Kerry’s Peace Inititive

Much has been said about John Kerry’s peace initiative; and much of that has been very pessimistic. But no matter what comes of his peacemaking attempts, he has already done Israelis a great service.


Most Israelis at this moment are at the beach or dreaming of being at the beach. Another big chunk of the population is going abroad or making plans to go abroad…or at least dreaming about going abroad. Many of the rest are making arrangements to do some or all of these things during the High Holidays in September. And for the most part, the country’s children are at play in parks or just driving their parents crazy with requests to spend money at this or that attraction.

In other words, to many, if not most Israelis, the world today seems to be blissful and care-free.


Kerry, however, has now taken on the role of party pooper; and has had the temerity to remind Israelis of something they would prefer not to think about. That “something” is that this country is still at war.


Kerry, of course, would never be so coarse as to talk about war. The phrase he uses is “getting a peace settlement.” But that’s just linguistic gymnastics. Israel wouldn’t need a “peace” agreement if it weren’t at war.


Even worse for those who would prefer beach reverie, though, Kerry is reminding all Israelis that peacemaking is a job that their politicians have left undone.


So, with the latest round of talks about to begin, it’s worth looking at what has happened to the peace process over the years in order to try to explain why the job has been left undone.


Just the timing of Kerry’s mission ought to tell us a great deal about where Israel is at at this moment. His peace-making project is coming at a time when Israel has had to pass a very restrictive budget; and the Israeli military is in the midst of what may turn out to be the most extensive reevaluation of the country’s military strategy in its history. The order to attack on Iran, with all that such a move implies, is also still on the table.


And to top it all off, the so-called Arab spring is now demonstrating in almost excruciating detail almost all of the pathologies of Arab politics that Israel—and specifically its military and budgetary planners—has had to cope with in the past and will have to cope with in the future.


Although it may seem at first glance that all these factors—the diplomatic talks, whether to continue building the Namer armoured personnel carrier, and whether to pay for more  firefighters—have little in common, they are part of an inseparable whole. Each influences the other—and all are bound by the fact that, because of procrastination, none of the major issues Israel has faced in the past to decades has been resolved completely.


Procrastination among both Israeli and Palestinian leaders has become a chronic and endemic illness. It is the product of what I have come to believe is one of the most devastating political pathologies of the entire region—political neurosis.


My favourite definition of neurosis is someone who says “I know that that’s a reality (whatever the “that” may be.) But I can’t take it and won’t accept it.” In other words, political neurotics see a problematic situation, but refuse to accept that it exists, or that it requires a solution, or that real work has to be invested if a solution is to be found.


Prime examples of Israeli political neuroses in action, have been the approaches taken to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the future of both peoples, the attempts to formulate the basic ideas that will guide the Israel Defence Forces in the future, and how much and to whom should Israelis’ tax money be allotted.


Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have already reached the stage where the contours of what a peace agreement will include can already be traced. The new doctrines of the Israeli military are also pretty well known by now. And it is fairly clear how advances and reforms in both these areas will be paid for. And yet, there has been no final decision on what Israel should do under the circumstances.


The knowledge that the issues that will have to form the basis for the paragraphs and sub-paragraphs of a peace agreement are to be on the cusp of being resolved, should give supporters of the Kerry initiative a great deal of hope. The same is true of those who are deeply concerned about Israel’s future security. However, the truth is that the reality that Kerry and the Israeli generals are trying to establish is actually so abhorrent to so many Palestinians and to so many Israelis that they consistently try to undermine that reality’s creation.


So let us first examine what the reality is today.


Since Israel began building the separation fence in the West Bank, its route has been reviewed by the country’s political leaders, who expect it to be the central reference point in any set of negotiations on borders, by the military leaders who were mandated to assess its value a defensive aid, and even by the Supreme Court that was asked to judge its impact on humanitarian issues. One can agree or disagree on the validity of those judgments, but the fact is that after it was constructed, the fence became a reference point—a useful aspect of reality upon which negotiators could begin to debate where final borders should be drawn.


However, Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, then refused to relate to or respond to Israel’s border proposals when they were put in the form of a map by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Instead he chose to demand that the reference point be the 1967 cease-fire lines. The subsequent debate over which line should be the reference point has thus become yet another example of the long list of ways procrastination is being practiced.


More importantly, what that refusal showed was that there are factors in the peace process that are too often ignored. Of particular importance is the fact that rational assessments cannot measure the aversion to loss that both the Israelis and the Palestinians bring to the negotiating table.


In the case of the starting point for border negotiations, the Palestinians could not accept the idea that they might lose any more land—even of that loss was merely virtual and a temporary technical aspect of border negotiations. In other words, paragraph one of the Israeli proposals shows what the loss would be, while paragraph two shows what a swap of land might entail. However, the Palestinians stop thinking after reading paragraph one.


Another example of rampant irrationality is that the Palestinians have consistently refused to agree to accept the proposition that the central purpose of  the peace talks—just like any peace talks taking place anywhere else in the world—should be that, once the agreement is signed, neither side will have any demands on the other in the future.


For most Palestinians, that objective points to a possible future reality that is almost too painful for words to describe. It would not mean giving up something that is substantial, but rather something that is ephemeral. Nonetheless that dream I am referring to is so important for the Palestinians’ self identity that they are willing to use every form of procrastination available to them in order to filibuster the peace talks to death. By this I mean that the Palestinians continue to be possessed by an overpowering dream that sometime, somehow, by some as yet undiscovered means, they will be able to return to their long-lost homes in Jaffa, Acre and Ashkelon.


The Israelis too—especially the settlers and their supporters—have tried to delay the outcome of the talks. The settlers are concerned that giving up any land as part if a peace agreement may delay the Jews’ redemption and the coming of the Messiah.


I find it fascinating that one of the people most responsible for exploring the subject of loss aversion just happens to be Israeli Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman points out that, to most people, losses loom larger in their thought processes than gains. Threats are given more attention than opportunities. And the “brains of humans contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news,” not good news. Put in numbers, five good things have to happen to you for the thought of one bad thing to be obliterated.


To this day, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have refused to address the issue of how to overcome the powerful pull that loss aversion plays in the peace talks. Both continue to talk about the sacrifices that will have to be made in order to reach an agreement rather than the positive gains that an agreement can bring with it. For example, the possibility that peace would bring economic growth has had little impact on the negotiators so far.


As a result, one of the central problems Kerry and his team will have to face is how to overcome the roadblock created by loss aversion. Usually loss aversion is overcome by a person or a group’s flight from fear. In other words, the fear of continued violence and the losses in life and property that that violence would bring with it is usually sufficient to force warring parties to come to the negotiating table and talk seriously about how to end the violence.


However, that influence does not apply in the case of the Israelis and the Palestinians. Since Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, Israel has had little to fear from terrorism emanating from the West Bank. And, since the last Israeli incursion into Gaza, even the Strip has been relatively quiet.


At this moment, the Palestinians have also come to the conclusion that they have little to fear from the Israelis. Israel cannot afford to retake Gaza, and the West Bankers know that at a minimum, Israel’s defensive fence acts as a ceiling on the extent of the threat presented by Israeli settlement. It is clear to the Palestinians that if and when negotiations are renewed, the starting point for discussing an Israeli withdrawal will begin with the current position of the fence. Israel may build settlements east of the fence, but it is highly unlikely that it will hold onto such settlements if and when a peace agreement is signed.


In other words, both sides have come to the conclusion that the other side does not represent an existential threat. And so, both sides have also come to the conclusion that they can live at present in a condominium relationship that does not force them to address their own peoples’ loss aversion.


Maybe the most graphic example of how this situation has evolved were the scenes of Palestinians gawking at bikini-clad Israeli women, as the fully-dressed Palestinians walked along the sea-shore this past month. Some were seeing masses of female flesh, and the sea, for the first time in their lives. It was hard to tell which of the two sights was more eye-opening. The Palestinians had been able to undergo this experience because Israel, for the first time in more than a decade, had issued 150,000 Palestinians with permits to visit relatives, and the beaches in Israel, during the Moslem holiday of Ramadan.


Had they been seeking peace, this reality that there could be a condominium relationship should have frightened the negotiators on both sides. But they welcomed it because it then enabled them to procrastinate even further. Even stranger, though, instead of emphasizing that this sort of human-to-human contact on the seafront should be seen as an essential part of the peace process, the politicians did the very opposite. The politicians on both sides used the quiet the seaside strolls gave them to play to their most extreme constituents.


If you listened carefully to what the politicians were saying recently, you might have come to the conclusion that both sides were on the verge of yet another round of violence. The Palestinian politicians continued to play to their constituents’ loss aversion, and especially their dream of return. And Netanyahu has felt free to allow his most extreme Likud colleagues, such as Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, to continue to make whatever fright-inducing statements they wanted to.


In order to show more precisely where Israel is at in all this, I have to work backwards. First, I need to describe how the budgets that have been passed in recent years have been formulated. By tracing what those financial documents reveal, it is then possible to explain how and why procrastination was allowed to become a way of political life in Israel, how and why the current budgetary crisis came about, and how and why the procedures for military planning, and planning for the future of the territories occupied in 1967, were distorted as well.


Generally speaking, most democratic countries institutionalize an annual period of reality therapy and call it “the budget debate.” It is a time when all the high-fallutin’ statements by politicians are given concrete expression in dollars and cents, or shekels and agorot.


However a recent 201 page study by the Knesset Research and Information Center found that the belief that there is Knesset oversight of the government’s activities during the budget debate, or that the budget debate itself is a mirror on reality, is often little more than an illusion. The study proves decisively that, among many other negatives, successive Israeli governments have found ways to circumvent efforts to halt their attempts at procrastination.


For example, the study showed that the spending provisions, as outlined in the budget passed by the Knesset each year, bear only a passing resemblance to the real budget outlays. That is because, after the formal passage of the budget, the finance ministry invariably returns to the Knesset Finance Committee later in the year, when fewer people are watching, and requests additional spending. That request is usually given only a cursory glance before being voted on and agreed to. Invariably, because approvals for those outlays are usually not accompanied by moves that would include increases in revenues—such as the levying of new taxes—budget deficits begin to build.


The most guilty party in this act of subterfuge has invariably been the Defence Ministry. During the past 4 years, for example, it managed to boost the country’s military spending by a whopping 34 billion shekels more than had been approved by the Knesset initially. For example, last year (2012) the defence budget’s share of the total state budget was supposed to be 17.4 percent. But it ended up as taking 20.3 percent of the state budget.


That’s not the way things were supposed to be. In May 2007, a blue ribbon committee of hyper rationalists led by the former director general of the finance ministry, David Brodet, published a widely-praised report. It recommended that the military’s spending be increased in nominal terms to cope with the threats Israel will be facing in the future. But, crucially, the committee recommended that the military’s spending increases also be accompanied by huge cutbacks and savings in areas that would not affect the country’s security.


That demand for cutbacks was too much for the country’s politicians to accept; and so, as usual, they chose to delay.


For example, at the time, the media did play up the committee’s recommendation that the age for acquiring a pension by professional soldiers should be raised. However, an even more important recommendation demanded that the military adapt its budget to “the threat assessment” the country faces. In other words, it recommended streamlining the military services by eliminating those elements in the budget that do not have a direct impact of national security.


That recommendation was far from revolutionary. Israeli military officials have known at least since the peace agreement with Egypt was signed that Israel would eventually have to adapt to a new reality. But it never really did so.


Israel’s military strategic doctrine was first formulated by David Ben Gurion following the 1948 War of Independence. That doctrine stated that Israel would base its national security on a small professional army, mass conscription and a large military reserve. The task of the professional army would be to train the conscripts, keep members of the reserves in shape, maintain professional standards, and act as organizers and leaders in time of war.


Together with the conscripts, the professional soldiers would act as a tripwire should Israel be attacked. However, in case of attack, the bulk of the fighting would be assigned to the much larger reserve force. Its mandate has always been to force the battle back into the enemy’s territory as quickly as possible…in order to limit the damage to Israeli property and to provide the political echelon with the bargaining cards it needs for use in negotiating a cease-fire.


The Ben Gurion doctrine envisaged, among other things, that the great battles that Israel would have to fight in the future would be those between massive tank forces, backed up by infantry—as had been the case in World War II.


However, after the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt—the Arab country with the largest tank force—Israel was less in need of a huge tank force. Not only that, the Yom Kippur War that had been fought just 5 years previously had shown that the military’s priority should be to cope with the new technical advances that were changing the nature of warfare beyond all previous recognition. These changes included the introduction of computer-assisted and stand-off weaponry such as new types of anti-aircraft missiles that had been used with devastating effect by the Egyptians and the Syrians during the Yom Kippur War.


Another major change had been the arrival on the battlefield of new, cheap and extremely effective anti-tank missiles. One major project that was designed to cope with this new situation was the building of the Merkava tank.


The thing is that even though Israel was soon producing enough Merkava tanks to suit its needs, it was still also keeping much older, obsolescent tanks in expensive storage. Not only that, Israel never developed an exit strategy to deal with the need, at some point to cut back on Merkava production. Factories supplying parts for the Merkava tank project had been set up in development towns, but at no time was consideration given to what kinds of businesses could be attracted to those towns to provide replacement jobs if and when the Merkava project ended. In other words, until the availability of alternate jobs could be assured production would have to go on indefinitely at the same pace.


No less of a problem has been the inability of the government to put the Israeli Military Industries on a sound financial footing. American military aid has meant that it is no longer worthwhile for Israel to produce certain types of ammunition—the business that the Israel Military Industries specializes in. But unlike the other two government-owned arms manufacturers, Raphael and Israel Aeronautics Industries, the government failed to reform IMI so that it could be put on a safe financial footing. The government again feared the loss of jobs and the inevitable confrontation with the Histadrut that that would bring. And so, every few years the government has had to pull a huge amount of cash out of otherwise useful budgetary allocations and use it to pay IMI’s debts.


Another militarily-irrelevant consideration of governments has been political and social in nature. In recent years, the yeshivot hesder have been attracting more and more national religious army recruits. Much has been made recently of the so-called “national need” to get the ultra-Orthodox to do the standard 3 years of national service. But few people realize that soldiers who serve under the yeshivot hesder programme do only 16 months of actual military service. The rest of their time in spent in yeshivas.


As a result, there isn’t enough time to train them to effectively use some of the more sophisticated technologically-advanced equipment being introduced into the IDF. So, these soldiers have been basically shunted into the armoured corps, where they don’t need the time necessary to learn how to operate the new computer-based systems.


As you can see, as in the case of what to do with the armoured corps, while the military should have long ago decided to do a thorough threat analysis and adapt the military to face those threats, it procrastinated—in part because the political leaders were also procrastinating.


In practical terms, that failure to reevaluate Israel’s real security needs has meant that the country has ended up lurching from crisis to crisis because the funds needed to prevent these other crises were not available. And so we have been witness to a health crisis, a crisis along the border with the Sinai that eventually required building a long, expensive fence, an education crisis, a firefighters’ crisis, a water crisis…and a peace crisis—all national security issues and all the product of procrastination and an unwillingness to confront reality.


That reality is that Israel has signed peace agreements with two Arab states. However,owever as Kerry keeps pointing out, it remains at least formally in a state of war with all the others. In some cases, such as along its borders with Gaza and Lebanon, the possibility that intense violence will be renewed remains palpable.


One reason for that reality is that, contrary to some peoples’ impressions, Israel is a tiny country with very limited resources. For that reason, it has never been able to win a war. And the country’s politicians have avoided drawing necessary lessons from that reality.


The country has survived wars, and it has entered into countless written and unwritten cease-fires. But it has never been able to make its enemies do what all generals are usually mandated to achieve—and that is to make their opponents surrender and agree to terms that will determine those opponents’ behaviour into the indefinite future.


Factors such as the size of Israel’s population, the world geopolitical situation, the very physical size of most of the Arab states, and the costs of occupation have prevented Israel from acting as a super-power might have—by imposing its will on others. Common sense should then have dictated that Israel’s politicians use the time between bouts of fighting to try to figure out which political and diplomatic replacements were available to take the place of what, to a super-power, would have been normal geopolitical military practice.


For example, in my humble opinion, Israel should never launch what is called here “a war of choice” (where Israel initiates the fighting) without first adopting an exit strategy—a plan for how to get its troops out of the battlefield as quickly as possible. It is important to remember that most of Israel’s wars since 1973 have been wars of choice; and most were begun without an exit strategy having been formulated in advance. That meant that the outcome of the fighting was always unclear.


Another area of government failure has been its inability or unwillingness to create a proper domestic and international environment in which necessary wars of choice can be fought with few untoward side-effects.


For example, it is clear that Israel’s assault on Jenin and Nablus and other major Palestinian population concentrations, where the terrorists were based, was a necessity if the second intifada and its horrible death toll was to be ended. However, because Israel had failed to deal with the perceptions in the world about why the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks had failed, the assault, while a military success, turned out to be a diplomatic and PR disaster. And that was because the media, which had been so alienated by Israeli officialdom, were willing to believe even the most outrageous and false claims of massacres issued by Palestinian spokesman.
Occasionally, as in 1948 and 1967, Israel gained territory in war, and then needed to decide whether to hold onto it permanently. In 1948, Ben Gurion decided not to capture chunks of what we today call the West Bank because he feared the consequences of holding onto territories where the Arabs were in a decisive majority. In 1967, though, his successors decided not to decide.


The subsequent settlement of the West Bank in particular was the product of several factors including the adoption by many Modern Orthodox of the belief that successful settlement was the precondition for national redemption, the nostalgia by the ruling Labour Party politicians for what they viewed as the highlight of their lives—the settlement of Jews in Palestine in the 1930s despite all the restrictions placed in their way by the British mandatory authorities, sheer mental laziness on the part of many politicians, and the growing belief by many that Israel could hold out for its almost dream-like maximalist demands for the terms of a peace settlement with the Palestinians..


The underlying proposition that not deciding was a viable option became actual policy in the wake of the 1981 Lebanese war. Israel entered that war without a clue of what it could and would do with the land that it captured. Unlike the situation in the West Bank, where there was at least a debate on whether to hold on to the lands there, there was no such debate about of what was to become contagious, endemic procrastination with regard to Lebanon. As a result, Israel ended up holding on to territories there for 18 years, at a huge cost in treasury and in Israeli soldiers’ lives.


During the period when indecision grew into a policy, the world was changing dramatically. But most Israeli politicians were oblivious to those changes because their focus was almost entirely on domestic political infighting, and the growing justification that that political instability was giving to those seeking a reason for not exploring political options. As well, when not navel gazing, Israel’s leaders chose to preoccupy themselves with events taking place in the United States. Western Europe was ignored almost completely.


Put simply, that was politically idiotic. With the end of the cold war, Europe was finally free to cast off or at least question many political ideas that had been shown to have failed and whose time had passed. Classical socialism was one such idea. Another was the concept of the inviolability of the nation-state.


This would soon create a mammoth problem for Israel that was almost totally ignored by Israeli leaders. Zionism is premised on the idea that the Jews, just like each other nation have a right to a physical state of their own.


However, youngsters in Europe, who had grown up with open borders and who were watching with excitement as borders between Eastern European states and their neighbours began falling too, were beginning to question the very idea that the nation-state was the ideal system of self government. History had demonstrated, many of them believed, that the creation of national-states had led to unacceptable levels of political and financial competition. And that competition between states had led to both huge wars and inherently evil colonialism. In their minds, Israel, whose very raison d’être was based on the canonization of the nation-state as the ideal form of government, was now being held up as the model of everything that was wrong with the old order.


One reason why Israeli politicians felt free to ignore this monumental change in perceptions was that in the United States, the very opposite was happening. Neo-conservatism, with its emphasis on the belief that American national values should be emplaced everywhere in the world was growing. It would take 8 years, and two costly wars, for that belief to run it course.


But so long as the neo-con belief in the absolutism of certain values appeared to be laying the ground for military successes, it also found fans in Israel too. For example, there are those in Israel who, whenever Israel launches a punitive military attack in Gaza, want the Palestinians there bombed into oblivion. And they have blamed the Israeli generals’ inability to win a decisive victory in Gaza on the fact that Israel has, in most cases, tried to avoid inflicting unnecessary civilian casualties on its enemies, while those same enemies have never shied away from attacking Israeli civilian targets.


Fortunately for Israel, cooler heads have usually prevailed. The reasons for Israel’s lack of success in forcing its will on the Palestinians lie elsewhere.


As I mentioned earlier, probably the central problem Israel’s generals have faced over the years is that they invariably have been ordered into battle without the politicians ensuring that the country had an exit strategy. Without some idea in advance of how you expect the war to end, it is almost impossible for military leaders to develop and act according to a clearly-defined military strategy.


Another problem is that, once a powerful army captures another country, it can often force the enemy to undergo a regime change. But, in most cases, Israel is too small a country to be able force regime change on the countries that surround it. The one exception has been the Palestinian-occupied territories. Israel did eventually force King Hussein to give up his rule over the West Bank, but the Israelis then had no effective replacement for Jordanian rule once the Hashemite ruler chose to exit the scene…other than continued occupation that eventually led to the first intifada.


Not only that, Israel has also finally come to the conclusion that even if it could force regime change in a place like Gaza, the price of doing so would probably be too exorbitant. Israel couldn’t afford the huge policing expenses involved if it chose to overthrow Hamas by force.


Because Israel has never gone to war in order to fulfill a grand strategy that had been agreed upon in advance, when the fighting ends, a political vacuum is invariably created. And then, different individuals and agencies, often decided minorities, compete with each other in an attempt to shape policy. That was how the Land of Israel Movement initiated settlement in the West Bank.


However, because many of these battles are fought by minorities with narrow interests, the policy adopted may not be the best one under the circumstances. Instead, what ends up passing for policy is the product of the often temporary strengths or weaknesses of those other minorities involved in the contest.


That is but one reason why so many wars and military operations that Israel has engaged in have not had a clear-cut ending. One of the fundamental problems Israel has had to confront after each such engagement has been the need to decide whether the war should actually be brought to an end by accepting a less than satisfactory settlement. On those occasions when a less than satisfactory settlement was accepted, such as the Oslo accords, violence sprang up gain. But violence also erupted when Israel held out for its maximalist demands.


So it would appear that Israel has been permanently stuck between a rock and a hard place.


One of the reasons why Israel’s leaders have made so many inaccurate judgments is that they have invariably taken their decisions based on assessments of what they believed that they would do if they were the enemy confronting the same situation. As a result, too often Israeli leaders have misread what are the resources that the Palestinians are able to bring to the conflict. For example, for years, Israel has maintained a full or partial blockade on Gaza, hoping that the worse things got there, the more willing the Gazans would be to make a deal favourable to Israel’s interests.


They failed to take into consideration a lesson that they had been proud to show off close to home…that people are often more resilient than they are given credit for. If that had not been the case, then those Israelis living along the border with Gaza would long ago have left their homes after they had had to spend so much time in their shelters.


Another central problem Israel has faced is that there has always been a tendency by Israeli leaders to underestimate the resources that the Palestinians have been able to bring to the conflict. For example, Israeli leaders don’t think very much of the UN. So they then try to downplay its value as a resource to others—until, for example, the Palestinians launched and won their campaign for recognition as a non-member state…which then put them in a position to delegitimize Israel in other UN bodies.


So, given all these faults, will it be possible for Kerry to succeed?


It would appear that the Americans have chosen to try to put a gag on all those taking part in the talks. Nonetheless it should be possible to gauge whether an agreement is nigh if the leaders of both sides begin to show a need to prepare their people for what will have to be a significant upheaval in perceptions.


Kerry himself is already doing his bit by responding to some of the Israeli public’s longstanding demands.  For example, he has several times declared that any agreement will have to be one in which the parties to the dispute agree that they will have no more demands on the other.


Clearly, the confrontation with issues that have long been avoided will not be easy, not least because it will force both sides to define for themselves who they are, what their priorities are, and therefore what constitutes treason and what constitutes true patriotism. Maybe, in the end, creating that internal definition for themselves will be the hardest task the negotiators will have to face.



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