent intolerance for anyone who does not set the creation of “peace” as his or her primary personal goal. Of course, as we have seen so often over the years, the word “peace” can also mean very different things to different people.


Only very rarely do Westerners try to interpret events using the filters that others employ. This failure then usually leads observers in the US and Europe to miss and misunderstand why those “others” are reacting to occurrences as they do. As I have already mentioned, history is one of those filters. Other filters include local customs and norms, the demands made by tribal and ethnic affiliations, and local exigencies that may be totally unknown to outsiders.


What you have been getting in the news reports you have been seeing, hearing and reading since the so-called “Arab Spring” began is the product of a synthesis of all these mistakes and failures in analysis and in judgement. What is truly worrisome to me, though, is that most people continue to take these totally inadequate assessments a face value—even though these same people are aware that these very same analytical techniques produced such well-known strategic “successes” as Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq.


So what I would like to do first is to try to explain very, very briefly, and probably inadequately, how the information you are being fed is being produced. I hope that then you will be able to judge for yourself—at least in part—where reality differs from what you may have come to believe is the “truth” about the events that are taking place in the Middle East.


All of what I will be saying in this part of my remarks is based on intensive research and the collation of recently-published first-person, eye-witness accounts by current and former US government officials about how people’s impressions of what has been occurring in the Middle East have been shaped.


The news reports you see on television or read in the newspaper focus on the basics of journalism—Who? Where? What? When? and How? The answers to those questions may be more or less accurate depending on the journalists’ access to people and events. Increasingly, though, the answer to the question “Why?” has been coming from the White House, from the State Department, from spinmeisters who are acting as advocates for one side or another in a conflict, and from a motely group of so-called “experts,” including former bureaucrats and academics. All of them are interested parties to one degree or another. And so each of them fashions their answer to the word “why?” so that it serves their own interests…which too often have no relationship at all to the search for truth.


The government, for example, invariably wants to put the best face on its behaviours. Also, the former bureaucrats too often want to justify what they have done or what they recommended while they were working in government. And the academics may be seeking to join the government as advisors, may have once been in government and feel the need to justify what they did and said, may be beholden to donors who are funding their research, or may simply be entranced by a particular ideology and seek to shoehorn events in such a way as to make those events appear to support that ideology.


But here is the crucial point I need to make: Most people fail to recognize that, almost invariably, the agenda for journalists’ coverage worldwide, and the pundits’ pontifications, is set by what is said at the daily news conferences held at the White House and the State Department. People in other parts of the world may object strenuously to the position taken by the Americans at those press conferences, but the agenda itself—the list of items that people end up discussing—is usually the one set by the American spokespeople.


As I said, I have spent the last few months reading the memoirs of some of those who were empowered to set those agendas. They make for frightful reading.


To begin with, it is clear from everything that I have read that the final format for all the analyses written by the different US intelligence services is heavily influenced by current American cultural, social and cognitive norms. American decision-making culture today tends to emphasize the slogan “keep it simple, stupid,” the production of “talking points” and one-page memos, and the creation of one-line “bottom line” conclusions on any subject under discussion. The nuanced use of language is considered “high-falutin.” Ambiguity is shunned. And explanations about the background that led to the events that are taking place are considered boring or of no relevance to the here and now.


As a result, complex issues too often end up being simplified in the extreme. Then, major problems with countless aspects, each of which requires careful consideration—such as is the case with the current, huge differences in perception that have arisen between Washington and Jerusalem—are then portrayed as personality conflicts. And, once that happens, this reductionism continues unabated and develops such momentum that the named protagonists are eventually divided into two camps separated by a supposed moral chasm—the “white hats” and “black hats”…those who are “good” and those who are “bad.” The pundits then try to persuade you to support Barack or Bibi, or Sisi or Morsi.


Another very important fact that always has to be kept in mind when listening to the American pundits’ and spokespeoples’ spiels is that the structure of all the American intelligence services—and the analytical techniques that are taught to new recruits—were both originally designed with the Soviet Union—not the Middle East or Latin America—in mind.


The Soviets were secretive, hierarchical and driven by Communist ideology which, by its very nature, was an extremely restricted and very often convoluted way of looking at the world.


This then led the American intelligence organizations to emphasize two things: the technology that would enable them to assemble vast amounts of secret information, and the compartmentalization of the analysis of that information so that inferences could be pulled out of the material by specialists with a deep, but not necessarily broad, contextual understanding of the material.


The thing is, though, the Soviet Union has been dead for 25 years…but this organizational structure and this approach to analysis has remained as it was. Not only that, one of the more amazing revelations that came out of the publication of the material assembled by Edward Snowden was that today, the Americans’ capacity for making sense of events taking place in the world has even lessened because, while the US vacuums up vast amounts of information, it has become so captivated by its technological information-gathering successes that it now appears to treat the analysis of that information as just an afterthought.


As well, at least according to all the memoirs I have read, the US continues to place a premium on gathering secret material—even though, in the Middle East today, almost everything that you really need to know about the motivations and actions of groups such as ISIS or al-Qaeda can be most easily found by reading open sources such as the various groups’ social media postings on blogs, Twitter and Facebook.


That failure to read what the protagonists are actually writing may be dumb. But here is something even dumber.


Even when secret material is gathered, it is often useless. For example, the Urdu-speaking CIA specialist who was in charge of tracing the activities of the Pakistani terrorist group that was responsible for the assault on Mumbai in 2011, found that most of the intercepts that he was given were worthless to him and were discarded…because…they were written in Arabic or Farsi, which he did not understand.


Other former CIA analysts have also recently revealed that most of the material they actually used to create their analyses was taken from English language newspaper reports, English language Twitter and Facebook postings, and translations into English that appeared in the daily media. For that reason, for example, the US entirely missed the early warning signs of the Ebola outbreak in Africa because the initial reports were broadcast on French TV and were not picked up subsequently by any English-language medium.


It is no wonder, therefore, that a post-mortem done on the analyses provided to the White House and the State Department during the early stages of the civil war in Syria found that the reports and projections that were made at that time were less than 25 percent accurate…even though flipping a coin would have produced a more accurate result, and almost all the correct answers could be found by sifting through the various social media.


Another thing that should never be forgotten is that major inaccuracies invariably occur when the White House adopts a particular policy…and then new, hard information arrives in a piecemeal fashion.


For example, most of the media and most American officials claimed that they were caught by surprise by the rapid military successes of ISIS. However, according to recent revelations, the Iraqi government and other outside sources, as early as 2011, were reporting accurately and consistently to American officials about the growing strength and radicalization of the Iraqi Sunni militias that eventually became part of the ISIS army.


However, one of Barack Obama’s central campaign promises had been to get US troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan…which he had done. Understandably, though, the White House was therefore on high alert, once the withdrawal had been completed, lest it be sucked it into sending American troops back into Iraq. As a result, as the bits of information about ISIS began dribbling in, the White House ignored those items that dealt with the growing number of terrorist attacks being launched by ISIS…and, even more importantly, the growing capacity of that organization to carry out large-scale terrorist campaigns.


Instead, those who prepared the material for the daily press briefings went out of their way to focus strictly on other issues that did not present a danger that the US might be drawn back into the Iraqi maelstrom. Most of you can probably remember the headlines that came out of the press briefings at that time. Most of those headlines dealt with subjects such as what would happen when ISIS’s foreign fighters returned to their home countries, and what was the current state of the historic Sunni-Shiite dispute.


With all this in mind, I now want to use how Westerners analyzed events in Turkey over the past decade or so, as a case study of how the meaning of events in the Middle East can be distorted. I could just as easily have chosen any other Middle Eastern country, including Israel, but I decided to focus on Turkey because Turkey has a special place of honor in American strategic thinking; and analyses of events in Turkey are considered to be particularly important by Americans concerned with the future of NATO. Moreover, during the time under discussion Turkey was being held up by the Americans as being a model for how democracy could and should be implemented in Moslem countries.


Whether a country employs democratic-style procedures is one of the primary filters used by Western Europeans and Americans alike when they try to judge the legitimacy of the regime that is ruling a particular country. When conventional wisdom asserts that a country is a democracy because it has adopted democratic voting procedures, events that take place in that country are then filtered and massaged to support the predetermined conclusion.


Thus, both the Americans and the Europeans applauded when Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan began implementing a series of reforms that most professional Western analysts persuaded themselves were designed to pave the way for Turkey’s entry into the EU. In particular, the outsiders lavished extreme praise on Erdogan’s government when it finally brought the Turkish military to heel. The Westerners, using their standard filters, perceived this event to be part of a process that would lead to greater democracy in Turkey. They persuaded themselves that henceforth the military would no longer be able to overthrow civilian governments in defence of what the military perceived to be Ataturk’s secular heritage… and that would be a “good” thing. They could not even conceive of the fact that, in fact, Erdogan’s primary aim at that time was to remove the last powerful, institutional roadblock to both his grab for authoritarian power and his desire to increase the influence of Islam in public life.


Likewise, the Westerners commended Erdogan when he began to introduce market reforms. In this case, they failed to recognize that the real purpose of those reforms was to enable Erdogan’s AKP party functionaries in central Anatolia to dole out favours and to arrange corrupt business deals for party supporters on a grand enough scale so that the AKP would gain enough of a majority in Parliament that it would be able to alter the very nature of the country’s constitution to make the presidency more authoritarian.


I’ll be coming back to Turkey at the end of my remarks.


I could go on almost forever criticizing the analytical techniques that are used or not used by foreigners to the Middle Eastern region. But, from hereon in now I want to focus on a point I made in passing at the very beginning of my analysis. I believe that the two greatest analytical weaknesses Western journalists and analysts have is their inability or unwillingness to address or comprehend two conceptual (as opposed to technical) issues that drive events in the Middle East. These issues are the roles played by space and time in the thinking of the people in the region.


In this analysis, I will concentrate only on the issue of time. My next analytical effort will focus on the role played by space when policies are adopted—or policy-making is avoided— by Middle Eastern politicians.


For the sake of simplicity, I will also focus only on how these two concepts have dictated the positions taken by Binyamin Netanyahu, Barak Obama, Ali Khamenei, the Saudi royal family, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan…and their respective supporters.


As I suggested earlier, one major element of Middle Eastern politics that Westerners have always ignored and continue to ignore at their peril is that when Middle Eastern leaders discuss issues being raised and events taking place, they invariably either directly or indirectly refer to the first recordings of the events and prophesies that led to the type of government in power today. No current Middle Eastern leader can legitimize his presence in public office without making constant reference to those very particular and seminal moments in his nation’s history—even if those events took place three or more millennia ago.

Bibi Netanyahu is a classic example of what I am talking about. He is not just an avid student of history, he is the son of a famous and respected historian. More significantly, he is the son of a famous and respected historian who spent most of his working life studying Jewish tragedies that date back to the time of ancient Egypt.

In his best-known work, Benzion Netanyahu, the father, reinterpreted the Spanish Inquisition in a way that went totally against the conventional wisdom of his day. That interpretation of history asserted that the Jews in 15th century Spain were persecuted for secretly practicing their religion; and the inquisitions only began after those Jews had been shown to have merely pretended to convert to Roman Catholicism.

Netanyahu, the father, however, in a closely argued tome titled “The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain” (1995) claimed that most Jews in Spain had actually become willing Catholics, and they were enthusiastic about their new religion. Using more than 1300 pages of text and references, he claimed that the Inquisition, like so many tragedies in Jewish history, was the product of the same “Jew hatred” that dated back to ancient Egypt.

The elder Netanyahu argued that those Jews who converted to Catholicism and were then persecuted—and were sometimes burned at the stake—were treated that way because of jealousy and because they were perceived by their neighbours to be irrevocably evil. The Inquisition, he wrote, had little to do with anything the Jews had believed or had actually done. Instead, among other things, their plight was the product of Christian Spaniards’ envy over the Jews’ success in the economy and at the royal court.

It is obvious to anyone who has followed Binyamin Netanyahu’s statements over the years that he has come to believe passionately in his father’s assessment of what the Jews’ role in history has been. As a result, he very often conflates what was with the situation in which Diaspora Jews and Jews in Israel live today. He rarely projects a vision of what he would like the future to hold. Although he does boast often about one-off projects that his governments have initiated—such as the establishment of the new cyber centre in Beersheba—he has almost never taken a significant role in major future-oriented debates. For example, he has never taken a public position on such future-oriented subjects as what should be taught in schools to enable today’s children to get and hold successful jobs three decades from now…or how the country’s health system should be structured to cope with the rapid advances in medical research.


To Netanyahu the son, the world is a hostile place, full of constant, immediate and palpable threats that must take up all his energy and attention. That is why, for example, when he recently opened the ceremonies marking the annual memorial day to the Holocaust, the bulk of his speech was devoted not to the Holocaust itself or even such important corollary problems such as the plight of poverty-stricken Holocaust survivors, but to the Iranian nuclear arms issue. It was quite obvious from his remarks that he equates the events that took place in Europe more than 70 years ago with the intent of the Mullahs in Iran today.


Critically, when it comes to Israel’s relations with the United States and Europe, in other recent speeches he has made it plain that he also believes that Israel and world Jewry can be threatened by those who might otherwise be perceived of as friends or close allies.


As a result, another thing that must always be kept in mind is that, because Netanyahu continuously conflates time he finds it very difficult to distinguish between short-term tactics and long-term strategies.


For example, both many of his critics and some of his closest associates say that he has been recently behaving towards Obama as he has because he perceives Obama to be only a short-term tactical problem with which Israel has to cope. This has proven to be a blinding weakness which, among other things, caused him to ignore many long-term strategic issues that his behavior towards the American president was raising.


Among many other things, he appears to have ignored one very salient feature of the American system of governance. The American foreign policy and security bureaucracy has an extraordinarily strong institutional memory that very often continues to have an impact on American politicians who come to power many years after that memory was implanted. The best and most immediate example of that fact is the case of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. Although many senior American figures from Henry Kissinger to George Schultz have called for Pollard’s release, no president has dared to defy the bureaucracy and both its ongoing desire for revenge and its self-felt need to use Pollard as an example to others.


All the current evidence point to the conclusion that Bibi’s seeming insults to Obama will be long-remembered by that same bureaucracy. What Netanyahu has said, and how he has acted recently, may very well become yet another filter through which future American government analysts will use when they are called upon to give their assessment of a situation in which Israel is involved.


Incidentally, fearing just such a scenario and wanting to mitigate its potential effects, many of Israel’s leading intelligence and policy analysts have publicly cautioned Netanyahu. Respected figures such as the former head of the National Security Council, Giora Eiland, have said repeatedly that it would have been better for Israel had Netanyahu decided to ease up on his criticism of Obama’s handling of the Iranian nuclear threat and had tried to enter into joint counsel with the American negotiators. Only in that way, they claimed, would Israel have had at least an opportunity to try to modify some of the proposals—and prevent relations with the Americans from deteriorating further.


However, because of both his personal history and his concept of time, it should have come as no surprise to anyone that Netanyahu truly perceives that the recent agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the so-called P5+1) is a threat so immediate and so potentially devastating to the continued existence of Israeli Jews that it must be undone at all costs—even if that action entails doing damage to relations with Israel’s closest ally, the United States, in the mid-term.


Another thing worth taking into consideration is that Bibi has had a predilection for panicking, which cannot but reinforce the impact that his father’s teachings have on him…and especially his preoccupation with the here and now. For example, his aides have admitted that he did panic when, at the close of the recent election campaign, it appeared as though the “Zionist Camp” would come out ahead in the balloting. It is quite obvious, at least to me, that he was so concerned with the immediate present that he then did not consider the long term consequences of his remarks when he called on his supporters to rush to the ballot boxes because the Arabs were “voting in droves”.


Spokespeople for Israel abroad relate that nothing that Netanyahu has said in recent years has had as negative an effect on Westerners as that short phrase, because, after passing through Western filters, it made Netanyahu appear to be anti-democratic.


Unlike Netanyahu, who is fixated on the present because, to him, there is no difference between the present and the past (and the future is but a haze that is dependent for clarity on what people do in the present) Barack Obama seems to be obsessed with the medium term. He seems to have difficulty in coping with sudden new events that he had not considered previously. His waffling about what to do when the Assad regime began using poison gas on Syrian civilians is but one example.


His perceptions, like those of Netanyahu, appear to have been shaped by his childhood, which was spent, in part, in racially-charged America.


At that time, a black child’s dream of becoming President seemed to almost everyone to be nothing more than a flight of the wildest, most uninhibited imagination. However, within only a few decades, while he was maturing, America had changed sufficiently that it enabled such dreams to become a reality. In other words, he seems to have come to believe that major, even revolutionary changes in society and in politics, can take place within a person’s lifetime so long as there is active engagement by the parties involved. That perception appears to have been reinforced by his experiences as a community organizer in Chicago.


That particular way of looking at the world would appear to explain why Obama approved of a fifteen year agreement with the Iranians—rather than pressing for one that extends for a longer period of time. As the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine, David Rothkopf, has pointed out, this means that the Iranians will be able to earn 300 billion dollars from dropped sanctions in return for just delaying their nuclear programme for a few years.


From the talking points used by his spokespeople, it seems that Obama nonetheless believes that a medium-term agreement, such as the one that has been proposed, will lead to a rise in the Iranians’ standard of living. During recent off-the-record briefings, his spokespeople have argued that, as the standard of living rises, Iranians will likely become more materialistic and so will inevitably place a greater emphasis on seeking an even better life. That, in turn, could lead to a diminishing of the power of the mullahs, which, ultimately could lead to a reduction of the threat the Iranians currently pose to other nations in the Middle East. In other words, A will lead to B, which will lead to C, etc.


The key word, of course is “could.” If you think about that argument just a bit, though, isn’t it identical, when one trades the word “Mullahs” for “Security Agents” and “Oligarchs,” to the one that was used by optimistic Americans when first Boris Yeltsin and then Vladimir Putin first came into office?


Only Obama’s and Netanyahu’s very different perception of time can explain many of the foolish mistakes that Obama has made in his handling of his relations with Israel—and especially his failure to conceive of the impression his actions and words have been having on Israelis’ underlying insecurities.


For example, throughout his tenure at the White House, America has demonstrated a unprecedented commitment to Israel’s physical security. In fact, Israeli military and intelligence officials have been fullsome in their public praise for the level of security coordination and cooperation that has been achieved between the two countries.


And yet, time after time, Obama has managed to grate on the Israeli public’s nerves as few other American presidents have ever done. Invariably, he has disregarded Israelis’ perceptions of the meaning of events as they emerge from the filter of their short-term perspectives. Those perceptions then create real psychological needs that should be addressed immediately if they are not to lead to festering, emotional sores.


There are innumerable cases in point. For example, following his speech in Cairo, during which he called for a new opening to the Moslem world, the Israeli social media were flooded with popular Israeli requests that he visit Israel too. It would appear that Obama, however, believed that he had to focus solely on the Moslem world and could afford to ignore the Israelis’ entreaties. He seems to have believed that any diversion from his objective, especially one involving Israel, would have detracted from the central purpose of his speech, which was to create a new relationship between America and the Moslem world within the medium term. Furthermore, he appears to have believed that because he was proving himself to be totally committed to assuring both Israel’s long-term security needs, a trip to Israel could take place at any time that was convenient in the future…such as after the medium-term goal of engaging the Moslem world in a full-fledged dialogue had gained momentum.


The Israelis, however, fixated as they are on present dangers, perceived Obama’s refusal to visit Israel at that time as an attempt to snuggle up to the Arabs at Israel’s expense.


A similar scenario was played out when Israel agreed to an 11 month freeze on construction in the West Bank, but refused to renew that construction freeze, despite heavy pressure from Obama, because Obama had been uninterested in or incapable of using any of the leverage at his disposal to get Mahmoud Abbas to make concessions of his own during that 11 ninth period.


The Iranians, of course, have a conception of time that is very different from either that of Netanyahu or Obama. Ali Khamenei, in everything he has done and said, has shown that he believes that human life is a continuum stretching on into infinity—or at least as long as God will permit it to continue. Therefore time belongs to God, not man. To him, Westerners’ beliefs that they can somehow control God-activated time, by setting up time-limiting frameworks, are worthless heresies.


Westerners fail to take into account that Kamenei and the other senior Mullahs believe that they are the living embodiment of a 1200 year old Shiite dream. Iran today, for the first time in recent memory, is being run strictly according to a political order laid down by Shiite scholars very soon after the Sunni/Shiite split in the 8th century. Under this system, a religious leader who can trace his origins back to Mohammed is appointed to rule by a group of religious leaders. That leader is then given absolute authority to determine public policy on both religious and secular matters. According to Iran’s religious leaders, the very fact that they continuing to control the Iranian government—despite the power of “Big Satan” America—validates all the other Shiite doctrines and dogmas.


It is important to recognize that, by contrast, the Sunnis, with whom Westerners are far more familiar, have, depending on how you count them, four or five schools of religious legal thought…and any number of would- be scholar/leaders. Unlike the Shiites, even though Sunni Caliphs have ruled over vast empires, the Sunnis have never had a central religious or political leadership accepted by all.


The Iranian Shiite’s extended wait for power, together with the Iranians’ long-standing and carefully-honed skills at bargaining without taking time into consideration as a limiting factor, have, first under Khomeni and now under Khamenei, produced a style of bargaining that Westerners have been ill-equipped to cope with.


That style has three basic components. To the Iranians, there can never be an absolute deadline for completing negotiations. The appearance that a formal deadline has been agreed to can be fostered if doing so creates a tactical advantage. Almost invariably, for example, when Westerners negotiate with Iranians over anything—whether it be the purchase of a carpet or the sale of millions of dollars of oil drilling equipment—the Westerners come into the negotiations at a disadvantage. In most cases, they perceive that time is money and therefore there is a natural limit to the time and effort that should be put into any deal. This then leads to self-induced pressures to get the negotiations completed by a certain date…which then often leads the Iranians’ negotiating partners to make more concessions than would otherwise be prudent.


Obama’s self-felt need to complete a draft agreement by a certain time so that it could be presented to Congress prior to the self-imposed deadline set by Congress is a wonderful example of this kind of situation.


Second, delays are not merely used as tactics in order to exhaust the other side. They very often are considered to be strategic assets because they can be used to create facts on the ground that can, in turn, eventually influence the course of the negotiations themselves. For example, Iran, because of its success in delaying its talks with the P5 +1, succeeded in completing all the research necessary to build reactors capable of producing the whole nuclear cycle. Once it had that knowledge, the nature of the discussions changed entirely from the Westerners’ previous emphasis on prevention to their current concern with containment.


Third, in what is sometimes called “the salami slicing technique,” any concession offered or even suggested as a theoretical possibility by a negotiating partner need not be even noted by the Iraniansin passing. However, it can be and usually is immediately banked by the Iranians as a firm concession and a “done deal” even if the Iranian side has offered no quid pro quo in return. This phenomenon helps to explain some of the vast differences in interpretation that the Americans and the Iranians have given to the recently-signed framework agreement. This, by the way, is also the same negotiating technique that was adopted by Yassir Arafat, and it has continued to be employed by Mahmoud Abbas to his very day.


All these factors are at work at this very moment, not only as part of the negotiations on Iran’s future as a processor of nuclear materials, but also in the way that the Iranians have been acting in their proxy states of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and now Yemen.


Because of their conception of time, the Iranians have been willing to exercise infinite patience and to expend both lives and a very considerable amount of national treasure. One distinct advantage they hold over the querulous Sunnis is that, because Shiite religious rule is centralized, the Mullahs are capable of mobilizing supporters to threaten Arabian Peninsula regimes whenever they choose to.


If you look carefully what has happened since the Iranians’ revolution in 1976, their accomplishments have been quite extraordinary. The only place where they have failed to achieve their goals has been in tiny Bahrain, where the Shiites are in a majority. They failed because those Shiites were confronted and suppressed by the Saudi army the moment that widespread demonstrations took place.


But that has been only a minor setback in a small state. The failure in Bahrain has been more than made up in another state with a Shiite majority, Iraq. In Iraq, where Shiites make up 60-70 percent of the population, Iranian Revolutionary guards are today openly assisting and commanding the American equipped and American-trained Shiite militias that have been doing battle with the Sunni ISIS fighters.


Elsewhere, the Iranians have taken de facto control of all those Arab states where the central government has been both weak and the country has a large Shiite or Shiite-oriented minority.


The war in Syria is a good example of the Iranians’ modus vivendi. Sanctions, together with a drop in world oil prices have meant that Iranian revenues from oil sales have dropped from 90 billion dollars in 2012 to an estimated 15 billion dollars this year. Nonetheless, aid to the Assad regime in Syria has continued unabated, and by some estimates, has now totaled 15 billion dollars since the civil war there began. No less importantly, Assad has become dependent on Iranian-financed Hizbollah fighters from Lebanon for his regime’s survival. In other words, to the Mullahs, when a choice needs to be made between money and extending the time for an event endlessly, the possibility that the availability of money may be restricted in the short term is viewed as merely a minor impediment that can be overcome as time passes.


The Saudis bring both an imperial and an extremist Wahhabi Sunni approach to governance; and this affects their perception of time as well. I use the world “imperial” because, with the exception of the strip of Emirates along the western coastline of the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula is very much a closed empire. It is inhabited by a plethora of tribes that had once behaved as independently as many countries do today. However, the House of Saud, beginning in one small village, and after a string of wars lasting all the way from from the18th century until well into the 1930s, eventually defeated all those tribes that chose to compete with it in battle. It then became the hegemon in the peninsula.


Nonetheless, like the Israelis, and despite its previous military successes, the Saudi royal family remains pathologically insecure; and it can become as obsessed with short-term issues as the Israelis are. As Moslems, though, and like the Iranians, the Saudis also carry with them a sense of timelessness when it comes to anything other than what the royal family believes is an immediate threat.


It is interesting, though, that while the Iranians begin counting time from the period of Mohammed’s rise to power in the 7th century, the Saudis, while they keep to the same formal calendar as the Persians, and despite the fact that the odyssey of Islam began in what is today Saudi Arabia tend to use 1744 as their primary reference point in time when making policy decisions. That is the date when a small-time warlord named Muhammed ibn Saud entered into a strategic pact with Mohammed ibn Abd-el Wahhab, a radical, fundamentalist, Moslem preacher. Originally, in return for ibn Saud agreeing to cancel taxes on the local peasants’ harvests, el-Wahhab gave the desert chieftain religious freedom to engage in the plunder of other Moslems. Since then, the two families have lived a condominium existence and have even inter-married.


Today, of course, the Saudis don’t need plunder, and the availability of oil wealth has become the primary factor influencing Saudi political and diplomatic behavior. And as F. Scott Fitzgerald noted in “The Great Gatsby,” the rich do think differently. Since the big oil embargo in 1976, the Saudis, have spent an estimated 100 billion dollars building schools and mosques and funding university departments worldwide with the aim of promoting Wahhabist beliefs.


That does not mean that the Saudi rulers do not break with Wahhabist beliefs when its short-term survival is at stake. One of those beliefs is that no non-Moslem should be allowed entry into the holy cities of Mecca and Medinah. However, when the Grand Mosque in Mecca was taken over by a group of fundamentalist fanatics in 1979, and the Saudi security forces could not remove the interlopers, the government called in and paid French commandos to do the job. The Wahhabist fatwa against non-Moslems being in Mecca was overcome when the commandos were “converted to Islam” by the authorities without the French legionnaires even realizing that it had happened.


The Saudis’ recent reaction to the fall in world oil prices is a further example of how they meld their vast wealth with their sense of time. During the past year, the Saudis have both increased payments to Saudi citizens to make them happy, and they have also driven the price of oil down to levels that have caused pain to all of the Saudis’ main enemies—and even to some of their erstwhile friends. In the short term, very deliberately, they have cause great financial pain to the Iranians and the Russians, whom the Saudis believe are siding with the Iranians. In the long term, the Saudis are also trying to undermine the fortunes of American frackers, who initially appeared to have been able to make the US independent of imported Arab oil for the first time in decades.


All their recent behavior has pointed to one fact: So long as the Saudi royal family does not perceive that it is facing an immediate threat, its members are willing to use an always-unspecified and even infinite amount of time to accomplish their policy goals—just like he Iranians. But if threatened in the short-term, they act like Israelis. They seem to have little perception of a mid-term.


I’ll again use the example of Turkey to show even more clearly how the Saudis go about using their approach to money and time in real life.


Erdogan in Turkey, unlike all the other leaders I have mentioned, has adopted short term, medium term and long term domestic and foreign policy strategies. In the short term, Erdogan has sought, as I have already mentioned, to slowly consolidate his AKP party’s authoritarian position and to give it the power to even alter the constitution—while not alienating needed Western investors. In the medium term, he has needed to find ways to pay for that approach. Erdogan’s long-term strategy has been to try to position Turkey as the Sunni hegemon in the Middle East—in competition with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia.


In the short term, Erdogan was able to make the Turkish economy grow at a very rapid rate largely by encouraging the construction industry. At the same time, he has pursued his long-range goal by, among other things, damming up most of the rivers that flow into other countries—especially Syria and Iraq This has since enabled Turkey to hold these countries up to political ransom.


His medium-term problem has been how to pay for all this. Since 2008, Turkey has amassed 320 billion dollars in hard currency debt, and its currency has lost 30 percent of its value against the dollar since mid-2014.


Erdogan has been able to get away with such profligacy because he has been able to purchase cheap oil and gas from Iran in return for helping the Iranians break the sanctions package imposed on Teheran. Turkey did so by paying the Iranians in gold.


The Saudis have looked askance at this behavior by the Turks, because the Iranians, through their fostering of terrorism and their pursuit of nuclear power, have become the Saudis’ blood enemies. Not only that, the Turks are allies of the Moslem Brotherhood, with whom the Saudis are also war.


The Saudis have not hidden their displeasure, and now there is growing evidence that, in reaction, and very quietly, the Saudis have been buying up enough of Turkey’s foreign currency debt, and holding it for the long term, so that should Riyadh choose to suddenly dump its holdings of Turkish paper, this could create panic among other foreign banks and investors and drive the Turkish economy into a tailspin.


Like I say, only the uber-rich and those for whom time is irrelevant to policymaking could ever conceive of such a timeless strategy. And, of course, only time will tell whether the Saudis feel the need to carry out what has become an implicit existential threat to the Erdogan regime.


The impact of the Saudi move, though, was immediately visible. Within days of each other, Erdogan both visited Teheran on a “goodwill” mission and he also openly criticized Iran’s Yemenite allies, the Houtis, for over-running their country.

The Impact of the Likud Election Victory on the Israeli Political Landscape

Two weeks ago, I noted that the real election was between those who sought to revitalize Israel’s tattered social contract, and those who supported the current political system. I said that under the current system, the country is ruled by a federation of sectoral micro-sovereignties whose primary concern is to further their own narrow interests—even when this comes at the expense of the common weal.


It is now obvious that the micro-sovereignties have emerged victorious. The only party that will apparently be included in the new cabinet that supports the notion of a renewed social contract, Moshe Kahalon’s Kulanu party, will be a distinct minority in the new coalition government.


I have spent much of the last two weeks trying to assess what exactly happened during the campaign and what the results of the balloting portend.


Of course, I am not the only one to have engaged in such a project. For the past two weeks, the Israeli media have been full of post-mortems about the nature of the recent election campaign, and the mistakes they made in their coverage of it. But their interests have, in general, been very narrow.


Most of their focus has been on why they failed to predict a Likud victory—never mind the landslide that actually occurred.


Most of the pundits placed the blame for their own shortcomings on the assessments made by the pollsters during the campaign. As one of the country’s leading journalists put it immediately after the results of the balloting became known “we relied on the pollsters and what they were giving us. It was all we had to go on.”


That statement was far more revelatory than even that particular media star appears to have wished. It highlighted, at least for me, the fact that none of the leading pundits, whether they were supporters of the left or the neo-nationalist camp, actually went out and spent time talking to people who did not live in these pontificators’ immediate environment. In other words, most of those who covered the election were lazy and did not do even the most basic legwork necessary to produce good journalism.


The thing is, as best as I have been able to determine, the pollsters did give a reasonably accurate picture of potential voting patterns up to the Friday prior to the polling date. Even private, so-called “deep,” Likud-sponsored polls indicated that Labour at that time, was leading by about 4 Knesset seats. The real action, however, began only late on Friday after the law forbidding pollsters to publish their findings came into effect.


This is what appears to have occurred between Friday and election day.


All the evidence indicates that, throughout the election campaign, the country was basically split into two camps—one of which was pro-Bibi, and the other, anti-Bibi. The polls taken as the election campaign progressed indicated beyond any doubt that the voting picture had become static. Only a tiny minority of voters was even considering crossing the lines to vote for the bloc that they had previously opposed.


There was considerable evidence that about a fifth of the electorate was uncertain about which party to vote for. But that uncertainty was about which of the parties within the voter’s favoured bloc the person should vote for. In other words, until the final weekend, the campaign had become a zero sum game played between the parties in each camp.


The primary reason for the Zionist camp’s lead was that Likud, up to that point, had focused almost entirely on securing the votes of activist settler supporters—especially those who might have voted for HaBayit HaYehudi. That operation had largely succeeded.


The Likud strategists realized, though, that that, for all the noise they produce, hard core settler supporters make up only a very small percentage of the voting population. There would never be enough of them to overcome the anti-Netanyahu forces that, for weeks, had been seeing their strength solidify. The Likud strategists therefore came to the conclusion that the only possible road to victory would be to increase the number of Likud supporters who would actually visit the polling booths.


They then pulled out the results of a series of focus groups that they had conducted in December, when the election campaign had first begun. The object of these focus groups had been to determine what it would take to get those potential Likud supporters who rarely vote to go to the polls en masse. The focus groups found that the most easily mobilized were those voters who were viscerally, xenephobically anti-Arab, those who were fearful of Arabs, or those who were determinedly anti-Labour.


Netanyahu’s acute understanding of how this particular emotionally-driven, politically-unsophisticated constituency thinks and behaves, in the end, enabled him to find the additional voters he needed in order to turn the tide.


Beginning on the Friday prior to the election Netanyahu launched an unprecedented media blitz designed to capitalize on both the underlying fears and the tribal instincts of these Likud supporters.


Both the Zionist Camp and the media pundits were caught off-guard by the intensity of the offensive…and Netanyahu’s blatant and unashamed use of what would otherwise be considered “politically incorrect” rhetoric.


The Zionist Camp and the anti-Bibi pundits should really not have been at all surprised by what had happened. As I have consistently tried to show over the years, Israeli politics has been tribal in nature since the socialists introduced tribal politics in the 1930s. If nothing else, this election demonstrated once again, and beyond any shadow of a doubt, that political tribalism, or what professionals call “identity politics,” remains one of the fundamental elements of Israeli politics.


Parenthetically, I should add that the continued presence of tribal politics in Israel, and the political language it encourages, is one of the reasons for the misunderstandings between Israelis and foreigners in general…and Diaspora Jews in particular.


One of the main dogmas that accompanies tribalist politics everywhere in the world is the belief that humanity is divided into two basic camps—the “thems” and the “usses.” In other words, sophisticated ideology plays a relatively small part in the decision-making of tribalist politicians or their supporters. All decisions, or almost all decisions, are directed first and foremost at fostering loyalty to the tribe, and then at providing the means by which tribal members can openly express that loyalty.


One of the primary reasons why tribalist politics remains so entrenched in Israel is that more than half of Israeli voters either came from or are the first generation progeny of parents who were born in non-democratic countries where this perception of the world …the perception that we live in a binary political cosmos made up of “thems” and “uses”… was a key to survival. When these immigrants came to Israel and encountered the theory and practice of democracy for the first time, it was only natural that many of them, both Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, would bring this way of assessing the world to the political arena that they encountered in their newly-adopted country.


In general, political forums everywhere adopt one of two basic approaches to the discussion of issues and to decision-making. Consultative forums usually act on the basis of a belief in the principle of “them and us,” or “them with us.” In practical terms this the means that the declared aim in any discussion or debate is usually to create what are called “win-win” solutions.


By contrast, polarized forums invariably adopt the principle that politics is a matter of “them” or “us.” This then leads the participants in debates or discussions in this type of forum to view any set of negotiations as “zero sum” games where any gain by one participant must be at the expense of the other.


Consultative forums are based on trust, and usually use what is often called a “bipartisan” or an “across-the-aisle approach to policy-making. One of the outstanding characteristics of these types of forums is that they tend to operate using a set of clearly articulated rules and procedures in order to reduce the chance of disruptive surprises and misunderstandings.


In polarized forums, fear plays an inordinate role in shaping people’s perceptions of their social and political environment. This then very often leads to unilateral actions and other disruptive tactics. Because their focus is always on unilateral victory, debates in polarized forums are often accompanied by ruthless forms of behavior, the use of weasel words that can multiple meanings, and attempts to trap opponents in order to make them succumb.


It is a historical fact that the immigrants who arrived in Israel from North Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, learned to fear the high-handedness of the largely Ashkenazi-populated socialist tribe that was running the country at that time.


Menachem Begin’s political genius lay in his ability to persuade these newcomers to join his Herut party tribe—even though it too was Ashkenazi-run—because it was not only anti-socialist in its beliefs, it was anti the Israeli Labour Party in practice.


When Herut amalgamated with the Liberal party to form the Likud, the by-now fervently anti-Labour party Mizrahim, almost doubled the new party’s primary voting base.


As part of their socialization into the Likud, these Mizrahim assimilated and fully adopted one of the most salient features of the Herut’s Party’s self-perception—its self-identification as what it calls “ the fighting family.” It is important to understand that the term “fighting family” is just a different way of saying that this party perceives the world as a place populated by “us” and any number of “thems”—and therefore one must be constantly on guard against and be prepared to engage in endless wars of attrition with the “thems.”


The Mizrahim’s new-found devotion to the Herut tribe was tested almost immediately after the Likud defeated Labour for the first time. Very soon after its election to office, the Likud mismanaged the economy so badly that the country became beset by hyperinflation. It then also launched a war in Lebanon that would end up lasting 18 years. And to top things off, not long after the Lebanese war began to degenerated into a bloody into a political and military stalemate, because Israel’s banks were allowed to manipulate their share prices, the country’s entire banking system collapsed. The banks then had to be bailed out at what was then the unbelievable cost to the treasury of 9 billion shekels.


Nonetheless, despite these three monumental failures in policy-making the Likud’s Mizrahi supporters refused to abandon their newly-adopted political family. No less importantly, in subsequent years, they have continued to support the party even though its leaders have lied shamelessly and have unfairly provided more funding to largely-Ashkenazi-inhabited settlements in the West bank than to largely-Mizrahi inhabited villages within the green line.


The very idea that tribal devotion should supersede personal interests invariably confounds anyone with a pretence to claiming rationality as the basis for his or her approach to decision-making. Anti-Likud pundits have recently begun referring to this form of behavior as “the Mizrahi battered wife syndrome.”


So deep has been the Mizrahi voters’ attachment to their political family, and so passionate is their dislike and distrust of Labour that only twice since Begin’s first electoral victory in 1977, has Labour won the prime ministership in an election.


I should add here that the pundits today, once again, inaccurately, have claimed that those two victories, (by Yitzchak Rabin, and later by Ehud Barak), have shown that Labour can only win an election if it is led by a senior, retired general.


That assertion is entirely false. The factual evidence available indicates clearly that those two electoral victories came about because the Likud was abandoned during those two occasions by largely-Ashkenazi pro-settler extremists who were distraught during those two time periods because the Likud was not taking a more extreme stand in support of settlement activity.


If nothing else, during his long political career, and especially because he was one the two Likud leaders who was abandoned by the extremists, Bibi Netanyahu has internalized this reality and made it the foundation stone upon which all his subsequent political actions have been based.


For most of the 1980s, Labour and Likud ran neck and neck each time an election was held. That situation changed beyond all recognition when almost a million, invariably virulently anti-socialist immigrants from the former Soviet Union, arrived in the country. About one half has since usually voted for a distinct Russian-speaking party, while the other half has mainly supported the Likud. Significantly, they have demonstrated as strong an attachment to the “us” against the “them” school of politics as do the Mizrahim, and their loyalty to neo-nationalist parties has sealed the Likud’s position as the country’s leading political party.


One of the most interesting aspects of this recent campaign was that initial public opinion polls seemed to show that this time there might be a slight change in voting patterns of the progeny of both the Russian-speakers and the Mizrahim. Those polls seemed to indicate that the children of both Mizrahi and Russian speaking citizens might be becoming what might be called “Israelified”—that is, willing to vote on the basis of national issues rather than tribal political party attachment. A couple of deep background polls indicated that the children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union might be willing to give the Yesh Atid party the equivalent of one Knesset seat’s worth of votes, and Mizrahi young people might be willing to give that party a half a Knesset member’s worth of votes because of the party’s stand on social and economic issues.


However, once Netanyahu began his last ditch appeal to voters—one that some folks have now come to call the “Five Day War,” those indicators disappeared. The voting results showed conclusively that, once Netanyahu called upon them not to abandon the fighting family, the children of Likud members obeyed the call. In other words, contrary to the initial signs, membership in the tribe had, in fact, become hereditary.


Interestingly, there is a big difference in the way that their tribal attachment is rationalized by its different members. The immigrants from the former Soviet Union, in general, have always considered themselves culturally and intellectually superior to native Israelis. They tend to look down on liberals and social democrats as both weak and insufficiently nationalistic.


On the other hand, even though the Likud has been in power for more years than any other party over the past half century, and even though it has only been led by only Ashkenazi party leaders during that period, the Mizrahim nonetheless continue to perceive themselves as belonging to a tribe of socio-economic “underdogs” who need to protect themselves and their culture from what they are convinced are the racist attitudes of Labour’s Ashkenazi elitists.


Most Mizrahi political activists point out that polling data shows that Labour supporters are far more likely to be Ashkenazi and to live in upscale, high socio-economic locales. What they fail to say is that Central Bureau of Statistics data now indicate that in the space of one generation, over half of those who immigrated from Asian and African countries have managed to make it into the middle class—a success rate that almost matches that of the eastern European Jews who emigrated to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century.


But what seems to irk Mizrahim even more is the fact that many Ashkenazim do look down on Mizrahi Jews’ cultural inheritance, especially the way that what might be called “folk religion,” such as visiting the graves of saints, is practiced.


I should emphasize at this point that many of Labour’s supporters stereotype themselves and their political opponents in much the same way as many Mizrahim do. When allowed free rein in expression, all too many of those on the secular left also adopt a “them” and “us” approach to domestic politics. In their case, they perceive themselves to be rationalists who are trying to hold exponents of emotional rhetoric, and emotionally-based and religiously-based decision-making at bay.


This atmosphere of intense social polarity, combined with his decision to enhance voters’ fears in the coarsest manner possible, provided Netanyahu with the perfect environment to launch his late political offensive.


When I reviewed all the statements issued by the Zionist Camp’s spokespeople during this campaign, I found that they seemed to have been oblivious to a dynamic that had been underway in the Likud Camp long before the election campaign had even begun. Undoubtedly, the most important element in this dynamic was the fact that Likud supporters had been primed by all the news reports of the past few years to be fearful about how the events taking place in the Arab world might affect Israel.


Those already-existing fears were then exacerbated during the campaign by, among other things, the grisly nightly pictures of orange-dressed hostages being beheaded, and vast tracts of Damascus being laid waste.


During the campaign, those fear-inducing videos were also being supplemented by news reports closer to home that were having no less of an impact. In particular, the decision by the Arab Joint List not to enter into a purely tactical surplus votes agreement with Meretz because of Balad’s demands that the new Arab alignment have nothing to do with the Zionist parties, confirmed for many Jewish Israelis who were already predisposed to believing so that the country’s Arabs did not really want to take part in the give and take political life of the country.


Hertzog and Meretz bewailed the joint list’s decision, but they either could not or were uninterested in finding an effective way to counter the impact that the joint list’s decision was having in Jewish voters.


A very incisive Likud official has noted that he was truly surprised at the way the Zionist camp reacted to the reality in which the Likud was operating. He pointed out that you cannot neutralize a strategy that is based on fostering emotions—such as the one which the Likud adopted—without having a no-less emotionally-based response ready to use as an antidote.


The Zionist Camp did adopt some negative campaigning techniques, but they were rather anemic when compared with the blood and thunder that Bibi was about to hurl down on them.


The Likud official I just mentioned suggested that the most appropriate response by the Zionist camp to the Likud’s fear-inducing campaign would have been to launch a no less emotional campaign that was based on projecting an emotional-inducing vision of a better world and how Labour would create it. Instead, the Zionist camp promised nothing more than to manage the country’s affairs better than the Likud did—a message that, under the circumstances, was drab and uninspired in the extreme.


An even more important factor, though was the fact that the Zionist camp was never able to break the hammerlock that the Likud, from the very outset, had put on the election campaign agenda. Throughout the campaign Netanyahu refused to get drawn into the debate on socio-economic issues and kept insisting that the elections be decided on the basis of who was best equipped to handle security and defence issues. He became a “Johnny One Note,” constantly claiming that the only thing that should guide voters’ decisions was how Israel should react to the US-led talks with the Iranians.


This tactic worked because, crucially, throughout the campaign, and partly because the Likud kept complaining that the press was ignoring the party’s messages, Netanyahu and his supporters actually ended up getting more television time than all the other political party leaders combined.


Given all these factors at work, anyone who has monitored Netanyahu’s behaviour in the past should not have been surprised at all by the way he led and directed the final campaign battle.


Put simply, as Yitzchak Herzog was boxing using the Marquis of Queensbury rules, Netanyahu decided to change the very nature of the contest and turn it into a no-holds-barred cage-wrestling match.


Netanyahu’ basic technique was simple: He employed short, staccato sentences whose message was filled with quasi-military code words that were easily comprehended by his intended “fighting family” audience. The main themes were:


  • A cabal of foreigners was out to “overthrow” (l’hapil) Likud family rule.
  • As a result, he (Tribal leader Bibi) was now issuing a “call-up of the family reserves” (Tsav Shmona) to thwart them
  • Israel’s Arabs, using busses provided by foreign leftists were rushing in droves (noharim) to vote.


It is unclear whether Netanyahu’s verbal tactics were the product of a panic that he might lose, as some pundits have suggested, or that they were the result of a careful assessment of what the effect of these words would have on foreign listeners as well. What is absolutely clear is that Bibi’s statements, and the Likud SMS’s to the effect that the Arabs were “tripling” their vote which accompanied his words, had an immediate impact on Israeli-American relations.


The standard line that Likud officials have used to excuse the negative impact that Netanyahu’s words have had is that Bibi, during the campaign was not talking as a national leader, but as a political party leader who was thus free to say whatever he felt was necessary to gain electoral victory.


From their reaction, it is clear that not one foreign leader has bought that line.


The precise effect Bibi’s words have had on foreign leaders is still hard to gauge. The US has declared that it now wants to, in Obama’s words “reassess” America’s posture in the Middle East. What the administration’s use of the word “reassess” means in practical terms is still difficult to judge. Israel’s relationship with the United States has been based on two principles—shared interests and shared values. It has become blatantly obvious that Israel under Netanyahu and the US under Obama find it difficult to find common interests. For example, they no longer agree on how to deal either with the Iranian or the Palestinian issue because both their immediate and medium-term concerns are very different.


More worrisome, though, is the fact that Netanyahu’s claims about Israel’s Arabs have called into question whether the two countries now share common values, particularly those relating to the rights of minorities. Certainly the timing of Netanyahu’s remarks about the Arabs voting in droves—which was interpreted by many foreigners as undermining Israeli democracy because they implied that there was something intrinsically wrong with Arabs voting in large numbers—could not have been worse. He uttered them at the very moment when the US was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the seminal Selma march that was one of the landmarks in the American blacks’ struggle for equal rights and equal opportunities. The four leading black American policy-makers (Barak Obama, Michelle Obama, Valerie Jarret and Susan Rice), for whom the Selma celebrations could not but have elicited an emotional response, must have reacted with anger to Bibi’s remarks.


Netanyahu has since tried to soften the impact of his words, but to no avail. He is simply no longer believed by any of Israel’s most important allies.


For that reason, there is now a consensus among Israel’s professional foreign policy fraternity, including those considered to have right-wing beliefs, such as the former head of the National Security Council, Uzi Arad, that Netanyahu’s words did do irreparable damage to Israeli-American relations. Many Israeli officials are now going even further. They say that Netanyahu also made a profound strategic mistake when he tried to project what Obama’s behavior would be in the last 2 years of the president’s term in office. Instead of behaving like a lame duck, as many Likud officials had confidently predicted followed the last mid-term US election, Obama is giving every sign of acting like a wounded lion out to prove that he can still determine what his historical legacy will be—especially in the field of foreign affairs


At a minimum, the Bibi’s remarks during the final days of the election campaign have raised the level of petulance on both sides to previously-unseen and unheard of levels. In particular, there is growing concern by Israeli foreign policy officials that Obama and his innermost group of advisors have interpreted Netanyahu’s remarks about Israeli Arabs in the same way they would have interpreted anyone else’s call to be beware of blacks voting in the United States.


These Israeli officials believe that Obama has become so incensed about Netanyahu’s remarks about Israeli Arabs voting that he has now launched a dirty tricks campaign to delegitimize the Israeli value set that is the country’s primary bond to American decision-makers. They point to the Wall Street Journal article that claimed that Israeli officials, acting on Netanyahu’s instructions, have been briefing Republican members of the Senate on the US proposals at the Iran nuclear talks using secret material about those talks that was gathered clandestinely and supplied by the Mossad. That article, they say, was obviously planted by an administration official as the first shot in that delegitimization campaign.


Another immediate bit of fallout from Bibi’s speeches has been the reaction by almost all foreign leaders to Bibi’s seeming volte-face immediately after the election was over. On both the issue of a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s commitment to giving its Arab citizens full rights, Bibi seemed to reverse himself the moment the ballots were counted. For that reason, Netanyahu is now no longer considered to be a trustworthy interlocutor and is being virtually shunned by leaders abroad. Bibi’s devoted acolyte, Yuval Steinitz has now taken on the task of acting as Netanyahu’s mouthpiece when foreign leaders need to be addressed personally and directly.


Back home, Netanyahu is no less distrusted by the very people who are expected to fill the cabinet seats in his new coalition government. More on that in a moment.


His success in the recent election has enabled Netanyahu to fulfil his greatest dream as a politician. The primary post-election problem that he is now facing, though, is that that dream has also become his worst nightmare.


For the first time in his career as prime minister, he is now in a position to create a coalition government of like minds. However, if the coalition negotiations continue as they have to date, the government-to-be will this time be lacking two crucial components that were present to at least some degree in the governments that Netanyahu led previously.


First, in the past, because his coalitions were more heterogeneous, he could always call upon, or he was at least forced to hear a range of opinions on major issues.


Secondly, the presence of moderate cabinet members gave him more domestic political maneuverability. For example, he could afford to placate the neo-nationalist extremists within his coalition because he was also always able to call upon someone within his inner circle to act as his envoy to the liberals in Europe and America and declare to them with a straight face that peace with the Palestinians was still possible. At various times, Dan Meridor, Ehud Barak and Tzippi Livni had filled this role.


Other than maybe Sylvan Shalom, there is no such candidate immediately available who is capable of filling this role today.


Of even greater importance, though, is Netanyahu’s need to find a justice minister capable of fending off the demands of the extreme neo-nationalists. The extremists in his new government have already prepared a list of demands that can easily be interpreted as attempts to undermine the rights of Israel’s minorities, as violating international law and as moves to weaken the country’s justice system and to circumvent landmark Supreme Court decisions. Should these measures be passed, they would undoubtedly provide the US administration and the Europeans with all the ammunition they need should they decide to pursue an all-out value delegitimization campaign.


It is now also eminently clear to all that even if only some of those measures that have been proposed by the extremists are passed by the cabinet, the growing BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement will be strengthened, and Israel foreign relations, especially with Europe, could be deeply affected. It is known that France, for example, has already prepared a proposal that it wants to submit to the EU to impose sanctions on Israel if the construction of settlements in the West Bank continues.


It has been suggested by some that Bibi brought Benny Begin out of retirement and gave him a safe place on the Likud’s electoral list precisely so that he could fulfill the role of justice minister. Begin is renowned as an extreme supporter of the settler movement. However, it is also believed that Benny Begin the son, like Menachem Begin the father is a deep believer in the rule of law—and so he is expected to oppose most of the measures now being proposed by neo-nationalist extremists. The problem is, though, that Benny Begin was trained as a geophysicist, not a lawyer.


I think it is also fairly clear now that Netanyahu is having more trouble putting together a cabinet than he originally anticipated. Most of the publicity about this issue is being given to the battle for senior cabinet posts by Yvette Liberman and Naftali Bennett.


However, there is a much more subtle dynamic at work that has not been given the public attention it deserves.


As I said, Netanyahu is deeply distrusted by his potential cabinet colleagues, and they are now demanding that every promise he makes to them be put into writing. However, Netanyahu, particularly in the wake of his experience with his previous cabinet, has clearly come to the belief that the most stable cabinets are those that are made up of weak parties. That means that the cabinet posts must be distributed in such a way that each of the parties within the cabinet can act as a check on the others.


Netanyahu can still form a cabinet without Liberman and his six Knesset seats. Without Liberman demanding a senior portfolio, Netanyahu would then be able to force Bennett to moderate his demands for a high-ranking portfolio too.


However, Bibi cannot do without Moshe Kahlon, and his 10 Knesset seats, in his coalition.


The thing is, Moshe Kahlon probably dislikes and distrusts Netanyahu more than any other potential cabinet minister. By his actions and statements, he has already made it plain that he is acutely aware of Netanyahu’s intent to keep his cabinet partners as weak as possible. Kahlon’s entire political future, though, is predicated on his ability to fulfill the campaign promises he made to restructure the economy…and especially to cut the cost of living, (and in particular the cost of housing), and to weaken the banks. In order to do so, he has to be able to act from a position of strength. Netanyahu’s aides, however, have already derided Kahlon’s demands by declaring that “there cannot be a government within a government.”


The results of that approach have already become visible.


Unlike Yair Lapid, who had to cope with a 40 billion shekel deficit when he took office as finance minister, Lapid has bequeathed to Kahlon an estimated budget surplus of 10 billion shekels. That could finance important first stages of Kahlon’s reform efforts. However, Netanyahu, has already promised the Haredim 2-3 billion of that sum (and maybe even 5 billion shekels) as a payoff for joining the cabinet, and Netanyahu is also expected to allocate several hundred more millions to the settlers. To top things off, though, Netanyahu has also never seen a request from the military that he didn’t like. At the moment, the Defence establishment is asking for an additional 5.6 billion.


In other words, all the money Kahlon needs to launch the reform has already been committed.


Not only that, Kahlon is convinced that he will only be able to ensure the passage his reforms in the Knesset as well as their implementation if he can control the pipeline his measures must pass through. However, Bibi has now also apparently placed every potential roadblock possible in Kahlon’s way. Netanyahu has apparently promised to give the chairmanship of the Knesset finance committee, which must pass all of Kahlon’s measures, to the Haredi United Torah Judaism party; and to allow the National Planning Committee, which will be needed to complete the formulation of Kahlon’s plans to remain part of the bailiwick of the Interior Ministry—which has been promised to Shas leader Aryeh Deri. If these appointments are made, Kahlon will be turned into a helpless dependent, totally reliant on Bibi to clear the roadblocks as they appear in practice.


But finding a way to reestablish communication with foreign leaders and putting together a cabinet are not Netanyahu’s only worries. He will also have to put his own office in better order. To begin with, so poisonous has his relationship with American Democrats become that he will have difficulty in reconstructing any relationship with that party unless he quickly finds a replacement for his personally-appointed ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer. Dermer is perceived by almost everyone in Washington as being the point man who tried to foster closer relations with the Republican party at the Democrats’ expense.


Not only that, in the past, Israeli leaders have put major efforts into developing high-quality communication lines with the leaders of Sunni Arab states, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They are now in the midst of confronting many of Israeli sworn enemies. It also just so happens that today most of these states are also at odds with the Obama Administration over Washington’s confused policy towards the Middle East and its stance with regard to Iran. In recent months, these Arab states, together with Israel, have formed what is, in effect, an unofficial alliance that is opposed not just to Obama’s position on negotiations with the Iranians, but also Obama’s overall approach to the use of American military power in the Middle East.


To date, these efforts have been managed largely by Netanyahu’s trusted envoy for secret diplomacy, Yitzchak Molcho. However, it now appears that, because of the violence undermining the stability of much of the Arab world this relationship will have to be expanded. If the team in the prime minister’s office dealing with the events in the Arab world is expanded, the might be an increase in the number of embarrassing or counterproductive leaks.


And finally, just to top things off, Netanyahu is soon going to have to deal with demands emanating from the Bank of Israel. The Bank of Israel, after all is in charge of the country’s monetary policy on which both growth and price stability—and therefore the success of any government—depend.


The problem is that the Bank can only do its work once there is a clear government policy for the Bank to work with.


The rest of this sounds like a modernized version of the ditty that ends every Pesach seder—Had Gadya—best translated from the Aramaic as “A paean to a goat.”


But here goes:


The government’s economic policy can only be laid out if there is a budget.


There can be no budget without a cabinet being formed.


Both Habayit HaYehudi’s Naftali Bennett and Yisrael Beiteinu’s Yvette Liberman are fighting over who should get the post of foreign minister, which Liberman currently occupies.


Bibi has always had a good relationship with Liberman, but Bennett and Bibi loath each other.


Bibi can form a coalition without Liberman and his 6 Knesset seats, but Bibi needs all of Bennet’s 8 seats to form a majority government.


Once a new government is formed, the nature of the budget can only be determined once the cabinet knows certain vital facts such as whether the Europeans will impose sanctions in an effort to force Israel to renew the peace process with the Palestinians.


According to Abu Mazzen, the peace process can only be renewed if Israel stops construction in the West Bank.


Construction can only be halted, though, if the HaBayit Hayehudi party acquiesces to it.

But after Bibi “stole” so many potential HaBayit HaYehudi voters during the Five Day War, HaBayit HaYehudi is in no mood to delay construction in the West Bank for even a second.


Oh yes…Of course…There can be no cabinet at all without Moshe Kahlon becoming one of its members.


But Kahlon, and his 10 Knesset seats will only join the government if he is assured in advance that he will be given the bureaucratic pipeline he needs to ensure the passage of his planned reforms.


His possession of the pipeline llooks as though it is already blocked because bits of it have already been promised to the Haredim.


The Haredim will only allow passage of the bills if through the pipeline if heavy tolls like additional funding for the Yeshivas is agreed upon.


But even if the Haredim promise not to stand in Kahlon’s way, it is still unclear to what extent the budget will nonetheless be altered by the other Knesset finance committee members.


Only a strong finance minister can control the independent-minded, and lobbyist-influenced finance committee members.


But Netanyahu doesn’t like strong-minded people who see themselves as potential prime ministers in his cabinet.


Bibi believes that he is the only strong man Israel needs. However he is not as strong as he thinks he is.


The Bank of Israel has already warned that Bibi that his promises to the Haredim will require a rise in taxes in 2016.


Ah, but both Netanyahu and Kahlon are on record as being opposed to raising taxes.


Their only alternative is to cut perks and tax abatements that have been handed out to all sorts of interested parties over the years.


Those interested parties, from Likud-led municipalities to big financiers have lots of clout, and will not take lightly to such steps


However, without knowing which perks will be eliminated, what effect such an elimination will have on the economy, and whether the Knesset finance committee acting under pressure from lobbyists working on behalf of the special interests will try to reverse the process, it will be impossible to produce a budget.


Welcome back to the original refrain. Without a budget, there can be no statement of government policy.


Without a statement of policy, the Bank of Israel cannot decide on a monetary policy.


Without a monetary policy there can be no attempt at economic growth and price stability.


Without the prospect of economic growth and price stability the government, Moshe Kahlon will not join the government.


And that will then get everyone’s goat.


Had Gadya-a-a-a, Had Gadya.