The Israeli-Hamas War–An Interim Assessment


Israel is now at a crossroads in its war with Hamas. If there is no cease-fire by the time that the IDF finishes demolishing the tunnels that it has found leading into Israel (expected to take about five more days unless new tunnels are found), the government will have to take one of three decisions. None is appealing to the eight member defence cabinet that has been charged with running the war.


However, pressure is building for the government to make a decision soon. A very senior military officer on Tuesday openly demanded that the government, within the next few hours, provide the IDF with clear orders on what to do next.


As the Israelis view things, the first option would be to remain in place and hope that a cease-fire can be negotiated soon. This, however, would leave the soldiers vulnerable to incessant, hit-and-run sniper and rocket propelled grenade fire. It is openly opposed by the military.


Alternatively, Israel could declare victory and withdraw back behind the border. However, the Israelis fear that Hamas would then be provided with a critical propaganda victory because it could then claim that the withdrawal was the product of Hamas’s violent resistance. This might then lead to a rise in stature for Hamas in the West Bank and an undermining of the rule of moderate Mahmoud Abbas.


The only other choice would be an increased push into Gaza, which might not only lead to the deaths of many more Israeli soldiers but also to a loss in international tolerance for Israel’s operations as the number of deaths of Gaza civilians also grows. Furthermore, any significant new ground action would involve house-to-house and inside-tunnel fighting. The Israelis have so far found that every second house has been booby trapped, and they now estimate that there are 1000 kilometers of tunnels running under the 360 square kilometers that constitute the Gaza Strip. For that reason, they now reckon that it might take as long as a year and a half of continuous warfare to finally subdue Gaza and crush Hamas.


The Israeli Defence Cabinet decided on Wednesdy not to decide which option to adopt, arguing that the situation is still too fluid. It did authorize the army to make minor advances on the ground, to significantly increase the level of air and artillery bombardment, and to mobilize another 16,000 army reservists (bringing the total number of reservists who have been called up for service to 86,000.



The process that led to the fighting was totally unplanned by either side. As too often happens in the Middle East, one event led to another until neither side felt that it could stop the escalation.


The drama began with the breakdown in the peace talks. That led the PA to attempt a reconciliation deal with Hamas. Such a deal would have enabled PA President Mahmoud Abbas to launch his latest campaign for international recognition at the UN and elsewhere by being able to claim that he had become the leader of both the West Bank and Gaza.


Hamas saw the unity deal as an opportunity to escape from its bankruptcy and its political isolation. The leaders of Hamas lost Iranian financial and military aid after they had reluctantly sided with the Sunni rebels in Syria. Then, later, they lost their primary source of political and diplomatic support when the Moslem Brotherhood’s rule of Egypt was overthrown. The Brotherhood had not only allowed Hamas to import vast quantities of arms via the Sinai, it had also supported the Gaza economy by, among other things, supplying subsidized fuel.


The final and most recent blow to Hamas was the halt in the flow of financial aid from the Gulf States. First, Palestinian banks, fearful of international sanctions for having assisted a certified “terrorist” organization, this year began to refuse to transfer funds from Qatar to Hamas in Gaza. And, following the coup in Egypt, couriers could no longer bring cash to the Strip via the Sinai because Egypt had closed the tunnels leading to Gaza and had sealed the only land crossing at Rafah to everyone except special humanitarian cases. Egypt announced this week that, all told, it had found and destroyed 1643 tunnels—including 13 found in recent days.


Once the Egyptian border closure was in place, Hamas also lost one of its primary sources of income because it could no longer levy taxes on goods brought in through the tunnels.


Hamas tried to extricate itself from the fix it was in by signing the reconciliation agreement with the Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. However, PA President Mahmoud Abbas then refused to pay the salaries of the 40,000 civil servants, including 17,000 members of the various security forces in Gaza, who had been put on the public payroll by Hamas after its bloody takeover of the Strip in 2007.


Just as the tension between the PA and Hamas was rising, a group of Hamas fighters based in the Hebron region of the West Bank kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers. The killers have still not been caught.


Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had viewed the Hamas-PA reconciliation as an attempt by Hamas not only to gain funding, but also to rebuild and strengthen its voter base in the West Bank in the run-up to elections scheduled for January. He therefore used the opportunity provided by the search for the missing teenagers to also try to break the organizational back of Hamas in the West Bank. Among other things, he ordered that Hamas supporters, who had been released under the deal to free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas imprisonment, be rearrested. Three battalions of soldiers were assigned to the search for the kidnapped boys and 7 battalions to the Hamas project.


Hamas responded by allowing some of the small jihadist groups in Gaza to lob rockets into Israel. However, Hamas soon joined in the shelling.


Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, and Chief of Staff Benny Ganz were very reluctant to get sucked into a huge firefight. Nonetheless, after the number of daily rocketings passed the 25 mark, the Israeli government decided to bomb targets in Gaza. Its decision, though, did not include specific orders to the military on what it should do. The government’s official announcement was worded in the most general terms possible. It only declared that Israel would “trade quiet for quiet” and the primary military aim would be to weaken Hamas.


Nonetheless, after a group of Hamas commandos emerged from a tunnel dug from Gaza into Israel and tried to carry out an attack, and after Hamas had twice rejected a cease-fire proposal, the government decided to send in ground troops to destroy the other tunnels that had been dug from Gaza to Israel.


Significantly, destroying the tunnels was the first and only clear military aim that the government set since the fighting began. It has yet to delineate any political objectives that the army can use in planning its activities, and the troops were sent into battle without an exit strategy having been agreed to in advance.


Netanyahu’s Domestic Dilemmas:


Netanyahu was reluctant to order a large-scale military campaign because of the possibility that such an operation would lead to a large number of dead Israeli soldiers, and because, if he set a major goal for the military that it could not achieve, his political enemies would pounce on him the moment the fighting ended.


However, his two main competitors for voters from the extreme neo-nationalist camp, Foreign Minister Yvette Liberman and Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, and one of his greatest nemeses in the Likud, Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon, did the unprecedented thing of criticizing the prime minister’s decisions in public while the fighting was going on. Danon was fired from his job, but Netanyahu could not fire the other two because they are the heads of leading coalition parties, and their departure from the cabinet would bring down the government. Polls currently show that 70 percent of the public approves of Netanyahu’s restrained and cautious approach to the fighting. However, more than eighty percent also agree with the hardliners that Israel should finally launch a major offensive to conquer the Gaza Strip and crush Hamas. Both numbers are even higher among Likud voters.


Hamas’s Objectives:


Hamas’s political doctrine is based on “muqawama,” or permanent resistance to Israel. So long as resistance continues, it can always claim victory. Any other benefit that emerges from the fighting, whether it was the temporary shutdown of international flights to Ben Gurion Airport or ongoing media depictions of rubble and wailing women that lead to anti-Israeli feelings outside the region, is icing on the cake.


To date, despite the bombing and Israel’s incursions, Hamas’s leadership structures have remained intact, as have its primary command and control bunkers. According to Israeli figures, fewer than a thousand out of an estimated 20,000 armed fighters, have been killed. Hamas also knows that the tunnels Israel is blowing up can be reconstructed; and the supply of rockets rebuilt because, now that Egypt is destroying the tunnels leading from Gaza into the Sinai, there are more experienced tunnel-diggers than can be employed; and aluminum irrigation pipes, whose renewed import will certainly be allowed once a cease-fire is agreed to, make excellent rocket casings.


Not only that, Hamas’s leadership remains convinced that it can outlast Israel because, it believes, Israelis are too sensitive to their soldiers’ deaths. It is also confident that the international community, horrified at the sight of wounded and dead civilians, will prevent Israel from lunching an attempt to retake Gaza in its entirety.


Therefore, Hamas is demanding the fruits of victory, especially the reopening of the border crossing to Egypt and a renewed flow of funding from Qatar and other sources.


Despite all the damage caused by Israel, there are no signs that a popular revolt against Hamas’s rule is imminent. Conversations that many Israelis have had with ordinary Gazans indicate that the Gazans fear summary Hamas executions, are simply too exhausted to try to unseat Hamas, and do not see el Fatah as an alternative. They also insistently remind Israelis who suggest that the el-Fatah-run Palestinian Authority should once again take over the running of Gaza that they had voted against el Fatah and brought Hamas to power in the first place because of el Fatah’s endemic corruption.


The Abbas Factor:


Netanyahu’s relations with PA President Mahmoud Abbas were at their nadir when the crisis began. However, as soon as the fighting began, Abbas openly criticized Hamas, in Arabic and before a meeting of the Arab League, for having started the fighting.


Abbas has long opposed violent resistance to Israel. However another major factor leading to his decision to level such open criticism of Hamas may have been that the publicity being given to Hamas’s actions, and Europe’s condemnation of Hamas’s shelling, were forcing him to postpone his strategic push to have the PA accepted in all international fora.


His open opposition did have one immediate effect. It led many Israelis to suggest that he had thus proven himself to be a true partner in the peace process, and therefore the process should be renewed once the fighting ends.


However, Abbas later felt obliged to react to the mood of the street in the West Bank, which supports Hamas. Therefore, the moment that widespread protests broke out in West Bank towns and cities, he reversed his position. He has now come out in support of all of Hamas’s demands, and he led the appeal to the UN Human Rights Council to set up a commission to investigate Israel for war crimes.


Despite these actions, Netanyahu appears to have come to the conclusion that he cannot arrange a cease-fire without Abbas.


He therefore hopes that, after the fighting ends, the PA will be given a far bigger role in the management of affairs in Gaza. In particular, he supports Egypt’s demands that, henceforth, PA security officials guard and monitor the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing into Sinai (which would bring PA policemen back into Gaza for the first time since the Hamas coup there).


Moreover, he is demanding that any money for the rehabilitation of Gaza be funneled through the PA and not Hamas. His close aides now say that he may even approve the establishment of a joint PA-Hamas delegation to the cease-fire talks in Cairo in order to halt American efforts to bring in Turkey and Qatar to act as mediators.


US-Israeli Strains:


Israeli-American relations are now extremely strained. Netanyahu, like Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President el-Sisi took great umbrage at the fact that, when the US met with representatives of the EU last week to plan what to do next to further a cease-fire, they invited Hamas’s supporters (Qatar and Turkey) to the parlay, but not the other three participants in the cease-fire negotiations.


Israel subsequently also rejected, out of hand, a cease-fire proposal, drafted by Turkey and presented by Secretary of State Kerry. The “non-paper” detailed many of the benefits that would accrue to Hamas when the fighting stopped, but failed to mention any of Israel’s concerns.


Israel’s primary concern at the moment is that any cease-fire proposal should provide a mechanism for preventing Hamas’s rearmament, and that the import into Gaza of any so-called “dual use” goods that can be employed both for housing reconstruction and tunnel construction (such as cement and reinforcing steel) be carefully monitored.


In addition, the White House, the State Department and Netanyahu’s office have all issued totally contradictory accounts of telephone conversations between the American and Israeli leaders.


The Outsiders Made Insiders:


Turkey and Qatar are not normally on speaking terms with either Egypt or Israel. However, the US, despite Israeli and Egyptian anger at it having done so, felt obliged to bring them into the process because they are the only two countries still willing to talk directly to Hamas; and the US feared that they could also act as spoilers.


Certainly Qatari money will be needed to help reconstruct Gaza.


However, the Israelis suspect that the fact that Qatar has just signed an 11 billion dollar arms deal with the US and is determined to be a party to the process in order to heighten its national prestige, may also have affected Washington’s decision.


The Israelis have taken particular note of the fact that, in the past couple of days, Turkish President Erdogan has toned down his otherwise constant, virulent attacks on Israel; and on Wednesday they revealed that a Turkish official had been visiting Israel in the past few days.


The European Connection:


The EU’s leaders are in a peculiar position. They have formally and clearly condemned Hamas for beginning the carnage. However, they are also acutely sensitive to domestic problems that have arisen, such as the growing number of pro-Palestinian demonstrations and riots in Europe, as well as the upswell in popular anger at Israel for having killed so many civilians. This is now leading some of them to demand that Israel unilaterally cease fire.


Egypt as an Ally:


Israel’s relations with Egypt have tightened since the fighting began. Israeli officials now talk openly about their country being part of a de facto alliance that includes Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in opposition to Hamas, ISIS and al Qaeda.


Netanyahu views Egypt as the only country capable of mediating a cease-fire; and he has thrown all his weight behind Egypt’s proposal for an immediate cease-fire, (which would only then be followed by diplomatic talks).


The problem that has arisen is that Hamas knows that el-Sisi despises Hamas and treats it as the beloved son of the Moslem Brotherhood that he is trying to destroy. As well, his relations with Washington are near absolute zero. Washington has still not accepted el-Sisi’s overthrow of the elected Moslem Brotherhood. More importantly to el-Sisi, Obama has still not authorized the shipment of Apache helicopters and night vision equipment, which Egypt needs in its battle with Sinai Bedouin al Qaeda supporters, but whose delivery was cancelled after the el-Sisi coup.


One major problem with Egypt acting as a mediator is that el-Sisi has his own interests at stake in the cease-fire talks.


Nonetheless, in Israel’s view, Egypt holds the most important bargaining cards. It is clear that there can be no cease-fire without an Egyptian agreement to open the Rafah border crossing.


The biggest problem that both Israel and the US face because Egypt has such a prominent position in the negotiations is that, while they both are seeking an urgent cease-fire, el-Sisi has quite obviously chosen, as a negotiating tactic, to try to outwait Hamas. No Egyptian troops are involved in the fighting, and so he, personally has nothing to lose by any delay in reaching a cease-fire agreement. Moreover, just by doing nothing, he believes that he has made himself into the man everyone must go to and treat with honor.


Officially, he has so far refused to offer any concessions before a cease-fire is declared. Hamas fears that, if Egypt’s proposal is accepted, el-Sisi will then be in a position to refuse any or all of Hamas’s demands after the fighting stops. It is therefore demanding that Egypt agree to a whole set of concessions before a cease-fire is declared.




At the moment the negotiations to arrange a cease-fire are stalled.


As I keep repeating over and over again, anyone’s capacity to understand and to cope with political events in the Middle East is directly proportional to his or her understanding of the political culture that has evolved there.


In the past, even if it didn’t understand what was motivating Middle Eastern actors to behave as they do, the United States, because of its overwhelming economic and military power was able to enforce its norms for dispute resolution on Middle Eastern nations. Israel, for example, because of its dependency on and need for friendship with the United States invariably accepted and acted in accordance with those norms—even if it didn’t like them.


However, America’s capacity for influence in the region has waned in recent years. As a result, the use of traditional Arab political norms for dealing with both domestic and inter-state tensions has grown. The Gaza crisis has now highlighted the fact that both Israel and the United States appear to have been totally unprepared for this development.


Unlike the US and Israel, as a result of his years as one of Egypt’s senior military officers in Bedouin Sinai and his subsequent service as the head of military intelligence, Egyptian President el-Sisi, appears to have become a master in the use of and management of Arab political culture. Not only that, as his decisions to force the Moslem Brotherhood underground and to raise the price of fuel in Egypt show, he appears to be a brave, nationalist, rationalist who is determined to reverse Egypt’s decline into failing state status.


Complicating matters further, he also carries big time grudges against the Brotherhood, its Hamas offshoot, Turkey, Qatar and the US…grudges which he takes no effort to hide.


For all these reasons, it is he, not John Kerry, who has now taken control of the diplomatic effort to resolve the situation in Gaza. And he is using techniques and approaches that are totally foreign to both the US and Israel.


He began to use his insights and to exert control over Hamas the moment that the fighting between Israel and Hamas broke out. Israel’s propaganda machine may have been putting out a series of claims that the IDF had weakened Hamas severely, but el-Sisi knew better than to believe that bunk.


He understood that Hamas and the people in Gaza were using different criteria to judge whether Hamas was succeeding or failing in its conflict with Israel. If he needed to, all he had to do in order to figure out what those criteria were…and even more importantly what the implications of those criteria were when viewed through the prism of Arab political culture…was to peruse the social media postings by Hamas and individuals in Gaza over time.


The conclusions he has apparently come to have left the Israelis and the US dumbstruck. In particular, he appears to have decided that while Israel and the Western countries feel pressed to get an early cessation of the violence in order to prevent the further deaths of civilians and Israeli soldiers, he can wait—seemingly indefinitely.


Certainly, while the Israelis count the number of bombs dropped and the number of buildings destroyed, and the US public wails about the number of Palestinian civilian lives lost, el-Sisi appears to have come to the conclusion that these issues are of little or no concern to Hamas’s leadership.


So, when John Kerry first appeared on the scene and it appeared that he was again about to make one mistake after another, el-Sisi initially tried cool Kerry down and head off a confrontation by three times telling Kerry not to come to Cairo. Nonetheless, Kerry carried on, oblivious to what he was doing.


Now, because of Kerry’s and Obamas actions, the attempts to arrange a cease fire between Israel and Hamas have become unimaginably complicated. Apparently on orders from his boss to avoid American unilateralism and make the cease-fire an international project Kerry has included dozens of states in the negotiating process. Egypt then sought support from another batch of countries. As a result, at least twelve different parties, some of them multi-state groupings, are now involved in the project—Israel, Hamas, Egypt, The Palestinian Authority, the US, The EU, the UN, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and the international media.


What makes things worse is that each has its own interests and stakes in the matter. It would take volumes to explain all the competing concerns. However, in brief, the current situation is as follows:


Egypt continues to demand that a cease-fire be agreed to before any other negotiations take place. Hamas has responded that it will no cease fire until Israel withdraws from Gaza. Israel has announced that it will not withdraw from Gaza until it has finished destroying the tunnels leading into Israel.


The most important signal that real negotiations are underway will come when and if the PA (including a Hamas component in its delegation) and Israel both end up finally sending official delegations to Cairo.






No Israeli-Hamas Cease-Fire Is In The Offing



A search is underway to find a mediator capable of arranging a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza. Hamas is reported by everyone in the know to be desperately seeking a suitable candidate. However, all the names mentioned so far have been considered unacceptable by either the Israelis or the Gazans.


I use the word Gazans, rather than Hamas because a cease-fire would have to include the well-armed, Iranian proxy, Islamic Jihad, as well as the myriad of small, extremist groups that have popped up in Gaza in recent years.


Finding a mediator capable of doing the job has not been easy. In a phone call with Binyamin Netanyahu, President Obama reportedly suggested that the US take on the job. But that seems to be a baseless proposal because, by law, the United States is forbidden to talk to Hamas because it has been labelled a terrorist organization.


Tony Blair has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Cairo in what appears to be an attempt to take on that job. However, nobody is taking his effort seriously. He simply doesn’t have the qualifications. In particular, he is not believed by the Israelis to have the ability to get into Arabs’ minds—a precondition for being able to mediate such a dispute. For example, how would he cope with what the Israelis assert is Hamas’s conviction that, before entering into a cease-fire it must have strong visual proof that it has gained a “victory.” That image would most likely have to include pictures of Israeli death and destruction. Israel, using the Iron Dome rocket interceptor system, is of course committed to preventing such images from being created.


Turkey and Qatar have also been mooted as possible candidates for the job, but they too are not particularly suitable.


To begin with, the mediator will have to be able to talk to both sides. That eliminates Qatar. Qatar will undoubtedly have a major role to play in rebuilding Gaza once the fighting ends, but it doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel and it is viewed by Israel as siding with Hamas.


In recent years, Israel’s relations with the Turkish government have been abnormal at best. Turkey’s ruling AKP party, under Prime Minister Erdogan, is viewed by Israel as the northern branch of the Moslem Brotherhood. Furthermore, the man Turkey proposed as the mediator, its director of military intelligence, is perceived by Israel to be a close ally of Iran, which controls Islamic Jihad.


Seemingly, the most obvious candidate is Egypt. It has fulfilled this role successfully several times in the past. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is reported to have asked the Egyptians to take on the role. But, today (Monday), the spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry responded that Cairo believes that the PA should undertake the task.


In any case, Hamas has made it plain to other Arab diplomats that it is reluctant to trust the Egyptians with the job. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as the former minister of defence, has personal grudges against Hamas. His government and its supportive media allege that Hamas was responsible for executing an attack on an Egyptian prison that led to the escape of hundreds of security prisoners, aided a group of militants who killed 15 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai as they were eating their Ramadan fast-breaking meal in August 2012, and provided supplies and training for al-Qaeda operatives who have been on a killing spree in the Sinai desert. For these reasons, el Sisi ordered that the border crossing between Gaza and the Sinai at Rafah be closed, and that the tunnels bringing money and supplies into Gaza be destroyed. Today, some of the pro-government media have even gone so far as to release broadsides blaming Hamas for initiating the fighting.


The Israelis too very much want to give PA President Mahmoud Abbas a major role. However, Hamas apparently refuses to speak to Abbas as well. He has condemned the Israeli air attacks. But he has been no less critical of Hamas for having initiated the violence.


Moreover, Hamas knows that the PA’s security service, which is highly influential with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, remembers only too well the scenes where Hamas fighters dumped PA policemen off roofs and dragged them through the streets behind cars after Hamas’s 2007 coup in Gaza. Many of the security services’ members are still seeking revenge.


Not only that, the PA has already used the opportunity provided by the Israeli fighter jets to deliver ultimatums of its own in private. One of the most notable of these is a demand that, in return for applying international pressure to get the Israelis to stop their bombings, the PA be permitted to place its own security officials at the Rafah crossing. It is a demand that Hamas rejected out of hand.


Yet another obstacle is that, in return for entering into negotiations, each side has set preconditions that are totally unacceptable to the other. According to PA insiders, Israel is not only demanding an extended cease-fire that will last far longer than previous cease-fires, it has also intimated that it wants Gaza to be totally demilitarized and that the monitoring of this disarmament be handled by foreigners who can be trusted to do the job.


Hamas too says it will not be satisfied simply with a return to the status quo ante. Among other things, its spokesmen have demanded that Israel free all 56 of the Hamas members who were released under the deal that saw Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit liberated from Hamas captivity. The 56 were rearrested after 3 Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed last month.


At the heart of the mediation dispute, however, are the basic problems that led to the current round of fighting. Hamas had become almost totally politically and diplomatically isolated and is bankrupt.


Long ago, it lost Iranian financial and military aid after it reluctantly sided with the Sunni rebels in Syria. Later, it lost its primary source of political and diplomatic support when the Moslem Brotherhood’s rule of Egypt was overthrown. And finally, the flow of financial aid from the Gulf was halted.


In the latest blow, Palestinian banks, fearful of international sanctions for having assisted a certified “terrorist” organization, refused to transfer the most recent tranche of funds from Qatar to Hamas in Gaza. And couriers can no longer bring cash to the Strip via the Sinai because Egypt has closed the tunnels leading to Gaza and has sealed the only land crossing at Rafah to everyone except special humanitarian cases.


Once that closure was in place, Gaza became totally dependent on crossings into Israel for the import of vital supplies. Not only that, Hamas lost one of its primary sources of income because it could no longer levy taxes on goods brought in through the tunnels.


Hamas tried to extricate itself from the fix it was in by signing a reconciliation agreement with the Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. However, PA President Mahmoud Abbas then refused to pay the salaries of the 40,000 civil servants in Gaza who had been hired by Hamas after its bloody takeover of the Strip in 2007.


It was then, in an act of desperation, and in an attempt to get Arab and world attention for its plight, that Hamas reacted by lobbing rockets into Israel.


Now, as a result of the fighting, a long list of new issues has been added to and has complicated the mix of prior problems.


For example, virtually every Israeli security expert now fears that, as in the past, the longer the fighting goes on, one inaccurate bombing or a ground operation that goes wrong could lead to mass Palestinian casualties. This might then lead to foreign pressures that would cause the Israelis to have to declare a ceasefire without any of its political and future security concerns being addressed.


This has led some of these experts to call for Israel to declare a unilateral cease-fire. For example, former cabinet minister Dan Meridor, one of the country’s most respected security strategists, has stated that such a unilateral cease-fire would then put Hamas on the spot. If it agreed to a cease-fire, Israel would not have to enter into negotiations that would inevitably require it to give up some of the major gains that it has already achieved. If Hamas refused to enter into a ceasefire, Israel would then be justified in pursuing its war aims unfettered.


Other, no less distinguished experts however, have warned that such a move would then give Hamas the “victory” it has been seeking because it could then claim that it had “resisted” all of Israel’s military might and had forced the Zionists to quit. This, claim, in turn, would then undermine one of Israel’s main war aims—a desire by Israel to force the people of Gaza to turn against their Hamas rulers because of the suffering they have endured.


­­Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been keeping his intentions close to his chest. Since first becoming prime minister in the 1990s, he has demonstrated a distinct reluctance to use military force; and he has acted with considerable restraint since the current round of violence began.


In addition, he has worked particularly hard to keep his fractious and quarrelsome domestic political front intact and supportive. He has held daily meetings with members of the numerically-restricted defence cabinet, given lengthy briefings to the full cabinet, kept the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence committee abreast of developments, and delivered almost nightly television addresses.


However, he may soon be facing a critical point. His right wing allies are pressing for a ground operation to destroy Hamas’s infrastructure of bunkers and tunnels. As the bank of targets suitable for aerial bombing begins to run dry, he will finally have to decide whether to further escalate matters by launching a ground assault or risk their electoral wrath after the fighting is over.


Of even greater importance to him, however, is his desire to maintain the improved relations between Israel and the PA and Israel and Egypt that the fighting has brought about.


Therefore, ironically, it is very possible that only a deal negotiated between Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on the demands they have of Hamas can bring a quick end to the growing bloodshed.


The Israelis have been allowing some humanitarian aid, including 20,000 litres of fuel, to enter Gaza despite the fighting. But that in no way satisfies Hamas’s minimum needs or desires—which require more than just a cease-fire with the Israelis before they can be fulfilled. At the very minimum, it needs an assured means for bringing in the supplies needed for reconstruction, a guaranteed financial pipeline to pay for the work, and a way to export locally made goods to its natural markets in Israel and the West Bank in order to reduce unemployment and rebuild the economy.


Therefore, a realistic offer that a mediator, once found, can take to the Gazans can only be produced by Egypt, the PA and Israel acting in coordination.

EU Attitudes to Israel

One of the most peculiar aspects of the Kerry mediation mission was the behavior of the Europeans. The head of the EU’s foreign policy team, Catherine Ashton would pop up on television every once in a while, admonish Israel, and then disappear again. Her appearances at conferences and before the television cameras appeared to be haphazard at best; and the words she spoke were simply clichés, strung together aimlessly—bereft of any signs that she or her advisors had a sophisticated understanding of Middle Eastern culture and political behaviour.


I would have thought that her performance throughout this period would have been the subject of considerable discussion in the European press because it was almost a classic case study of all the problems that the Europeans have had in formulating a joint foreign policy. But that aspect of her work was largely ignored…maybe because it was old hat and merely just another representative example of the internal philosophical and political turmoil that the Europeans have been undergoing.


Clearly, the Europeans could have played a significant role in the peace effort had they chosen to. Europe has any number of levers it can use to influence both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Europe is Israel’s primary export/import market, and the Europeans, as a bloc, are the biggest donors to the Palestinian Authority. Israeli exports to Europe last year totaled 15.2 billion dollars—or 32 percent of all exports. And, all told, Europe has provided half the aid given to the Palestinian side since the Oslo Accords were implemented in 1994—about 7.7 billion dollars.


It is therefore remarkable that the Europeans’ participation in the process was almost entirely restricted to complaining, in ever more strident and even screechy tones, about “the occupation.”


It is worth examining, therefore, why the Europeans wanted to have such a strong presence in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating arena in the first place, and even more so, why they have been unwilling to use the leverage at their disposal to support the American attempts at mediation.


These are not airy-fairy subjects because, over the years, the Europeans have had an influence on other nations’ attitudes to Israel, the Arabs, and the peace process itself.


The attitudes—and I emphasize the plural here—of the Europeans did not simply come out of the blue. They have to be understood in the context of the traumas and upheavals Europe has been going through for a hundred years. People tend to forget that this year marks the hundredth anniversary of World War I…that cataclysmic exercise in self-destruction that undid hundreds of years of European civilization-building.


While some Israelis and many Jews tend to focus on Europe’s long history of anti-Semitism, the European’s approach to Israel and the Middle East is the product of a great many other factors, many of which deserve particular mention.


First, a brief overview.


During the last century, Europe underwent, among other traumas, the two world wars, the Holocaust, and what might be called the dereligiizing and secularization of the continent. By secularization, I am also including the virtual collapse of Marxism, which had as deep and as profound a hold on many Europeans as any religion did.


Over the past fourteen years, the continent has had to cope with the impact of the legal and illegal immigration to European countries of masses of desperate Moslems who do not want to become culturally European; and a financial crisis that has shattered many of the presumptions on which the EU’s common economic policy was based. The evidence that the economic crisis is still growing in intensity was highlighted recently when the European Central Bank decided to impose a negative interest rate on savings in a desperate attempt to get Europeans to spend more and thus boost GDP.


Even more striking, though, is the fact that, even in the face of these threats, Europe has failed to create a new social contract in place of the old ones that have been discarded. And that may also be the key reason for its inability to create a coherent foreign policy. For, in most cases foreign policies are designed either to serve and strengthen a nation’s domestic social contract or to serve as a means for exporting the values on which that contract is based.


The origins of modern European attitudes to anything and everything can be traced to the period between 1955 and 1957. 1955 saw the reemergence of Germany as a country that could be welcomed back into the family of nations after two bloody wars and the Holocaust. 1956 witnessed the Suez invasion and the last gasp of colonialism by Britain and France. And in 1957, the treaty of Rome was signed. It established the framework for what became known as the EEC, or the European Economic Community, the precursor of today’s EU, or European Union.


Each of these events created a considerable amount of political turbulence. When the effects of that disorder are corralled into a single portrait of a continent, the picture that emerges is one of a huge body of people in the midst of intellectual, political, social, economic…and no less importantly, religious…chaos.


In other words, one must always keep in mind that, since the Treaty of Rome was signed, Europe’s problems in forging a single, agreed foreign policy are but one of a whole series of difficulties that the continent has had to face but has failed to resolve.


A central problem the Europeans face is that, in their effort to create a coherent foreign policy, the Europeans have had to confront a whole gamut of special issues found nowhere else in the world.


Guilt, and a desire to escape from feelings of guilt play an oversized role in foreign policy-making. Two outstanding cases were Western Europe’s impotence when Soviet tanks moved into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. That refusal to support neighbouring people who were seeking freedom has been explained away by the argument that there was a no less important need to prevent a nuclear war with the Soviets.


Nonetheless, the grainy newsreels of young men holding flowers as they clambered onto Soviet tanks, which are occasionally rebroadcast in documentaries, remain part of the continents’ collective unconscious.


Two other more-openly-discussed events are the Holocaust and the Western European countries’ history of colonialism. The former produced a desire to find a means for expiating the sins committed against Jews in Europe, while the other produced a desire to expiate sins committed elsewhere in the world.


Today, because of the Holocaust, verbal and physical attacks on European Jews have become unfashionable in polite Western European society. In many ways, however, the place resident Jews have had in European discourse has been taken by those former Eastern European, politically entrepreneurial Jews—and their progeny—who had founded their own state and made it successful…the Israelis.


Two mass studies provide what I believe is conclusive evidence for this contention.


The recently-published Anti-Defamation League survey of world anti-Semitism showed that today there are remarkably low levels of anti-Semitism in most Western European countries—and they would have been even lower had the survey not included the newly-arrived Moslem migrants.


However, some of you may also recall the results of the poll taken by the EU and published in 2002 that found Europeans as a whole had come to believe that Israel was the greatest threat to world peace. Israelis were perceived to be a greater threat than Iran, al Qaeda, or North Korea. Incidentally, so embarrassed were the civil servants in Brussels by the results of that poll that they have never taken a follow-up survey.


Many modern, native-born Europeans have adopted a fascinating way of coping with their often confused feelings of guilt. There has been an attempt by some members of the younger generation in Europe to try to lift the burden of guilt created by the Holocaust by claiming, accurately, that the Holocaust was the product of failings and lapses of their fathers and grandfathers that do not apply to them. Others, though, go even further. By focusing on what they perceive to be Jewish Israel’s faults, they seem to feel that they can transfer their feelings of guilt onto the Israelis, and in so doing, they can somehow lift the weight of the memory of the Holocaust and the weight of responsibility it bequeathed to future generations.


For example, a common technique was been to transfer feelings of guilt about colonialism and endemic anti-Semitism into allegations that it is the Israelis who are the new colonialists and the Israelis should therefore be forbidden to do to the Palestinians what the Dutch did to the East Asians, the French did to the central and northern Africans, the Belgians did to the Congolese and the British did almost everywhere else.


The Israelis, of course, are not the only subjects of this kind of behavior. When it was perceived that many of Europe’s historical sins could not be atoned for, there was a natural tendency to do what might be termed “comparative shopping”…to seek out and then focus on any individuals or groups who could be labelled “worse than us.” The United States, for example, is often dragooned into playing just such a role.


Of course, these feelings of culpability have not been uniform across Europe. For example, Austrians, to this day continue to believe that they were victims of Hitler, rather than the welcoming partners of the Nazis that all objective histories have shown them to be.


It is no wonder, therefore, that because of all the factors I have mentioned—and many more that I have no time to discuss—the effort in Europe to create a single, coherent foreign policy has turned into a shambles.


Fortunately or unfortunately for the Europeans, they have had the Middle East to use as a stage where they can play act and vent their discomfiture. For example, during the last century, just as the EEC was in the midst of a search for a formula to ease its member’s embarrassment, the Arab Gulf Sheikhs handed the European politicians what the Europeans then hoped would be an “out” for their predicament…something that they could peddle to their people as a need to exercise realpolitik.


In the wake of the 1973 war, the oil sheikhs had imposed a selective oil embargo on those states that had supported Israel. By stretching all the way back to Metternich and Talleyrand, the masters of realpolitik, the Europeans were able to come up with the first joint foreign policy statement the EEC had ever been able to cobble together.


For the record, I choose to define realpolitik as “hypocrisy in the service of perceived national interests.”


A joint statement by the governing body of the EEC on 6 November 1973 for the first time condemned Israel’s acquisition of land through force and included the requirement that the legitimate rights of the Palestinian population be taken into consideration. This declaration then set a pattern that has continued ever since. Conveniently, no mention was made in that document of previous Arab aggression that had led to the land acquisition.


By 1980, after two oil boycotts, these states became totally craven. At that time, they crafted the so-called Venice Declaration. Although it was couched in wording that called for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, it was actually composed with the aim of denouncing the Israelis and the Egyptians for having had the gall to made peace without taking Europe’s interests into consideration. Specifically, it was written under heavy pressure from the Arab oil states as an indirect criticism of the Israelis and the Egyptians for not having made the Palestinian issue the centerpiece of their bilateral peace negotiations.


This time, the wording went beyond calling for the right of self-determination to state that the EEC “would not accept any unilateral initiative designed to change the status of Jerusalem,” and maintained that “settlements as well as modifications in population and property in the occupied Arab territories, are illegal under international law.”


It is interesting that the declaration was quite specific on what Israel should not do, but vague on what the Palestinians could do to encourage a peace process.


These statements actually should not have come as any surprise. A signpost of what was to come had already occurred almost immediately after the end of World War II—long before the Treaty of Rome was signed. One of the primary reasons why Europe has been so relatively peaceful since World War II is that, immediately after the war, the Allies carried out one of the largest population transfers in human history. Among other things, ethnic Germans were deported in huge numbers from Poland and the Sudetenland. As a result, most European countries, until the mass legal and illegal immigration of Third World Moslems to the continent, had become more culturally and ethnically homogeneous than they had been for centuries.


Nonetheless, the Europeans then became prime sponsors of the 1949 Geneva Convention barring such population transfers.


Even though the sovereignty over the Israeli-occupied territories is in dispute, the Europeans also supported a 1999 amendment to the convention stating that the convention applies to the Israeli settlements that have been built in the occupied territories.


No less interesting in this regard is that, while the drumbeat of criticism of Israel continues unabated, more recent moral lapses by European decision-makers are given relatively short shrift. The Europeans’ almost total inability and even unwillingness to deal with the Darfur crisis and the slaughter in Rwanda are cases in point.


To be fair, there was a bit of breast-beating over these highly-publicized inactions. But other failures, each in its way no less important to peace, have been totally ignored. For example, the Europeans made up a significant number of the observers assigned to the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon and the monitoring station at the Gaza-Egyptian border crossing point at Rafah that was set up in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.


In Lebanon the European force failed totally to fulfill its UN mandate to halt the massive rearmament of Hizbollah forces in the south of that country. And in Gaza, the observers at Rafah left their posts under pressure from Hamas, thus allowing the free transfer into Gaza of al Qaeda terrorists, Iranian military advisors and other sundry evil-doers.


The Europeans’ erratic behavior seems to have been highly influenced by one very simple factor. A fascinating comparison can be made between those situations where there was extensive media coverage and those where the press was largely absent. Most of the European cop-outs occurred in places where journalists were largely absent, while the most shrill policy statements invariably referred to places, such as Israel and the West Bank, where the press is well represented.


Clearly, then, policies are also being driven by whether there is popular support or popular pressure to undertake one particular action or another. By carefully playing to the media, the EU can and does create widely-publicized images of seemingly being deeply involved in events, even if that appearance of involvement did not arise out of an actual, comprehensive policy of engagement.


And now I come to what I think is one of the most fascinating developments in European policy-making.


As I keep repeating over and over again, much of any country’s approach to foreign affairs is invariably influenced by that country’s history and the history of the evolution of its political culture. It is not unusual for countries undergoing a massive upheaval or trauma, such occurred in Europe in the mid-20th century, to look back into the history of their cultural development to find anchors to help them ride out the emotional storms they are encountering. And this is precisely what the Europeans have done.


During the mid-to-late 20th century the holes in Marxist ideology, which had formed the basis for social policy in most European countries, were beginning to show. The advent of the Thatcher government in Britain and an increasing concern about how Europe could cope with growing economic globalism were also putting even moderate, traditional social democracy on the defensive.


In the past, when turmoil of this sort had increased significantly, the Europeans had turned to traditional sources such as religious teachings or the writings of the great political philosophers for guidance. But, since the 1960s, most of the churches have been going through their own upheavals and have been losing their popular license to preach morality. And the words of Hobbes and Rousseau seemed horribly out of date to the more secular 20th century political activists.


At that point, a quite extraordinary phenomenon occurred. As the European politicians and diplomats floundered about, transnational non-governmental organizations, such as Oxfam and Greenpeace, and domestic groups such as leftists in search of a cause, rightists who disliked and distrusted foreigners in any form, and cranks of every hue imaginable began to try to take an ever-growing public role in the search for a new agenda and a new set of rules for policy-making in general and foreign policy-making in particular. The end result of their efforts bore a remarkable resemblance to a similar event that had taken place almost 1700 years before.


In 312 Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. In practical terms, this was a boon to the early church fathers because it enabled them to evangelize freely for the first time. However, it also put them into a bit of a bind. For the first time they had to reconcile their concern with spiritual purity with their need to confront the Roman Empire’s need for political expediency. In other words, they had to decide what should be the relationship between church and state. Matthew had admonished: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s.”


But that had been little in the way of practical advice.


Eusebius, the 4th century Caesaria historian and church activist tried to resolve the problem by suggesting that Constantine should and could take on a role similar to the one later formally adopted by the Moslems…that the emperor could and should be the final arbiter of both church and secular law.


That idea went nowhere, though, mainly because the church fathers had other, more immediate institutional issues to deal with. To begin with, the Christian leaders of that time had difficulty in agreeing on what Christianity really stood for. There were dozens of offshoots and cults, each claiming to be practicing the revealed truth. That scenario was not too unlike the one in which those who have been trying to influence modern European foreign policy have also been finding themselves.


As well, the early church leaders also had major problems reconciling what was slowly becoming church law and what was established Roman law. For example, Rome depended upon booty taken in border wars and taxation to pay for its massive army. Christianity, at that time, though, had had a largely pacifist outlook. Not only that, much of Rome’s tax revenue was collected by what have come to be known as “tax farmers,”—individuals licensed to collect revenue on behalf of the state. This system had led, among other things, to huge, endemic corruption and predation on defenseless peasants.


One way the church had of reconciling Roman imperial policy was by promising that the world to come would be an infinitely better place for those who were suffering in this world. Another was by massively altering the attitude of the church toward the Jews. While, previously, the church had tried to attract Jewish converts, the church now turned the Jews into the church’s foils in place of the Roman state apparatus.


The focus of the early bishops’ teachings was shifted from the iniquities of Roman law to the supposed iniquities of Jewish law. Henceforth, the Jews would be heavily criticized for strictly upholding Biblical law, while Christ would be hallowed for his belief that man should be driven by the spirit, not Biblical law. St. Augustine depicted the Jews as what might be termed in modern lingo “dead men walking.” To him, the Jews had survived in the flesh, but had been destroyed spiritually.


Very soon, church leaders began using the term “judaizing” as an epithet that they often hurled at each other. The Jews quickly became the “other.”


The Gospel of St. John, believed to have been written about that time, is a particularly nasty example of the kind of anti-Jewish dogma that was becoming ever more common theological currency. To John, the Jews were obstinate, stiff-necked and murderous.


If one substitutes the word “Zionist” for Jew and the word “Zionism” for judaizing, there is a striking similarity between was said by these early church fathers and what is coming out of the left in Europe today.


In other words, the early church fathers created an extraordinarily-successful intellectual format that could and subsequently has been used by later generations for dealing with any group that could be labeled “the Other”…whether that “Other” lived close-by or far away.


For example, people today forget that in the 1990s virtually the entire world where Christianity was the predominant religion, was in the midst of a, apocalyptic fear that Japan—yet another “Other” was about to take control of the world economy.


When viewed in that light, the statements about Israel emerging from Oxfam, among other human rights groups, can be seen for what they are: sanitized, secularized versions of early Christian teachings.


This then provides at least a partial answer to those Israeli supporters who question why Israel is subject to so much criticism when worse human rights abuses are being perpetrated elsewhere in the world.


The availability of ancient, extensive, textual references to Jewish residents of what the Romans labeled “Palestine,” Jewish property holding in the Levant and the Jewish Talmudic approach to morality that can be dredged up from even secular Europeans’ collective unconscious helps explain why the Europeans feel more comfortable actively criticizing Israel and Israelis rather than the predations of China in Tibet or al Qaeda’s bloody operations in Yemen.


The more the ancient and modern attitudes are compared, the more striking are the parallels.


Just, like the anti-Zionist political activists today, the early church fathers needed simple focal points in their belief structure that could then be used to attract the masses. One was the emphasis on the need to confess and then repent for one’s sins. An increasing amount of modern anti-Zionist rhetoric uses this very same approach. Israelis, the current anti-Zionist line goes, must confess and then repent for what they have done to the Palestinians


But by far the most striking similarity has been the emphasis both the ancients and the modern European anti-Zionist ideologues have put on the concept of “compassion.” Oxfam today demands compassion for the poor in the third world, while Greenpeace campaigns for compassion for whales.


Compassion is one of the most fundamental of human emotions, and one of the primary glues that is used to keep societies together. However, when it is used by advocates for one agenda or another to create a foreign policy, it too often becomes a form of snake oil that is peddled as a cure-all for any and all geopolitical ills.


Compassion is one of those airy concepts that can be interpreted in many ways depending on the political stance one wants to adopt. For example, it can be interpreted as call for sympathy for the downtrodden—which really involves no permanent commitment to solving social problems. Or, it can also be taken as a cry to exercise empathy, a much more difficult and energy and time-consuming endeavor that requires people to first understand the history and motivations of the party or parties involved.


Invariably, international NGOs today go for sympathy rather than empathy.


For example, I used to get press release after press release from Oxfam decrying the intolerable water and sewage situation in which Gazans were finding themselves. In every release, the Israelis were blamed for the situation that existed in the Strip. In particular, the Israelis were blamed for the fact that only about ten percent of Gazans get potable water. They were also heavily criticized for not supplying cement so that a sewage treatment plant could be built and for not supplying cheap fuel to the local electrical power plant so that the sewage could be piped in for treatment.


The intent of these press releases was to elicit sympathy for the poor Gazans and therefore to raise funds for Oxfam. All the facts that Oxfam presented were true. However, they created only a partial picture of the reality as a whole. Had the organization presented all the relevant data that the use of empathy would have demanded, the reality those facts would have portrayed, and the conclusion that Israel was to blame for the situation, would have been quite different.


Gaza is totally dependent for drinking water on the coastal aquifer. The aquifer is a closed system that is totally dependent on rainfall. Rapid population growth had long ago stressed the aquifer. Israel, while it was in control of Gaza, limited the number of wells that could be drilled into the aquifer. When Yassir Araft arrived, though, he ignored the advice of all the hydrologists and allowed wildcat water drilling. The number of wells tripled. The additional pumping enabled seawater to creep into the aquifer, permanently salinating the system. Ergo, in Gaza today, there is a greater demand for water, but much less potable water available for use than ever before.


Israel has also limited the import of cement into Gaza because, in the past, cement that was supposed to be used for public works projects was diverted by the Hamas government to build bunkers and tunnels.


There has been a lack of fuel oil to run the local electrical generator because Egypt has halted the delivery of subsidized fuel. That fuel now has to be imported from the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah. Hamas refused to pay the higher price for fuel levied by the PA. Fuel prices are based on the Oslo accords. They include high levels of taxation. However, unknown to most people, 57 percent of the PA’s entire budget, including the fuel taxes from both the West Bank and Gaza goes to Gaza. This is a quite different reality than the one Oxfam sought to portray.


The belief that compassion should be used as the primary tool for making public policy is but one of many other similarities between the approach adopted by the early Christian propagandists such as Eusebius, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom in the 4th century and those used by anti-Zionists today. For example, because they had rejected Christ’s emphasis on spirituality, the prelates preached, the Jews were deserving of having had their state destroyed, deserving of having been dispersed and deserving of having been sent into exile. To St. Augustine, the Jews were like Cain, permanently alienated from the world—a belief that an ardent secular atheist, Karl Marx, later wholeheartedly agreed with. This is not unlike the belief by many modern anti-Zionist critics who hold that Israel has no inherent legitimacy and that Israel is ignoring and even thwarting the teachings of more “progressive” people such as themselves.


It is worth noting, though, that when they are given the opportunity to follow their own devices, all too often these so-called non-governmental progressives demonstrate just how ignorant they are of the real world in which most countries, including Israel, have to operate.


For example, 1985 saw the organization of Live Aid, the greatest rock concert in history. Ostensibly its purpose was to collect huge amounts of money to provide aid for Ethiopia, which was undergoing a brutal famine at that time. However, while producer Bob Geldhof was brilliant as an organizer of the concert, he and the other concert organizers’ lack of understanding of how Ethiopia operated under the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Meriam, meant that much, if not most of the aid money raised by the concert was actually diverted by the Ethiopian authorities to feed Meriam’s army.


Other cases in point abound. For example, their emphasis on acting based on what feels good also led many European intellectuals to demand that NATO intervene to prevent a potential victory by the forces loyal to Muammar Ghadaffi after the civil war in Libya broke out. But these same activists had made no effort to study the social makeup of that country. This led them to support the proposition that freeing Libyans need not require the presence of foreign troops on Libyan soil—which to them would have been a form of modern-day colonialism. The result has been chaos and civil war as the many tribes and factions in that country now fight for power.


Another factor that may explain why the Europeans act as they do is that, for almost two thousand years, one theme was constant in the history of European thought. Most Europeans, beginning with Constantine and flowing straight through to Marx, whether they were religious or not, and no matter whether they were divided politically, socially or economically, were united by one thing—their ongoing relief that they were not Jews.


Precisely because of that phenomenon, the Jews ended up playing the role of “the canary in the coal mine”—a role that the Europeans resented terribly because it had the very opposite effect intended. What invariably happened was that if a group in Europe could not resolve its internal conflicts, it would vent by turning on the Jews. Attacks on Jews, whenever they broke out, then became an almost perfect warning sign that tensions within the society in which the Jews were living had reached an intolerable level—even if there were no outward signs that that was the case. The whole point of venting on the Jews was to avoid facing those very problems. The fact that Israel today may be forcing the Europeans today to admit to the existence of domestic difficulties they would prefer to ignore may be as frightening to modern Europeans as they were for their forefathers.


In other words, today, Israel may play a very similar role to the one Europe’s resident Jews once did. Israel’s very existence, the issues Israel has to cope with, and the geopolitical environment in which it has to operate may very well trigger negative reactions precisely because they remind Europeans of their own unresolved issues. This, in turn, may be yet another explanation why so many of Israel’s critics tend to hold it to a higher standard than that other countries—even their own. By setting unrealistically high standards of behavior, they ensure that Israel will fail any test that they set. Israel can then become the focus of criticism in place of criticism that might otherwise have been directed inwards to their own society. This then also enables them to enhance their belief in their own self-worth and moral superiority.


When all these factors are taken into consideration one can see why, when I once queried a human rights worker why he was so anti-Israeli and why he did not react with the same sense of urgency towards other situations where human rights were being flaunted, he replied, “You have to start somewhere.” The implication was that Israel was simply the easiest target.


But now we come full circle.


If one were to take all the European leaders’ rhetoric at face value, Israel today would be suffering from far greater European sanctions than is currently the case.


The reason why this is so can once again be found in the Europeans’ approach to realpolitik—or better still, to coin a more apt term, “realeconomik”.


All the pressures on Europe’s politicians to penalize Israel for its actions in the West Bank have been tempered because the Europeans have also come to perceive that they need Israel for economic reasons…maybe not as much as they need Arab oil, but they do perceive that they do need Israel nonetheless.


It is a situation not terribly unlike the one that existed in Europe up to the Industrial Revolution. At that time, the Jews were loathed and scorned, but they were tolerated because they filled an economic vacuum. Under the Talmudic law that the church fathers so derided, Jews were allowed to loan money with interest when Christians were forbidden from doing so.


Today, Europe treats Israel in much the same way. For that reason, Israel’s relationship with Europe is actually drenched in irony.


To begin with, Israel is needed by the Europeans because Israeli military intelligence has consistently been more accurate when it comes to assessing events in the Middle East than have their European equivalents. In terms of realpolitik, and particularly now with the Arab world in such turmoil, real-time access to those Israeli assessments is too great a political and economic asset for the Europeans to ignore.


But that is not all. Increasingly, the fact that Israel has an outsized reputation as a scientific and technological powerhouse has provided it with a degree of influence in Europe that is totally disproportionate to its size, power and wealth.


A very good example is Israel’s recently signed scientific cooperation agreement with the EU, called Horizon 2020. During the course of the last 5 year agreement, Israel pumped 535 million euros into the fund, but received back 840 million euros in grants. The reason for the largesse is simple. In its own way, what happened is not dissimilar to the idea of paying interest on one’s right to use someone else’s assets. In this case the asset is Israeli entrepreneurship and brainpower.


Israelis and Americans who visit Europe see only the bustling tourist sites. In those places Europe looks healthy, wealthy and wise.


However, as I noted earlier, Europe in undergoing a major economic and social crisis. The most obvious recent sign of the extent of that crisis could be seen in the increase in the vote for the European parliament of xenophobic far-rightist and nationalist parties that are seeking an “Other” to be detested.


Recent studies by McKinsey and Co. and the RAND Corp. have highlighted some of the most acute problems that led to that change in voting patterns. Income inequality is growing. In part, that is because there is a shortage of highly-skilled workers. But twenty percent of those aged 15-24 are in the category of NEET—those not in education, in employment or training.


A major reason for this social crisis is that, with the notable exception of Germany, which continues to thrive economically, while European capitalists have broken the old social democratically-based social contract that was put in place in the years immediately after World War II, they have developed nothing to replace it.


Specifically, according to McKinsey and Co., because of the financiers’ inherent conservatism and blindness to reality, Europe got left behind by the internet revolution. World-wide 21 percent of the growth in GDP has been internet-related. Internet-related businesses create 2.6 jobs for every old job lost. According to McKinsey, almost no European companies have been involved in this transformation.


Like the Chinese recently, the Europeans have come to hope that somehow they can gain access to Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit. In the past, and unlike the Americans and most recently the Chinese, the European investors were insufficiently entrepreneurial and did not think it was worth their while to invest in local high-tech or to buy Israel high-tech start-ups. As a result, the EU political leadership has felt impelled to fill that vacuum by getting access to Israeli inventiveness before the patents become companies that are sold to multinational firms in other countries.


Of course, Israeli inventiveness will not be a panacea for Europe’s ills. But, in a sense, the European courting of Israeli science is yet another example of what the human rights worker had told me: “You have to start somewhere.”


This situation then also explains, in part, why Israel has become so close to the United States but has had such a volatile relationship with Europe.


Israel has always been able to market itself to Americans as a country that shares American values. Because Europe has been unable to formulate a social contract based on a similar European-agreed upon set of values, Israel cannot use common values as a reference point, and so it has to peddle itself to the Europeans in a very different way…by playing to Europe’ ongoing affection for and attachment to the principles of realpolitik.


But that is nothing new. You should remember that Israel’s founders were primarily European-born intellectuals whose entire worldview was shaped by European political and social history. And that founding generation has passed that perception onto its heirs. It is worth always keeping in mind that every Israeli schoolchild is taught that Zionism was born out of the bitter Dreyfus experience, not some abstract attraction to American’s adulation of the rights of the rugged individual.


For that reason, the Israeli leadership has been able to ignore the insults and even the boycotts that have streamed out of Europe over the years because it knows that nothing Israel can do under the present circumstances can change Europe’s interpretation of where its interests lie. In that sense, though, Israel too has playing the game of realpolitik.


So, to rephrase a quip made by Henry Kissinger about Israel, let me conclude with the observation that Europe has no foreign policy to speak of, only domestic interests. Europe’s anti-Zionists succeeded in making Israel into a domestic political European issue and interest by tapping into the continent’s atavism. But that success has now been tempered because access to Israeli high-tech and Israel’s successes as a wealth creator through the use of entrepreneurship in the field of science have become European domestic economic and social issues and interests too.


Questions the Kerry Initiative Never Asked and Never Answered

In recent months, I have spent a great deal of time and effort tracking the latest attempt by the Americans to mediate a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In my discussion about the failure of that effort last month I was highly critical about how the Americans had gone about the job of mediating the dispute.


But the last thing I want to leave you with is an impression that I have joined the blame game. I leave that job to all the competing spinmeisters who have already done an absolutely extraordinary job of obfuscating what really went on.


The spinmeisters’ efforts, however, have confirmed one conclusion that I came to long ago. It is that blame games are sterile exercises, useless playthings that serial failures, acolytes of serial failures, the ignorant, the lazy, and the irretrievably vain use to excuse the inexcusable, to amuse themselves and sometimes to entertain others.


In recent weeks we have all been witness to various actors and critics trying to play the blame game…with varying degrees of success. I can fully understand all the Palestinians and Israeli officials who have been doing so. That is their job. They need to find excuses for their failures—or their bosses’ failures—if they hope to continue being employed in their current positions.


Those critics who are neither Israeli nor Palestinian have ranged from Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame to an anonymous American official who was interviewed by Yediot Aharonot’s Nahum Barnea.


Among all the critics, except the supporters of the Israeli settlers, there is an extraordinary uniformity of view on one issue. According to them, the collapse of the Kerry effort must have been the product of one cause and one cause only. Put in American political terms and using American standard political slang, these critics assert that Kerry’s failure is the result of “the occupation, stupid.”


I have been in the business of trying to understand what is going on in the Middle East for almost fifty years. And if nothing else, I have learned one firm and fast lesson that has served me in good stead for decades. It is: When almost everyone is in agreement about something, they must be all be wrong.


The list of cases in point is almost endless. For example, “everyone” in 1972 agreed that Egypt would never go to war against Israel because the Israeli army was too strong. Likewise, two years later, “everyone” agreed that the Egyptians would never make peace with Israel.


As the years passed, and as I just noted, there seems to have been a no less uniform consensus among non-Israelis that the continuing occupation of large parts of the West Bank by the Israeli military is the reason why peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians have failed. Those who use that argument are guilty of the most atrocious fault in logical thinking that there is. They confuse correlation with causation. In other words, they say that because peace talks failed and the occupation continued, the peace talks must have failed because the occupation continued. These blame-mongers appear to have completely ignored the far more logical conclusion that the continued occupation is not the cause of the failure of the peace talks. Instead, according to my logical analysis, all the hard evidence supports the very opposite idea—that the ongoing occupation and its entrenchment are the outcome of the failure of the diplomatic negotiations.


I am a great fan of that superb logician, Sherlock Holmes. His most important maxim was, of course, that if you “eliminate the possible, whatever you are left with, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”


The crucial word here is “if.” I long ago learned not to assume that every possible explanation for any given situation in the Middle East has been explored.


Therefore, when put in Sherlockian terms, one of my main conclusions after almost fifty years of intense endeavor is; When discussions about the Israeli-Arab dispute take place, not every “possible” is ever eliminated. And that is the primary reason for all the failures in peace-making.


There are many reasons why all the “possibles” are not eliminated. Two are particularly blatant. First, discussions about the conflict are invariably conducted—especially in the media—by advocates who discuss only those very few subjects that they believe will support their arguments. Second, advocates invariably construct their arguments in such a way that their expositions will conclude by placing any blame for failure on the opposing party—which then enables the parties involved to avoid real work by arguing about an irrelevancy.


All of this brings me to my final logical conclusion. Invariably, the real truth will only be found in what they are not talking about—or, when put in Sherlockian terms, the truth can usually only be found in the possibles that were not eliminated.


How does one then begin to look for the possibles that haven’t even been mentioned? From my experience, the best place to start looking for that truth is to see whether there is a direct and strong match between the subjects being discussed and the histories and the political cultures of the protagonists. In other words, it is absolutely necessary to examine the history and political culture of the protagonists closely to see if there are any prominent features of those subjects that are not being talked about. Most people do not undertake this kind of effort because it just takes too much work. It is, as I say, much easier to find someone to blame.


I now want to provide just a few examples of what I am talking about, based on a lifetime of making an effort to explore the history and political culture of the region in its multitude of forms.


But even before I start dealing with some of the subjects that really contributed to the collapse of the peace talks but which have not been given the prominence they deserve, I have another important observation to make. It appears to me that the quickly-issued response that supposedly determined where blame for the breakdown in the peace talks lay—the occupation—was the product of a fear to ask the question “why” did the participants act as they did?


I have long believed that, when trying to understand events in the Middle East, or anywhere else when the discussion of important issues has been avoided, one must ask what fears lay behind the refusal to seek out the truth.


I think that the reason why the question Why?” is asked too infrequently can be found in a psychological study on fear undertaken by the US Air Force many years ago. The study found that the most fear-inducing word in the English language is “Why?” The surveyors postulated that the reason for this was that the very question “Why?” is perceived as an existential threat by most people. That is because it challenges people’s very being, including the most basic assumptions and beliefs upon which they base their lives. Not only that, it also strips most people of their most important psychological defences by forcing them to cast aside the excuses they use to enable them to carry on with their lives without giving much thought to what they believe.


So, what I would like to do now is to spend the rest of this discussion doing two things: First, provide examples of issues that were left largely or wholly undiscussed while the negotiations were going on and may have been underlying causes of the collapse of the Kerry peace talks; and secondly raise a few “Why?” questions that, to the best of my knowledge, have gone unasked in the post-mortems that followed the collapse.


Because of time and length restraints, I will ask only a few Why? questions that to my knowledge were either not asked at all, or not answered if asked. I could have asked dozens more.


Here goes.


One often-used tactic designed to provide any set of negotiations with momentum is to find, in advance, some sort of act or statement that can be labelled a “success”—no matter how trivial or insignificant that act or statement may be. Then, if and when the real discussions fail to achieve anything of substance, those acts or statements can be publicized and declared to be the herald of other good things to come, and a reason for returning to the negotiating table.


With that in mind, why then, even before he set about arm-twisting Netanyahu into agreeing to an 11 month settlement freeze, did Obama not ensure that he already had in hand some sort of concession from Abu Mazzen that he could present as a “success” at the end of the freeze?


As things turned out, Abu Mazzen avoided negotiating with the Israelis until the freeze was almost over. Because Obama had no “success” he could pull out of his quiver, the settler’s supporters were handed a gift—an argument that Abu Mazzen was simply buying time and trying to seek Israeli concessions without offering an equivalent quid pro quo. The settlers’ supporters were then able to successfully persuade Netanyahu not to agree to another such freeze.


To my very great surprise, there was another, almost blindingly obvious question that nobody, not even the settlers’ supporters asked. It is: Why did American diplomats and Israeli peaceniks keep insisting that Abu Mazzen was the best partner for peace negotiations that Israel would ever have?


How could they, or anyone else, have been so certain? After all, internal el-Fatah and PLO politics are murky at best. And since there had been no Palestinian elections since Hamas’s bloody takeover of Gaza, there was no way of knowing who might emerge to take Abu Mazzen’s place when he eventually retires?


But now comes the first hard question.


I am not usually a believer in conspiracy theories, but why did the Americans (and the Europeans to some extent) seemingly conspire to encourage, or at least allow, the negotiations to turn into an exercise in gamesmanship?


Gamesmanship, as I define the term, is everything that a player in a negotiation says or does that does not have, and is not intended to have, a direct and immediate impact on the final agreement. However, it can, and is often intended to have a significant effect on the course of the negotiations. In particular, gamesmanship is often used to divert attention from the real work at hand.


There are dozens of examples that I can give, but one stands out. It was clear from the very outset, at least to me, that Netanyahu’s insistence that Abu Mazzen recognize Israel as the “homeland” of the Jewish people was an act of gamesmanship. Netanyahu hoped to trap Abu Mazzen into playing the role of negotiations spoiler; and he largely succeeded…at least when it came to the reaction he received from his domestic audience.


All of which brings me to question two. Why, then, did the Americans and the Europeans not encourage or even try to force Abu Mazzen to finesse the issue of the “Jewish Homeland,” as Anwar Sadat and King Hussein had done when they negotiated their peace treaties with Israel? More to the point, even if the Americans and the Europeans were both too thick-headed to make that demand, why didn’t Abu Mazzen, if he really wanted an agreement, adopt such an approach on his own?


Instead of outwitting Netanyahu by neutralizing the “Jewish State” issue, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ereqat tried his own totally absurd exercise in gamesmanship. He voiced a ludicrous, new Palestinian claim that they are the descendants of the Canaanites; and therefore they have even a longer-standing historical claim to the land than do the Jews.


Before continuing, I think it is important to explain why Netanyahu could be sure that just describing Israel as the “Jewish Homeland” would make Abu Mazzen look bad—at least to Jewish Israelis. When examined closely, Netanyahu’s demand was merely an attempt to reword an almost identical demand that had been voiced before by Israel and rejected vehemently by the Palestinians.


Essentially, every Israeli negotiator had said in the past: The Palestinians have to agree to give up their demand that they have a “right of return” to homes evacuated during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence because the Jews are now in control of the lands on which those homes were built, and the Jews have no intention of allowing the Palestinian refugees to return to the lands captured in 1948. The current negotiations are only about how to divvy up the lands Israel captured in 1967.


Netanyahu seemed thrilled by what he was doing and keeps endlessly repeating his demand about Jewish homeland legitimacy. To their credit, a very few rational Israeli commentators did have the sense to point out that Netanyahu’s campaign was potentially extraordinarily dangerous.


Netanyahu claimed that when he was talking about a “Jewish National Homeland,” he was only referring to the Jews as a “nation,” not a religion. That may sound reasonable to Western ears. However, it has to be understood within the context of Levantine history and the cultures of the nations living there.


Historically, almost all the peoples living in the Levant have dismissed the Western proposition that there should be a total separation of church and state. Many Jews, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox adherents, for example, have always believed, and continue to believe, that nationhood and religion are inseparable.


Moslems of all stripes carry that precept even further and believe that the ultimate form of governance should be that of a single body politic, the umma, led by a caliph, who can rule on both political and religious matters.


For that reason, Netanyahu’s demand virtually invited the Palestinians to choose to interpret the use of the word “Jewish” in its religious sense. And they did.


At that point, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was in danger of degenerating from a political dispute into a religious one—with all the potentially emotionally-explosive problems such a change would have created. Had that switch taken place, Israel would not have been confronting 7 million Palestinians and their descendants, but 1.2 billion Moslems worldwide.


As I have noted, this problem had arisen before and had been dealt with successfully. Both Anwar Sadat and King Hussein, devout Moslems, had recognized from the outset just how explosive turning the Israeli-Arab dispute from a political one into a Jewish -Moslem religious quarrel could be. And so, almost the moment that serious talks began, they set about finessing what would otherwise have been an irresolvable issue.


Sadat finessed it by treating the Jewish National Homeland issue a purely political matter. By contrast Hussein finessed it by using Islamic religious law, and by displaying a common form of Islamic respect for human dignity.


Sadat accomplished his objective simply by choosing to appear before the Knesset. It is something Abu Mazzen has never requested. By delivering his plea for peace in the Israeli legislature, Sadat, ipso facto, was doing something that was even more important than talking directly to his country’s sworn enemy. He was legitimizing that body as the one that had the right to decide all questions that would arise when a final peace agreement was brought up for ratification because it was the “national sovereign.” By implication, every “national sovereign” also has to the right to decide who has the right to citizenship within that nation’s borders.


As often happened, King Hussein’s efforts were more complicated, but no less skillful and purposeful. Hussein, in a move of brilliance, chose to legitimize his negotiations in a way that was uniquely Islamic. Since Mohammed’s time, Jews and Christians alike had been declared to be dhimmis, or second class citizens because they had not accepted the teachings of the prophet. However, according to Islamic law, they had always been one step up in status over all other religious believers such as Hindus and Buddhists because they were “peoples of the book.”


As the peace talks progressed, the palace in Amman used the opportunity of a visit by Shimon Peres to leak a story that Peres immediately related to the Haaretz newspaper. Peres claimed that sources in the palace in Amman had told him that Crown Prince Hassan had been studying the Mishnah—the second oldest and the second most important of the three great Jewish religious texts.


The declaration that a scion of Mohammed had found value in studying the wisdom of rabbis whose thoughts and decisions Moslems have declared to have been surpassed by the Koran was extraordinary. Israeli Jews took the story as an indirect statement by the Hashemites that Jewish tradition as Jews choose to interpret it has value and is worth respecting. Thus the issue of Jews and their definition of what they believe constitutes their “homeland” became moot.


Hussein himself reinforced that interpretation by taking part in an even more extraordinary event not long after the peace agreement was signed. His actions at that time sealed the peace agreement for Israelis in a way that no simple signature on a document could ever have done.


In March 1997, a group of Israeli schoolgirls were visiting the “Island of Peace,” a manmade island in the Jordan River that is open to Israelis, but owned by Jordan. A Jordanian soldier opened fire, killing 7 of the girls and wounding several others. During the mourning period, King Hussein visited the families of the girls to offer his condolences. In keeping with Jewish tradition, the families were sitting on cushions on the floor. To the surprise of one and all, the king went on bended knee to shake hands with the mourning parents. The pictures of the event went viral. In the Arab world, critics were dumfounded that a king would go on bended knee to anyone, least of all a Jew…and even more so, a woman. In Israel, though, as I noted, the event sealed the peace agreement as no other action could have.


Criticism of Hussein’s act was almost universal in the press of Moslem-majority countries. But, crucially, the critics did not claim that Hussein had done anything wrong religiously. After all, Moslems are commanded to comfort mourners. The criticism focused on a secular sin that Hussein had supposedly been guilty of. How, his critics asked, could Hussein, a king, have deigned to go down on bended knee before a simple commoner?


During the Kerry round of peace talks, precisely because the US failed to stop Netanyahu’s exercise in gamesmanship and because it failed to have Abu Mazzen finesse the “Jewish Homeland” issue, the Israelis and the Palestinians have been left to confront a seemingly insuperable problem.


Here then is a perfect example of a fundamental issue of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that was part of the open debate, but was not addressed in its entirety.


But it is no less important to query why those involved felt it necessary to totally ignore and even hide from the public one of the most critical, substantial issues that, unless resolved, must inevitably throttle any peace initiative.


Islamic law demands that any land captured by Moslems must become the possession in perpetuity of the Waqf, the Islamic charitable trust. Therefore, by religious law, land once occupied by an Islamic army cannot be given up in any negotiation. In this regard, Anwar Sadat and King Hussein were in a far better starting position than any Palestinian negotiator will ever be. They could offer any number of other concessions during their peace talks because they primary stated goal was the return of land to their “rightful” Islamic owners.


By contrast, Abu Mazzen was in a position where had he publicly accepted that Israel is a legitimate Jewish national political entity that could have separate sovereign rights over land that was once Moslem-controlled, he would also have implied that he accepted the principle that Waqf land can be given away to non-believers. To Moslems everywhere, that would have been sheer heresy and anything he did after that would have been considered illegitimate in the Moslem world.


The problem Abu Mazzen faced then goes a long way to explaining why the Palestinian negotiators have refused to accept something that would otherwise appear to be self-evident and that is an integral element of UN Security Council resolution 242—the fundamental document on which all the peacemaking efforts have been based. Israel, and UN resolution 242 demand that the Palestinians agree that any so-called “final agreement” include a clause stating that the two sides will have no further claims on each other.


Shimon Peres claims that he suggested that the “Jewish National Homeland” issue be finessed only at the very end, when Abu Mazzen would sign the treaty “on behalf of the Palestinian state,” and Netanyahu would sign it “on behalf of the Jewish state.”


But that would not have resolved the underlying problem. The Palestinians would still have needed a way of being able to claim to themselves and to the other Moslem states, that the borders agreed to would always remain “temporary” because all the “Waqf land” held by the Jews had not been returned to their rightful Moslem owners.


It has been suggested by some that one way to resolve the problem would be to get a friendly Moslem legal scholar to issue a legal ruling (fatwa) that would reinterpret Islamic law in such a way that the needs of the treaty would be satisfied. But that would be almost impossible.


Unlike many other religions, Islam has no central body that is empowered to make binding decisions about religious law. Instead, as the suggestion implies, every Moslem is expected to find a religious scholar and then follow his example. This then naturally leads to multiple interpretations of the law. However, the issue of Waqf-held land is so fundamental to Islam, that no ruling by a single cleric would be able to change it.


One escape from this bind, as a very bright Palestinian woman once explained to me, would be to mold what she called a “generational decision.” In other words, an entire generation of Moslems, including leading religious scholars, would have to come to a consensus decision on this matter. That is the rationale used by some of those who support the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute can only be resolved within the context of an overall Israeli-Arab agreement—of which the Israeli-Palestinian agreement would be only one part. The argument is that a broad agreement would be indicative that a consensus had been arrived at.


Two realities undermine such an approach. The first is that any one Arab country could refuse to accept the terms of such a deal—which would make the issuance of a declaration that a consensus had been achieved impossible.


Of far greater importance, however, is that even if the political leaders announced that a consensus had been achieved, it might not be accepted by the religious scholars and the masses. In the Moslem world, a real consensus decision—one accepted by the vast majority of Moslems—has been made only twice. In the early years of Islam, many Moslems were open to new ideas, including those that were produced by the use of Greek philosophy and scientific exploration. That openness was called “Ijtihad,” or “independent reasoning.” In the 12th century, though, the continuation of this acceptance of openness in the search for knowledge was challenged. The leading opponent was a mystic named al-Ghazali. The leading defence attorney was a brilliant philosopher and qadi named Ibn Rushd.


Ibn Rushd, known as Averroes in the West, lost that battle. A generational consensus formed around Al-Ghazali and the great period of Islamic scientific achievement came to a close. Similarly, in the 19th century, largely under the influence of local Christians, who had, in turn, been influenced by European secular Christians, a cultural renaissance among Arab Moslems, called the “nahda” swept through the main cities of the Arab world. However, once again, religious conservatives launched a counter-assault and won.


Clearly, unless another, imaginative solution can be found to the dilemma of how to finesse the “Waqf land/Jewish Homeland” conundrum, no peace agreement, at least not as such agreements are conceived of in international law, can be negotiated.


Here then, is a clear example of a critically important issue that went totally unaddressed.


Incidentally, although it has nothing to do with the Kerry initiative itself, I think, based on what I have discussed about the role of the Waqf in Moslem concepts of landholding, that it is worth noting just how extraordinary an Arab diplomatic success was the establishment of UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency). Established in 1949, it was created to maintain the Palestinians who had lost their homes and property during their war with the Jews in 1948 in a permanent state of non-citizenship. It is the only UN refugee operation that is intended to be multi-generational and for which there is no task completion date. Essentially, the Arabs succeeded in getting the world to fund a political position, based on a Moslem religious belief, that the Palestinian refugees should and could be kept in a state of paid dependency until their previously-held lands were returned to the sovereignty of the Waqf.


All of which leads me to my next question.


Throughout the Kerry mediation mission, Abu Mazzen, resolutely refused to make any modification in in the Palestinians’ long-standing demands that Israel accept, in advance, that all border negotiations be based on the June 6 1967 lines, that there be an immediate halt in settlement construction, and that East Jerusalem be accepted as the capital of the Palestinian state.


However, even more importantly, the Netanyahu government resolutely refused to place any comprehensive peace proposal of its own on the table. For that reason, no one, least of all the Palestinians, knew where the Israeli government stood officially on any issue. And for that reason, no one could figure out where to even start looking for trades or concessions that each party could offer the other. Any subject that was discussed was essentially ad hoc

Israel is a vibrant democracy that depends on popular debate to resolve major existential issues. There is no more existential an issue than how to make peace. Why, then, was there not a single opposition party within the Knesset available, willing and capable of offering a reasoned, comprehensive, alternate proposal as a response to the Palestinians’ demands…and as a counter to Netanyahu’s refusal to do so? More to the point, why did Kerry not cultivate such a party?


There were several “peace proposals” that had already been formulated by extra-parliamentary bodies such as the so-called “Geneva Initiative,” that were available for consideration and that Knesset parties could have accepted holus bolus, or in a modified form. Some Knesset members, as individuals, had already voiced their support for some or all of these proposals, but they never took the effort to try to have these ideas included in their party’s electoral platform.


Because of the absence of a fully-formulated Israeli opposition peace plan that could have been offered to the public as an alternative to the Likud’s intransigence, Netanyahu, had he wanted to or needed to find strong parliamentary backing for his declared belief that there should be “two states for two peoples,” had few alternate weapons he could use to defend the peace process when the extreme neo-nationalists in his own and other parties launched their full assault on the peace initiative itself.


There has been an absolutely foolish belief among many if not most non-Israelis that the Labour Party has already taken on the role of “Likud Party alternative” because many of its leaders had given lip service support for the peace negotiations.


But the fact is that despite Israel being a strong democracy, Israeli politics has not had an effective “fighting” opposition since the Likud was nearly wiped off the political map in 2005 and had to rebuild itself, virtually from scratch. And amazingly, but true, before that short, interim period, Israel had not had a genuine Knesset opposition party, ready to take office, since the 1970s.


That lacuna had opened up the moment the Likud won power for the first time in 1976. But the actual origins of that problem can be dated to June 13, 1967. Israel had won the 6-Day War, but the ruling Labour Alignment, as it was then known, could never decide what to do with the territories Israel had occupied during that war. The party was deeply divided. Some of its leading figures had already joined the burgeoning Land of Israel Movement that sought to annex all the territories that had once been part of the holdings of the Biblical 12 tribes. Not only that, the second largest faction in the party, Achdut HaAvodah, was led by a fierce believer in settlement, Yitzchak Tabenkin.


Worse still, a newly founded peace wing led by Abba Eban was almost immediately undermined and almost silenced by the so-called Khartoum resolution of August 1967, in which the Arab states declared that there would be no negotiations, no recognition, and no peace with Israel.


With no comprehensive, accepted, settlement ideology to guide it, decisions by Labour on what should and could be done with the occupied territories became haphazard at best.


For example, Shimon Peres negotiated a deal with a settler group under which the settlers could set up a community in the northern West Bank as an election gesture in 1976. That set the precedent for the massive wave of settlement that began as soon as the Likud won that election.


Then, crucially, despite the shock of losing the election, Labour’s leaders developed a form of political catatonia. They could never accept that they had lost what they believed was their right to rule.


During that same time period, several European socialist parties also lost elections. However, unlike the Europeans, Labour never did any real soul-searching about why it had failed and what it should do to win reelection. Instead, it went through a period of interminable leadership squabbling between Peres and Yitzchak Rabin.


Mind-boggling as it may appear to be, from that time onward, Labour never really tried to win an election by offering itself up as a genuine alternative to the Likud.


Worse still, so abhorrent was the idea that the party leaders might lose the perks that had come from occupying ministerial chairs that whenever possible, Labour’s leaders chose to become members of what were termed “national unity governments.” Being a member of such a government provided the biggest and best excuse for work avoidance imaginable. The party’s members could then always place the blame for their intellectual inactivity on the fact that they were bound by the coalition agreement they had signed with the Likud.


Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, their strategy, if one can call it such, was to hope and pray that disgruntled voters would eventually throw the Likud out of office.


The strategy actually worked…but not in the way they had anticipated.


Twice during the 1990s, Labour was returned to office. Yitzchak Rabin became Prime Minister after the extreme neo-nationalists refused to support the Likud after it had agreed to participate in the Madrid peace initiative. And Ehud Barak became prime minister only because the extreme neo-nationalists again chose to punish the Likud and withdraw their support after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he chose to fulfill the terms of the Wye accords that had been signed while Labour was in office.


Throughout his long political career, Yitzchak Rabin was extremely skeptical about whether any negotiations with the Palestinians could bear any fruit. Nonetheless, once elected to office because of the infighting within the Likud, he did make a significant effort to develop a comprehensive approach to peace-making. However, once he was assassinated and once Yassir Arafat began blatantly breaking the terms of the Oslo agreement, the peace effort that had been initiated on the White House lawn with such fanfare began to collapse.


Shimon Peres, who succeeded Rabin in office, tried to keep the process alive. However, he was too distrusted by the public because of his years of concocting sleazy backroom political deals, and he lost the next election.


Amazingly, at no time during the past 30 years has the Labour party either given up its predilection for infighting or its obsession with focusing on personalities. Even more importantly, in the aftermath of Rabin’s assassination, it never took the time and the effort to use Rabin’s intensive policy-making efforts as a base for formulating a comprehensive national political platform. Thus, after Barak’s debacle as a party leader at the turn of the millennium, it even failed to play the role it had earlier staked out for itself—the default party to vote for if the Likud and its allies screwed up too badly.


Labour’s cop-out created a political vacuum that has continued to this day. Kadima, which replaced Labour as the default party, might have filled that vacuum, but failed to do so. With the departure of Ariel Sharon from the political scene, his followers in the Kadima Party, a coalition of political has-beens and ambitious wannabes began to lose any sense of political direction—if they had any to begin with.


And when Tzippi Livneh became Kadima party leader, the party’s fate was sealed. Kadima did win more seats than the Likud in the 2009 election, but then Livni too became politically catatonic. Not only was she unable to form a coalition, she failed to use her time in the opposition to fashion a comprehensive set of domestic policies that would have positioned Kadima to become the alternative to the Likud that Labour still refused to be.


When Shelly Yachimovitch won the Labour Party’s leadership in 2012, she did try to use her time as leader of the opposition to create a party platform. But she lacked the expertise in foreign affairs to do so. In the end, in yet another example of intra-party self-demolition, she was dumped by the party faithful. As before, they set about looking for someone…anyone… who might get the party back into a coalition government so that the party could recover at least some of the perks that come from holding cabinet posts.


This meant that the Kerry initiative began as unpropitiously as possible. With Livneh’s new Tnuah party and shooting star Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party—both narrow sectoral parties—in the cabinet, and with Labour neutralized, there was no political being in place to counter the pressures being put on Netanyahu by the organized, disciplined group of settler supporters both in the Likud and in the HaBayit HaYehudi party.


In the past, when such a political vacuum had occurred, the Israeli public had been activated. As I have shown many times before, roughly once a decade, a majority of the public, usually led by a charismatic but otherwise unknown individual or small group, rises up and forces the government to make profound changes in its policies. But this time, with no individual or political body prepared to lead it, the silent majority of Israelis who favour a political agreement with the Palestinians remained silent.


Using the popular digital media at their disposal, members of that majority did plead with President Obama to fill the void and help them mobilize support by addressing the Israeli public directly as he had done in Cairo with the Arab public in 2009. For reasons that I find totally inexplicable, he refuse to do so. And when he finally did speak to a group of students in Jerusalem in 2013, he said nothing that was even remotely relevant to his self-chosen audience.


If the Americans or the Palestinians had expected that a major popular Israeli opposition group would emerge spontaneously, then they were clueless about how and why Israeli society operates as it does.


One fundamental characteristic of Israeli society is the way in which it perceives Jewish history. When I ask non-Israelis what Israelis view as the two most significant moments in Jewish History, they usually answer as follows:


“The Holocaust?”


When I nod “yes,” they add, “Idduno about the second.”


When I ask a person who has been a product of the Israeli school system they invariably answer:


“The Holocaust?”


When I nod “yes,” the vast majority add, “I dunno.” And then, after a short pause, “The destruction of the Second Temple?”


And therein lies a salient lesson that foreigners would do well to take into consideration. But they never do. One of the most formidable forces guiding the Israeli public is the set of conclusions the ancient rabbis came to on why the Second Temple had been destroyed.


The rabbis decided that the tragedy at the hands of the Romans 2000 years ago had been the product of two things—what the rabbis called “free hate,” and civil war. Free hate was determined to be a state of mind based on belief, not reason. This hatred had then led the Jews who were defending Jerusalem against the assault by the Roman legions to fight each other, not their common enemy. As a result, Jerusalem was destroyed and so many Jews were then taken prisoner that the price of a Jewish slave on the open market fell to less than that of an ass.


Modern surveys provide a salient lesson on how today’s Israelis have internalized the ancient rabbis’ admonitions and how those warnings have produced the political dynamics we have been witnessing.


For decades, all surveys have found that 62-64 percent of Israelis have been willing to trade land for peace. Nonetheless, the majority has not been able to prevent the settlers from having their way. Over the years, I have asked dozens of Israelis who would agree to evacuating settlements what it would take to get them publicly activated. With just a little nudging, the reason usually given for widespread popular inactivity is that there has been nothing hard and practical to debate. Most of the proposals that have been leaked to the press by the peace negotiators have been collages of ideas, rather than coherent, comprehensive packages. Those whom I have spoken to agree that only if such a package of proposals were offered up for open debate would they feel impelled to consider its implications.


If one then filters out the blah-blah that then forms the detail of the excuses why current partial proposals are not deserving of greater thought, one finds that the most important criterion these Israelis would use in evaluating the proposal is that the package would have to have a greater value than the cost of entering into a civil war.
Interestingly, a survey undertaken by the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies found that if a majority of Israelis did come to the conclusion that a peace agreement was of real value, the number opposing civil war would jump to 85 percent, because a clear majority of settlers is also opposed to civil war on this issue. In other words, a majority of settlers would accept the will of the majority.


Clearly, unless the silent majority of Israelis is mobilized as a counterweight to the highly disciplined settler supporter minority, the settler’s supporters will continue to have a disproportionate influence on how the Israeli government approaches the peace talks.


Of course none of the stuff I have just noted was even mentioned during the Kerry initiative post-mortems.







Why American Mediation in the Middle East Fails So Consistently

I now feel as though I am in much the same position that I was in three years ago. At that time, as a result of the revolts taking place in the Arab countries, the newspapers and news programmes were awash with breathlessly-written stories about breaking events. The same situation seems to be underway at this moment, as a result of the breakdown in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.


Three years ago I decided to devote five blogs to discussing a whole slew of issues that I believed were having an enormous impact on the situation, but which were not being discussed at all in the media.


As it turned out, now that I can look back in retrospect, my assessments about the impact that those issues such as water shortages, tribalism, and the vast differences in perceptions between those people who lived in the cities (where the journalists were stationed) and those in the countryside would have on future events were all accurate.


Today, I find that the media are all falling into the same old traps, repeating conventional wisdom that is false or only partially true, preoccupied with who is winning and who is losing the blame game, and refusing to explore important issues in depth.


So, for that reason, I have chosen to once again to spend the next series of blogs exploring and discussing in depth many of the critical issues that are part of the peace process that are being ignored and even suppressed by the professional spinmeisters and the media.


I have been living and working in Israel as a journalist and analyst for almost 47 years. And during that period I have learned a lot. One thing I learned this month is that, after trying for 47 years to mediate between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Americans, apparently, have learned nothing.


In my previous work, I have shown just how consistently the American government has misread Israeli society. This past month has given me an opportunity to demonstrate that the misreading of Israel has nothing to do with who is president or which American political party is in power. It is the product of ideas and approaches to problem-solving that are endemic to American society. For that reason, Arab society is as often misread by Americans as Israeli society is.


I could choose any number of examples, but certainly one of the best is the use Secretary of State John Kerry made of one word during the most recent crisis in the Israeli-Palestinians peace talks. That word is “compromise.”


On April 3, Kerry held a press conference in Algeria. The US-mediated, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks had just collapsed in total disarray. Kerry was obviously frustrated and angry at seeing his well-meant, pet project—one in which he had invested so much time and effort—reduced to a petty, petulant blame game.


April Fools Day had long passed, so he must have been completely serious when he, at least three times, called upon the parties to make compromises in order to save the peace-making project. Later in testimony before Congress, he repeated his call for compromise.


I am sure that that sounded to most Americans like an innocuous enough appeal. However, had his staffers been even the least clued in to Arab society, they would have cautioned Kerry that the last thing that would revive the peace process was a call for “compromise.”


Over the years, thousands of people at the State Department, the White House, the National Security Council, at think tanks and as individual academics called in for advice, have at one time or another worked on the effort to promote peace between the Israelis and the Arabs. Incredible as it may seem, though, not one of them has apparently seen fit to inform the mediators that there is no equivalent word in Arabic for the English word “compromise”—and for good reason.


Societies create words to give names to objects or ideas that are important to them. As a minimum, by refusing to come up with an equivalent term, Arabic speaking nations indicate that making compromises is not part of their approach to dealing with issues that they have to confront in the world.


But that is not all. If you look at how those nations have actually behaved in the past, it becomes eminently clear that the very idea of making compromises is actually anathema because to compromise would be to undermine some of the basic tenets that bind Arab society and shape its approach to dispute resolution.


As I watched the Kerry mediation effort progress, as I said, I had much the same feeling that I had had three years ago, when he so-called Arab Spring began. Again, this time, the media were so caught in the drama of the events and the webs woven by the spinmeisters that the real import of what was going on was lost.


That being so, what I want to focus on first is why, as is the case with the issue of whether the search for compromise is a viable one, the US has consistently been so oblivious to the realities of the Middle East. Then I will return to the subject of why the Arabs reject the idea of making compromises.


To begin at the very beginning: I cannot think of a single foreign policy issue that has been the subject of so much emotional verbal and written debate as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been. And if one looks closely at all that has been published and broadcast, two things become eminently clear: People hold on to their beliefs about Israel and the rest of the Middle East as though they are the most precious things that they own. Newly-discovered facts are used only to reinforce existing opinions. Otherwise they are ignored or perceived to be the creation of nefarious opponents.


For that reason, no matter how open to new ideas a person may claim to be, it is only the very unusual individual who is willing to modify his or her beliefs about this subject.


Second, even those with an open mind find that new, original, relevant assessments are in exceedingly short supply.


Worse still, the public is not being given access to whole areas of knowledge that could lead to more enlightening assessments and reassessments. The reason for both these phenomena is that writing about the Middle East in general and Israel in particular, has become a closed shop.


This latter claim may seem to be a strange thing to say when one undeniable fact is accepted as a truth by all: Thousands and maybe even tens of thousands of diplomats, politicians, academics of all stripes, ideologues, pundits, do-gooders, and now bloggers and talk-backers have had their say about the subject in one way or another.


It thus may seem absurd to claim that that any aspect of the Israeli-Arab dispute has not been the subject of microscopic analysis.


But that is just what I assert. It seems eminently clear to me, if apparently to almost no one else, that each party that has attempted to influence events in the Middle East has first sought guidance on what to do by examining and then adopting tactics and strategies based on their perceptions of themselves, their own group’s political and social traditions and their own group’s history. Only then do they seek out whatever factual field evidence is available. Those facts are then sifted so that only those elements that support the already-drawn conclusions are preserved in memory.


As a result, invariably, the wannabe analysts do not take many of the real, deep, and important underlying concerns of Middle Easterners into account because they simply do not know what those considerations are. And having already decided what the “truth” of the situation is, they don’t care to explore further and find out what those concerns are.


After studying tens of thousands of documents and assessments, my personal conclusion is that the ongoing failure by foreign mediators to find lasting solutions to more than a paltry few of the multitude of problems that beset the region can be traced directly to the conflicting and inaccurate perceptions that are produced by that attitude and approach. Worse still, after being repeated publicly innumerable times, the assessments that are the products of this process then fossilize into conventional wisdom.


Invariably, much of conventional wisdom is a kitschy artifact that is swaddled in sympathy for the party believed (often falsely) to be the beleaguered underdog. I have always found it interesting, though, that if you examine any piece of emotionally-laden conventional wisdom closely, you will invariably find that it is lacking any real empathy for the situations in which the parties find themselves.


After I had drawn most of the conclusions I am relating here, I found that I am not totally alone in my beliefs. My thesis that American politicians and diplomats are profoundly ignorant of foreign cultures—and especially foreign political cultures—is actually an expanded version of one also held by the former deputy head of the Shin Bet, Yisrael Hasson. In a television interview on Israel’s Channel 1 in March 2014, Hasson related that, after the US invaded Afghanistan, he made a bet with a high-ranking American intelligence official. The wager was about the length of time that it would take the US to find Osama Bin Laden. As Hasson tells the story, the American replied “Within three months.”


Hasson then offered to pay for 10 Super-bowl tickets if the Americans found Bin Laden within three years. All he asked for, if he was proven right, was a plate of houmous. He argued that Americans would be incapable of finding Bin Laden in a relatively short time because, if Bin Laden was hiding under a stone, they would never be able to gain the confidence or friendship of someone willing to tell them which stone he was lying under.


In other words, Hasson charges that American intelligence officials are incapable of understanding the motivations and actions of people who come from a different political culture; and this prevents them from understanding what is needed in order to form bonds with people who come from alien cultures. Without such intimate relations, he argues, the Americans are incapable of acquiring the tactical information they need.


Hasson, of course, won his plate of houmous.


I argue that this inability to empathize is even more problematic than Hasson describes. It creates so many distortions in American perceptions that the resulting portrait of the world affects their tactical approach to problem-solving, but also their strategic outlook.


My focus in this analysis is on the Americans. But, to be fair, it is not just the Americans who are afflicted by this grievous fault. Virtually everyone who has tried his or her hand at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has failed for this very same reason. Only a very few extraordinary individuals—Anwar Sadat and King Hussein among them—have had the ability to break free from the mental bounds that have prevented the other would-be peace-makers from viewing events without the filters instilled in them by their own culture.


It is therefore worth reviewing for a moment what some of those filters are.


One of the most important is the widespread belief by Americans in the idea of “American exceptionalism.” This belief then creates an impression among Americans that whatever they say or do must be inherently superior to anything anyone else says or does. This attitude then translates into a disregard of the culture—and especially the political culture— of others…and a distortion of American history as well.


One good example is the belief that the Americans won World War II. There is no question that American participation in that war was decisive. However, it is certainly arguable that victory in Europe would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, had it not been for the sacrifices made by the peoples under Soviet Communist rule.


The belief that it won the war in Europe and its ability to use the recently-invented atomic bomb to win the war against Japan led to one of the main errors in modern American policy-making—a belief that it could always win wars by marshalling enough force and industrial might. However, from as long back as the Korean War, that belief has proven to be false. The truth is that because the US failed to take into account the political culture of the people it sought to subdue by violence, because it refused to address those people using that peoples’ own political cultural markers, and because it demeaned those cultures with which it was unfamiliar, the US lost every major war it has taken part in since World War II…unless you call the invasion of Grenada a “war.”


Another major source of perceptual distortions has been Washington’s bureaucratic culture. Washington is a political and diplomatic hothouse. It is the capital of the most powerful nation on earth. It has the largest number of so-called “think tanks” anywhere. It is also a huge and spectacularly colourful free marketplace for professional lobbying companies and advocates of ideas, beliefs and positions of every stripe.


These pleaders can be found seemingly everywhere, pitching every conceivable appeal for every conceivable cause. No less importantly, the ideas and policies formulated in Washington are spread out from the city by the world’s biggest international press corps, and the caravans of people who shuttle between government and academe.


Ironically, the vast selection of ideas available means that only a very few ever gain wide currency. And once they are accepted, they too often become dogmas. The now-discredited “domino theory” of how communism would be spread, which was accepted as a truth by officials in Washington for decades, is a case in point.


A central problem is that, in Washington, anyone willing to offer an ear to a pleader is almost immediately inundated by more argumentation than he or she can possibly cope with. In self defence, those with open ears have evolved a gene that I have come to call BL—short for the cause of a disease that I have come to call bottom-line-itis. That is a variant of an even more common Washington gene called OP1, which results in “one-page-itis.”


Washington bureaucrats and journalists treat a person who cannot express an issue in one sentence, and then provide the background to it, a full description of what it is, and a proposed solution to a problem in the equivalent of one page of written text, as someone who is best ignored.


In order to speed up the process of deciding whether additional time and energy should be expended, Washington-based listeners invariably look for certain key words. When it comes to foreign policy, proponents of any cause or position invariably must use one phrase—“it is in America’s interest that…”—if they are to get a hearing at all. In other words, an analysis of an event or process taking place in a foreign country may totally disregard what may be in that country’s best interest, so long as the producer of the material can claim that hearing him or her in full is in America’s interest.


An even cursory perusal of the documents of incorporation of most of the think tanks or advocacy organizations operating in Washington and devoted to foreign policy, shows that the phrase “in America’s interests” usually appears prominently in the first or second sentence of the introduction.


Additional interest-getting key words include ones that relate to the specific job description the targeted listener has been given by his or her bosses. Among journalists, the words “exclusive” or “scoop” or “fraud” are sure to encourage interest in a subject.


The mandate of State Department officials is basically five-fold: to report about what a country’s elites say and do, to preach that everyone should adopt American values, to promote the growth in American wealth, to mediate disputes, and to provide what is believed to be humanitarian aid.


For that reason, when State Department officials hold briefings, these five items are virtually the only subjects they talk about. Needless to say, advocates quickly learn that they must somehow put some of these words, or synonyms of these words—things such as president, prime minister, democracy, trade, negotiations, relief— into their appeals at the earliest moment possible if they are to have any influence at all.


As well, each particular field within these five broad frameworks has its own jargon and basket of catch-words, and they too must be included in any appeal in order to show the listener that the talker is an insider worth listen to.


Washington-based and Washington-influenced listeners then almost instinctively marshal all those word clues in order to carry out a form of mental triage. Some proposals are discarded out of hand because they are thought to have no immediate use and clog up the neurons of peoples’ short-term memories. Explanations or assessments that challenge accepted wisdom also, too often, fall into this category because dealing with them seriously would require too much mental effort.


Then there are those words, facts and arguments that Washingtonians believe are worth retaining for at least a short while because it is possible that, with just a little additional work, they may prove to be money-spinners.


And, finally, there are those words, facts and arguments that are repeated or even used within moments after they are voiced because they are a source of immediate income (especially for freelancers), or because they can be used to gain greater prestige (and thus long-term income) within an organization.


The period following the 1967 6-Day War offers an excellent case study of how this phenomenon plays out in real life. Up until that time, Israel was considered to be a backwater for ambitious State Department diplomats. However, once the war broke out, State Department officials realized that a new international diplomatic stage had been created. Even more importantly, that stage provided an almost perfect venue for creating an environment in which the five elements that make up organization’s primary job mandate could be given priority.


As American diplomats saw things, the situation had created a need to cultivate what were believed to be Israeli and Arab political and social elites. One aim of those conversations was to encourage those elites to accept the American conviction that each of the states in the region should govern by using American-style democracy. Another was to accept the intervention by American-approved mediators so that a future war might be avoided. A central policy objective was to ensure the constant flow of Arab oil to international energy markets. And, of course, the Palestinians had long before been labelled by the UN as legitimate recipients of international humanitarian assistance. Therefore the United States was also in a position to broadcast to one and all the sympathy they were willing to lavish on the region’s destitute.


It seemed as though the Middle East dispute, unlike so many other, far messier ones, in places such as Africa or Central America, had been fashioned as a gift from heaven.


Among the many benefits of focusing on this dispute, one stands out. There were several very large, politically-influential American taxpaying constituencies, including Jews, businessmen, and academics, who were deeply interested in what was taking place in the Middle East who were willing to publicize and partially fund what the State Department was saying and doing. As well, there were wonderfully colourful characters who could become the subjects of cocktail party conversations, including Gamal Abdul Nasser, Yassir Arafat, King Hussein, Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan.


However, the opportunity to become better acquainted with the political cultures of the protagonists was largely lost because there were no incentives and any number of disincentives for State Department and White House officials to get a clearer understanding of the motivations of masses. Undoubtedly one of the biggest disincentives was the classic fear of being labelled a person who had “gone native.” These career-killing words denote a person who is suspected of being more concerned about the long-term interests of the parties involved than immediate American interests.


One side-effect of this blinkered focus was that the events taking place in the Middle East began to be described in American domestic political terms. And from there it was merely a short hop, skip and jump to those public meetings in the United States that were supposedly organized to marshal support for or against an American government policy, but which sounded like and had many of the appearances of a Democratic Party or Republican Party event.


Supposedly non-party, non-governmental bodies, including Jewish organizations such as AIPAC and pro-Arab organizations such as CAIR, also played a prominent role in promoting the State Department’s extremely narrow perception of the Arab-Israeli dispute.


For example, it is ironic, but true that, precisely because they wanted to influence the course of the public debate about Israel, North American Jews felt obliged to use the language used by American officialdom to describe the situation in the Middle East, and to discuss only those subjects that had been raised or already commented on by officials and the punditocracy in Washington.


What then happened, though, was that even when they would publicly criticize one or more aspects of the American storyline and its interim conclusions, because they had to keep repeating the words and the descriptions used by American officials in order to try to refute them, the Jewish lobbyists actually ended up giving the bureaucrats’ often-distorted perception of reality a form of validation and even Jewish certification.


Yet another group, academics and residents of so-called “think tanks” did much the same thing. Even noted scholars, who were believed to be paragons of independent thought, when they repeated the words and phrases used by American officialdom, ended up reinforcing officials’ perceptions in the eyes of the public witnessing the exchange.


A no less important factor in all this is that supposedly politically-neutral professional journals, upon which all those with an academic bent depend for prestige and promotion, have long lead times. For that reason, the editors of these magazines prefer to publish articles that focus primarily on theory (especially mathematically based theory) or on mass international surveys, or on subjects that they believe will remain “hot” been after the long vetting, editing and printing process are over. This inevitably means encouraging and sponsoring writing about well-entrenched conventional themes that are believed to have become “timeless.”


There were also other, additional factors that influenced how this group had an impact on American public perceptions. For example, a particular university department may have had a strong reputation for being “Arabist,” or “Jewish.” And so an academic seeking ways to promote his or her desire for tenure would naturally be inclined to write articles or voice opinions as an “expert analyst” on television with the aim of pleasing those in a position to influence that individual’s campaign for tenure.


If he or she had already received tenure, he or she was probably in the midst of the seemingly endless game of applying for research funding; and a substantial amount of such funding today comes from philanthropies sponsored by people with specific political or ideological orientations who wish to see their views spread. In fact, denizens of think tanks are almost wholly dependent on satisfying the demands made by the think tanks’ sponsors.


In other words, virtually anyone who needs to gain access to the media in order to preserve their income, or for whatever other reason, is ultimately forced to talk about everything that everyone else is talking about.


And finally, the journalists have difficulty in critiquing this situation, or at least highlighting that such factors are work. The reason: They cannot escape working with or for this intellectual cartel because they are highly dependent on the members of the cartel to supply them with the content they need to justify their bosses keeping them on the payroll.


In other words, while many Jewish critics cry “anti-Semitism” when each criticism of Israel is published, and while anti-Semites and anti-Zionists do exist, the plain fact is that the structure of the debate and the mutual dependency of a wide variety of influential groups, too often, are the factors that determine what is said and what is written about the Arabs and the Jews.


The participants don’t have to agree on the ideology they carry into the debate about the Middle East. In fact, the cartel works best when its members create entertainment value by disagreeing. Histrionics are even welcome. However, all do agree on one thing: If each of them is to get as wide a wide hearing as possible, all the participants have to agree to stick to the same agenda, list of topics, and talking points.


As I have already said, over the years, I have closely studied tens of thousands of articles and statements that this process has produced. My conclusion is that State Department-initiated approaches to dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute invariably lead to blinkered perceptions. Worse still, the end product of those perceptions has been a series of assumptions—valid or not—that have taken on the value of being truths to many.


A classic example of this whole phenomenon is the wholly inaccurate but common, long-held belief in Washington and many other parts of the world, that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a prerequisite for resolving any and all the other problems present in the Middle East. As the so-called Arab Spring has demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt, this assumption has always been totally fallacious.


Another utterly foolish, but widespread assertion is that if only the Israelis would agree to end their occupation of lands captured in 1967, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute could be resolved forthwith.


Both these claims, and many other horribly mistaken ones, are a product of what Yisrael Hasson described as a lack of empathy. I would add that a subset of that lack of empathy is the extraordinary snobbishness inculcated in most diplomats. American diplomats, in particular, may preach the value of representative democracy, but their emphasis, in practice is more on the word “representative” in that phrase than any expression of support for popular sovereignty that goes beyond trooping to the polls to cast ballots. It is simply easier to meet one person over coffee in an air-conditioned patisserie than to go traipsing around dusty streets looking for the locals’ favourite backgammon or card room.


James Clapper, the top US security official has claimed in testimony before Congress, that the reason why the US is consistently surprised and sideswiped by events in the Middle East is because it is exceedingly rare for any American diplomat to talk to the common folk. That same complaint can, of course, be made against most diplomats, journalists and academics.


There is little doubt that, in general, so-called “opinion-makers,” no matter which country they come from, rarely put themselves in a position where they can and do try to strike up a conversation at the neighbourhood grocery store check-out counter or at a bus stop. And thus it is also very rare that the thoughts and words of the hoi polloi who are most affected by whatever situation is whirling around them ever become part of the international debate on what should be done to alleviate the problems that have been highlighted.


But there are more reasons for this international predisposition to misinterpret events than just a lack of a willingness to take the effort to listen to others.


To my mind, the most egregious fault of all the foreign opinion-makers is that they fail to understand and accept that there are invariably extremely valid, logical, historically-based reasons why the political cultures in the Middle East have evolved as they have. In the case of Israel, there is an additional fault. As I have shown in detail before, there is an almost universal refusal by everyone who does not live in the country—Jews and non-Jews alike—to accept that Israeli democratic governance is totally unlike democratic governance anywhere else in the world; and therefore the processes which Israelis use to make existential decisions are totally different from those used anywhere else.


The bottom line here is that unless those foreigners wishing to influence events in the region recognize these elementary facts, they will never succeed in their self-appointed task. And this truth applies as much to members of J street as it does to devotees of Norman Podhoretz and Charles Krauthammer, and as much to President Obama as it does to Oxfam and the leaders of the idiocy known as the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction Israel) movement.


For example, American politicians remain convinced that the adoption of American-style democracy is the solution to all the problems that ail all countries. Little thought is given to the fact that the creation of the American constitution was a long evolutionary intellectual process that can be traced back at least to Giotto the painter, and his willingness to break with artistic convention in the 13th and 14th centuries. That process included some of the most intricate philosophical debates in history—debates that were based on an already-established religious, historical and intellectual tradition. But, no less importantly, it also included innumerable reverses and some of the most bitter and bloody wars in human history.


However, that enormous feat             of mental gymnastics has been too often reduced to a belief by too many Americans that holding elections is the sum total of democratic governance.


Democratic governance can only work when balloting is backed up by a strong judicial system and any number of other institutional supports and fair regulatory bodies. But no less important, democracy only works when it is carried on with due obeisance paid to the country’s history.


And this is probably the single greatest failure when Americans come to mediate in the Middle East. Americans have a very short history of their own and are congenitally forward-looking. They consistently fail to examine how history has influenced people; and where people outside the United States are at as the process of creating history wears on.


For example, when the army began to retake control in Egypt because Moslem Brotherhood rule was creating an even greater economic shambles than had existed before, Americans virtually demanded that the Egyptians continue to allow the Brotherhood to govern because it had been legally elected. In effect, the Americans went almost as far as issuing an ultimatum: Adopt American-style democracy or else lose American financial aid.


The Americans failed to take into account such simple facts as that Egypt, while it has at least a 6000 year old history, is actually a newborn in the modern political sense. The Americans consistently fail to recognize that, up until 1953 when the so-called “free officers” seized control of the government in a coup, Egypt had not had a native-born ruler since Nectanebo II in 360 A.D. and hadn’t had a great native-born ruler since Amasis in 550 B.C. The only model for governance in the period between Nectanebo and the free officers’ coup had been either that of a foreign-based Caliph, or a foreign colonialist government.


And both the sultanate and the colonialist systems had ruthlessly quashed any attempts by the Egyptians to develop a system of government that could and would respond to the lessons the locals had learned from their history.


Having now said all of that, and having shown, at least in brief, how policy-making works in Washington, I want to use Kerry’s plea that the Israelis and Palestinians compromise as a case study to demonstrate how and why Americans create policies and analyses that are so out of whack with reality so often.


There are essentially two types of political societies—those based on social contracts and those based on competition between vested interests. Each of those societies can be governed by an authoritarian group or it can be a democracy. Authoritarian leadership groups either impose social contracts to create rigid social hierarchies or divide and rule. That is, they promote social competition in order to prevent opponents from creating threatening alliances. The Haredim in Israel are an example of the former and military juntas usually employ the latter track to retain power.


Likewise, democracies can be based on voluntarily-arrived-at social contracts or competition between interest groups. Germany, especially during the recent economic crisis was an excellent example of a country that had adopted the first approach, while Israel has become a model of how the second group behaves. In general, one can say that those who favour the social contract approach tend to focus on getting an agreement on over-arching principles before getting into details, while competitive negotiators begin and end by emphasizing details. Social contractors believe that the approval of guiding principles is necessary in order to prevent future disputes. There is also an emphasis on win-win solutions rather than “victory” because the former are more likely to lead to greater adherence to the terms of the agreement.


Competitors very often create lasting ill-will because the final agreement is often the product of the exercise of power, rather than voluntary agreement. Competitors usually believe that everything and anything should always be open to negotiation and renegotiation, as circumstances and the power each party can exert on the other changes.


It is not unusual for a particular society to adopt both approaches—a social contract for managing internal affairs and a competitive model when dealing with outsiders.


The model adopted for managing a particular society usually then determines the way in which crisis management, conflict resolution and other forms of negotiations are carried out. Negotiations aimed at creating or strengthening a social contract usually try to nurture trust as a guiding motivation and source of guidance when contracts are written or amended.


On the other hand, those who enter into competitive negotiations tend to treat issues and offers skeptically and even distrustfully. In other words, as the negotiations progress, the ultimate motives of the other side continue to be questioned.


Especially in the West, those seeking a social contract, tend to demand that both sides “compromise”—that is, that they openly demonstrate a willingness to give up dearly-held beliefs or possessions in a kind of ceremony designed to demonstrate that their aim is the achievement of a mutual agreement. In other words, part of the negotiating process demands that sacrifice be hallowed and the final agreement be declared to be of greater importance than any potential constituent part.


Those who engage in competitive negotiations, though, tend to focus as much on the process as on the outcome. There is invariably a constant fear that the process itself will lead to shameful and dishonourable, irrevocable and irreplaceable losses. These losses can include any number of intangibles that the other partner to the negotiations may be unaware of or not care about. In the Arab world, negotiations are always fraught with immediate and deep concerns for intangibles. I have already mentioned shame and honour. But there are many other intangibles such as dignity, respect and reputation that also have to be kept in mind at all times.


I can recall one incident vividly. After a breakthrough in the Camp David talks, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin turned to one of the Egyptian negotiators and said “You are a wonderful young man. You have a great future ahead of you.” At that point, the negotiations nearly collapsed. What Begin meant as a compliment, was taken as a severe insult. In Egypt, calling someone a “young man” is the equivalent of saying that he is of no worth.


In Arab society, where tribalism and tribal approaches to social issues remain strong, tribal social contracts are usually very rigid. That is the reason for so many so-called “honour killings.” On the other hand any negotiations conducted with those who are not members of the tribe are usually based on the belief that everything should be negotiable—even after a contract has been signed. For example, in Egypt, virtually every contract includes the name of a mutually-acceptable arbitrator because it is expected that at least one party to the contract will try to change the terms unilaterally.


In the Arab world, the aimed-at end-point for a negotiation is therefore usually very different than the target of Western-style negotiations. In many cases a written agreement is considered to be of less value than a verbal declaration before a large crowd of witnesses that a reconciliation has taken place. The working assumption is that the public shame that would accompany the breach of such a public declaration would be a greater punishment than any that a court could impose.
Therefore, the emphasis during negotiations conducted by Arabs is less on reaching a contract than on managing and publicly relating the process under which the negotiations are taking place. As part of that process, which is called “ijad khal wassat”—or “getting to the middle”—the idea is to never sacrifice anything of precious value. Instead, every item to be agreed upon is given a relative “price.” Then, as in a bazaar, the negotiators trade items of less value to them in return for the opportunity to gain items of greater value. Once the details of the agreement are carried out, the agreement as such is not believed to have any further value.


I still remember how shocked I was when I used to talk to Egyptians in the mid-1970s about how a peace agreement with Israel might be negotiated. I had been brought up to believe that making peace was the greatest social ideal. No so the Egyptians. They perceived that a contractual peace agreement (something of lesser value) would be the price they would have to pay to get something of higher value—regaining the land that Israel had captured in the 1967 war.


In the end, Anwar Sadat was even willing to accept restrictions on Egyptian sovereignty in the Sinai, including a restriction in the type of forces that could be stationed there, as the price for getting back the land itself.


Too often people forget that the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement was based on the same kind of approach to negotiations. Jordan had already formally given up its rights to sovereignty in the West Bank. And so the peace agreement was basically an agreement by Israel to give up lands south of the Dead Sea and in the Arava that it had captured in the 1970s as part of its war on infiltrating terrorists. Everything else, from the trade in water to opening embassies, was, as they say in Yiddish, just “Shmearach.”


Until those agreements were reached, the only alternatives were to operate on the basis of a cease-fire (a hodna) or an extended cease fire (a tahedieh). Because the contract itself is not considered to be of particular value, intellectuals and Moslem religious leaders in both Egypt and Jordan have felt free to call for its abrogation because there is no fear that the land Israel gave up will have to be returned.


So, as can be seen, neither peace agreement was based on compromise. Each was based on figuring out how to match how each side could get something it values most highly by paying for it in a currency that it valued less highly.


Compromise, which essentially calls for each side to give up something of great value to itself in order to reach the holy grail of a contract, would, under tribal negotiating terms such as those that Egypt and Jordan had used in arriving at a peace agreement, involve a terrible loss of face. That is the reason why the Arabs have resolutely refused to invent an equivalent for the English term.


One of the reasons why the United States is held in such suspicion in the rest of the world is that many foreigners perceive that Americans invariably take a competitive approach to international negotiations—and ignore emotional intangibles—while demanding that their interlocutors adopt a softer, more trusting social contract approach.


The fact that Kerry had been so deeply involved in mediating a contract between the Israelis and the Palestinians without recognizing elementary facts such as these boggles the mind. It is also indicative of why the Americans have consistently made so many mistakes over so long a period when trying to mediate between the Israelis and the Arabs.


The Impact of the “Arab Spring” on Israel

I think that it is time for those of us who have been tracking events in this region for the past three years to get out of the news sluice for a moment and assess what we have learned, if anything.


As I was making up my own checklist, one thing that amazed me was just how far the tentacles of the Arab revolts had spread; and they have spread in ways and to places that are not immediately apparent.


In particular, I found that these revolts, which had almost nothing to do with Israel, have dramatically altered Israel’ strategic outlook and strategic posture in ways that will affect not only Israel’s military posture, but also its foreign relations and its economy in the years to come.


Among other things, I think that it is becoming highly evident that Israel’s security is being undermined because the country is running out of the brains needed to prevent and to fight wars. And, believe it or not, the bloodletting in the Arab states is costing and will cost Israelis a small fortune. Not only that, because Bibi is pretending that he can run a modern state effectively without high taxation, the ways Israelis are paying for their security is now, increasingly, being hidden—and that is one of the reasons why Israel’s middle class is atrophying.


But before I get into the details of all that stuff, I want to make a few small observations about a very big and important subject. Islam has always been based on the supposition that tribalism should and can be eliminated through the belief in a universalist religion. In other words, if everyone believes the same things, then the centrifugal forces created by jealousies, old disputes and differences in belief and behaviour can be overcome. That belief, though, meant that a society based on common beliefs had to be led by a strong leader who was both knowledgeable about religion and competent politically…and thus capable of policing the believers lest they stray from the accepted path.


Israel, therefore, has always based its strategic planning on the assumption that each Arab country will always have a single senior leader who, if nothing else, is a contact man, a source of information about that country’ intentions, and/or a figure against whom Israel can direct its propaganda. For that reason, for example, forty years ago, Israel could afford to focus almost entirely, and design its military budget to cope with what a strong leader named Gamal Abdul Nasser, said and did. When the Egyptian army focused on creating a classic open battlefield tank and infantry corps, Israel had no choice but to respond by building a better, if not bigger, open battlefield army.


This model first started to break down when some Arab leaders, particularly Yassir Arafat began adopting terrorism as their model for waging war. The old model was not wholly undermined, though, because each terrorist group had a strong leader who could and would impose lasting group discipline.


Today, however, as a result of the advent of rapid communications and international travel, an entirely new model is beginning to emerge. That model began to take shape in Iraq and has since grown in complexity in Syria.


Essentially, the model proposes that modern political Islam can create a permanent, global military force that is not dependent on a single leader. The idea is that political Islam can establish irregular, unofficial reserve militia units in many countries. When the need arises, Islamic leaders anywhere can then call upon these militias for assistance, mobilize them into a single army and help bring them to a battlefield in time of need.


In other words, Islamic leaders no longer need to rely on getting enough recruits in a particular country before launching a major offensive to depose that country’s leadership—or to threaten neighbouring countries. Instead, pan-Islamic leaders, such as those in al Qaeda who may have no historical connection to a particular country, can launch civil or regional wars using religiously-driven, self-activating and self-ruled cadres that can come from anywhere—whether that be Afghanistan or Germany. Not only that, these soldiers can train anywhere, whether it be in places like Pakistan or Lebanon. And because their first loyalty is to Islam, they are willing to wage war anywhere.


One truly unusual feature of this army, as we have seen in Syria, is that because these forces are voluntary, the fighters can also be part-time soldiers who take breaks from their regular jobs, hop on a plane to where a battle may be under way, pick up a gun, and start killing until family obligations or other matters encourage them to go home for a while… until the whim to kill overcomes them once again.


The ability of these kinds of irregular units to wage war has increased geometrically by the development of modern, miniaturized weapons. In the past for example, a well-trained team of as many as four artillerymen was needed to operate an anti-tank or anti-aircraft gun. Today, a shoulder-fired missile carried by a single soldier can bring down a fighter jet, or destroy a tank.


The potential impact of these jihadi groups should not be underestimated. We have already been able to see a few frightening examples of just how effective this form of warfare can be. For example, it led to the defeat of the largest, most-powerful, most technologically sophisticated army on earth and the economic near-bankruptcy of the largest economy in the world—those of the United States.


So successful has this new form of warfare been, and so unsuccessful was the United States in finding an antidote, that the only so-called, super-power in the world today has decided to shy away from any major military confrontation that could include this form of warfare as part of the battlefield scenario.


However, Israel is not the United States. And Israel cannot afford to ignore what has emerged as a strategic threat that could eventually evolve into an existential threat if the means to combat it cannot be found.


Tactically, Chief of Staff Benny Ganz, basing himself on pioneering work by his predecessors, has gone a long way to addressing the problems that have been raised by this change in the nature of warfare. However, because of the exigencies of coalition politics, the Israeli government’s strategic response to this threat, at least so far, has been haphazard, confused, and at times, non-existent.


Here is one example of what the army says it is is doing successfully.


Instead of expecting a multi-tasked unit to do many things in a mediocre fashion, as was often the case in the past, increasingly, IDF is engaging in training for highly-specialized units whose doctrine for action is based on a careful analysis of the features of the anticipated future enemy.


As mentioned earlier, Islam has always believed in the idea of an umma, or single nation. However, in practice, with the exception of the period immediately following Mohammed’s death, the Islamic world had always been divided up politically and geographically.


In practical terms, for example, if you wanted to do battle with the Taliban, you had to send troops to where the Taliban were based—in Afghanistan. Sensible countries—and in this particular case the United States was not sensible—would first study the geography and social structures used in the country before sending in its troops to do battle. It is almost a truism that without that knowledge, no general can come up with an effective military strategy and set of tactics to fight the war, and no diplomat can figure out how to develop an effective negotiating strategy and set of tactics that will enable him to end the war.


However, too often those charged with acquiring that information were incapable of doing so because they were generalists.


The United States, for example, invaded Afghanistan without having a basic corps of Pashto or Dari speakers—and the results showed.


This basic work of figuring out who you are fighting is usually the job of Military Intelligence. That is not its whole job, of course. But it is a very important one…and it is one in which the Israel’s MI units are deeply engrossed.


As can be seen in Syria, the Israeli MI’s job has been complicated beyond all previous recognition because, among other things, the participants in that war don’t just come from one country, they come from dozens of countries; and each group has a different language and a different pattern of deference. In other words, each group has different people whom they listen to and obey.


Until patterns of deference are be mapped accurately, spy organizations can’t figure out whom to target; armies can’t decide who is worth killing; and diplomats cannot make plans about whom they should negotiate with. That mapping can only take place if the language the opposing force uses can be translated and its nuances highlighted.


Israel has no choice but to follow the events taking place in Syria, lest the warriors there choose Israel as their next target. In order to track the evolution of that war in all its aspects, Israel must be able to gather and interpret what is being said, and especially the messages being passed among the various participants. At least according to leaks that have been put out, MI is claiming that it has developed very sophisticated electronic language translation capabilities


But that is not the only job that is within the scope of Military Intelligence’s mandate that is changing.


Another simple and well-known example is that, instead of living in fixed installations, such as camps used by regular armies that can be bombed easily, the Syrian jihadists constantly move around. Often the only way to track them is through the use of electronic means such as radars, drones and satellites.


Another job MI has been tasked with is to respond to the fact that countries and even tiny terrorist groups today can wage full-scale, devastating warfare without firing a rifle shot. All they need is the skill and desire to hack into another country’s computers. The IDF, for example, has already admitted that a Gaza hacker had broken into Ministry of Defence computers at least 6 times. Israel as a whole gets hit by hundreds of cyber attacks every day.


One factor that is too often ignored by many, especially Israeli chauvinists, is that MI’s job is not just determined by what the enemy is doing. It must be equally sensitive to changes in perception that are taking place within Israel itself. In fact, sometimes, MI has to think in two polar opposite ways at the same time.


For example, because of their belief in the intrinsic value of martyrdom, Islamic fighting units are willing to take chances other armies would be hesitant to accept.


By contrast, one of the most notable modifications in thinking that the IDF has had to undergo in recent years arose because the Israeli public has become less tolerant of accepting unnecessary Israeli casualties. That change in Israeli public attitudes, especially in the wake of the fault-ridden 2006 operation in Lebanon has led to a demand that there be more accurate intelligence before a military operation is launched.


It is because of a need to cope with a multitude of problems like those, and others that have arisen since the Arab revolts began, that Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate has now become the largest single unit within the IDF.


It has long been a cliché to say that successful armies use more brains than brawn. But now, in Israel, that has become a fact. And the implications of that fact are so great as to be almost indescribable.


What follows is a short précis of how some (but certainly not all) specific tentacles of the so-called “Arab Spring” are affecting Israel’s Military Intelligence’s capacity to do the jobs it has been assigned, and how some domestic Israeli organizations are preventing MI from doing its job as well as it could…and are thus undermining Israel’s strategic posture..


According to the IDF’s latest set of plans, MI is scheduled to grow almost exponentially in the years to come as its responsibilities and the tasks it is assigned expand.


To cover some of the costs of that growth in the size and the scope of MI’s work, the military has already decided to shut down a whole series of old fashioned reserve army units and to mothball or scrap or sell hundreds, and thousands of obsolescent or obsolete tanks, planes, boats and other pieces of heavy equipment.


However, the general staff is already facing a crisis that it cannot solve alone. All that money saved by cutting back on reserve units cannot buy the MI the soldiers its needs to do its job.


There is a critical shortage of potential MI recruits. Among the many reasons for this, the actions of two large, domestic interest groups stand out. Each group claims that it has the survival of the Jewish people and/or the survival of Israel as its most important goal. However, the fact is that both are selfishly holding up the production of soldiers needed to protect the country.


As I mentioned earlier, Israel is running out of brains. The days when Israeli soldiers were simple cannon fodder are long gone. Today, precisely because of the increasing sensitivity to wartime casualties and the need to assess more clearly what Israel’s potential enemies are capable of doing, there is an increasing dependence on and need for skilled, trained, technicians to operate anti-missile defenses, aerial drones, unmanned land patrol vehicles and robotic speed boats. As well, infantrymen are now expected to know how to use sophisticated tactical computers. Even the most rear echelon logistics management sergeant is expected to be completely at home with spreadsheets.


The competition between almost all the units in the IDF for the best and brainiest manpower has become intense—and so MI and other established elite units, such as the air force and the various special forces, can no longer act as a cartel when courting these types of recruits.


Not only that, up to now, the IDF has been able to rely on the self-taxation that those parents, mainly members of the middle class in the centre of the country, have imposed on themselves so that their children will be given an adequate education…an education that the military, in turn, can capitalize on. Among other things, many of these parents give their children private math or foreign language lessons that, when the kids turn 18, become crucial components of Israel’s order of battle.


However, it is now clear that the body of potential conscripts for units such as the 8200 electronics intelligence unit is no longer large enough to fill the army’s needs; and a new source of trained minds must be found urgently.


The Knesset recently debated a bill intended to force Haredim to join the army. But, if the truth be told, the army was not all that interested in building up a Haredi military corps. Because of their narrow education, Haredi recruits can only be posted to non-critical or artillery fodder units. The army gets very little. However, Haredim are very costly soldiers because of their need for special facilities, special schedules and, often high salaries so that they can support their families. The reason that they are nearly useless in a modern army is that Haredi youngsters don’t have the math skills the military needs. Put simply, in Israel, dressing young Haredi men in olive drab uniforms is essentially a political, labor market and social issue not a military need.


Among other things, what the IDF really wanted to get out of the Knesset debate on the so-called “Equal National Service Bill,” was equal service by the more highly-intelligent religious male soldiers who have studied math and who now spend their military service in the Yeshivat Hesder programme, where they only do 16 months (now 17 months) of actual military service instead of the standard 3 years.


As well, the old days, when women soldiers were expected to be not much more than secretaries and clerks during their military service are now long gone. Well-educated, middle class women have become one of the few new major personnel pools that the army can use to fill the positions opening up in the brain-intensive units. The continuing ability of young women to avoid doing military service simply because their can declare that they are religious, has become a dangerous anachronism.


The need for female brains is one of the main reasons why, in the midst of the debate on how to draft Haredi soldiers, the IDF inserted an entirely new demand—to increase female military service by 4 months.


But, as with the attempt to reform the Yeshivat Hesder system, the army failed to get approval for its requests because religious political needs, not national security needs won out.


As an aside, it is worth noting that it should be obvious to anyone with even a modicum of common sense that the recent campaign by the chief rabbis against women’s military service shows just how out of touch and irrelevant these products of closed-minded yeshivas really are. It also demonstrates how anti-Zionist the state positions that they hold have become.


The army’s manpower needs have led it to undertake some unusual experiments. For a very long time, the IDF has been one of the most welcoming military bodies in the world to gay recruits. More recently, MI established a new, super-secret unit made up entirely of autistic youngsters. After extensive and intensive testing the IDF found that many autistic people are not only exceedingly bright, they have certain critical, highly-acute skills the IDF desperately needs, but which are in short supply in the broader population. In the past, these highly-valued recruits would have been excluded from military service entirely.


One measure designed to increase the MI’s overall soldier intake has been the establishment of special classes in the country’s periphery to train high school students for needed MI jobs. However, it is already clear that this approach, and the other experiments, will not produce enough of the needed conscripts because the pool from which candidates for this training can be drawn is too small. In other words, the general level of education in the rural areas is simply too low to produce enough candidates for advanced studies in subjects such as physics, chemistry and mathematics.


Put very bluntly: The results of math matriculation exams are no longer just a matter for tut-tutting. They indicate that Israel is now facing a real strategic security danger because it has neglected the education of the country’s children for too long.


The only way in which the army’s future needs can be met is if the educational level in the rural areas is raised significantly—and/or if the middle class can be enlarged. However, that can only be done if there is a more equitable distribution of wealth in the country so that a middle class willing and able to pay for private lessons also grows…and if more money is sunk into general public education, especially in the periphery of the country.


The thing is, as figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics have shown, in recent years, the middle class here has shrunk because the cost of living has risen more than incomes.


The underlying reason for that syndrome is that is the politicians have been seeking the support of ever-narrower constituencies whose only concern is their hobby horses and not the commonweal. In particular, the commonweal of the middle class is being sacrificed in order to satisfy the selfish demands of relatively small groups that know how to wield political influence effectively.


Worse still, in order to fund their primary election campaigns, these politicians, precisely because they do not have the support of a broad cross-section of the voting public, have become ever more dependent on these selfish groups to pay for or work on their electoral campaigns. The need for multiple, cumulative donations in cash or kind for primary election campaigns has now led too many of this nation’s politicians to take a soft approach to controlling narrow-interested political minorities, business monopolies and cartels; and to regulating outlandish business profits.


The end result has been that many Israelis today suffer from the Stockholm syndrome, in which they express empathy for those who do them daily harm. One of the best examples, is the steady electoral support many of those living in the periphery give to those parties that would rather have public monies spent on settlement in the West Bank and on yeshivas than on raising the education level of those in the development towns who have suffered from a lack of sufficient education budget support for 3 generations.


Another outcome of this form of political malpractice has been the fattening of businesses, whose profits have led to higher consumer costs, which, in turn, have reduced the middle class’s capacity for self-taxation…upon which the military has traditionally depended.


It may seem logically absurd but the truth is that the middle class is being asked to subsidize the cost of defending the wealthy’s fixed assets, such as property that can be destroyed by a rocket attack.


But that is not the only distortion in the economy that is undermining Israelis’ capacity to defend themselves. Housing prices, as anyone familiar with the Israeli economy today knows, are getting out of control because the government, in order to pay for the spending on all the country’s special interests, needs to raise ever more revenues. One of the easiest ways to get that money is by figuring out how to get the most tax money and the most money for the government-owned land from every newly-built home.


The issue this situation creates can be put very simply. After paying an exorbitant sum for an apartment, who, in the middle class, has the money for the self-taxation that pays for private math lessons upon which the military now depends?


As for the periphery, the rural education systems would love to take on the job that the army wants to assign to them. The trouble is that these regions do not have enough income from the wealthy—in other words, from industrial or commercial municipal taxes—to pay for such a boost in education.


The only realistic, potential source of funding is the central government. But the government, after gouging the middle class, claims that it is still strapped for cash.


However, it is certainly interesting that the budgets for Haredi yeshivas that do not even teach the most basic core subjects needed by the military were cut back when the last budget was presented. But now most of the money to these institutions has been restored.


Another group that had its budgets cut was the settlers in the West Bank. But now, not only have their budgets been restored, the government has announced that it is cutting the level of income tax levied on some West Bank residents.


Israel may finally be reaching the point where it can no longer avoid prioritizing spending. Any measure of common sense indicates that, in the wake of the lessons the Arab Spring is teaching Israelis, the current system of funding special interests in return for political favours is bankrupt.


However, the system remains so entrenched that it may take a crisis in Israel on the same scale that the Arab countries are now going through for real reform to take place in Israel.


To illustrate the kinds of new spending challenges that await Israel, here is a weird and wonderful, true strategic adventure that is still underway.


It is a story about how Israel’s wise men ignored a well-known, major, strategic problem, then made a terrible planning mistake while rushing to overcome the consequences of their previous failure, but then emerged from the mess they had created while appearing to have been prescient geniuses.


It is a story that may make you laugh or cry or throw up your hands in disbelief…or come to the conclusion that the proverbial Wise Men of Chelm are the Messiah and they have all arrived in Israel on white asses with each carrying a jerry can…Or maybe, for the religious determinists among you, the story will make you believe that while God has mercy on Moslems but He is actually on Israel’s side.


In order for your minds not to be totally boggled by this story, I must take you through this tale step by step.


First, if you hadn’t noticed it because of the flooding in England, the huge snowfall in what was once Yugoslavia and the ice storms in the southern United States, Israel and the rest of the Levant are currently in the midst of yet another drought. And so, the Arab revolts, in their peculiar and convoluted and very bloody way have highlighted once again the way that climate change has become a major strategic issue that all the states in the Middle East must confront immediately.


After almost stumbling into a drought-caused financial and social abyss, Israel became the only state in the Levant that did confront the region’s growing shortage of water. That move has now given Israel a strategic advantage that, at least at this moment, is immeasurable and useable.


In 1992, semi-arid Israel was being inundated by the arrival of about 1 million immigrants from the just-collapsed Soviet Union. All of them needed water to drink, water for baths and showers and water that someone else could use to could grow food for them.


A blue ribbon panel of experts recommended that Israel immediately begin desalinating water. Israeli scientific research companies took up the challenge and invented designs for desalination plants that could produce fresh water relatively cheaply and efficiently. The designs were praised world-wide, and the companies began building their plants everywhere…except in Israel.


Here was but another example that, because the Israeli government had to fund special interest groups for cabinet coalition reasons, there was not enough money left to deal with what experts had deemed “an urgent national emergency.”


Not only that, the economy went into a spin at the turn of the millennium when the internet bubble burst and the second intifada was launched. So, while at the time, there was still lots of money available for settlements and yeshivas, there wasn’t enough money available to do much else such as fix the collapsing general education system or repair the bankrupt health system or build roads—or build desalination plants.


But then, to top things off, one of the worst droughts in history struck. People were urged to save water, and were fined if they didn’t. The government finally realized that it had to do something. It decided to issue tenders for desalination plants based on what is called the BOT system—build, operate, transfer.


Put simply, oligarchs were invited to make a riskless investment in a project that would yield a guaranteed profit that would be greater than if the person involved put his or her money into other forms of low-risk investment, such as American government bonds.


How do you pull that one off? Simple. Impose another hidden tax—this time on water consumers (even the poorest of the poor)—who have no choice but to pay.


The system worked this way: Rich investors with lots of money were invited to build desalination plants using their own capital. The investors were given a guarantee that the government would buy a certain amount of fresh water for a given number of years, after which the ownership of the plant, which by then would be obsolescent or obsolete, would be transferred to the state. If the plant needed refurbishing, the government could then issue a new tender and the whole scheme could begin again.


What made the deal even more attractive was the fact that, if the operator of the plant could find ways of producing the water more cheaply, it could increase its profit quite dramatically. And that is precisely what happened once natural gas became available.


The game is called “smoke and mirrors, and bunnies in top hats taken to the fourth power.” Naturally Israel’s oligarchs were enthralled by the idea, and all of them wanted a piece of the action.


Capitalism-favoring governments love this system because, since the tax needed to pay for everything is hidden in the price of the goods or services produced—in this case water—it can claim that it has not raised taxes.


But the Israeli government did more than just that. It decided to try to resolve a whole bunch of other problems, especially political problems, at the same time.


Among other things, it decided to reform the whole water delivery system in the country.

The most obvious needed water management reform, cutting Mekorot water company’s workers’ salaries and perks was ignored.


But one major project that was undertaken was, in all fairness, no less important.


One of the principles of the water management reform was to ensure that the water pipes would be kept in good shape for the first time. That meant taking responsibility for maintaining the water distribution system out of the hands of the municipalities. Too often the local elected councils had failed to replace leaky pipes. Instead they had used the profits from the sale of water for things like paying entertainers to appear in public squares on Independence Day.


As part of the overhaul, the government placed responsibility for water distribution in the hands of newly-established state­-owned water distribution companies. Initially, there were to be only 13 such companies. But the need to find sinecures for political cronies led the politicians to set up 55 such companies—each with its own administration. Since then, the price of water has, in some cases, tripled. Not only that, VAT on these inflated water bills (a whole new source of government taxation) was imposed for the first time.


Channel 10, using the freedom of information law, has been trying to find out how much these companies are making, how much they are spending on administrative staff, and how effective they have been in providing quality service. So far to no avail.


By the end of this year, because of the interest of the oligarchs, Israel will have the capacity to desalinate 510 million cubic meters of water a year. That is 40 percent more fresh water than the experts had previously projected that the country would actually need. And more desalination plants are scheduled to be built in the next 5 years.


Israel now has so much desalinated water that, during the most recent fall, the water distribution planners announced that they were projecting that there would be a need to cut back on pumping water cheaply from underground natural reservoirs so that the government could fulfill the country’s prior commitments to the tycoons.


If I were a deep believer in divine intervention, I would say that, at this point, God, seeing the mess that the Israelis had gotten themselves into, again constructed the only possible combination of events that could have allowed the Israelis to escape the consequences of their foolishness…and actually come out of the affair looking like sober, omniscients.


So, first, Israel and its neighbours, as I said earlier, were hit by another drought. Jerusalem, for example, this year had the lowest waterfall in January in 150 years.


Under the terms of the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement, the two sides decided to swap water supplies. Israel was given permission to pump water from wells on the Jordanian side of the border in the Arava in order to grow winter vegetable crops for sale in Europe. In return, the Israelis began pumping water from Lake Kinneret to Jordan so that Jordanian farmers could grow crops for export to the Gulf States.


However, Jordan is both more arid and has a greater birthrate than Israel. Thus, it is not surprising that it is also more susceptible to droughts. One such drought hit in 1998. When the drought struck, the Jordanians secretly requested and the Israelis agreed to pump more water from the Kinneret to Jordan. A precedent was set.


The big, big drought that began in 2006 hit Jordan as badly as it did Israel. More importantly, it sparked the revolt in Syria. That revolt, which has since become a civil war, has now resulted in the arrival of a million refugees in Jordan. Jordan lacks the means necessary to satisfy the refugees’ most basic water needs. So, Israel agreed to step in, and precisely because it has more water production capacity than it now needs, it has agreed to sell Jordan 20 million cubic meters of water.


Oxfam, are you listening? Without that water the Syrian refugees could not have survived.


In one swift, totally unexpected move, Israel’s water production surplus disappeared, and Israel’s all-important strategic link to Jordan was strengthened.


As an aside, I just wonder how the BDS folks would react if they knew the horrible truth that an Arab country is buying something from Israel. And I also wonder what Israel’s critics would say if they understood just how much money Israel is laying out to provide aid to the Syrian refugees.


For reasons no one could have anticipated, Jordan has now become a major customer for Israeli water. The problem Jordan faces is that it is a relatively poor country and it can’t really afford to buy as much Israeli water as it needs if the price of water is based on the cost of desalination. Worse still, Jordan’s inherent water shortages have been exacerbated by the arrival in Jordan of the Syrian refugees.


The solution? Pure Chelm and pure Israeli bureaucratic solution-making………force Israel’s already-burdened water consumers to pay yet another hidden tax.


The way this form of taxation works is as follows: Israel delivers water to Jordan at what is essentially the cost of pumping it out of the Kinneret—4.5 US cents per cubic metre. This is water that could otherwise have been sent cheaply through the national water carrier to Israeli consumers. Instead, though, to compensate for the cutback of the flow into the national water carrier, expensive desalinated water, costing about 50 cents to produce and store is being sent to Israeli households.


Think of it. Using the kind of political sleight of hand that would have made an old-fashioned Mapai apparatchik proud, the Likud-led government was able to use a hidden tax on water to keep the political cronies who had been hired as water company administrators in the salaries to which they have become accustomed; and the oligarchs, whose largesse they will need when the next party primary elections take place were able to make a greater profit than they had dreamed of.


But the great strategic coup was that, by supplying water at a subsidized price to Jordan’s King Abdullah, Israel was able to help keep him on the throne.


Close relations between Israel and Jordan are nothing new. After all, we now know that King Hussein warned Israel about the impending Egyptian and Syrian offensive in 1973.


However, for a while last year, it looked as though those ties might fray. Members of the Jordanian Moslem Brotherhood and a growing number of Salafist jihadis had taken to the streets in Amman and elsewhere to protest many things—not least the peace agreement with Israel.


They demanded a great deal, but what everyone in Jordan knew was that if the protesters had gotten their wish, the Jordanian government would have been totally unable to supply agricultural and drinking water. For that reason—and  others—the protests never reached the point where they threatened the king.


And by providing additional subsidized water to help Abdullah take care of the Syrian refugees, Israel has enabled the King to create a strategic, intelligence presence among the refugees that the king will be able to use if and when the refugees return home. In other words, Israel will now probably be getting important military intelligence whose acquisition was cheap at the price paid.


It is also not at all unimaginable that Jordan may, at some point, may extend the water pipeline  from Israel to Syria. A more likely scenario would see Jordan take water from the existing pipeline, and put it into tanker trucks for delivery to Syria. Once such deliveries become regularized, this would give the Jordanians a major strategic threat for use against any Syrian government that may emerge from the current bloodshed.


Even if that does not occur, Jordan’s influence over its border area with Syria will be a critical aspect of Israel’s strategic safety in the years to come because Israel’s relationship with Jordan is on the verge of turning into an unwritten alliance between the two states.


A sign of just how much Israel’s relationship with Jordan has strengthened recently, and in what was truly an unusual move, the last time Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Amman, the Jordanians gave the trip extensive publicity while it was still underway. In the past, such meetings had usually been kept secret—or at best, they were revealed to have taken place only long after the parlay had ended.


Clearly, the Jordanians had a very good strategic reason for giving the visit so much media play this time. And that reason is quite simple. In the wake of the violence in Syria and the rise in influence of the jihadists there, Israel and Jordan are treating their joint border with Syria as a single strategic entity. In effect, the Jordanians are warning the warring parties in Syria not to mess with Jordan because that would mean messing with Israel as well.


It’s worth remembering that a similar, semi-open alliance was established in September 1970, when the Syrian army invaded Jordan. That time, to the surprise of many, the Jordanians soundly defeated the Syrian expeditionary force—but only after Israel had massed its armoured forces along the Jordan River, ready to come to the Jordanian Legion’s assistance if necessary.


Today, the two countries are facing another, but not totally dissimilar threat.However, unlike what took place in1970, they have chosen to send out joint warning messages. The most obvious reason for this change in tactics is that there is a genuine concern in both countries that even if the Assad regime survives, Syria may be effectively divided into spheres of influence, with the Alawites possibly preserving their rule just in Damascus and the coastal region, while the jihadist rebels may manage to create a permanent presence in the more distant regions of the country, such as the area adjacent to the borders with Israel and Jordan.


That threat may, at first glance, seem exaggerated. However, it is not all that different from the one Israel already faces along its southern border, where jihadis in the Sinai are successfully thwarting efforts by the Egyptian army to reassert control along the border with Israel.


It is always important to remember that both the Syrian and the Sinai threats are products of the Arab Spring.


To me, one of the most fascinating things these two strategic dangers have produced is that Israel is now using a complex system of signaling in an attempt to make its position clear to all the sides involved. Rather remarkably, I haven’t seen anything in the media about this signaling system.


It’s hard to pinpoint just when the signaling began. But it certainly was introduced not long after Israel had made its post-Arab Spring defensive posture known in public statements by Israeli officials.


These officials, including Defence Minister Yaalon, made it clear that Israel has no intention of intervening in Syria in support of any side fighting in the civil war there; and it will not send its forces into the Sinai in violation of the peace agreement.


But that does not mean that the IDF intends to be passive.


Here is how the new Israeli tactics are being applied in practice


Every once in a while over the past few months, a shell or two has been fired into the Israeli-controlled Golan by some armed group in Southern Syria. Most of those tank shells and mortar bombs came from Syrian army units, but there were occasional shots fired by rebel groups as well.


Israel has responded in a very different way there than it does when there is fire from Gaza into Israel. When there is rocket fire from Gaza, Israel usually responds with tank or artillery fire—or bombs dropped from a plane…or missile fire from a helicopter or drone.


These ways of responding are relatively cheap. A 155 mm artillery shell retails in the US for about 440 dollars, and a hellfire missile costs about 58,000-70,000 dollars. In its announcement from the army spokesman that it has retaliated, Israel invariably emphasizes the type of weapon it has used. The idea behind this response is to send a specific set of messages. One of the most important and obvious is that the IDF knows who to target—and how.


By contrast, when a shell or mortar bomb is fired at an Israeli position on the Golan, the Israeli army spokesman always makes sure to announce that Israeli soldiers responded to the provocation by firing a Tammuz missile. A Tammuz missile costs a half a million shekels–or about 142 thousand dollars.


The use of two different types and two differently-priced weapons is meant to send a clear message. To Gaza the message is: If there is an attack on Israeli civilian centres, even though Israel will launch a retaliatory strike at a specific military target, it will use a weapon that can cause, what is euphemistically called “collateral damage” because it may not be perfectly accurate or it may create enough of a blast so that civilians are likely to be injured too.


The message to the civilians in Gaza is: You civilians must also share responsibility for the attack on Israel because you don’t stop the terrorists from firing their rockets or missiles.


The message to those living in the villages in southern Syria is: We understand that you don’t want trouble in your area. For that reason, we will continue to use the Tammuz missile if, for example, armed rebels take over a single room in a house of a villager. In that case, the highly-accurate Tammuz will, as has already been shown, fly through the window of the room, explode and kill the people in that room, but leave everyone else in the building unhurt.


But there is even more to the message: Essentially, the use of the Tammuz says “we also know that jihadis are making a sustained effort to enter into you area. For that reason, Israel is willing to spend a lot of money on a very accurate missile that will reduce, if not eliminate collateral damage so long as you, in the future, do not collaborate with the jihadis.”


One of the best examples of another form of careful, deliberate signaling has been the way that Israeli health care has been provided to the southern Syrian villagers.


Israel has given considerable publicity to its efforts to provide medical assistance to those wounded in the civil war. At first glance, this may appear to be very similar to the medical assistance given to the southern Lebanese villagers in the late 1970s and 1980s as part of what was called at the time “the Good Fence.”


The Good Fence though was based on a different system of providing aid. A full-time clinic was established at the formal border-crossing between Lebanon and Israel at Metullah. Treatment was coordinated with the mukhtars, the Christian Phalange party militiamen and village elders in the area.


On the Golan, the story is very different. Israel has made no formal move to approach the Syrian village elders because that might end up branding those elders as collaborators, who would then be subject to reprisal by both the government and the extremist jihadis. Instead, it was decided that no mediator need take part in the operation. Syrian Golan villagers, as individuals, can approach any Israeli military outpost positioned along the border fence. If the person’s condition can be treated by the outpost’s medic, the person is treated and sent back on his or her way—and, very deliberately, no signs are left that he or she had visited the Israelis.


However, if the person’s condition is more serious, the area field hospital is alerted, and the patient is taken there. Unlike the clinic at the Good Fence, the field hospital at the Golan fence is not usually manned. When needed, doctors, nurses and technicians are helicoptered in. If the patient’s condition is sufficiently serious, he or she is finally taken by ambulance to an Israeli hospital.


It is very interesting that Israel does publish the figures on the number of Syrians who are hospitalized in Israel. There have been about 600 such people so far. But the army spokesman has refused to say how many have been treated at Israeli military outposts and then sent on their way. This is likely because, after treatment, these individuals may very well become part of a list of contacts who the Israelis assume Israeli reconnaissance units may need to approach should armed jihadist groups begin flooding the area adjacent to the frontier fence.


Incidentally, the fence itself has been newly rebuilt, and is very similar to the one that Israel constructed along the border with Egypt. And, it too is yet another example of the increasing role being played by MI and its brains trust.

The sophisticated electronics attached to the fence are not merely defensive in nature. The first generation of fences that Israel began building in the 1970s—which were revolutionary at the time— was primarily designed to alert front line troops when potential infiltrators were approaching the barrier. The new type of fence enables those forces to track movements long before the potential infiltrators begin to actually approach the barrier. Incidentally this is a job partially done by the autistic youngsters.


In addition, the monitors and cameras placed on and above the fence are but one part of a much larger system of high-altitude balloons, terrain-following radars, drones and other devices capable of spotting and tracking anyone moving around anywhere within tens of kilometers of the cease-fire line. This system is far more sensitive than anything the Jordanians or the Egyptian now have.


This then enhances Israeli security in ways that would otherwise be impossible. It enables the Israelis to assemble intelligence “goods” that they can then use or trade with the Jordanians and Egyptians, who can then use that information to combat what they too consider are bad guys using their territory.


For, if nothing else, the Arab Spring has highlighted the ongoing value of the oldest aphorism in the strategic affairs business: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The revolts have created and fostered a whole boatload of new jihadi groups that are declared enemies not only of Israel, but of anyone more liberal than they. In effect, they have thus become bait that Israel can use for making friends…or at least acquaintances with common interests.


So, to sum up, despite all the uncertainties that the Arab revolts have created, and despite the BDS movement and growing anti-Israeli feeling in Europe, Israeli strategists can say with reasonable certainty that, taken for the all and all,  their country has more, more important, and more strategically-useful friends and acquaintances than it has ever had.  But everyone should also always remember that keeping those friendships and acquaintanships intact means ensuring a continued flow of trained brains into the military.


Arab Spring? An Assessment Three Years later

The revolts in the Arab states have now been underway for three years and more. The first, in Tunisia, began on December 18, 2010, the one in Egypt on January 25, 2011, and the one in Syria on March 15, 2011. One would have thought that after all that has happened in the interim, the journalists, academics and pundits who first reported and commented on these major events would have returned at this time for a retrospective and reappraisal of what they said and wrote at the time.


It’s interesting, therefore, that, so far, at least, nothing of that sort has occurred. That absence, in itself, is very telling. It would appear that many of the reporters and pundits are less than proud of the material that they produced at that time. Worse still, they may be uninterested in the long-term impact their mistaken reporting may have had on public and decision-makers’ perceptions.


It seems patently obvious to me, though, that, without a thorough review of what was really happening then, people are very likely to be left with misunderstandings that they will be carrying with them into the indefinite future.


I’ll go even further. Because people have also failed to review many other important dates in the history of the Middle East, they are incapable of comprehending why the region is in the mess it is in at this time; and so, they will continue to make stupid judgments about it.


For those reasons, I believe that it is essential to go back to some of the more salient events that took place long before the rebellions broke out, the period after the end of colonialism, the period immediately before the protests began, the time just before Mohammed Morsi was elected president of Egypt, and the period immediately before and after he was deposed by the army and point out their relationship to the situation today.


Most of my survey will focus on Egypt because it was given the most media attention, and therefore the prejudices that journalists and commentators brought to their assessment of the events that took place there are easier to trace. Egypt plays a disproportionately important role in shaping attitudes in the Arab world. And it also is playing a critical role in the war against terror.


But I also have another reason for focusing on Egypt that I hadn’t even considered when I began my research. Demographers are now predicting that by 2030 Israel’s Haredi parties will elect enough Knesset members to form the core of any Israeli coalition government. As my work progressed, I found that there was an extraordinary similarity in the political behaviour and agenda of the Moslem Brotherhood and Israel’s Haredi parties. In fact, as I went into greater and greater detail, there were times when I thought I was looking Israel’s political future in the face.


After reviewing several thousand pages of data, my most general conclusion is that, with the exception of Tunisia, which for various historical reasons is now truly trying to strike out and create a new type of political society, almost all the political rationales used and all the battles fought during the rebellions in the other Arab states were repeats of or only slight variations on situations and events that had come before. In other words, the belief expressed by most pundits at the beginning of this period of popular revolt that the Arab world was entering into a new and dynamic political period was totally incorrect, wishful thinking and, at times, simply foolish.


After all that has happened, that may seem at first to be a “ho-hum, so what else is new?” conclusion. But I think that the reasons that brought me to that conclusion are worth examining closely because they will most likely have important portents for the future.


In addition, my hindsight is now based on a great deal of material that was not available when the revolts broke out. Surprisingly, in my searches, I rarely found any reference to these new and important batches of data in the media.


Among other things, for example, we now have two guides that can act as social and political Rosetta stones that can enable us to better interpret what has actually been going on throughout the past 3 years. At the very moment that the revolts were gaining momentum in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, two very important bodies, the UN Development Program and the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, based in Doha, were carrying out large-scale, independent studies on a wide range of issues and attitudes in the Arab world.


By doing a bit of additional data mining, it is also possible to uncover some very important information that can give us a deeper and broader understanding of the dynamics that are still underway.


In addition, it is possible to find validation and second sourcing for some of the new findings in those Gallup polls and other UN studies that were published long after the rebellions began.


And finally, we now also have the use of a brand new, world-beating computerized analysis of one aspect of the events in question, prepared by a brilliant Technion student as part of her PhD thesis. The work, by Kira Radinsky, both explains an otherwise confusing but critically important table published in the Doha study, and at the same time, it demolishes one of the most common ways Westerners have used in the past when analyzing events in the Arab world.


When taken together, all this material can enable us to fairly accurately assess some of the things that Westerners got right when they tried to understand what was going on. Even more importantly, they can also point out many of those things that the commentators got horribly wrong when trying to describe the significance of the events that occurred after the rebellions broke out.


But before getting into all that, it is best to begin at the beginning.


Mohammed created Islam with the aim of uniting the warring tribes of the Arabian Peninsula and forming them, and everyone else in the world, into a single nation, the Umma. His primary vehicle was a set of what he believed were universal laws that should apply to all societies.


However, after his successors left their desert confines behind and conquered the lush river valleys of the Middle East, and after they had also not only driven other people into submission and imposed Islamic law, they found that they still needed other, different tools in order to govern effectively.


One major problem they confronted was that Islamic law, as I said, had been designed, first and foremost, to cope with problems presented by tribally-based societies. However, places such as Persia and those parts of the Byzantine Empire that had recently been conquered had had traditions of centralized rule that had lasted thousands of years. That meant that some features of Arab society, such as the use of inter-tribal discussions for dispute resolution or public management were irrelevant and useless. A totally different system of governance was needed.


In my writings about the Middle East, I have always tried to emphasize that contrary to a belief common in the United States that Western-style democracy is the system of governance that best suits all peoples all the time, nations tend to adopt systems of government that best relate to and cope with their culture, their beliefs and the experiences that they have undergone over time. Thus the Jews developed consensus-based Kehillah government, the Western nations adopted rights-based popular rule, and the Russians have always sought a “strong leader.”


After their breakout from the Arabian Desert, the Arabs and other Islamic leaders experimented with several systems of governance. Most of those experiments failed, because, as the great Arab historian and sociologist, ibn Khaldun pointed out in the 14th and 15thb centuries, these new governments quickly became corrupted.


Corruption has remained an integral part of every Arab government since the Moslem conquest. Nonetheless, several, huge, imperial governments did survive for remarkably long times. The Abbasid empire, for example, lasted almost 500 years, and the Ottoman empire lasted for more than 500 years.


What many of those in the Western media today fail to recognize is that, even though the empires are now gone, precisely because corruption has remained endemic throughout the Arab world, some of the principles upon which those empires were based continue to have an impact on the way Arabs’ approach governance today.


For example, Arab political culture differs from both Jewish Kehillah government and Western democracy in one very fundamental way. The latter two systems are anchored in a belief in a very particular form of the rule of law. It is one that develops over time as precedent-setting rulings by justices accumulate, and as those precedents are then modified as needed to cope with new realities.


In Arab Islamic society, though, believers are required to submit to the dictates of what is believed to be unchanging Sharia law. A true Sunni Moslem is required to choose a scholar who knows the law… and then behave as the scholar himself acts.


And here we come to a very crucial element. According to Sunni Islamic practice, that scholar is not required to take into account the rulings of any other scholar—and not even his own past rulings. Quite naturally, even many devout Moslems shop around in order to find a scholar who is to their liking.


This phenomenon of having a choice in how the law should be interpreted, also applies when judges are appointed. In the old days, and even today in places like Saudi Arabia, a person could choose which judge he wanted to try his case. Thus, powerful men were able to tilt judgments in their favour from the outset of the proceedings.


What this means in practical terms is that Sunni Arab societies are inherently subject to chaos. And this is what we have been seeing recently in both Libya and Syria. In Libya, following Gadhafi’s assassination, the political situation reverted to a state of affairs that was remarkably similar to the one that existed in pre-Mohammedan Arabia. In Libya today, inter-tribal warfare has become the norm. The only significant difference between the tribal warfare in Libya now and that which took place in the Arabian desert before the rise of Mohammed was that at least some of the warring tribes in Libya have justified their use of violence against other tribes by claiming that they are acting more in accordance with Islamic teachings than the tribes they are attacking.


In Syria, the rebel Islamic forces are being torn apart because they can neither agree on a single leadership structure, nor can they agree on how the war should be fought.  For example, one al Qaeda affiliated group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, believes that its objective should be the establishment of an Islamic state. Therefore, it tries to impose a very brutal form of Sharia law the moment it captures an area. However, another al-Qaeda affiliated group, al Nusra wants to unseat the ruling Alawites first. Therefore it seeks to capture as much territory as possible before imposing new laws. This difference has led to bloody encounters between the two groups.


As a result, and as might be expected, the non-jihadist Sunni rebel groups fear both groups. And the large Christian and the Druze minorities have been caught in the middle and can only cringe.


In the past, under the imperial system, in order to create stability, the ruler simply imposed his decisions on everyone else.


So, because neither the behavior of Arab tribes nor Sharia law has undergone any significant change in the past 1300 years, in order to understand what is going on in the Arab world today, it is important to recognize first how the sultans of old imposed their will on tens of millions of people and hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of territory.


Western democrats begin with the supposition that political and economic corruption is destructive to the body politic. The way to limit corruption is by the establishment of three equal and competitive, branches of government…administrative, legislative and judicial.


However, those Arab governments that were successful in the past adopted a very different set of rules for self-governance. Throughout the Arab world, stable self-governance has usually been based on four very different pillars—the existence of a monopolistic political elite, an army, a bureaucracy, and a religious elite.


The most successful Islamic governments have been those where the political elite was able to maintain absolute control by limiting and then balancing the power of the other three pillars.


For example, the Islamic religious elites would seem to have a clear and even decisive advantage over all three of the other groups. They run the dawah system of schools, mosques and welfare centres that enables the clergy to maintain a presence everywhere within the borders of any Islamic political entity. Their dispersion into the tiniest villages and encampments not only provides the Sheikhs and Mullahs with conduits of communication with the masses, each building controlled by the system automatically also becomes an organizing point for mass public action.


In order to overcome that inherent power granted to the clergy, the Sunni Islamic emperors manipulated one of the most fundamental early Islamic beliefs to their benefit. That belief is that the ideal leader should be a Caliph—someone who is both a supreme religious figure and a supreme political leader. While Sunni belief is that each Caliph should be chosen by a council of religious scholars, the Abbasid and the Ottoman empires were successful largely because they were able to create continuity in the leadership by reinterpreting the idea of a caliphate so that their empires were run by hereditary dynasties.


Another extraordinarily powerful group is the military. It manages both the training of and the acquisition of weapons for the body that is supposed to have a monopoly on violence. However, Islamic leaders recognized early on that the army is also a permanent, endemic threat to the leaders because the soldiers can always try to take over the reins of government. For that reason, many Moslem armies were deliberately made up of foreign mercenaries. Others, however, were controlled in a different way. They were kept too busy and satisfied dealing with business matters to think about launching a coup.


For example, corruption enabled the Arab leaders to pay off the soldier class. When the opportunity arose the preference by all parties was for the soldiers to enrich themselves through plunder and booty. In more peaceable times, military roadblocks could extract fees from caravans. And most recently, armies have been permitted to own commercial businesses. It is assumed that these businesses then give the army a reason to preserve domestic stability because political stability is a necessity for the preservation of

stable markets for the goods the military produces. This latter tack is the one being used in Iran, Syria and Egypt today; and it was used in Iraq before the fall of Saddam Hussein.


To me, at least, one of the most fascinating aspects of Islamic governance has been the role played by the bureaucracy. From the early days of the Islamic conquest, when the newly-conquered, but highly-educated Persians were drafted to run the day-to-day affairs of state, the bureaucracy has acted as the Islamic political system’s anchor.


Among its many functions, Islamic bureaucracies were charged with acting as the main communications conduit between the masses and the rulers. Because they were so widespread and so embedded in society, bureaucracies became the primary vehicle for imposing the leadership’s autocratic rule and for monitoring the behaviour of the clergy. The bureaucrats were invariably mandated to scrutinize the behavior of the people through the use of regulations, and to penalize those seen to have broken the society’s rules, mores and customs. However its job was not just supervisory and punitive. Its tentacles were able to provide early warning of the development of dissent and the need for the rulers to either crack down on rebels or to reform some aspect of their system of rule.


Another important function the bureaucracy plays to this day is that it deals with those aspects of national life that require extended negotiations.


A third task is to massage the merchant and economic classes so that the economy continues to function well. This particular job can include, among other things, resolving jealousies that arise if one individual or group is given a monopoly or allowed to operate as a cartel in a certain field of endeavour.


A fourth assignment is that the bureaucracy is expected to maintain inter-ethnic and inter-tribal competition at levels that will not lead to sudden social explosions.


Incidentally, let it not be said that the bureaucracy has not changed with the times. Gamal Abdul Nasser gave it an additional, new job—to absorb and act as the repository for the tens of thousands of young people who were graduating from university but who couldn’t find jobs.


And now we come to some of what I believe are among of the most fascinating aspects of Islamic governance. There is an inherent contradiction between the cardinal Islamic belief in a universal Umma, and the particular political, diplomatic, economic and social needs of any state. Thus, for example, every attempt at political unity has always collapsed.


Another is that, in the West, when a government is incompetent or does something bad, it is punished by being labeled “illegitimate”—in other words, that it is not operating within the legal system and has thus lost its right to rule. In Arab states, when governments are perceived to be bad, they are said to be “unworthy.” In other words, the Western system is based on a series of fixed parameters of what constitutes good government. The Islamic one is based on subjective, personal, judgmental, and value-laden considerations about the worth of the individual leader—not the substance to his policies or his success in implementing them. For example, President Nasser failed at almost every task he set for himself. Yet, when he resigned in the wake of his greatest failure—Egypt’s traumatic defeat in the 6-Day War—the masses came out into the streets to demand that he remain in office because he was, in their eyes, a worthy man even if he was also a total failure.


How does that play out in real life?


It is now clear that the recent revolts only took place once there was a popular consensus that the governments in those countries where rebellions took place had become “unworthy” to rule. For example, according to the Doha study, at the time of the outbreak of the revolts in their countries, only 9 percent of Tunisians and 17 percent of Egyptians thought that the “political conditions” in their countries were satisfactory. In Yemen the figure was 8 percent and Iraq, 7 percent. In other words, translated into Arab political coding, in these four countries, there was an overwhelming consensus by the citizens of these states that their leaders were unworthy.


The way in which that belief in a leader’s “unworthiness” was expressed was different in each country. Dr. Kira Radinsky, doesn’t put matters exactly like this, but my interpretation of her research findings, is that, particularly after communications lines between the masses and the leaders break down, the masses, when they talk openly, use the equivalent of a synecdoche to express their growing anger. A synecdoche is a way of representing a whole by talking about a part of that whole. Thus, for example, the US administration as a whole can be referred to by talking about the “White House.”


The reason why they use a synecdoche is that the Arab Moslem system of government is invariably authoritarian. One of the most important techniques that Arab governments use to preserve their rule is to limit open discourse between their subjects. People who can’t to talk to each other or who are forbidden under pain of a penalty to talk about a particular subject, can’t form a consensus. Not only that, because most authoritarian governments base their system of governance on “divide and rule,” protest leaders invariably find it difficult to come to a consensus even among themselves, or decide on an action that they can agree on.


The only way they can only do so is if they can find an issue that affects everyone. Even then, they may face punishment for even mentioning the subject at hand. One of the ways that they can circumvent the rulers’ restrictions, however, is by speaking in codes. The code for rebellion is usually a simple sign or a single word or short phrase that is understood by all.


When words or phrases, rather than gestures, are used, the word or words employed are usually synecdoches for a much bigger issue. Because a large minority of Arabs remain illiterate and/or are engaged in subsistence agriculture, references to terms such as GDP, inflation, or national debt elicit almost no popular response. Even the very word “economy” may remain permanently undefined for some. So, a popularly understood synecdoche must be used instead. Dr. Radinsky found that popular riots are set off in Syria when rebel leaders highlight that there has been or there is about to be a rise in the price of wheat, in Sudan, when the price of cooking gas is raised, and in Egypt, when the price of bread goes up or rebel leaders claim that a shortage of bread is imminent.  In other words, words such as “expensive wheat” or “too costly cooking gas” or “bread” can become code words for “unworthiness.”


It is now clear to me at least that if all the data sources I have just cited are correct, Western analysts have made the same mistake time and again. Rioting over bread prices in Egypt is not a synecdoche for the country’s economic problems. That is a very Western interpretation based on the teachings of Adam Smith. The use of the word “bread,” in Egyptian political parlance expresses anger and a belief that the national leadership is unworthy to rule.


There is another set of more recent historical events that also influence the current rebellions.


After the last of the great empires, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, it was replaced by European colonial governments, which were finally was replaced by post-colonial Arab governments. Most of those new governments were inherently unstable and chaotic for all the reasons I have already cited.


In Egypt, the army staged a coup in the belief that it could create greater stability. The first major event that it confronted was the reinvasion of the Suez Canal Zone by Britain and France in 1956.


Instead of using the combined Israeli-British-French assault to unify Egypt and its various ethnic groups in support of the new nation-state that had emerged with the end of colonialism, the new President Gamal Abdul Nasser chose, instead to launch a campaign to rid Egypt of what he believed were foreign influences. In a massive shift from historical cosmopolitanism to xenophobia in cities such as Alexandria, Nasser expelled the Jews, the Greeks, the Armenians and some other smaller ethnic groups. Most of these groups had lived in Egypt for centuries before the arrival of Islam and the conquering Arab armies.


That expulsion took place at the same moment that globalization, one of the products of the post-colonial era, was just beginning to develop momentum. That left Egypt, and other Arab countries that tried to adopt similar measures, without the cadres that had been involved in international trade and commerce and diplomacy for millennia. Henceforth, because they were missing these intermediaries, which had also often acted as a kind of shadow diplomatic corps and shadow bureaucracy in time of need, and instead of trying to find solutions to pressing problems, many of the Arab states simply fell into a torpor or blamed anyone, but especially Israel and America, for the situations they found themselves in.


Another relatively recent event that would have a profound impact on the region was the pair of oil shocks, in 1974 and1976, initiated by OPEC. Those two power plays led to a huge increase in incomes for all the Arab oil-producing nations, but especially for Saudi Arabia. The Saudis used part of the vast increase in national income to set up a world-wide network of madrasses or Islamic schools. These schools taught the very rigid form of Islam known as Wahhabism. The graduates of these schools ended up adopting a form of Islam known as Salafism, which purports to renew the religion and revive it by making it mirror the practices of Islam’s founders. One of the prime beliefs of Salafism is the value of jihad, and one of its products has been al Qaeda.


The Saudis originally believed that they could control the message taught in the madrasses they had founded—just as they believed they could control the politics of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood, which they supported financially for many years. They failed, however, to take into account that “true believers” can end up having different beliefs from those promoting the ideology and philosophy in question. Since 9/11, the Saudis have tried to limit the impact of al Qaeda; and, in the past year, they have totally rejected the Brotherhood because of its tentative exploration of democracy. The Saudis feared that any experiment in democracy by an Islamic movement was heresy because it was a threat to its monarchy.


And now we come to more recent events that help explain why the revolts developed as they did.


During its inception, the so-called “Arab Spring” was described, almost-breathlessly, by the Western journalists who covered it as a great and noble popular effort by young, secular modernists whose aim was to replace autocratic regimes and install democracies in their stead. Too often the commentators inaccurately implied that the demonstrations in the Arab nations were similar to those that had created the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe.


For those of you who listened to my talks and read my blog posts at the time, I warned that introducing democracy, as Westerners usually understand the term, would be easier said than done. Unlike American officials I do not believe that democracy begins and ends with free elections. My suspicions that democracy, as Westerners understand the term, would be difficult to introduce in the Arab Middle East, have stood the test of time.


Another thing that was clear to me even 3 years ago was that the reporters were focusing almost solely on the swirl of dramatic events that were taking place in the main squares of the big cities where the journalists were staying. The demonstrations that these journalists witnessed, though, often did not reflect the narrower, more conservative and more xenophobic public attitudes that held sway in rural areas and even in other parts of those same cities.


Yet another conclusion I was able to draw almost immediately was that, from their remarks, the journalists were clueless about the customs, values and social mores of the societies they were reporting on, and therefore they were incapable of explaining one of the most important features of the rebellion: the impact that those long-embedded behavior patterns were having on the course of events.


One common mistake made by Western observers that arose out of that ignorance was that these commentators took,  at face value, the statements being uttered by the only people with whom they could communicate—the tiny minority of young, English-speaking, tech-savvy, often-Western-educated  protesters with whom they could identify emotionally. By failing to dig deeper, the commentators consistently distorted their viewers’ and readers’ appreciation of what was really happening.


Having now patted myself on my back, I must also, though, in all honesty, admit that there were many things that I too did not understand at that time. The Doha study, called the Arab Opinion Index (AOI), and the UNDP survey have now, however, enabled me to explore the meaning of some of the events in greater depth and with greater accuracy.


For example, possibly the biggest mistake almost everyone—myself included— made was to assume that the English-speaking, and apparently Western-educated Arabs who were interviewed were using the word “democracy” in the same way it is defined and used in the West.


At the time, I was quite proud to be in that minority group of observers who were criticizing the reporters on the spot for having seemingly sought out only those people who would say that they were “seeking democracy.” That was because it seemed to me that there were simply too many of these new-found “democrats.”


But that wasn’t the only reasons for my suspicions. I also took careful note that, as they talked about how much democracy meant to them, the Arabic-speakers failed to refer to some of the ideas Westerners invariably associate with and mention when they discuss democratic governance.


For all those reasons, I then drew the conclusion that while the Western educated youngsters may have understood the word “democracy” in the same way a Westerner does, everyone else, when talking to reporters, was merely spouting slogans that had no substance, but which the interviewees assumed that the journalists wanted to hear.


In retrospect, I was correct for criticizing the Western journalists for implying, after the interviews were over, that what the Arabs meant was “liberal democracy” as Westerners understand the term.  But, I now recognize that I had made two major mistakes. The majority of the young English speakers, even when speaking to western reporters, did not interpret the word “democracy as a Westerner normally would. Most were using it in the same way they would use the term when talking to their fellow citizens. And the seemingly overwhelming support for democracy by the Arabic-speaking interviewees was real and not simply sloganeering for the benefit of the television cameras.


The Doha study of 16,173 people in 12 Arab states found that more than two thirds of those polled did support the idea of “democratic” governments. Those numbers, especially since they come from a respected organization, are simply too big to ignore or to dismiss out of hand as being inflated or the result of using poor polling methods. Therefore, they have to be taken at face value.


But, and this is a big “but,” it is only when the aggregate numbers are disassembled, that the real truth emerges. That truth, in turn, then reveals a fascinating picture of attitudes in the Arab world that otherwise had remained hidden. In very broad terms, if one looks at all the raw data closely, one can only come to the conclusion that the Arabs do not use the word “democracy” as a synonym for the way terms such as “popular rule,” are commonly used in the West.


To most Arabs, the word “democracy” means that their leaders should constantly and actively listen to the messages being sent through established conduits by the masses, whether elections take place or not. In other words, in the Arab world, even authoritarian governments can be thought to be acting “democratically” if they respond to public concerns and public demands.


In the Arab world, the widespread use of the word “democracy” does not and is not meant to imply, as is the case in the West, that those who support “democratic government” also support a whole series of social and political principles which established democratic governments in the West have found to be essential for the maintenance of popular rule in their countries.


For example, one of the cardinal rules of American-style democracy is that there should be an ironclad separation of church and state. However, fewer than half the Arabs interviewed, (42.8 percent), believe that religion should be separated from politics. That belief, in itself, need not be all that problematic. After all, many European countries have had thriving Christian Democratic parties without the democracy in those countries being endangered. That was because those parties also accepted the idea that religious pluralism is an acceptable and even desirable and necessary principle of social behaviour.


But that is not how democracy is viewed in the Arab world. Since the rebellions began, the Christian Copts in Egypt have been under almost constant, violent assault by Moslem extremists; and, elsewhere in the Arab world an estimated one third of the Christians living in Syria and Iraq have been displaced.


Another crucial finding of the Doha poll is that 41.5 percent of those interviewed believe that political power should be given only to those who are religious—in other words, only to devout Moslems.


Those beliefs about religion and its adherents then lead to another series of convictions that are anathema in the West. For example, only 36.3 percent of the interviewees in the Doha poll believe in the principle of political freedom and the existence of inherent civil liberties. The vast majority do not.


And, possibly most important of all, only 19.5 percent of the Arabs interviewed believe in equality and justice for all.


It is the prevalence of this belief structure then explains why Hamas, for example, could get elected, and retain public support, even though it believes in the dictatorship of a theocracy—in other words,  it was supported precisely because it believes in the concept of: one man, one candidate, one vote, one time.


These attitudes also explain why while the devout Moslem Turkish Prime Minister, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, claims that he is a democrat, he can also firmly believe that a government, once elected by a majority, need not take the needs, interests and concerns of its country’s ethnic and religious minorities into consideration.


Another major area of international misunderstanding during the height of the rebellions was, as I noted earlier, the widespread Western belief that economics was having a significant impact on the behavior patterns of the Arab public—especially in Egypt.


It seems clear from the Doha poll that, unlike Westerners, Arabs do not necessarily correlate their personal economic situation with the way in which their governments act.


According to the AOI, most Arabs don’t approve of their governments. Nonetheless, 76 percent of all the Arabs polled said that they are satisfied with their lives. An even more remarkable 55.1 percent said that they were satisfied with their economic situation.


Specifically, before the rioting broke out, amazingly, 85 percent of Egyptians said that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their lives; and 72 percent of Tunisians felt the same way. Unless you had looked up the AOI section that showed, as I noted earlier, that only 17 percent of Egyptians and 9 percent of Tunisians  approved of their country’s political condition, you would never have even considered that a major political upheaval was pending.


But that’s not all. Amazingly, 60 percent of the Egyptians and 55 percent of the Tunisians said that they were also “satisfied or very satisfied” with their economic situation.


At least on the surface, it would appear that it would take an Olympic-level mental gymnast to make those figures correlate with the additional fact that 47 percent of Egyptian respondents and 37 percent of the Tunisians said that their incomes do not cover their household expenses.


The mind boggles…a lot. How can 60 percent of Egyptians say they are satisfied with the economy when 47 percent can’t make ends meet?


What appears to be a totally absurd contradiction in terms can be explained, at least in part, because there was a measurable trend that was underway at the time. The UNDP Development Index shows that, in the period from 2005 to 2011, Egypt’s and Tunisia’s GDP was rising by over 5 percent per year. During this period, Egypt went from 106th place on the UNDP‘s Development Index to 104th place, and Tunisia rose from 90th place to 87th place. Even if a disproportionate amount of that increasing wealth was siphoned off by a corrupt, rich elite, there had nonetheless been a relative and noticeable improvement in the economies of the two countries—and many people might have felt the change. In addition, especially in Egypt, extended families had made a point of trying to send at least one family member to work in the Gulf states and to send his earnings home.


It therefore appears that people made their judgment possibly based on extreme fatalism or a belief that things would get better. My own suspicion is that because of low educational levels, average citizens make little or no connection between the government’s overall handling of the economy and those specific government decisions that affect the price of goods. Thus, inflation figures may be considered to be totally irrelevant abstractions, whereas a one penny rise in the price of gasoline feels like a jab in the guts and is enough to send millions into the streets in protest.


If that is true then when the elections were held in 2012, the Moslem Brotherhood benefitted from unwarranted public optimism that a trend that had been underway for some time would continue.


Of course, what happened in practice was that the Brotherhood made things far worse than they need have been. As a result of its failure to prepare for office, the Brotherhood did not have the trained cadres needed to rule and it could only focus on a very narrow range of activities once it gained power.


Its main effort involved attempts to introduce Sharia law and to place Brotherhood members in the bureaucracy. It made no effort, for example, to create new jobs or to reinvigorate tourism, which had produced 12 percent of GDP and had employed hundreds of thousands of people.


In addition, because it is an organization made up of “true believers” with a common mindset, common agenda, and common symbols, it was unable to read and interpret the manner in which the populace was reacting to its actions or inactions. As an organization run by and for socially-isolated religious scholars, it did not even recognize that it would eventually have to seek out both expertise and areas of compromise with its political foes.


The Brotherhood—but also the Western commentators—also totally misread the way the army was behaving. The Brotherhood’s leaders appear to have assumed that the man they had appointed to lead the military, General a-Sisi would automatically be loyal to them because he is a devout Moslem. They totally failed to understand the culture of the Egyptian Army, its relationship to the masses, and the domestic power it can bring to bear.


The Brotherhood was not alone in its inaccurate assessments. President Obama’s demand that Mubarak step down and be replaced by any democratically-elected body demonstrated just how profoundly ignorant the United States has been in interpreting events in the Middle East.


As I noted earlier, Mohammed understood that the greatest political problem facing the Arab world was its endemic tribalism. That had led to the creation of Sharia law. However, as I also added, that law code was not enough to provide a viable framework for political decision-making.


Just as the Jews survived  because they had adopted a policy of “group responsibility,” which met and satisfied their cultural and historical needs, and just as Western countries  adopted popular democracy as their preeminent system of governance, so the Arabs empires survived and prospered by creating a system of mutual dependency.


Essentially, under the Arab system, tribalism was tamed, but not broken. So, for example, under the Ottomans in particular, some of the positive features of tribalism were integrated into the system of rule—especially the way that the lines of hierarchy and communications were constructed.


Basically the system worked this way: Every resident was made dependent on the family leader for any and all contacts the individual needed with the central ruling authorities. Then every family leader was made dependent for any favours he needed on the mukhtar—the village leader. In in other words, the family leader had to get the approval of the mukhtar first—if he wanted to plead for something from the central government on behalf of a family member. The mukhtars were dependent on the approval of the clan leaders. And the clan leaders were dependent on the approval of the tribal leader—and so on up the social ladder.


On the other hand if someone down the social ladder started making trouble, the person immediately above him was also held directly responsible for recreating stability.


At each plateau in this pyramid, there were inter-clan or inter-tribal forums. The primary purpose of these forums was conflict resolution.


Once Egypt became a Western colonial dependency and began to modernize, the political system changed somewhat. Egypt had almost invariably had strong centralized governments from time immemorial. For that reason, in the Nile Valley and in the Nile Delta, there were extended families and clans, but no real tribes as such. And, following Nasser’s expulsion of the Jews, the Greeks and the Armenians, and with the exception of the Copts, there were none of the ethnic divisions that bedeviled other Levantine states.


Commentators who have analyzed the Egyptian referendum on the new constitution that was approved last week have emphasized that it increases the power of the army enormously. That is true. However, there are other aspects of the document that arise out of Egypt’s historical experiences and are no less important. One of the most important is that while Egypt has no tribes as such, other bodies in Egypt, such as trade unions or professional groups began behaving during the colonial period in much the same way that tribes behave elsewhere in the Arab world. That behavior only strengthened after independence.


Since, in Egypt, there is no linear social hierarchy, such as had existed under the Ottomans, a new form of governance evolved when colonial rule ended. The country was governed by the military, but with the advice and consent of an unofficial federation of interest groups. This new system of rule was eventually formalized in the 1971 constitution, where each of the most important interest groups in the country was given formal, legal status.


One of the most important tasks of that informal federation is to ensure that the communication lines between those in power and the masses are kept open. Another is to openly support the proposition that the national leadership is worthy to rule.


The army was able to consolidate its position as the first among all the interest groups not only because of its size and access to weaponry. Following Nasser’s death, Anwar Sadat succeeded in altering the public’s perception of the role that the Egyptian army was playing in Egyptian society.


In order to pay for a huge modern army capable of taking on the Israelis, he expanded the role it played in the economy.  And in order to build up the officer corps in preparation for the 1973 war against Israel, he ordered universal conscription.  Universal conscription then enabled the military to construct an image of itself, as not being an instrument of some distant ruling class, but as the “army of the people, defending the people against hostile external forces.”


Rule by the military worked so long as the lines of communication between the government and the masses were kept open. However, under Mubarak, those lines became ever more sclerotic and constricted. His approval ratings deteriorated steadily as those close to him began to flaunt the fact that they were taking more and more of the national economic pie at the expense of other interest groups. His popular support finally collapsed when he tried to impose his son Gamal as his successor. It is impotent to remember that it was only after that long process that he was finally considered to be unworthy to rule by enough people that they would take the effort and face the danger inherent in trying to depose him.


The moment the rebellion gained a mass following, the army had to make some crucial strategic choices. Unlike the US, which blustered around, the military adopted a strategy that was totally in keeping with Egypt’s culture and its people’s self-perceptions.


After the revolt in Egypt began, the military stood largely on the sidelines in an attempt to show that it had not been tainted by the Mubarak regime and it would not harm the people it was mandated to defend. It left the job of trying to control the demonstrators to the already-hated police and secret police.


In order to protect its position as the primary interest group in the country, it acted as soldiers are trained to behave on the battlefield. In order to avoid a head-on assault by the protesters, it withdrew from the fray and even went so far as to willingly sacrifice its own people, including Defence Chief, Field Marshal Tartawi in order to maintain its popularity.


The Moslem Brotherhood seems to have been totally oblivious of the way in which the military was operating and how it was beginning to lay the groundwork for a popular takeover.


The Brotherhood based its entire approach to the public on the assumption that first and foremost, what the public wanted was to strengthen Islam within the country. That would seem to have been a reasonable approach because the Doha survey found that over 96 percent of Egyptians said that they are religious or very religious. A Gallup poll taken a decade earlier had found that only 2 percent of Egyptians took their Egyptian nationality as their primary source of identity.


However, in what would otherwise have appeared to have been an almost impossible reversal, the army eventually succeeded in placing loyalty to the idea of Egyptian nationalism at the forefront of the public debate.


One of the main ways it did so was to use the 1971 Sadat-inspired constitution to its advantage.


One of the first acts the Moslem Brotherhood did, after being elected, was to prepare a new constitution, in which Islamic institutions were to have been given greater privileges than other bodies such as the doctors union or the engineers’ union. This was a classic Islamist move, pitting as it did, the power of its adherents’ belief in the Sharia against the neo-tribalism of interest groups as it had evolved in Egypt.


This choice then enabled the military to offer a third path that eventually became more acceptable to more people. It offered nationalism as an alternate political belief structure to tribalism and religion.


To that end, it began by gathering the grassroots support of all the interest groups, which are central to life in Egypt.


One of those bodies, which had wide public support, was the judiciary. Despite having been appointed by the now-overthrown Mubarak regime, and despite being a defined interest group, the judges had also managed to create a public image of themselves as being an arm of the will of the people.


They therefore virtually volunteered to act as the vanguard in the inevitable conflict with the Brotherhood.


A turning point in the battle for power occurred when President Morsi, after a series of serious clashes with the country’s most senior judges decided in November 2012 to strip the judiciary of most of its powers to cancel government decisions.


This move essentially created a formal battlefront, with the Brotherhood and its allies marshalled on one side, and the judiciary and its allies on the other. The judiciary’s allies initially included only two groups, each of which was bitterly opposed to the other—the remnants of Mubarak’s political allies and the anti-Brotherhood secular rebels. The moment that the battleline was formed, the army was in a position to determine the fate of the country’s politics because its support was critical for both camps. The choice was easy and, from that point on, the position of the Brotherhood began to deteriorate rapidly.


Up to that time, according to a Gallup poll, 57 percent of the public had supported the Freedom and Justice party—the Moslem Brotherhood’s political face. But, just seven months later, in June 2013, when Morsi was overthrown by the army, the Freedom and Justice party’s public support had fallen to a meager 19 percent. In other words, a consensus of the public had determined that the Brotherhood was unworthy of ruling the country.


How had it lost so much support so quickly? Put in very general terms, instead of listening to the increasingly voluble level of complaints about its stewardship, it continued to behave like an opposition, not ruling a body. In particular, instead of seeking out areas for compromise, and appointing people with expertise to deal with pressing issues of state, it continued to deal only with those issues it considered to be important for the promotion of its own agenda.


There were several other significant turning points in the decline of the Brotherhood’s popular support that are worth noting. The Brotherhood allied itself with Hamas, which in turn, had already allied itself with those Bedouin tribes in the Sinai that were falling under the influence of foreign jihadists.  The most obvious signs of those alliances were the attacks on the trans-Sinai pipeline bringing Egyptian gas not only to Israel, but to Jordan and Syria as well. When the military asked for government approval to crack down on the terrorists, Morsi Brotherhood demurred. Morsi’s refusal to confront the religious, neo-jihadists then played negatively into the army’s nationalist narrative that was beginning to be strengthened. The army at this point, could legitimately claim that, by not cracking down on the neo-jihadists, the Morsi government was undermining Egyptian rule over its sovereign territory.


Another important turning point came when 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed by Sinai-based jihadists while the soldiers were eating their breakfast Ramadan meal. The military was then able to build and spread a narrative that the Moslem Brotherhood was implicated in the killings because it had supported Hamas and Hamas had trained the jihadists.


But even when there were no specific events on which the military could focus public attention, it kept up a steady propaganda message that it was “the people’s army”—the one and body the people could trust.


For example, among other things, the rebellion had led to the establishment of a whole bunch of new, competing, television stations. The Brotherhood had yet to take control of these independent means of communications—as the army now has.  And so, while the Brotherhood had access to every village via its network of mosques, the army understood that it could gain access to every home if it could manipulate the television stations properly. And manipulate them properly it did. The stations were already broadcasting pictures of long lines of cars waiting hopelessly in front of gas stations, waiting for fuel deliveries. To this, nightly pictures of bread bakeries were soon added. The implication was that the fuel shortage might soon reach the bakeries.


At this point the army was able to make indirect use of the classic Egyptian political synecdoche for unworthy governments. The military responded to the pictures being aired by providing pictures of its own showing army bakeries working non-stop to ensure that there would be a supply of precious loaves for the populace.  The message: the people’s army would provide for the people.


The Brotherhood had no response to this masterful propaganda exercise. Reports from Egypt have recently emphasized the army’s crackdown on the media, its arrests of opposition figures, its labelling of the Moslem Brotherhood as a ‘terrorist’ organization, and even its loss of support by the young secularists who had accepted its seizure of power from the Brotherhood.


However, when assessing what is going on in Egypt, you should remember that, according to the surveys done by Gallup, the Moslem Brotherhood government had a popular approval rating of about 57 percent immediately after the elections in June 2012. But by June 2013, 69 percent of Egyptians disapproved of the Brotherhood’s performance in government. In a year it had been judged by popular consensus to have been unworthy to hold office. Even though new elections were not held, popular consent was given to the army to take control of the government. The army thus gained office almost by default. A coup was not even needed.


The Interim Deal With Iran: The Winners, The Losers, and Those at a Loss

I can’t recall a single set of diplomatic negotiations that has been accompanied by as much spin as the recent Geneva talks on the future of Iran’s nuclear programme. What is even worse is that the spin continued throughout the post-mortems. And so, rather than being used to clarify issues, the period after the interim agreement was announced only created more confusion.


For example, it was only a week after the deal was proclaimed in Geneva that the Americans were forced to admit that this wasn’t really the final deal because a whole bunch of undefined “technical matters” had to be worked out first.


As a result, it turned out that the interim agreement wouldn’t actually last 6 months, as had been originally stated. In fact the interregnum prior to the interim agreement being implemented could, theoretically go on forever because the six month time period is only supposed to begin once the technical matters have been ironed out—if they ever are ironed out.  In the meantime, Iran is not bound by any of the provisions of the proposed agreement and can do anything it pleases.


It is no wonder, therefore that, even now, most people are still in the dark about what the agreement really means—or doesn’t mean.


About the only thing that all those involved in crafting the deal and those who are heavily critical of the pact can agree on is that it is supposed to “put more time on the clock” so that a final, comprehensive agreement can eventually be negotiated. Whether a final deal can be agreed to is anybody’s guess.


For that reason, and in order to bring a bit of clarity to this extremely opaque issue, I think it is time for people interested in the subject to go back and review just what took place during those interim talks, and why—and what the real results were.


In particular, I want to examine the final results of the talks…as that outcome was perceived by those who took part.


I have long said that in order to understand events that take place in the Middle East, it is essential to view those events, not from the point of view we are accustomed to, but through the different cultural prisms of the various actors. And in this case, every participant has had a very different perception of what was going on.


My favourite metaphor for this kind of situation is a fable I once wrote. In brief, it relates a story about a 96 year old man who enters a marathon race and finally crosses the finish line 3 days later. After crossing the line, the man throws up his hands in triumph and opens a bottle of champagne. A bystander looks at the man in wonder and asks him politely why he is celebrating even though everyone else had long ago gone home.


“Because I beat everybody,” the man replied with a huge smile on his face.


The bystander, now convinced that the man is senile, asks him disparagingly: “If everyone else crossed the finish line days ago, how is it that you can even think of claiming that you have beaten them all?”


“Don’t you understand anything?” the runner asks the bystander impatiently. “Not one of the other runners set a world record. Correct?


“If you beat a world record in a race, and no one else does, you win the race, don’t you?


“Well, I set a world record in this race. I ran the race faster than any other 96 year old who has had 3 heart operations. Therefore, I won.”

As I say, much depends on the eye of the beholder, and his or her perception of the truth.


But, before I go on, I have to add a note of caution. We shouldn’t necessarily believe what all beholders say they see. Some beholders’ eyes really distort reality. For example, President Obama in his UN speech, tried to link the Iran talks to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. As I will show in a moment, if there was any linkage, it was been the talks with Iran and the revolts underway in the Arab states.


I’ll go even further. The way the revolts have been interpreted in the Arab world has had an enormous impact in how the Iran negotiations were perceived in the various Arab and non-Arab Moslem states in the Middle East.


Obama was not the only person who saw what he wanted to see. Bibi too tried to link the Iranian and Israeli-Palestinian talks together—but only because Obama had done so, and because Netanyahu thought he could then gain something from Obama by also trying to make the link-up.


Obama saw linkage only between the two situations that he thought he could influence. The United States was already involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and was also negotiating with Iran. So he chose to link them in his own mind. It was obvious, at least to me, that because he had been totally unable to come up with a workable policy on how the US should deal with the Arab revolts, he chose, instead, to engage in selective blindness and completely ignore the impact of the Arab revolts were having on the negotiations with Iran.


I usually hate treating news events as horse races. However, discussing the winners and the losers who emerged from the Geneva talks was the best format I could find for explaining the perceptions each of the parties brought to and took away from the negotiations.


As could have been predicted, winners and losers emerged at different stages in the talks with Iran. For example, Iran and China perceived, accurately,—even before the negotiations began—that they were going to be big-time winners…maybe the biggest winners of all…and for polar  opposite reasons.


Even before the talks got underway in earnest, the spinmeisters, both among the Iranians and in the West, gauged, accurately, that the wide-eyed world was seeking a new hero—and so, they set out to create one. Their choice was the new Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani. This man, who had always been at the heart of the Iranian theocratic revolution was presented to gullible journalists as a liberal moderate, whose primary concern was easing his country’s economic plight, and who was willing to compromise. In other words, they stretched his ability to do up his shoelaces to also claim that he could do all sorts of other things as well. However, going so far as to picture him, of all people, as a moderate willing to compromise, was stretching things beyond reason.


But the tactic worked. The media soon began giving him the honorific “moderate” before mentioning his name. There is no doubt that Rouhani did want to lift the sanctions that had been imposed on Iran. But that did not mean that he was willing to accept painful compromises in order to do so.


Nonetheless, his smiling face and that of his American-educated foreign minister became the icons for the talks—and the focus of the other participants’ belief that Iran could be convinced to adopt moderate positions.


People seemed to forget or never bothered to discover that Rouhani had, after all, been one of only eight people out of more than 700 applicants who had been permitted to run for the presidency by the country’s absolute leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. In other words, Khamenei had only let Rouhani run for office only after the ayatollah had been assured that Rouhani was willing to obey any orders coming from the hard-line leader at the top.


Fortunately for anyone wanting to discover what was really going on, MEMRI (Middle East Media Reserch Institute) did a superb job of collecting, sorting and analyzing Khamenei’s speeches and the media statements written by his acolytes. The picture that that material produced was totally different from the one the spinmeisters were so carefully fabricating.


To make a very long story short, Khamenei had no fears about entering the talks.  From the outset, he took the invitation to negotiate that was issued by the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) as a victory—or at least an acceptance by these countries of a reality that the 1979 Iranian revolution had created. He interpreted the invitation as being merely the final acceptance by the other leading superpowers that this revolution had created a new world order and that, as a result of that revolution, Iran too had become a superpower. All Iran needed in order to don the mantle of its newly acquired status was to create the large nuclear infrastructure that it deserved.


As proof of his supposition, Khamenei could eventually point to the final picture of the conclave. It showed Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif standing, as an equal, beside all the other negotiators—all of whose countries, with the exception of Germany, have possession of a home-made nuclear bomb.


In Khamenei’s eyes, the deal that had been reached was a sign of Iran’s power, not of a weakness caused by the economic sanctions. He appears to have been convinced that the Geneva talks would enable Iran to release at least some of the money being held up by sanctions, without it having to make any real compromises.


A close look at where Iran stands now enables us to draw some fairly clear conclusions:


  • In a sea of political fluidity, one thing is fixed. No one can take away the knowledge Iran has already acquired on how to refine uranium.
  • Iran has succeeded in setting some very important precedents. The most important is that, although the United Nations Security Council resolutions call for Iran to give up its entire nuclear weapons infrastructure, as a result of the interim agreement, it is now going to be allowed to keep its new, high-speed centrifuges.
  • It is also going to be permitted to continue refining uranium to 5 percent purity.
  • Although, as part of the interim deal, Iran did agree not to install any instrumentation at the ARAK plutonium reactor, that was irrelevant. Work on designing and building that instrumentation hadn’t been completed in any case, and that R&D work could continue off-site.
  • In sum, the restrictions agreed to applied only to Iran’s production facilities. They put no limit on the work going on apace in the laboratories and weapons development centres.  In particular, there are no limitations at all on the work going on to design the missiles and the other weapons systems that the warheads of highly-enriched uranium are supposed to crown.


Strategically, it is critically important to Iran that the support and assistance in international fora of both China and Russia have remained intact.


But maybe best of all from Khamenei’s point of view, is that in order to protect themselves from their own critics, the Western negotiators have had to take upon themselves the potentially very hard PR job of convincing the public that Iran has made a major gesture.


As an aside, I am quite sure that when it was all over, and the interim deal turned out as it did, Khamenei was reinforced in his belief that God was on his side because He had created seemingly impossible, man-made miracles.


By contrast, China put all its efforts into staying out of the limelight. Beijing could only come out an undeniable winner if nobody took any notice of it, and what it had done. Otherwise, some people might have focussed on the fact that even though the UN had imposed sanctions on the sale of Iranian oil,


  • China has remained one of Iran’s major oil export markets.
  • Payments to Iran could still be channeled through Chinese banks.
  • China has prevented attempts by other countries to launch reprisals for Iran’s intervention in Syria
  • And, precisely because Iran has become so anxious to sell oil, China has been able to bargain for world-beating low oil prices, which have then given Beijing yet another advantage in world markets for manufactured goods.


But that wasn’t all. Maybe most of all, the Chinese didn’t want anyone to start talking about the fact that it had been China that had supplied much of the nuclear reprocessing equipment being used at the Natanz facility….and China had also supplied Iran with missiles that might one day carry Iranian designed and constructed nuclear warheads.


So much for the pre-talks winners.


There were also two states were going to come out as losers even before the talks began—Israel and Saudi Arabia.


Israel was going to be a loser precisely because Netanyahu had been so extraordinarily successful in making the Iranian problem an international issue and not merely an Israeli one. Because of Israel’s pressure and its threats to attack Iran, the UN had created an international group to negotiate with Iran—the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the so-called 5 P+1). But, these negotiators were far from neutral parties because they had had extensive trade relations with Iran in the past and wanted them renewed. So, each had enormous stakes in the potential outcome of the talks.


No less importantly, Israel was not included in the list of negotiators. For that reason, aside from the few changes that were made as a result of Netanyahu’s constant sniping, Israel had very little input in the drafting of the final document. The underlying reason for that was that Netanyahu had long before led Israel into a trap. During his famous UN speech, he had set a “red line” that if crossed by Iran, would lead Israel to attack Iran. That red line—refining uranium to greater than 20 percent purity—had turned out to be a blessing for the Iranians. They had immediately realized that so long as they did not cross that line Israel would have no excuse to attack. So, they could and did do anything and everything else they wished on their road to creating nuclear weapons.


This meant that Bibi, as the talks proceeded, could only hold out for his maximalist demands—which then made him irrelevant during the negotiators’ attempts to develop a set of mutually agreed-upon compromises.


I found it interesting that not one of the media commentators played up the very clever trap that US Secretary of State John Kerry was able to set for to Netanyahu. When Netanyahu’s criticisms of the negotiations reached fever pitch, Kerry quietly suggested at a press conference that if Netanyahu didn’t like the ideas being proposed, he, Bibi, should present a set of alternative suggestions.


The thing is, Kerry understood in advance that Bibi couldn’t suggest anything new because to have done so would have meant that he would then have had to enter an even more formidable trap from which he couldn’t escape.


You see, at this point, as folks say, Bibi was caught between a rock and a hard place. Any suggestion he might have made that was even the tiniest bit less demanding than the maximalist line he was then pushing would have naturally been taken by the Iranians as opening a door to an Iranian counter-proposal.


At that point, the other negotiators would, undoubtedly, have taken any Iranian reply as a lever for creating a new dynamic in the talks—and atmosphere of give and take—that would have led to stiff pressure on Israel to compromise further. The demand for such Israeli compromises would eventually have left Bibi open to heavy public criticism from the other negotiators because he had not bowed to their wishes.


From Israel’s point of view, the internationalization of the negotiations had led to the worst of all possible worlds.


Only Saudi Arabia, among all the other protagonists in this drama, was in worse shape when the talks began. Ever since the revolts in the Arab countries had broken out, and especially ever since the US government had begun to react to those events, Saudi Arabia had had to bear witness, helplessly, to the collapse of its carefully designed and constructed diplomatic world.


In order to understand why such a traumatic event had taken place, it is very important to recognize what the Saudi’s diplomatic strategy had originally entailed.


Beginning in 1973, Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning royal family was in need of more money and it was under considerable pressure from radical Arab leaders to show that it was not a colonialist toady. So, it began to nationalize oil production. That process took until 1980. However, once the process began, the Saudis were in a very peculiar position that continues to this day. Because it has such huge, valuable, natural resources, it needs a means to protect itself from both enemies from within and predators from without.


However, it cannot afford to create a big, strong army because the royal family fears, justifiably, that the larger the army becomes, the more people there will be who will be in a position to stage a coup and overthrow the House of Saud.


So, in order to defend itself, it therefore established a large and ruthless intelligence infrastructure and a small, very well-trained and equipped military force made up of regime loyalists. The primary task of both these organizations is not to defend the country from external enemies. It is to guard the royal family from domestic threats such as those posed by democracy-seekers and malcontents seeking modernity.


For that reason, the Saudis have used their formidable diplomatic skills and money to create a situation in which real protection against external enemies has been coming from US forces stationed in and around the country.


The Saudis pay for these American military services indirectly by buying billions of dollars of the most sophisticated and most expensive military equipment the Americans make—even though the Saudi military forces will never be able to use most of it. For example, it has no need at all for the long-distance in-air refueling tankers that it has recently purchased from the  US.


Such purchases have a double effect. They boost the American economy, which helps incumbent presidents and thus makes them grateful to the purchasers. But even more so, they boost the economies of those states whose senators and congressmen hold senior positions on congressional foreign affairs, intelligence and defense committees. Almost invariably, those factories with whom the Saudis place orders have been established where they are precisely because those states’ senators and congressmen, as members  of the defence-related committees the Saudis want to influence, can also pass on American military tenders to companies they favour.


Until very recently, Riyadh has been able to leave most of the work of defending the country to others because it has been able to maintain a perception in the West that it is both a “moderate” state and an “ally” of the United States. Both labels have always been, at best, a vast overstatement of the relationship. But, a measure of the Saudi’s success in shaping world perceptions was the fact that up to just a few months ago, and as with Iranian President Rouhani today, articles in the US media invariably added both the adjectives—“moderate” and “ ally”—before the words “Saudi” and “Arabia” were mentioned for the first time.


In what was an extraordinary example of mass amnesia and a distortion of the facts, the Saudis were invariably said to be in the process of moderating and stabilizing international oil prices. That, of course, was simply untrue. People stopped recalling that the Saudis were among the leaders of the 1973 oil embargo and the 1976 OPEC campaign that vastly raised oil prices. Afterwards, whenever there was a spike in oil prices, so-called “analysts” would invariably relate that the Saudis were certainly going to use their huge spare oil production capacity to moderate those spikes. Again, not true.


What actually happened after production in Kuwait, Iraq and Libya was cut or halted…and after sanctions were imposed on Iran…was that the Saudis did allow oil prices to rise. However, in a carefully-planned and executed media campaign, they would then, very demonstrably let it be known that they had drawn on their spare production capacity to halt the continuous rise in oil prices. That leak to the press would only come, though, only once the price of oil had reached the point where competing energy supplies, such as wind and solar power, were about to become economically worthwhile.


In articles and television commentaries, the Saudis were also, invariably labelled “pro-Western.” And most commentators looked positively on the Americans’ pledge to protect Saudi oil supplies in return for the Saudi’s public posture of support for the Americans’ behaviour in the Middle East. The writers and commentators who did so, though, ignored the fact that most of the Saudi’s foreign aid funds go to the establishment of madrassas in countries from Pakistan to Nigeria, and from Indonesia to the United States, that teach extreme jihadi interpretations of Islam. The Salafi movement and al-Qaeda are both products of those schools. In this regard, it’s worth remembering that most of the terrorists who took part in the 9/11 attack were Saudi citizens.


However, this common perception of the Saudis began to break down when the US and the Saudis began to differ so greatly on major issues arising as a result of the Arab revolts. For that reason, for example, in the past 3 years, more Western media attention was given to the Saudis horrible human rights record—and especially the status of women there.


Once those first cracks in their image appeared, there was a veritable deluge of critical reporting about the Saudis. Added to that was the news that the United States would soon be producing enough oil itself that it wouldn’t need the Saudis.


And to top things off, there was a news report that while the US was spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year protecting the Saudis and their oil fleets and oil installations, it was the Chinese who had become the biggest importers of Arab and especially Saudi oil.


All this was enough for US analysts in Washington to take a second look at what an end to Iranian oil sanctions would mean for world energy markets. They estimated that


  • Over 1.5 million barrels of oil per day would be added to the global world energy market. This would lower oil prices.
  • Risk premiums on oil being shipped by tanker from the Persian Gulf would also be drastically reduced, lowering prices further.
  • But an even more important strategic consideration is the fact that Russia, for the past decade, has been trying to keep a gas-supply stranglehold on Europe and to establish one in Asia. Only Iran is now in a position to break that Russian hold over Europe.


The Saudis have reacted so far to the American handling of the negotiations with Iran with anger and confusion. Petulantly, they have offered to buy Russian military equipment to replace the US military aid to Egypt that was cut after the army there took control of government. The Saudi Intelligence Chief, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan also recently told European diplomats that Saudi Arabia would make a “major shift” away from the “US.”


The thing is that everyone knows that the Saudis have no one else to turn to—except, of course, the Israelis, whom the Saudis despise.


So now, let us look at what the negotiations themselves produced.


The talks themselves revealed that there are actually three groups involved in this process—the winners, the losers, and those who are at a loss.


The biggest winners so far have been the Germans. To date, they have alienated no one. And the moment the supposed deal was announced German industrialists and businessmen were lined up outside the Iranian embassies to get visas.


Another big winner was French President Francois Hollande. He has been doing very badly domestically. But his opposition to the continued construction of the ARAK plutonium processing plant thrust him into the international spotlight…which then diverted public attention away from all the troublesome domestic issues he was having difficulty coping with—as he had hoped.


A third major winner was Britain because Washington had chosen the Brits and the Omanis as their secret, backroom conduits to and liaison with the Iranians.

Russia too could chalk up a victory. President Putin in recent years has been going out of his way to prove that while Russia may no longer be the world power it once was, it still cannot be ignored because it can still marshal some major assets on its own. Putin’s ability to put together a deal with Syria to destroy the chemical weapons stockpiles and thus get Barak Obama off the hook is but one example of the image the Russian leader wants to create. His willingness to sell Iran advanced arms also meant that he couldn’t be ignored. So, just by being at the Geneva talks, Putin was able to show that, at least when it comes to Middle Eastern issues, he cannot be disregarded and he has to be included as a full partner in any regional initiative.


But by far, the most interesting batch of countries involved in the discussions with Iran was that group of states that I have come to call “the lost souls.” They include Turkey, the Gulf Sheikhdoms, and the US.  All three have emerged from the drama with the appearance that they have been bewitched, bothered, and bewildered enough to be uncertain where they are and what they should do.

It is hard to believe, but only two years ago, Turkey was riding a diplomatic crest. The New York Times had declared that Ankara was the “true victor of the Arab Spring,” while Time Magazine had anointed Prime Minister Erdogan as “the most popular and influential leader in the wider region.”


As the Iran talks progressed, though, the Turks looked more and more as though they were going to emerge from the talks as losers.


It’s hard to imagine today, but just four years ago, just before the Arab revolt broke out, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu had declared that Turkey had adopted a policy of “zero problems” with his country’s neighbours.


Turkey’s position in the world at that time had been the product of more than a decade of careful and thoughtful diplomacy that had enabled the Turks to project an image of themselves as the one nation in the Middle East that was modernizing its system of governance and was capable of talking to every country in the region.


That, of course, was before Turkish President Erdogan was smitten with an almost deadly case of hubris and self-infatuation. But once Erdogan’s ego went nuclear, we were witness to the Mavi Marmara affair, Turkey’s open support for the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood and Hamas, its support for some of the Moslem rebels fighting in Syria, its support for Sunnis battling Shiites in Iraq, Erdogan’s crackdown on his domestic opponents, and most recently his open split with Egypt’s military government.


As well, while all these things were going on, Turkey was in open competition with Iran for hegemony in the Middle East.


All told, at the very least, Turkey was hoping to take the mantle of patron of Middle Eastern Sunni Moslems off the shoulders of the Saudis.


But as Iran’s influence has grown because it appears to be becoming more moderate, Turkey’s has fallen dramatically because of Erdogan’s increasing extremism. The Turks have now even come up with a wonderfully peculiar euphemism to describe their current condition. They call it “precious loneliness,” or “worthy solitude.” Put simply they are admitting that nobody wants to have anything to do with them. The phrasemaking is thus an admission that recent Turkish foreign policy has been neither rational nor sustainable—and it had isolated Turkey.


So, the Turks have had to find a new policy direction so that it can reposition themselves in the direction events are going. To that end, Erdogan now appears to be trying to rebuild his foreign policy on the few solid foundations that have survived his egomania. Iran, in particular, is playing an increasingly important role in that effort.


Since the American talks with the mullah regime began, Erdogan has not only been downplaying Turkey’s former competition with Iran, he has been trying to build a common economic front with the Iranians that is of unprecedented proportions. Iran sees itself as a nuclear super-power, but Erdogan seems to want Turkey to be perceived as an super-power of a different sort—one that controls the largest cache of water in the Middle East, one that has a fast-growing industrial economy and is thus deserving of increased foreign investment, and one that is turning Turkey into an international petroleum transport super-power.


Erdogan’s new campaign began to reach a peak when he visited Iraq last month in an attempt to come to a reconciliation with Iraq’s Shiite President Nour el Maliki. For the last few years, Turkey had not only been supporting the anti-Iranian, anti-Maliki, Iraqi Sunnis, it had also been courting the Iraqi Kurds, who have been fighting for greater regional autonomy. Among other things, The Turks had already signed deals to build new oil pipelines from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey. One pipeline will open early next year and another is in the advanced planning stage.


Those pipelines are part of a much larger project that has been underway for more than a decade. As part of that project, Turkey has already been criss-crossed by a series of new pipelines. One goes from Baku, through Tbilisi to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Another coming from Baku ends up in Erzurum. A third brings petroleum from Kazakhstan to Ceyhan. A fourth runs from the Black Sea. And a fifth runs from a giant new gas field in, you guessed it, Iran.


These trans-Turkish gas pipelines are now also in the process of being connected up to a new line that runs through Greece to Italy and another one that will reach Austria and open next year.


Because Ankara already has extensive trade relations with Tehran, this now puts Turkey, which, as I mentioned earlier, had been seeking hegemony over the Sunni Arabs, into a symbiotic relationship with Shiite Iran. It is significant that just after the P5+1 interim deal with Iran was announced, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu paid a highly publicized visit to Teheran.


Should this new foreign policy succeed, it would put Turkey into direct competition with Russia—which would please European gas customers no end. And should the sanctions on Iranian gas and oil sales be ended, both Iran and Turkey are set to benefit enormously.


However, nothing is easy in this region. In order for the project to reach its full fruition, Turkey is going to have to do some very fancy diplomatic back-pedaling.  That is because for Turkey to create the cartel it needs to compete fully with the Russians in supplying petroleum products to Europe, it will need not only the full cooperation of the Kurds with whom the Turks have been at odds for years, but also better relations with the Greek part of Cyprus once its gas field begins producing…and, of course with Israel once the Leviathan field is ready to start exporting gas in 2017.  At the moment, the Turks appear to be at a loss how they are going to pull that deal off


The Gulf Emirates appear to be similarly confused about the type of foreign policy to adopt. All of the emirates are ruled by Sunni chieftains, but all also have large, pro-Iranian Shiite minorities…and even majorities. In almost all these countries, the Shiites control the merchant economy. For a long time, the only way that the Iranians could break the sanctions on financial payments was by using the services of Arab Gulf states’ Shiite money changers.


All these wealthy principalities fear Iran, and some even have territorial disputes with the Iranians dating back centuries. For example, Iran, basing itself on the history of the 17th century, considers Bahrain to be its 14th province.


To protect themselves from external attacks, the emirs, in the past, had always relied on the American military umbrella that was negotiated by the Saudis. But now, even though the US 5th fleet has remained ensconced in Bahrain, the various emirates are beginning to hedge their bets.  At the beginning of December, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif made a well-publicized visit to some of the Gulf states, and made a point, while there, of describing the Saudis as “our brethren.”


However, an underlying fear of Iranian political and economic hegemony remains. That has made the residents of the region both cautious and filled with bravado. This example of bi-polarism has meant that, the Sunni residents living on the Western coast of the Gulf do nothing directly to alienate the Iranians for fear of reprisals….and would even relish a reopening of trade with Iran. But, in the past few years, through media advertisements and huge public fundraisers, they have raised and donated tens of millions of dollars to fund the various Sunni militias doing battle with Syria’s Iran-allied Alawite government.


This kind of sometimes confused, sometimes ambivalent attitude to foreign affairs in general and the Iranian issue in particular obviously besets the American government and American public as well. At no time in recent history has American foreign policy been more questioned domestically and more tested internationally.


In the old days, things were so much simpler than they are today. During the Cold War, Americans could focus almost all their foreign affairs efforts on those policies and actions that they believed would control or limit communist influence in the world. It made little difference that its military and policy-planning was heavy, ponderous, cumbersome and slow in reacting to events because the Soviets were no better.


And later, during the Dubya Bush years in the White House, when foreigners could easily and heavily criticize the president for being a gun-slinging cowboy who was trying to impose democracy on unwilling autocrats, at least his political enemies knew what he stood for.


But the same has not been true for the Obama years. America has been reeling from its inability to cope with lithe, quick-acting bodies such as terrorists or local hegemons such as the Taliban. This has then produced a vacuum in American policy making. Today, I don’t think anyone, not even Obama himself has been able to delineate what his approach to world affairs is—other than to avoid using masses of military forces.


The latest poll from the excellent Pew Center found that 53 percent of Americans now believe that America should mind its own business. This is the first time there has been a majority in favor of isolationism since Pearl Harbor. But that’s not all. Fully two thirds also still believe that the US should take an even greater role in the world because it opens new markets for American goods and services, and encourages economic growth. Any president wanting to respond to the public will would have difficulty in reconciling those two popular positions. In other words, in Middle America too, confusion reigns supreme.


As a result, abroad, bully-nations are now willing to test which of these two attitudes—isolationism or activism—has the most influence on the Obama administration. In Ukraine, Russia has tried to scupper the recently-negotiated association pact between Ukraine and the EU, which would strengthen that nation’s ties with the West. And in the South China Sea, China has now declared an aerial defensive zone in one of the most crowded shipping and aerial transit zones in the world. So far, at least, the US government has sent vice president Joe Biden to Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to the Gulf States to soothe some obviously jittery nerves. But Washington has not done much else. The US certainly has done little or nothing to force either Russia or China to reverse their decisions.


When it comes to Iran, however, it is more difficult for the US government to ignore or waffle about what is going on. That is because, at least on this subject, the American public is unequivocal. According to the Pew poll, 68 percent of Americans say that a nuclear Iran is a threat to the well-being of the United States; and 60 percent said, at least before the interim agreement was announced, that Iran’s leaders are not serious about addressing international concerns.


It is obvious from all the polls done recently that Americans are war weary and would prefer, if at all possible, not to expend any more treasure on major foreign adventures. Thus, Obama’s attempt to use diplomacy, rather than military threats directed at Iran, does have a domestic constituency. The big question is whether he can make diplomatic gains without also the waving a credible military threat in the Iranian leaders’ faces.


Obama is certainly committed to avoiding war. That explains his advocacy of diplomacy. But peaceful diplomacy sometimes cannot achieve results without a club being wielded at the table. The very idea of the two being two sides of one coin may seem absurd. However, the concept is far from being crazy. Many governments, the United States in particular, often need to hold deeply inconsistent beliefs in order to function properly. For example, the US believes it should, as a strategic aim, fight for liberty in all places in the world—except, of course, in places such as Saudi Arabia, where American national strategic interests are at stake.


Iran is another excellent example of a country that engages in this kind of calculated, duplicitous thinking. And it may be that it is Netanyahu’s demands that the hypocrisy of both Iran and the United States be publicized that may have annoyed Obama so much.


In any case, Netanyahu keeps demanding to know what the US will do if the talks fail. But the United States, at least at the moment doesn’t even want to consider the possibility that the talks may not succeed.


The ability to live with deeply inconsistent beliefs—for example, that one should always prepare for possible future events but that one should act in the present without regard to future unknowables—enable countries, among other things, to defend themselves from making verbal mistakes such as implying that failure is a reasonable possibility.


However, that advantage is too often offset by the side-effect that it also enables countries to conveniently ignore the need to be forward thinking. Countries that choose not to think ahead do not feel an urgent need to plan for “day after” scenarios—until the need can no longer be ignored.


If we look closely, what we are seeing in the Iran talks is a replay of what happened after the Assad regime was proven to have used chemical weapons on civilians, where the lack of a “day after” plan proved to be embarrassing in the extreme for Obama.. If you recall, despite his prior promises to intervene immediately if the Syrian government used poison gas on civilians, and despite the fact that videos of Syrian gas victims were shown around the world, Obama was shown to have been left without a plan of what to do—and needed to be saved from his inability to act by Russian President Putin.


Now, we are witnessing a similar situation where Obama is holding out for a diplomatic solution for Iran, but Bibi keeps forcing Obama into considering the content and texture of extraordinarily-distasteful “what if?” scenarios.


No wonder the two don’t get along.


But Bibi is not the only person trying to get Obama to plan ahead.


When the Iran talks ended, the Americans began an American initiative that is no less important strategically than the attempt to negotiate a final deal with Iran. This one, conducted by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, on Obama’s behalf, would have led the Arab Gulf states to take greater responsibility for their own defense—and specifically their defense from the threat presented by Iran.


That proposal, however, was declared stillborn by the emirs because they are trying, just as much as Israel to force Obama to consider “next day” scenarios.


So, maybe the lesson for America and Iran that has emerged so far from this drama is that if you want the advantages that come from being a world or a regional hegemon, you have to be prepared to pay a stiff price to acquire and maintain that status.

Things About Israel Worth Taking Into Account

Last month I spoke about the growing gap in perceptions that has developed between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. Among other things, I attributed that development to the fact that because they have undergone different experiences, their political systems and social environments have had to change, and to change in different ways. Therefore their ways of thinking and acting have also evolved differently.


The differences that are easiest to observe are the different public and private ceremonies that the two groups participate in.


From the Zionist enterprise’s inception, the underlying assumption of its leaders has been that if the Jews who are resident in their own homeland appear to behave like the citizens of other nations who are living in their homelands, the new Jewish enterprise will be given the same legitimacy that all the other countries that behave similarly have been awarded.


Zionism came into existence at the very moment when the old system of monarchies, theocracies and church/state power sharers was being undermined by the movement towards democracy. It was only natural, therefore, that the leaders of the nascent movement for Jewish independence should have wanted to base their case for national equality on their desire to create a democratic republic. In so doing, they have also wanted to emulate many of the tactics and techniques that other democracies had employed successfully.


The new Western, democratic governments had found that in order to create social glue, they had to find replacements for some of the ceremonies that had served the monarchies and theocracies so well. So, for example, instead of reciting a catechism, Americans invented the Pledge of Allegiance. Saints days were replaced by Presidents’ Days. And monarchs’ birthdays were replaced by a national holiday.


In other words, democracies and non-religious autocracies found that it was useful to adopt many facets of religious behavior because, stripped of their god-related aspects, these outward expressions of belief and belonging served important social and national purposes.


It was only natural that Israelis would have also sought out similar anchors for themselves as well. In the pre-State period, some ceremonials, such as May Day, were imported, while others such as the kibbutzim’s invention of a modern Shavuoth harvest holiday were local creations.


But that effort to become “like all other nations” began to break down once the state was founded. Undoubtedly the best example is the fact that, despite some major efforts by the secular political parties to write a constitution, these parties were unable to overcome the opposition to such a project by the country’s orthodox religious groups.


It isn’t that Israelis don’t understand the value of having a constitution. Most Israeli political thinkers recognize the power that an agreed-upon constitution can have on a nation. However, Israel’s secular leaders were unwilling to engage in the equivalent of a non-violent civil war with those who believe that no system of man-made law should supersede Halacha. So, for much of the past 65 years Israelis have had to rely on other ways to provide political and social continuity and to bind the citizenry together.


One tack has been the adoption of certain unique ceremonials.


Americans, as part of their socialization processes hold their hand over their heart when singing the national anthem. Israelis don’t. But Israeli males accomplish much the same thing of openly pledging allegiance to their country by changing into olive drab clothes in front of their families and then trotting off to do reserve military duty.


One of the major points I tried to make last month was that some public Israeli ceremonies, such as the appearance of middle-aged men travelling on public busses, dressed in ugly, shapeless uniforms may be fairly well-known to foreigners interested in the Middle East. However, most of the ways that Israelis have adapted to their environment or that they use to express deeply-felt emotions are totally unknown or misunderstood by those who do not take part in these activities.


For example, the heads of foreign companies that buy Israeli start-ups often feel insulted when their Israeli workers interrupt them and question them while they are speaking. In American culture such behavior is considered to be disrespectful, while in Israeli culture it is believed to be a sign of commitment and caring on the part of the workers.


The subject of cultural differences is an enormous one. But tonight I would like to narrow it down and focus primarily on how and why those same kinds of misunderstandings arise when Israelis engage in political activism that isn’t sponsored by political parties.


As democracy began to spread in the 19th century, the new, secularist political parties found that it was easier to rally the masses to their side if they adopted a comprehensive, coherent outlook on life and politics that could be assembled into a written, guiding ideology that could have the same impact as a holy book. In effect, political parties in many democratic secular countries ended up behaving as though they were secular religions.


The Zionist movement ended up creating several such secular religions—Labour Zionism and Revisionism being the two most notable ones.


The Zionists’ adherence to secular religions remained strong up until the 1970s. However, a series of traumas including the Yom Kippur and the First Lebanese wars, and hyperinflation eventually led many Israelis to abandon the ideologies that they had previously held in high esteem.


When that happened, and because the country’s politicians were left with no new ideas on how to cope with the problems the country was facing, political debates often degenerated into pointless arguments that were characterized only by harsh and personalized rhetoric. One end product of that use of verbal artillery was the street demonstrations by neo-nationalists immediately prior to the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin.


By the end of the millennium, ordinary Israelis were left with a conundrum. Their personal lives had changed because the economy had changed. And with the fall of the Soviet Union and the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, their country’s place in the world had also been altered beyond recognition.


Nonetheless, one thing had not changed. The public was still being taught by its political leaders not to like each other and even to fear each other.


That then created an existential problem for the average Israeli because it is a truism that countries cannot survive unless their citizens have someone or something in which or in whom they routinely place their trust and use as an anchor in troubled times.


In the old days, in Israel, ideologically-based political parties were the primary social anchors. Every city and town had a party clubhouse, where the ordinary citizen could go to find sociable like-minds, to pour out their grievances, and to ask for help. Up to the early 1980s, many Israelis still referred to the political party they belonged to as their “home.”


But then, as I have already noted, the parties’ ideologies began to collapse.


The first major party to experience a major upheaval was the National Religious Party, which, after the Yom Kippur War, went from being a moderate, judicious, religiously-based party concerned with a wide variety of social issues to a narrowly-focused and increasingly insular, increasingly dogmatic body fixated almost exclusively on its members’ religious practice and a mystic belief in the value of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories. In other words, it began ignoring so many aspects of its old ideology that all it was left with was a set of narrow dogmas.


Soon after, Labour too lost its way completely and could no longer cobble together even the appearance of having a coherent platform of dogmas or suggestions to offer it members and potential voters—other than a stated, single-minded determination to join any coalition government that would have them.


The Likud’s ideological decline from a devout belief in the revisionist, liberal philosophy of Zeev Jabotinsky to today’s single-minded neo-nationalism took longer, but was no less intellectually disemboweling. The final deathbed convulsions came when, during the last Likud primaries, revisionist stalwarts such as Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Michael Eitan were denied realistic seats on the party list.


To make things worse, not only were Israel’s political parties in decline and disarray, so too were some of the country’s most important ideologically-based national institutions.


By the 1990s, the national trade union, the Histadrut, which had been the owner of the country’s biggest industrial and financial conglomerate, had gone bankrupt. Along the way, thousands of people had lost their jobs when Histadrut-owned companies were sold off and reorganized. And tens of thousands would have lost their pensions had the government not moved in to prop up the Histadrut-run pension funds.


As a result of all these events, and more, by the turn of the millennium, Israelis found themselves bereft, as some of the great secular social institutions, which had played critical roles in the foundation of the state, had collapsed. Among the detritus was the faith people had placed in the country’s political structure; and there was nothing immediately available to replace it.


That created a deep national political vacuum, and enormous internal, personal tensions. On the one hand Israelis came to believe that they had no choice but to become more individualistic and rely more on themselves, rather than the government, in order to survive.


However, the geopolitical realities they were being forced to cope with, together with the historical Jewish baggage they were carrying with them limited what might have otherwise been a natural tendency to adopt an American-like belief in the rugged individual who rises or falls based on his own entrepreneurial efforts and hard work.


In particular, the sense of national belonging was simply too strong a social bond. A Gallup poll of 64 countries, taken at about the same time as all this ferment was bubbling up, found that Israelis were the most nationalistic people in the world. For a majority of Israelis, the act of retaining their Israeli citizenship and not emigrating, despite all the vicissitudes they were facing, had become a statement of faith and a social anchor. According to this poll, sixty percent of the county’s citizens were taking being Israeli as their primary source of identity. In Egypt, by comparison, which has probably got the longest continuous record of a national identity within the same borders of any country in the world, only a tiny 2 percent said that their primary identity is “Egyptian.”


Coupled with that sense of identification was an increasing search for historical precedents that Israelis could routinely use as guides and markers for the immediate, existential issues they were facing. One deep-seated belief that came to the fore during this period was the conviction that the Jewish people had only survived as a nation because they had adhered to a policy of group responsibility. For that reason, for example, the act of “ransoming the prisoner,” which had evolved into what was virtually the eleventh commandment during the medieval period, was canonized anew. To the surprise of almost all other countries, the modern Israeli interpretation of the term “group responsibility” has now resulted in the routine release of thousands of Arab prisoners for every Israeli soldier and civilian taken prisoner by the Arabs.


As the ennui of the post-Yom Kippur period deepened, the disappointment in the existing political system took many forms. An increasing number of Zionist, Orthodox Jews sought shelter in the belief that there was a religious imperative that would eventually enable the whole nation not only to escape from the situation the country’s citizens were in, but also to find redemption. That imperative demanded that Jews undertake the task of routinely and ceremoniously resettling the Biblical Land of Israel. The religious adherents to this belief were not alone. They found extensive moral, political and financial support from many secular Revisionists and Labour Party supporters. Although these three groups, when taken together, could still count on the support of only a minority of Israelis, their devotion to this cause and their steadfastness enabled them to routinely extract both promises and money from successive governments.


However, their passion also had a major drawback. Their continuing feeling of vulnerability because they remained a minority led them over time to isolate themselves as a form of self defence.


Those secular Israelis for whom messianic land settlement was an uninviting dogma took a different path—even if they didn’t realize that they were doing so. In retrospect we can see that they seem to have come to the realization that in order to survive as a people, Israeli Jews would have to find a format for routinely making joint, existential decisions without the use of—or at least without the need to rely on—governments, political institutions, or a guiding ideology.


That meant finding an alternative someone or something in whom to put their trust. Some then sought out the services of a “strong leader.” This led to the elections of former generals Yitzchak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon as prime minister.


However, at the same time, an even greater number took part in a totally non-organized, “wisdom of crowds” process that has led to a revolution in Israeli national political and social behavior, which most foreigners, Jewish and otherwise, have failed to comprehend.


This turnaround in Israeli politics has gone almost totally unnoticed. But it has been profound. Over time, the majority of Israelis appear to have learned that even though, in the past, they were encouraged by their political leaders to despise each other for not accepting the political ideology their favourite politician preached, they would now have to learn how to routinely trust each other.


That was not an easy process. In fact, Israelis first had to overcome an image they had of themselves, which had been fostered both by the politicians and the media.


Here is how that scenario played itself out.


Fear of and intolerance of “others” had accompanied and been endemic to the Zionist experiment from its very beginnings. At the turn of the 20th century, European immigrants were favoured over the Yemenites, who had arrived previously but who were looked down on. In the 1930s, the newly-arrived “Yekkes,” or German Jews were looked down on by the Poles and Russians, who had consolidated their position, in part, at the expense of the Yemenites. In the 1950s, the arrival of “Jewish Arabs” from Iraq and Morocco elicited a new wave of fear and loathing that Israel might become “Arabized.” Similarly, when the wave of Russian immigration began in the 1990s, the media began playing up stories about the “Russification” of Israeli society and the spread of vodka drunkenness.


A Gallup study of 140 countries has found that the result of these verbal trashings has been that Israel is now the third least tolerant country among 35 advanced nations. Only 36 percent of Israelis were found to be tolerant of minorities—which, because of the myriad social, economic, ethnic and religious divisions in the state means, in effect, everyone else in the country. By comparison, 84 percent of Canadians and 76 percent of Americans are tolerant of minorities.


That same Gallup poll, though, found that, contrary to the image of the country’s citizenry, as portrayed in the local media, Israelis exhibit the second least amount of anti-social behavior among the residents of industrialized countries—things like muggings, thefts and other disruptive acts like those. And they are also in fifteenth place in pro-social behavior—acts such as helping strangers, reading to a child or volunteering—well ahead of countries such as Sweden, Belgium, France and Japan.


In other words, there were already a whole series of deeply-embedded, socially-positive behaviour patterns that, if they could somehow be collated and publicized, they could then act as an agreed-upon, unwritten, anchoring codex of social and political behavior—a modern, secular Israeli Mishna if you will.


Without any formal organization taking place, the crowd, apparently totally oblivious to what it was doing, set about doing precisely that. Simply by placing their faith in their own already-existing behaviour patterns, hundreds of thousands of individuals were able to find the social anchor they were seeking—a belief that, in extreme situations, other Israelis would behave as they would.


And so, a carefully cultivated political and social trend that had lasted for almost a century was undermined. In growing numbers, Israelis came to trust each other more and more. According to the International Social Survey, the largest study of its kind, Israel is now the 8th most trusting place on earth—well ahead of the UK, Germany and the US. Amazingly, the level of mutual trust within the country has more than doubled in the past 30 years, and it is now increasing at the rate of 1.4 percentage points per year—far faster than almost anywhere else. The highly-respected Legatum Institute, and the OECD in their latest annual surveys of international prosperity found that 90.3 percent of Israelis believe that they can rely on others in time of need.


In other words, as things now stand, four times as many Israelis trust each other—even as strangers—to do the right thing than trust their elected officials.


Put slightly differently, Israelis may still not be able to tolerate each other, but they have come to believe that, in a crunch, they can routinely count on all those other Israelis in their position to do the right thing by everybody.


The politicians, even if they can’t understand what is going on, appear to have sensed that they are under threat from these underground upwellings. After all, what else can explain the recent all-out assault by the neo-nationalists on the country’s judicial system? Even stranger, what can explain the alliance forged between the ultra-Orthodox, convicted criminal Arieh Deri and the ultra-Orthodox-hating, Avigdor Liberman in their attempt to foist a Givatayim-resident, party hack of no real distinction, Moshe Leon, on the citizens of Jerusalem as their mayor?


The only thing that unites them all is a sense that the old political system of back-room negotiations, where minority groups believed that they had to leverage their way into deals that gave them benefits that were totally disproportionate to their numbers, is in disrepair and may be under mortal threat. The old-time politicians feel naked without their ability to call upon their constituents’ loyalty to a concept of group uniqueness.


If one examines all the political movements that are currently under way and views them as a whole, rather than as discrete, isolated processes, it is possible to then understand not just why the political leaders of minority parties in Israel are having hairy fits, but also why Diaspora Jewry is clueless about what is happening in Israel, and why the American government has made so many mistakes in its dealings with successive Israeli governments.


Amazingly, without any formal deliberation Israelis are showing all the signs of reverting to using a successful, proven, atavistic, uniquely-Jewish system of governance that obviates the need to rely on governments to make existential decisions.


“Kehillah” (community) governance was a format that Jews had adopted and refined in the Diaspora. It was based on the principle of rule by mass consensus; and the use of the wisdom of crowds as a replacement for a hierarchical leadership, hereditary rule and a fixed political ideology.


Born out of the destruction of the Jewish state by the Romans, and nurtured for two millennia, Kehillah governance eventually became the single most successful form of self-governance in human history. In fact, it is still the form of self-rule most used by Jewish Diaspora communities.


Kehillah governance has been under attack by different groups for centuries, but it has always been revived because it appears to be the only system that works for Jews. One of the most notable attacks  has been by Hassidim who favour rule by hereditary rabbinical dynasties.


Kehillah governance was abandoned by the early Zionists because it was considered to be incapable of coping with the competition engendered by ideologically-based political parties, and the complexities of the modern, secular, nation-state. However, it is now undergoing yet another revival.


As was the case with the settlement movement, the foundations for a revival of national Kehillah government in modern Israel were first laid in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. At the very moment when the political system was beginning its collapse, and at the moment when the guiding national dogma of the absolute need for group political solidarity had exploded and been replaced by the new sense of individual, personal freedom, a mass of individuals came together, and by consensus, demanded that the government take responsibility for its actions or its failure to act prior to the war. A precedent was set. For the first time in Israeli history, the masses seized their right to act between elections. Henceforth, individual citizens’ responsibility for national well-being no longer ended as soon as the individual had left the polling booth. When used for the first time in a modern nation-state, consensus-driven mass action forced the resignation of a prime minister, Golda Meir.


Since that time, mass consensus-building directed at forcing a change in a government’s policy, has taken place at least once every decade. In the 1980s, the subject was hyperinflation and the economic collapse. In the 1990s, the debates focused on the Oslo Accords and the perceived need to withdraw from Southern Lebanon after an 18 year occupation there. Following the turn of the millennium, the public demanded that a security fence be built in the West Bank and ended up supporting Ariel Sharon’s proposal for a withdrawal from Gaza. And, in the last two years, precisely because the Netanyahu governments have been is so deeply distrusted, two items have been under national debate at the same time—whether to bomb Iran and how to save the country’s middle class from financial collapse.

That doesn’t mean that Kehillah governance, in its modern form, is problem-free. First and foremost, consensus-building takes time and an extraordinary amount of effort.


For that reason, one technique for inducing change more quickly than is possible when consensus decision-making is used has been to take the decision-making process to the non-political Supreme Court. One of the salient features of the Israeli system of governance—an aspect of social life that exits  nowhere else—is that the Supreme Court also sits as the High Court of Justice; and so it acts as the court of first and last instance in cases involving the government’s denial of rights to the country’s citizens.


Therefore, unlike the system in other democratic countries, where the high court focuses primarily on assuring the rights of minorities, in Israel, the Supreme Court, very often is forced to act to assure the rights of the majority when they are under threat from the predations of minorities represented in the cabinet. The recent final decision of the Supreme Court (after more than a decade of debate), that the blanket exemptions from compulsory military service that had been handed out to the ultra-Orthodox for 65 years are unconstitutional, is but one case in point.


As an alternate body to which the citizenry can apply for redress, the Court invariably has become the target for vicious criticism by those politicians who wish to see a monopoly on decision-making remain in the hands of the political parties.


The de facto cooptation of the Supreme Court as a third and equal branch of government has meant that, effectively, if not formally, Israel’s system of governance routinely works as follows: The Knesset and the political parties have been left to deal with day-to-day matters and to write laws for which a consensus already exists or can be formed quickly.


However, if the elected politicians fail to adopt policies acceptable to the majority, redress is then sought through appeals to the Supreme Court. Because it publishes its decisions and because those decisions are accompanied by all the arguments for and against the decision, the Court, in effect, also acts as the collator and publicist of what is becoming the country’s codex of established, acceptable and accepted behavior patterns.


It has also played a major role in helping to clarify the grey area separating what is illegal from what is merely inappropriate.


If, however, the Court declares that a resolution of the issue at hand is beyond its mandate or capabilities, a mass public effort to build a consensus behind a publicly-acceptable solution is then undertaken.


The professional political class, which is dependent on the old, pre-Yom Kippur War status quo being maintained, has fought bitterly to prevent the changes it sees taking place around it from becoming permanent. For example, many members of this caste, especially those who are members of minority groups that have benefitted from the old order, are now railing against the Supreme Court, and have tried to undermine its popular status and legitimacy. Among other things, they have tried to gain allies by introducing legislation that they know is popular, but which they also know will be declared unconstitutional by the court. One recent example was the law allowing illegal African entrants into the country to be imprisoned without the use of due process.


Another tack has been to try to change the make-up of the court.


But the central problem remains. Israeli governments simply do not function in a predictable manner because it is never clear what the negotiations between the various minority parties will produce. The best recent example was the absurd set of dealings between Bibi and Yair Lapid that preceded the appointment of Karnit Flug as Governor of the Bank of Israel.


This past year, however, may have been a turning point in the evolution of Israeli governance. Unless Diaspora Jews and foreign diplomats and academics recognize the changes that are underway they are liable once again to misinterpret events taking place here.


The turning point was the decision by the government to call early elections a year ago.


Those elections were called because it had become obvious to all those serving in the government that the government was going to have to raise taxes significantly in order to cover the costs of its profligate spending. At this point, the Shas party made an enormous strategic error—not its first, but quite possibly, one of its most serious.


Since the Haredim decided in the early 1980s to enter coalition governments, the two main Haredi parties had had an extraordinarily successful run. By the turn of the millennium, the Ashkenazi, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party appeared to have succeeded in forming a solid working relationship between it rival Hassdic and “Litvak” halves, and was in a position to grow steadily as its huge body of potential voters came to voting age. By the time early elections were called this time, the Mizrahi Shas party had also gone from 4 Knesset members at the time of its founding, to two digit representation in the country’s parliament.


But, as Tzippi Livni’s period as the leader of Kadima showed, electoral success and success in promoting Knesset legislation are two different things.


Both of the main Haredi parties became legislative powerhouses precisely because they never had any interest in leading a government. What they wanted was acceptance of and financing for their claims to exceptionalism. And as I have just noted, what they were able to do enormously successfully was to leverage their status as the balance of power in the otherwise evenly-divided Knesset so that they were able to determine whether the Likud-led bloc or the Labour-led bloc would lead the coalition. In return for having bestowed the right to rule, they were able to extract, from the titular coalition leader, concessions and funding that were totally disproportionate to their number of their constituents.


The Haredi parties would support cabinet votes that the other minorities favoured but were of little or no interest to the Haredim themselves. In return, the Haredi parties would demand that the other minorities support proposals that were of very great concern to the Haredim. In this way, the relatively tiny Haredi presence in the Knesset was able enact laws or prevent the enaction of laws that had an enormous impact on the population as a whole. The resulting federalist decision-making system bore a remarkable resemblance to pyramid ownership structures in the economic marketplace. A small political holding company was able to control the behaviour of larger political bodies, and in this way it could exert power and influence that exceeded its electoral strength by several measures.


It was clear to everyone what this system of rule was doing to successive Israeli governments’ capacity to rule fairly and, even more importantly, to produce long-term policies. Nonetheless, every attempt at reforming the system from within came to naught. In the first decade of the new millennium, the Israel Democracy Institute, made an enormous effort to find a new system governance that would be acceptable to all the main political players in the Knesset. However, it was clear from the IDI’s final report that they had gotten nowhere. The system of government appeared to have become impervious to change.


One major fault in the IDI report was that it focused almost entirely on trying to find ways that strengthen the government and make it less vulnerable to the demands of the minority parties. For that reason, for example, it wrestled with the question of whether to raise the minimum percentage of votes a party has to receive in order for it to take a seat in the Knesset. The threshold has already been raised twice. But that has not affected the Haredi parties. In fact, all it has done is to exclude anti-Haredi gadflies such as Uri Avneri and Shulamit Aloni, who had at times acted as the only effective opposition in the Knesset.


The IDI, which views itself as part of the country’s political elite, made the same mistake that all the elitists who have tried to change the political system have also made. It is the very same error the Labour party made many years ago. For decades, even after it had lost the public’s support Labour continued to believe that it could only function properly—and the country could only function properly—if it was a member of the reigning coalition. The idea that it might become the leader of the opposition was totally abhorrent to it.


Similarly, the IDI focused its study almost entirely on the government and what might make the government work better. It totally ignored the opposition and the role it can play as a competitor to the government (and thus force the government to function better), as a consensus-builder behind alternate legislation, and as a place where alternative prime ministers can be trained.


In effect, the IDI ignored the growth of a trust-based citizenry, where the opposition is considered to be worthy of the honorific “loyal opposition.”


Surprisingly, the IDI seemed to have taken no notice of what the Likud had already done. That party, after Aril Sharon had formed the Kadima party, was in a position similar to that of Labour. In the 2006 elections it fell to only 12 Knesset seats. However, unlike Labour, it used the opportunity to act as an opposition, to rebuild and, eventually, to recover.


One reason why the Haredi parties had succeeded so well under the old system of rule was that it enabled them to avoid taking responsibility for or being penalized for any injury their actions or inactions had caused to the majority. UTJ did so by refusing to accept formal responsibility for any cabinet position. Instead, at its request, it was usually given a ministry to control via a deputy ministership in any coalition it had joined.


That deputy ministership was useful, but the party’s real power came from invariably receiving the chairmanship of the Knesset’s finance committee. That position is a godsend to the party that controls it. Unlike ministries, the committee is not subject to intense media coverage. More importantly, no authorization to spend money or to save money or to tax can escape the need for its chairman’s approval. The moment he or she wants to spend even one agora, every minister, no matter how supposedly powerful, becomes totally dependent on the whims, likes and dislikes of the finance committee chairman. What makes the chairman’s position all the more imperial is that the UTJ chairmen have always exercised their fiscal power quietly, opaquely, routinely, ceremoniously, soporifically, and with an exquisite political sense of how far the other parties can be pushed.


Shas was less circumspect in its political dealings than the UTJ. At one time in the late 1990s, fully a third of those who had served as Knesset members under its auspices, had been found guilty of or were being investigated by the police for fraud and corruption. Nonetheless, at one point, in 1999, it managed to gain 17 Knesset seats by playing the exceptionalist, ethnic card.


Whenever there was a public outcry against something Shas had done or failed to do, whether it was ending daylight saving time a month or more early so that those praying on Yom Kippur could feel as though they were fasting one hour less, or failing to fund the fire department adequately—which led to the destruction of the largest forest in the country—Shas just sat out the controversy, feeling secure that the federation of minority parties that was running the government would protect it.


But then came the widespread demonstrations by the middle class in 2011, in protest against the cost of living. Remember: the Kehillah system of consensus government had become routinized by that time.


The demonstrations brought as many as 500,000 people into the streets. Virtually none of the protesters wore kippot, even though the protests were about issues that should have been of immediate concern to religious as well as secular citizens. That was because the religious Zionists, fixated by their self-image as exceptionalists, and lacking trust in the majority, perceived that this would lead to cuts in spending for settlement in the West Bank and for yeshivas.


All those in power seemed relieved when autumn arrived, the students returned to the universities and colleges, and the protest appeared to die. What none of them, not even the participants, seemed to have realized was that because the protest had already taken on all the characteristics of a classic Israeli majoritarian, Kehilla-style, consensus-driven revolt, the underlying dynamic could not be stopped.


Members of the Netanyahu-led government then proceeded to totally misread what was happening.


The country had just survived being swallowed up by the world economic recession. The world economy, upon which Israel’s high-tech, export economy had become dependent, was still shaky. Nonetheless, the government decided to accede to the most expensive demand that the protesters had made—free pre-school education— because the Haredim would benefit from it more than anyone else.

The result was a huge budgetary gap that could not be filled without both huge increases in taxes and huge cuts in other spending. What had made the situation even worse was that the government had also just spent billions of shekels preparing to attack Iran.


As was their wont, the Haredim refused to approve cuts in spending for their institutions. Even more importantly, Shas, in particular, believed that it could once again ride out the fiscal crisis by waiting long enough. As a result, in a fit of hubris, instead of facing the crisis head on, Shas refused to approve a new budget, and new elections were called.


How lasting a change those elections have had—especially whether the so-called “centrist parties” such as Yesh Atid, Hatenuah and Kadima will survive—is still unknown.


In the past, when the country was divided into pro-Labour and anti-Labour or pro-Likud and anti-Likud camps, major protest parties, such as DASH, Shinui or the Center party did emerge on a regular basis. But they didn’t last very long because they were usually led by former generals who found it difficult to work in an environment in which people were reluctant to obey orders, or they had egos that were so mammoth that they destroyed their party from within.


The new parties are bringing something different to the political landscape. Instead of pretending to be an alternative to the leading party Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, Tzippi Livni’s Hatenuah party, and the new, modernized faction within the Labour party have in fact divvied up the elements that make up a successful opposition party between them, but support each other on most issues under discussion. Lapid ran not as a protest candidate, but, in what looked like a parody of the existing political system, as the leader of another federalist minority party—representing the middle class. Livni, a refugee from the Likud and the reason why Kadima collapsed, ran as a single issue peace candidate. And Shelly Yachmivich blew Labour party stalwarts’ minds by running as a true, European-style social democrat with a full-blown social agenda—an alternative to Netanyahu’s devotion to pure capitalism.


The results shook up the political system completely. Because this new form of majority rule has evolved slowly, through trial and error, it demonstrates some remarkable characteristics that any foreign body seeking to influence it, must take into account.

For example, unlike the dogma-based parties, these parties appear to be adopting what an INSS poll is showing is a greater tendency among secular Israelis. They are now making a very clear distinction between what they believe is desirable, what is possible, and what is possible under current circumstances.


This form of intellectual or decision-making triage means that anyone who wishes to pique the interest of the majority must be able to present this group with ideas or issues or subjects for immediate debate that are more inviting or more pressing than those that are under discussion at the time.


What this means in practical terms is that when the settler-supporting minority and their foreign Jewish Diaspora backers call for Israelis to ignore American suggestions or pleas on matters that could affect the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, they will be ignored by the majority.


On the other hand, when the Peace Now minority and its Diaspora backers call for immediate concessions to “provide momentum” for these same peace talks, they are likely to find a similar lack of interest on the part of the majority.


It would appear that the latest US-initiated peace talks are now reaching a crisis point. John Kerry would do well to consider this huge change in the nature of the Israeli body-politic before proceeding any further.


Clueless American Jews are a Strategic Danger to Israel


Last month, I tried to show just how clueless Americans are about the Middle East; and I strongly implied that American officials’ ignorance of the area’s cultures is a strategic danger not just to the United States, but also to the countries in the region.


Now, I would like to address a subset of that issue: the fact that Israelis and Diaspora Jews in general and American Jews in particular are losing their fund of common knowledge, upon which useful discussion and debate depends. The fact is: today, the two groups of Jews have less and less in common, know less and less about each other, and so have less and less to converse about.


As a result, increasingly, Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews have been talking at each other and past each other, rather than with each other. If that trend continues, the Jewish people too may end up facing a real strategic threat.


One central problem is that the debating floor in both societies has been seized by the most extreme groups. And so the middle, which is usually occupied by the majority, ends up becoming the repository of spectators, and is ignored.


Another no less important problem is the fact that the Jewish societies in the Diaspora and in Israel are each evolving at a very rapid pace. It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of the concerns that led to those evolutionary adaptations, let alone track the adaptations themselves. For that reason, it is only when a massive, comprehensive study, such as the recent Pew study on the Jews of America, is published that caring observers can begin to comprehend the enormous changes in Jewish life that are underway.


A third, major problem is that while Diaspora Jews, and especially American Jews, feel free to critique the Israeli government and its policies, Israelis are, in general, not even the slightest bit interested in learning about Diaspora life, let alone critique it. To most Israelis, Diaspora Jewish life is an aberration of all they think being Jewish is, and so they believe it is irrelevant to them. For example, even when they emigrate to America, Israelis rarely join or take part in activities run by Jewish community institutions.


This then leads to a highly asymmetric relationship. Put in American historic terms, American Jewry too often behaves as if it was made up of British citizens in the 18th century, who had relatives in the 13 colonies and who also supported the results of the American revolution, but who also decided that it was heir right and duty to influence American policies, from abroad, during the period from the end of the War of Independence in 1782 up to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. I’ll explain in a moment why a belief in the need for a constitution is of the points of division between Israelis and American Jews.


But first, I want to answer an obvious question: Why have chosen this particular time to discuss this particular subject?


The reasons are multi-fold.


While the gap between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry has been growing wider and wider for some time, it has now reached the point where it seems to be almost unbridgeable.


Recently, in part because of the media coverage of the Women at the Wall, there have been a large number of articles about just how ignorant Israelis are about the nature of the religious pluralism that is fundamental to life in the Diaspora.


Far less discussed, though, is the breadth and depth of ignorance of Israel on the part of Diaspora Jews in general and American Jews in particular.


My own experience has been that American media consumers in general, and American Jewish media consumers in particular have no interest at all in fact-based analyses of what is occurring in Israel. And thus they are incapable of conversing with Israelis on subjects of real import to the Jews living in Zion.


Many people, not only Jews, react viscerally whenever the word “Israel” is mentioned. For that reason, I have found that most editors (Jewish or not), Jewish activists and media consumers in the United States have been unwilling to confront hard data that undermines their emotionally-based prejudices.


There are many reasons for that. Certainly one is that a lot of material that is necessary for a person to understand what is happening in and to Israel is simply not easily available. One reason for that is that Israeli academics, in general, get tenure by publishing their research in prestigious international magazines. Most of those journals couldn’t care less about Israel. And so the Israeli research has to be written up in a way that addresses a universal issue or can be slotted into a larger, comparative study. Either way, it is hard to find.


Second, with the communications media now in turmoil, and because Americans have become less literate, articles have become shorter. I, personally, find it very hard to write a comprehensive description of what is going on here using only the number of words available.


That has given me a niche, of course. I spend most of my working hours reading the studies nobody else does and then comparing the various comparative studies. That gives me an almost unique perspective on what is going on here. But I must say that what I find in those studies is often of interest only to people who have personal stakes in what is happening here, such as would-be investors.


There is any number of examples I could give you of the kind of work I do. But one, which cropped up just last month, was particularly striking. In September, the World Happiness Report, prepared jointly by the Vancouver School of Economics, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the London School of Economics, and Columbia University was published. It found that Israel is the 11th happiest country in the world, while the US was only in 17th place. The results of that survey were given wide publicity in the Israeli and Jewish Diaspora media.


Even more interestingly, though, a follow-up question by Israel’s Channel 2 got no publicity at all. When he was asked to comment on the report, Prof. Mooli Lahad, a very sober psychologist and researcher, and arguably Israel’s leading expert in PTSD, said that other studies have shown that Israeli Jews are also happier than American Jews.


That difference can be explained by any number of factors—not least early childhood experiences. However, Lahad answered a question I, at least, hadn’t thought to ask. Yet it was a crucial one. He pointed out that one statistically large group with a common background—Holocaust survivors—tells an important story. Those who have lived in Israel are happier and more satisfied with their lives.


Those are subjective judgments that are also open to question. But what is unquestionable is a solid statistical fact that, according to Lahad, Holocaust survivors who reside in Israel live longer than Holocaust survivors in the United States.


Since the usual reasons given for such study results—differences in food intake, the availability of medical assistance, and local violence—can be excluded, the extended lifespan of Holocaust survivors living in Israel can only be attributed to statistically significant differences in cultural and social factors such as perceptions, living environments and behaviours.


My central point is that it is precisely those factors that people outside Israel are most ignorant of that should be shaping perceptions of how the country is developing and why its citizens act as they do.


But what we are invariably bombarded with are articles that basically repeat old arguments. Such pieces tend to come in waves. A couple of months ago, those in the pro-settler camp appeared to have taken over the debating floor. Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon even got an op-ed piece into the New York Times.


But recently, especially in the American media, those on the American Jewish left have also been having a field day.


For example, one event that sent my neurons flashing was Peter Beinart’s latest tirade in the New York Review of Books. In the past, Beinart, who takes “progressive,” “peacenik” positions on the Arab-Israeli dispute, has written broadsides, complaining, among other things, that the American Jewish leadership, because it has slavishly supported Israeli government policies on settlement in the occupied territories, has alienated most of America’s young, liberal Jews.


I’ll come back to Beinart in a moment.


Then came another article, this one, an op-ed piece in the New York Times, was published by another leftist American Jewish academic, Ian Lustick. This epistle made me want to throw up my arms in despair. It was a compilation of some of the most foolish assessments I have yet read on the viability of the so-called “two-state solution.” He thinks that there is no such option.


To me, the artice was an icon of how many American Jews, especially too many who are labeled “public intellectuals,” are totally at ease in their belief that reality in the Middle East is what their imaginations can concoct without reference to any scientifically-gathered data set.


The publication of Lustick’s speculative idiocies, assumptions, and false analogies could have been ignored were it not for the fact that it was the featured op-ed article in the Sunday New York Times, was accompanied by a large, eye-catching graphic, and was allowed to go on for a far greater length than other op-eds of its type.


The article was therefore both significant and instructive because it demonstrated what the editorial board of what is arguably the most important media outlet in the United States considers to be informative, important and relevant. The publication of the article is a warning sign if there ever was one of the ignorance and stupidity that is accompanying the descriptions of and the public debate about the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

A third article that made me shake my head in wonder was published recently by Daniel Levy in Foreign Policy, which is, effectively, the house organ of the American foreign policy-making fraternity. Levy, a British political scientist who once worked for Ehud Barak and Yossi Belin, is director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations and is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. Without using any objective facts to back up his assertions, he claimed that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is against peace in the Middle East.

The three articles are indicative of the level to which discourse on the Middle East in some of the most prominent journals in the United States has plopped.


Of the three articles, Beinart’s tract deserves the closest attention. He is an important writer and a skilled researcher. I may disagree with some of his conclusions, but I very rarely find any factual errors in his articles.


Beinart’s premise this time was that anyone who comes to visit Israel under the auspices of a Jewish or pro-Israel lobbying organization such as AIPAC lives in a cocoon because he or she is not given an opportunity to talk to or to interact with Palestinians. For this reason, these political and other sponsored visitors—and thus many, many Washington decision-makers—never come to understand why the Palestinians and their allies act as they do.


Binart’s conclusion may be the product of an accurate assessment. Having never taken one of the trips he describes, I cannot offer any judgment.


But his description of the environment in which those trips take place did highlight what I believe is a far more important issue. Most of the writings from the neo-nationalists and the left are advocacy pieces, and so in order to achieve their rhetorical goals, their material is deliberately far too circumscribed. In other words, they distort reality because they focus only on a very narrow aspect of a much broader and a much more encompassing problem.


In this case, the broader issue is how the public’s perceptions of the Israel-Arab dispute in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in particular, are formed—and whether those perceptions are based on an accurate reading of reality. For example, I have found, after talking with people who have taken the trips that Beinart describes, that it makes no difference whether Diaspora visitors come on trips sponsored or organized by the Jewish establishment, neo-nationalist Zionist organizations or “progressives.” All are kept in such a tight-fitting cocoon that they are rarely if ever permitted to learn anything of significance about Israel, let alone about the Palestinians.


I have to emphasize once again that, although I have highlighted articles written by left-wing American Jews, not just those on the left are guilty of this fault. This approach to persuading others appears to be endemic to the majority American Jewish so-called “public intellectuals” whom I have read. For example, it has long been clear to me that, as is the case with neo-con Norman Podhoretz, too many American Jewish advocate/scribes, whatever their political leanings, write only to cocoon their readers by using silken intellectual webs that are no less insidious and impervious to outside influences and outside influencers than the ones woven by the trip organizers whom Beinart criticizes.


In general, if one looks closely at the writings about the Middle East that emerge from the word processing programmes of American Jews, it becomes rather obvious that they are not based on a thorough examination of how and why Israelis live out their lives as they do. Instead, there is a marked resemblance in the arguments used in these tracts to the ideological battles that these same Jews carry on in America. In other words, Israel has become merely another convenient peg upon which these American-originated debating points can be exchanged.


A very good example of this phenomenon took place at the annual J Street conference this fall. When Shelly Yachimovitz addressed the meeting, she received wild applause when she talked about Israel’s national healthcare service, the need for civil marriages and gay rights—all hot American issues. However, as the Times of Israel reported, when she said “we believe in a free and democratic Israel with a strong army and secure borders to defend not only our people but our values,” the applause was muted. And when she paused after adding “this is the true Zionist dream,” there was no applause at all.


At this point, I must make clear that I don’t dismiss any of these incidents or any of these articles out of hand, even if the content is mindless. That is because these American writings and reactions reveal something that is ultra important: The things that Israelis do, and what they talk about among themselves, rarely, if ever, enters American-initiated discourse. In other words, most of what American Jews and European Jews write about Israel today displays a profound ignorance of how Israeli society and Israeli politics have evolved since 1967.


I have found that one thing unites the majority of the Diaspora political preachers. Almost without exception, these writers, like the governments of the countries in which they live, assume that they know how they would act if they lived under the same circumstances as Israelis do—and therefore how Israelis should act now.


There are many reasons for this unwillingness to enter into a real dialogue with Israelis.


The first reason is that the subjects American Jews want to talk about emerge not from the long-established “parliaments” in the coffee houses in Rehovot, Tiberias or Kiryat Shmona, nor from the intense discussions that well up in Israelis’ living rooms and around Israeli dinner tables, but from the political cauldron in Washington.


The fact is: The daily briefing at the State Department and the regular press conferences held at the White House have more of an impact on what American Jews think about and talk about than the subjects that consume Israelis. That is because those briefings are covered intensively by the media, while what Israelis say to each other at work or in their living rooms rarely if ever gets reported by the often Hebrew-deficient foreign journalists in Israel.


And what do the daily State Department briefings focus on? It is only natural that the subjects discussed at events that the Department sponsors almost invariably relate to those things that the department’s employees see as being their within their mandate or area of expertise.


In general, American diplomats are mandated to do three things—gather information about the thoughts and doings of a foreign country’s ruling elite, mediate disputes and provide humanitarian assistance. These three subjects then set the agenda of almost everything American diplomats talk about. In Europe, these same subjects pervade the press releases distributed by the continent’s highly-influential NGOs, such as Oxfam.


Among other things, this phenomenon has led, since 1967, to an almost obsessional focus on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. That is because intervening to alter the nature and terms of that conflict fits the Department’s mandate and the stated purpose of the European humanitarian NGOs like a glove.


An even more important reason why perceptions of the reality in which Israelis live their lives is distorted is that there is an almost chasmic difference in understanding between Israeli and Diaspora Jews about what the reference point for their political discussions should be; and who the ultimate audience for their thoughts and observations should be.


But before I go any further, I must, again, digress and take some time to explain how the Israeli reality differs from what the Diaspora Jews’ perceptions of it are because, to the best of my knowledge, no one else has done this.


Diaspora Jews, for the most part, live in democratic countries whose system of self-rule is ordered by a written or, as in Britain, by an unwritten but otherwise generally accepted constitution. In addition, subjects or situations not covered by the provisions of a constitution are usually dealt with by using a set of agreed-upon formal and informal rules of political behaviour. In Great Britain, for example, it is not unusual for a member of parliament to resign not because he or she has done something illegal, but just because what they may have done “just isn’t done.”


By contrast, Israel has no constitution and no otherwise agreed-upon conventions for dealing with issues in dispute. For that reason, for example, the Shas, party felt totally at ease welcoming back Aryeh Deri to lead it. The party argued that Deri, a convicted criminal, had served out his prison sentence and had spent a further cooling off period from politics for having engaged in moral turpitude while serving as a cabinet minister. Therefore there was no legal reason why he should not be allowed to return to active politics. In other words, his rabbinical colleagues in the party were saying that unlike the British who say “It’s just not done,” they could say “Why shouldn’t it be done.”


Most other democracies also voluntarily adhere to and depend on principles such as majority rule, protection for minorities and an agreed set of debating rules that are designed to guide and regulate the step-by-step process of decision-making. When debates are held in Israel, the practice of the participants is usually to try to talk louder and longer than anyone else in the belief that a person must win the contest if he or she prevents anyone else from getting a word in edgewise.


Israel’s current system of governance is the product of an absence of all those things I have just mentioned. Throughout the pre-state period, and continuing up to the 1980s, Israeli politics was based on the supposition that there would be two large ideologically-based parties, each of which would be accompanied by and supported by a train of dependent, acolyte minority parties.


The large parties, because they were guided by comprehensive ideologies, were expected to provide intellectual umbrellas for decision-making. Specifically, one of their major tasks that they were assigned by the public was to balance national needs with available resources. The minor parties, which were usually guided by narrower dogmas, provided a vehicle for the public to express which items on the national agenda that did not affect the majority directly, should also be given priority. Because the minor parties were usually dogma-driven, not ideology-driven—in other words because they focused on a narrow set of belief-driven issues, not broad issues of concern to all—one of the major tasks of the major party was to moderate and even limit the influence that minor party coalition partners could have on policy-making.


However, in the wake of the 1965 economic recession, the Yom Kippur War and the First Lebanese War, this system began to break down. Many acolyte parties, such as the Liberals and the Progressives on the liberal end of the political spectrum, and Rafi and Ahdut Avodah on the left, merged with a major party and disappeared. The National Religious Party switched partners from Labour to the Likud, and the ultra-Orthodox, Haredi parties, which had never been allied with either camp, eventually decided to join the government for fun and especially for profit.


As time passed, the minor parties grew in strength, and the large parties lost Knesset seats. When the major parties could elect a third or more of the Knesset members, they could control the minor parties. But once their representation fell to a quarter of the seats, that became almost impossible.


The end result was that Israeli self-rule became dependent on the formation of governments that were, de facto, federations of minority parties. In too many cases, government policy then became the product of deals made by the coalition parties after the elections. They were not the result of a real national debate that had taken place prior to the voting, as is the case in most other democracies.


In other words, the underlying premise of Israeli federalist politics, as it is practiced today, is that everything is negotiable. That principle, at least in part, explains why the country has never passed a full Bill of Rights and why not one of the Basic Laws—the precursor to a constitution—assigns to the judiciary the role of being the third branch of government. Too many Israeli politicians view the judiciary and its reliance on the law, signed treaties and precedent, as an impediment to their control of civil life and to negotiated political deals.


Diaspora Jews must surely shake their heads in wonder if, as often happens to me, Israelis ask them whether they think everything should be negotiable or judiciable.


Invariably, once cabinets are formed, the demands of those minority groups that are present in the government are given precedence over the rights and needs both of other minorities and even of the majority.


As well, Diaspora Jews seeking redress for their complaints in their home countries, have an address for their pleas. An Israeli has no such address. This elementary fact then has an enormous impact on the nature of the discourse between Israelis and their foreign co-religionists.


American Jewish leaders, for example, when talking about politics, invariably feel most comfortable talking about their governments—and especially what their elected representatives are doing. The phrase “I’m going to write to my Congressman about this,” is not an uncommonly used expression. That is because the congressman is known by name and has an address.


However, that’s not all that they can do. No political system is perfect, and so Americans have come to rely as well on several backup systems. For example, it is not uncommon for an American constituent to realize that he or she may have little leverage with the elected representative, and that his or her epistle may elicit nothing more than a form-letter response.


For that reason, American Jewish society is organized in such a way that it can take advantage of the American political tradition that has evolved to cope with issues of this sort. In the United States, any Jew can request that a community leader, who is often chosen precisely because he or she may have a great deal of leverage with the country’s political leaders, support the constituent’s brief if the subject at hand relates to the Jewish community as a whole.


Because average American citizens need these kinds of intermediaries, prestige and honour within America communities is doled out to those who can provide that intermediation. The measurement used by non-elected and non-paid community leaders, as they climb up the ladder of recognition and even fame, is the number and the names of people that the leaders can claim to have as their personal contacts.


In most functioning democracies, it is believed that deals can and should be struck by community representatives negotiating with “people in power” because this is a vastly more efficient way of dealing with the issues being raised by many people who would otherwise flood the politician’s office with individual requests.


Diaspora leaders, then, when seeking redress or seeking to promote a law or plan for action, usually approach their elected representatives in two ways: by massaging their egos so that the representative will be responsive to the requests being made of them and by the use of pleas and arguments based on the ideas and ideals set out in their constitution.


In other words, the framework for decision-making that Diaspora Jews, and especially constitution-fixated American Jews, are familiar with and know how to use is institutionalized government in all its forms.


Israelis, on the other hand, have a totally different perception of what self-rule entails. They vote for parties, not individuals. For that reason they never know who precisely is supposed to represent them. Any Knesset member they may choose to write to may turn out to be totally uninterested in dealing with the issue the citizen wishes to raise. And if the individual then chooses to pursue an issue, he or she may have no choice but to call upon the services of a “macher” or professional lobbyist and fixer, whose services may smudge the border of legality…and are usually very costly.


As a result, ordinary Israeli citizens long ago stopped expecting anything positive of their elected representatives. My all-time favourite statistic produced by the Israeli political system comes from the Sderot Conference’s annual poll. It shows that, consistently, only 13 percent of Israelis trust the party they have just voted for or are about to vote for.


For this reason, Israeli domestic political discourse is very often overwhelmed by urgent questions of how governance in the country can be made to work under the existing circumstances. After a long history of disappointments, Israelis have learned not to assume that they know how any particular government will operate, and what will be all of its policy-making priorities.


When I use the word “governance,” I am referring to all those persons and institutions that can bring influence to bear when national decisions are being made. In Israel, increasingly, ad hoc groups, when carefully created and nurtured, have shown conclusively that they can bring about significant political change even if they have no formal institutional base.


The trips that Beinart describes are an attempt by those seeking to control the communication pipelines to take advantage the asymmetry in the Israelis’ and the Americans’ perceptions of how systems of self-governance should and do operate. Usually, the format of these trips is determined by American organizers of the trips so that they will fit the American visitors’ needs and expectations. The Israeli organizers then provide the bodies needed and the texts to be used. The idea is to ensure that these events will be used as serious ego-massaging events. So, for that reason the schedule invariably includes meetings with celebrity civil servants, senior military officers and Knesset members.


Those officials who are chosen to appear before junketeers usually have nothing new or original to say. They simply repeat the list of talking points that they have been given. The real purpose of the meeting is to give the Diaspora leaders lists of names of people with impressive titles that the leader can then claim have become members of his or her personal treasury of “contacts.” The intent is that when these people return to the US, their conversations will include sentences such as “When I was last in Israel and met with….”


Now fill in the blanks.


One thing that almost certainly never comes out of those meetings between American visitors and Israeli celebrity officials is a detailed description of the real situations Israeli citizens are living through.


Invariably the talking points are formulated so that they will refer directly to those issues that the junketeers “know” in advance are important. These issues have been labeled “important” because the junketeers and the American organizers have been told they are “important” by the American State Department and the US media. Almost without exception, the most prominent issue that the visitors expect to hear speeches about is, of course, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.


These expectations then produce any number of misunderstandings when ordinary Israelis and Diaspora leaders do meet. For example, the foreigners often cannot believe that the subject of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank does not preoccupy Israelis’ every waking moment.


But, to my mind, the greatest fault lines separating Diaspora and Israeli Jewry are the unseen aspects of Israeli society and culture that cannot be explained in words, but must be experienced personally.


For example, if an American chooses to join the US army, he or he is isolated from his or her family for the 6 months of basic training in order to socialize the new recruit into believing in and acting unquestioningly according to the mores of the military.


In Israel, the process of creating an effective soldier is totally different. Families are expected to be part of the socialization process, and to support the military and its objectives–especially if the child shows signs of being overcome by the military’ demands.


But in order for the families to function in that way, the families too must be socialized into the military. And that means creating ways for the families to show openly that they approve of the army’s objectives and ways of doing things.


In other words, in Israel, families are required to take part in ceremonies, such as reserve army duty, that express their faith in a set of beliefs that even the most devout, secular atheists can accept.


To show just how significant those ceremonies are and just how incapable Americans are of perceiving the impact those ceremonies have on large swaths of the Israeli public, I think it is significant that many Americans on both the left and the right, after hearing that peacenik writer David Grossman’s son had been killed during the war in Lebanon simply could not accept that Grossman had even allowed his son to serve in the army.


But, then again, they had never taken part in one very common ceremony, the reenactment of the biblical tale of the binding of Isaac—Akedat Yitzchak—as a majority of middle-aged Israeli parents do. Akedat Yitzchak is arguably the most literarily brilliant and most spiritually engrossing drama in the whole Torah. And while Diaspora Jews may be enthralled by the story, it is highly unlikely that any of them believes that it has any direct, immediate relevance to them.


That is not the case in Israel. In Israel, the tale is not merely chanted twice a year in the synagogue—during Rosh Hashana and when the story takes its place in the normal Torah-reading schedule as is the case in the Diaspora. For anyone in Israel who has a car and a child serving in a fighting unit in the army, it is a scene they probably personally reenact themselves every two weeks at 5:30 on alternate Sunday mornings. For it is then that they ritually deliver their child to the bus that will take him or her back to the army after a weekend of leave. It is a moment of great built-in ceremony and emotion.


At that moment, the parent, whether he or she is religious or totally secular, must, like Abraham, and in an extraordinary and sublime act of faith, hand their child over to an overwhelming and largely unknown power that neither the parent nor the child can see or control. Worse still, as was the case with the Biblical Isaac, that unseen power has not only demanded total possession of the child, it has even appropriated the right to sacrifice the child when and if it sees fit to do so.


Because of this experience and others very much like it that Israelis undergo on a regular basis, these embedded and internalized characteristics then have an enormous impact on Israeli behaviour patterns. And they are one of the main sources of confusion and even disillusion for many American Jews. The story about Shelly Yachimovitch being unable to elicit support for the notion that an army is needed not only to protect people, but to protect important humane and humanistic values, is but one case in point.