Logo

Generals in the Cabinet Room: How the Military Shapes Israeli Policy

November 16, 2006

Generals in the Cabinet Room: How the Military Shapes Israeli Policy

Introduction

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you all for coming. We are very delighted to have with us Yoram Peri, who will be discussing his book, Generals in the Cabinet Room: How the Military Shapes Israeli Policy.

One of the unintended consequences of the Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon this past summer was having the spotlight thrust upon Israel's military conduct and their management of the conflict. Yet, even before the war ended with a blow to Israel's military prestige, questions were being raised about the military's role in determining Israeli foreign and defense policy and whether the military had been exerting too much influence over political leaders.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister and the principal architect of the Israeli Defense Forces, considered the military the most efficient nation-builder for a new immigrant society. He, therefore, assigned soldiers to develop agricultural settlements and to teach Hebrew to young immigrants. In this manner, the Israeli defense forces, also known as the IDF, cultivated its image as a universal militia standing above class divisions.

But the ever-present Arab threat gave rise to a burgeoning militaristic political culture, resulting in the IDF's increasing influence over Israeli foreign and defense policy. As Israeli governments became more unstable, the IDF began to play an increasingly important and hawkish role in determining the country's foreign policies. Soon, there was little distinction between the military and the political echelons in the country.

In Generals in the Cabinet Room, Professor Peri forcefully and persuasively argues a premise that, while once Israel's military was the servant of its civilian political leadership, today it is the generals who are leading the foreign and defense policymaking. He traces recent military-political Israeli history with a special focus on the 1990s and beyond and warns of a future in which democracy itself could potentially fall victim to excessive militarization. The repercussions for Israeli- Palestinian relations, Israeli democracy, and militarily led democracies are potentially earthshaking.

Yoram Peri is Israel's leading authority on civil-military relations. He writes presciently about the dangers and rifts of allowing the military to monopolize Israel's intelligence apparatus and of inviting generals into cabinet meetings to formulate policy. He is convincing in his analysis that these shifts in Israeli policies—whether giving senior officers unlimited freedom to make media appearances or encouraging a revolving door for ex-generals who retire to become politicians—are often a reflection of the military leadership's changing perceptions of the country's security needs.

In an era when many countries, including the United States, since 9/11 have ceded too much power and policymaking to the militaries in their struggle against terrorists, Professor Peri's book holds cautionary lessons.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our speaker, who has traveled quite a distance to be with us this afternoon. Thank you for coming.

Remarks

YORAM PERI: Thank you, Joanne, for inviting me. Thank you for coming on this windy evening. I thought for a minute that I was in Chicago, not in New York, when I came here.

Dr. Kissinger, when he traveled in and out of Israel every other day during his shuttle diplomacy in the middle 1970s, after realizing the structure of Israeli foreign policy, used to say that Israel does not have a foreign policy; Israel's foreign policy is the extension of Israel's domestic policy—domestic politics, if you want.

Ben-Gurion, who you mentioned, twenty years earlier said that Israel's foreign policy should serve only one aim—that is, it should serve the defense policy and be subservient of the defense policy. In fact, this is how we saw Israel's foreign ministry. The foreign minister in Israel has a much less significant position in the cabinet than very many other foreign ministers in the major issues that are debated concerning foreign policy. Sometimes he is number three or four, or even less important than that, in the cabinet.

For example, Israeli-U.S. relations are always conducted by the prime minister. The minister of defense has much more power vis-à-vis the foreign minister concerning relations between Israel and the United States. And also there are some other aspects. So the foreign policy is less devised and conducted by the ministry, but by others.

The most important thing for Israel's existence, of course, are defense issues, and therefore the defense establishment becomes so important. The reason why the defense establishment is so influential in devising and executing Israel's foreign policy is the unique case of Israel—namely, the fact that it is the only democracy in the world that since its establishment has been under prolonged or protracted war. No other state was in that situation.

If you want to trace the history of the state of Israel before the formal establishment of the state, let's say since the Balfour Declaration at the beginning of the century, every decade since the beginning of the 1920s we went through a war—sometimes just one, sometimes more than one. So that is the major impact on Israel's foreign policy.

The other impact is more domestic. It has to do with the structure of the Israeli government. Israel has a coalition government, unlike yours. I'm sure you all know that and I don't have to go into details.

But in the field of defense or the control of defense, it creates a problem, because there is no clear, single authority over the military. The military is subordinate to the defense minister, but not only to him. Above the minister you have the prime minister, but even he is not the top echelon. Above him stands the cabinet at large. So who will decide what and when—the defense minister, the prime minister, the cabinet at large? There is some vague division of labor between the three institutions. It only shows you that the political culture in Israel creates some difficulties.

Add to that the major problem that Israel has been witnessing since 1967, and even more so since 1973, and that is the fact that Israeli society is divided right in the middle between two major camps, the peace camp and the nationalist camp—these are terms; you can choose any other terms. One camp believes that the solution to the issue of the territories, the Palestinians, the peace, the war, is land for peace. The other school of thought believes that Israel should not give back territories because of very many reasons, from pragmatic, tactical, defense, up to religious reasons. But the fact is that the society is divided right in the middle.

This caused a stalemate. This is the reason why it was so difficult for every government in Israel to pursue a clear policy. Once Prime Minister Rabin decided to do it, to pursue a clear policy; though he had a majority of one seat in the Knesset out of 120, he was able to pursue the Oslo Agreement with sixty-one against fifty-nine. The Israelis remember that sixty-first gentleman who moved to support the coalition in a very negative way because he became a deputy minister, and as a deputy minister he got a Volvo. So the Israelis who were against the Oslo Peace Agreement said that the Peace Agreement was bought by a Volvo.

Anyhow, it was very difficult to pursue the majority of the Israelis. So the politicians are in difficulties. They find it very easy to push the responsibility from their own shoulders to the shoulders of the generals. So, in fact, they invite the military to take part in the political debate and political decisions.

I will give you just one example that comes to my mind. In 1971, Defense Minister Dayan thought that Israel should pursue negotiating with the Egyptians on the opening of the Suez Canal. It would be a sort of moderation action by both sides. It might have some positive reaction later on.

Prime Minister Golda Meier was very much against it—for mainly security reasons, nothing other than that—but she didn't want to confront Dayan. In the public opinion, he is the hero, the leader, the military expert; and she, as she used to say, "I am only a simple woman." That is what she used to say about herself, "I am a simple woman." Therefore, she didn't want to confront Dayan.

So what did she do? She asked the chief of staff to prepare for her some recommendations—what does he think and what does the supreme command think about that idea? She would not have approached the chief of staff, Chaim Bar-Lev, had she not known what his answer will be. The answer he gave her was the answer that she was looking for—namely, saying that Dayan's proposal was very wrong, very bad. Then she could say, "Here I am, a simple woman, but the chief of staff tells me that this is not a good idea. So who am I to say no?"

I can give you very many stories like that since many years back, and particularly in the last several years, how the politicians are trying to solve their difficulties by trying to put either the blame if something goes wrong, or the responsibility if something goes fine, on the shoulders of the generals.

So the military really plays a major role. The interesting thing is that the pundits and the experts and the observers of the Israeli scene know quite little about the role of the military. People tend to know about the foreign ministry, politicians, ministers, major public figures, but less so about the generals. I wonder how many names of Israeli generals the analysts in Washington know compared to Israeli ministers.

So that was the reason I decided to embark upon the project of writing this book. The major reason, to be more specific, was the peace initiative, because I knew that the origin of this political enterprise was the military. It was the top military echelon that realized in the late-1980s/early-1990s that Israel should start a peace process.

The rationale behind it was very simple, and today we see how clever and serious and wise was that perception. The rationale was that there is a ten-year period, a window of opportunity, for Israel, until the outer circle—namely, Libya, Iraq, and Iran—will acquire nuclear or other mass destruction capabilities and the means to get to Israel with these weapons. Therefore, Israel should try to create peace with the inner circle—namely, with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinians—to prepare itself better for the danger from the outer circle.

Having control over the Golan Heights or the hills of Jazreel and Samaria on the West Bank would not give Israel advantage in the same way that a five- minute flight over Jordan and Syria told the outer circle "we'll give it." Therefore, it was the military that pursued the idea. They came to the first prime minister from the Likud Party, Shamir, and told him, "We should start negotiating with Syria." That was the first idea. Shamir was against it, of course, because he would never think that there is any probability of reaching any agreement with the Arabs.

But when there was a change of government and Rabin took over, this policy was accepted by Rabin and by Rabin's coalition, and then Israel began to move into the peace process. The military was very influential, very helpful, in that process. It was the major tool of the prime minister, more than any other instrument, to devise the ideas, to write down the papers, to prepare the plans, to negotiate. At the last meeting in Camp David in the summer of 2000, there were more generals, either in uniform or out of uniform, reserve generals, in the Israeli delegation than civilians. So the military was really a major party in doing that.

This was what interested me, because I thought that usually people think of the military as a hawkish, almost militaristic institution. But when I got the Fulbright scholarship and I sat in Washington and I began to write the book, the Camp David talks stopped, there was a great fiasco there, and the Intifada started. Then the military shifted its policies to the other extreme, 180 degrees, and pushed the Israeli government towards adopting very harsh measures against the Palestinian insurgency, sometimes even to a point when they went beyond the position of the military, so much so that there were two or three cases where the ministers said they had the feeling that they were the tail that wagged the dog, not the other way around.

So that was an interesting story. On the one hand, we had almost ten years of a strong military advocating peace; and then, at the beginning of the second event, the military is doing the opposite. So I could look into these two cases and reach some general conclusions.

To summarize the book—not really a total summary; otherwise no one of you would read it—but the major idea is that the traditional perception of the instrumentalist model—namely, that the military is a tool of the politicians to execute policies—is not the correct description of the Israeli model. We have a different model. The model I call political-military partnership. You have politicians and generals who work together as partners, and you have two coalitions, one of hardliners and the other one of moderates, and it depends which one of the two coalitions has the upper hand in any particular moment. This is the history of Israel's defense and foreign relations. You have these coalitions' conflicting tendencies and one of the coalitions has the upper hand.

There are some people who moved from one position to another, like General Mofaz, who was the chief of staff, who was at first very much for the peace initiative, and then during the Intifada he moved to the other extreme and became a super-hawk, to the degree that he used almost excessive use of force during the first months of the Intifada, which created a vicious circle.

This is the structure that Israel has. The interesting thing is that it goes beyond the pure case of Israel, because the nature of modern wars, wars of fourth generations, or, as I say, limited conflict or low-intensity conflict, is such that these wars are very different from the previous conventional warfare in many fields. We can discuss it later if you want, but I won't go into details.

One of the things is that the clear boundaries that separate the political echelon and the military echelon are blurred, are not clear. One of two cases could happen.

In your case, in the United States, the strong political power infiltrated into the military, and you heard what the generals were thinking about Rumsfeld for the last three years. It was a clear example of infiltration of one level into the domain of the other level.

In Israel, the opposite occurred: because of the weakness of the political level, the military infiltrated into the political arena and has much stronger power. Why is that a weakness? I told you something about the structure of the Israeli coalition and the political culture. But beyond that, the weakness is because of lack of strong mechanisms of civilian control.

Now, before developing that, I have to say two things.

First of all, the military does not want to be involved in politics. It is not that we have generals who are eager to decide what Israel's foreign policy will be. They find themselves forced to do so because of lack of initiatives and lack of responsibility by the politicians. Whenever the cabinet, the prime minister, the defense minister, decide to pursue a certain policy, the generals will do it.

I spoke about Dayan earlier. Dayan was the chief of staff in 1957. When Ben-Gurion decided to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula, Dayan was very much against it. Ben-Gurion invited him to talk to the Israeli Labour Party, which was then Mapai, the parliamentary group. Dayan came, without uniform, told them why he thinks that it's a mistake to withdraw from Sinai. But once the prime minister decided that this would be the policy, of course he executed the policy; there was no question about that.

I can go through half-a-dozen major events like that. The last one was the withdrawal from Gaza. Chief of Staff "Boogie" Ya'alon—we call our generals by nicknames; so it's Moshe Ya'alon, but we call him "Boogie" Ya'alon—was very much against it. He even spoke publicly against it. This is something that Israeli generals do; they speak publicly about political issues. But once he realized that Sharon wanted to pursue that policy, he began to operate according to these lines.

The same thing happened two years before. When prime minister and defense minister Barak decided to withdraw unilaterally from south Lebanon, the chief of staff Mofaz was against it but he executed the decision.

So we are not talking about a Latin American style of military regime. It is a strong democracy, and the military does perceive its position as it should be in democracies. However, in the informal structure, behind the scenes, the power of the military is very much as I said before.

One of the reasons, in addition to the ones that I mentioned already, is lack of strong mechanisms. For example, the cooling-off period. The cooling-off period was, until a year ago, very short. A chief of staff or any other general, 100 days after he left the military—and don't forget that the Israeli officers do not serve until they retire when they are sixty-five; they retire usually in their early forties or middle forties—when they retire, within 100 days they can jump into the Knesset or the cabinet. Well, it was changed, and now it is six months.

But this is, I think, a very bad thing. I think it is a very bad system, that a chief of staff could overnight become defense minister. It creates a politicization of the military and a militarization of the politics. There should be a cooling-off period of four or five years.

Take the National Security Council. Israel has a National Security Council, but to compare ours to yours is like to compare a mouse with an elephant. The Israeli National Security Council does nothing. They write some papers, wonderful papers from time to time, that no one reads.

It is the military who has the monopoly over the information, the assessment, and the proposals that are brought to the cabinet. In each cabinet meeting, there are very many officers who sit during the cabinet meeting and influence the decision-making process.

There are half-a-dozen more mechanisms like that, which have been there for years and have not been changed. I don't think this is a good thing. I think it should be different.

The fact that the military is so strong was clearly evident  last summer, during the war in Lebanon. My book was published a month or so before the war. Some of my best friends argued that I was behind the war, not only to make promotion for the book, but to show that the arguments that I have in my book are correct, because if you see the arguments there, you understand better what happened in Lebanon. I promise you that I wasn't involved with that.

What happened there, particularly in the first few days, was really an expression of this weakness of civilian control. We had a prime minister and a defense minister without any experience in international affairs, not to say in defense issues, and we had a very strong chief of staff who came from the air force and belongs to the hawkish or the hardline school. So when the Hezbollah kidnapped some Israeli soldiers and killed some others, he came to the cabinet meeting and told them what should be done.

The deliberations did not take more than three hours. Israel went to war in three hours. In all previous wars, the deliberations took months, if not more than that. In the first war in Lebanon in 1982, the deliberations took more than a year—and not only in the cabinet; the public opinion, the newspapers; there were articles for or against attacking the PLO infrastructure in south Lebanon. In this case, it was only three hours, mainly because of the weakness of the politicians and because of the self-confidence of the chief of staff.

Now, I am not going into details, and I am sure that you will be asking questions about the war, and I want to end here.

But I believe that the war was a just war. Israel had the right to start the war against Hezbollah—not so much because of the kidnapping, but because of the violation of the international agreement concerning south Lebanon and the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the serious threat. I don't think that any democracy would have accepted building up of 20,000 missiles five minutes from their centers of population, stepping aside and saying, "Well, it's there; we shouldn't do anything."

But it was not wise to start the war. Israel should have negotiated, tried to find a political solution, tried to solve the issue in other ways; and if that doesn't work, then war should be the last resort, not the first option. The reason that it was the first option was because this is how the chief of staff looked at the matter and there was no counterbalance to say, "Wait a minute. Let's negotiate."

What happened in 1967 when Abdel Nassar moved the Egyptian army into Sinai? The military said, "We have to attack; otherwise they are building their power and we will not be able to hold against them for a long time." But the government said, "No," and negotiations began, and it took two months of very, very condensed negotiations in the summer. This was the waiting period. When all attempts failed, then the order was given to start the war. Therefore, Israel got, not only international support, but the military got totally support of the population in Israel. The results were positive.

In this particular case, because of the quick decision, an unbalanced perception about the implications of the war, the military started the war without realizing that it was a war. The chief of staff, for example, conducted the war not from the war room—he didn't go to the war room for five, six days—he conducted it from his office. The commander of the Israeli boat opposite Lebanon did not switch on the schmidgik [phonetic] that starts the antimissile system. So on Friday evening, all the soldiers went for Kaballat Shabbat, for Friday evening dinner, and then the missiles attacked them. They didn't realize where they were.

I'll give one more sentence and then I'll stop. The perception of the first stage of the war was the right perception. The idea was that Israel has to destroy the long-range and medium-range missiles that were located in south Lebanon. That was devised for the air force. The perception was that it would take three days, and it should have been done sooner or later—better later, but should have been done. But after that third day the war should have been ended with a victory, with a great success, with the support of the G8 and some Arab states.

But then things began to deteriorate, again because of lack of wider perception, deeper perception, and more balanced perception, which is the result of the unhealthy structure that we have in political-military relations.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you. I think you've tempted us to raise some very interesting questions from the audience.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: So now which way is the wind blowing as to negotiating with Syria, around not negotiating, going to war against them?

YORAM PERI: That's a very good question, because one of my real surprises when I began to collect information that led to the war was the fact that the military, as of 1999, advocated negotiation with Syria. The military begged Prime Minister Barak to negotiate with Syria and to sign a peace agreement with Syria. Barak changed his mind and withdrew because he thought that the Israeli public opinion would not let him do that.

And it wasn't only then. Chiefs of staff who came after and came to prime ministers, like to Barak and Sharon, and advised them that Israel should negotiate with Syria and accept the agreement that was more or less formulated. It was very near agreement; there were very few issues that were left open.

That story was not known, not only abroad, but even not in Israel. I was really surprised to see that. I saw the documents, so it was beyond just hearsay and interviews. I saw documents that that was the position of three chiefs of staff and four or five heads of the military intelligence.

The answer that all of them gave—some of the answers were reasonable; others were not. The reasonable answer of Sharon was that, "We cannot indulge in withdrawal from two fronts at the same time; we cannot withdraw from Gaza and from the Golan Heights at the same time; the opposition in Israel will be too strong." That is a very good answer. He couldn't have done that.

There were some other answers. But the most effective answer of the prime ministers was that "Washington doesn't like that idea." That was what Barak said, that was what Sharon said, and this is what Olmert is saying now.

Now, the military today does not advocate that. The present chief of staff and his major lieutenants belong to the hardline school. They do not believe that Israel should negotiate now with Syria. But for six years that was the position of the military, which shows you that if you do not understand the subtleties of the different officers, you might get a misinterpretation of their behavior or would not be able to read their positions correctly.

I am sorry that it has not been done. I think that it should have been done. I am not sure that we would have been able to achieve peace with Syria, but at least we could have tried to do that. And had it been successful, we could have solved the problem of the Hezbollah, not by attacking them, but by preventing them from the rationale to be in south Lebanon in the first place.

So perhaps, with the recommendations of the Newell Commission next week—or when is it going to be published in Washington—some change will occur in Washington and will move us into the negotiation track. Whether it will happen or not, I am not sure. You are familiar more than I am with your scenery here.

QUESTION: Militarily, picking up on the last point of your speech going back to the war, what did the Israeli general staff really expect to achieve militarily after the first three days? When you think about NATO's experience in Kosovo—seventy-eight days of bombing, over 1,000 aircraft taking part in some of these sorties, huge attacks, and yet negligible effect in terms of Serbian VJ units on the ground; you had that experience of NATO as recently as six, seven years ago—and yet, did the Israeli defense force really think that they could make an impressionable impact militarily after three days of token strikes? What was the military objective beyond the three days, from an Israeli general's perspective?

YORAM PERI: You have to distinguish between the short-term aims of the three days and the long-term aims. The three days was a very successful operation, and the major aim was to destroy, as I said before, the long-range and the middle-range missiles of the Hezbollah, which really were a serious threat to Israel's security, a very serious threat. That was a great success.

Then they thought that they would be able to do more than that, to destroy the Hezbollah infrastructure at large, to weaken the Hezbollah to a position that it would be negligible, to push them away from south Lebanon. That wasn't pie in the sky. It could have been achieved had it been done differently.

In a way, at least formally, the Hezbollah should not be now in south Lebanon. The fact that they have brought already the same number of missiles that they lost during the war since the U.N. resolution is a different story.

Some of it could have been achieved. But it was done in a very hesitant way, very slowly, cautiously. Targets were changed several times during the same day. In a way, Israel was not prepared for that war because Israel was prepared for a conventional war. In the last decade, and particularly the last six years, the Israeli military has prepared itself very well for a sort of Intifada. But the war in south Lebanon was a new sort of war, in between these two wars, and the military was not prepared for that war.

QUESTION: Professor, given your understanding of the thinking of the military and the political leadership in Israel today, do you think it is inevitable that they will make a strike against Iran before Iran develops the bomb?

YORAM PERI:
I was surprised that that was the third question and not the first, because I spoke yesterday at Harvard and the day before that in Washington and that was the first question.

I don't think that it will be done. I don't think that it could achieve anything. I mean it is too complicated to attack Iran—it's too far; there are too many targets; they are well hidden and very deep in the ground—and the reaction would be horrific if there would be such an attack. I don't think that the Israeli military contemplates that.

But nevertheless, it is a very serious matter, and one should not underestimate the danger of a nuclearized Iran. It is a serious matter. Even if some people say that the Iranian president is not going to do what he says he will do—namely, he doesn't really mean that he wants to destroy Israel—even if he doesn't say that—and, by the way, I wouldn't take the chance; even if it is 0.01 percent, you can't take chances with such things.

But even if that is what he means, the mere nuclearization of Iran will dramatically change the entire balance of power in the region. It will force other states to become nuclearized, e.g., Saudi Arabia and other states. It will increase the threshold of conventional warfare.

Some people ask another question, which I guess some of you would ask later: Why should Iran not have nuclear power if Israel has nuclear power? That's what they say, that Israel has nuclear power. The reason is that Israel's policy is to use the nuclear power only in the worst scenario, only if Israel is going to be on the verge of destruction.

In fact, the nuclear power of Israel was a stabilizing force in the Middle East. President Sadat would have not signed a peace treaty with Israel had he not known that he cannot win over Israel in the battlefield. We have the records of his way of thinking. It is because of Israel's nuclear capability that he decided to move from the war option to a peace option.

But this is not the case with Iran. If Iran is nuclearized, the conventional violence in Israel and wars could be opened very easily, knowing that Israel does not have the ultimate answer. So it will really create a destabilization of the entire area, and God forbid what can happen. I think it is really a serious matter for the international community to look at in a very serious way.

QUESTION: I wonder if you could say a few words about what is going on in Gaza. It sounds like the military and the government are not very successful in developing any relationship with the Palestinians in Gaza. Could you talk about it, please?

YORAM PERI: Yes. Well, it is really a mess there. If one looks for some optimism, he has to be really a very strong and real and deep-down optimist to see a new solution there. The disintegration of the Palestinian society has reached such a level that no one can control it. 

You hear more about the Hamas, but there are other extreme groups which are worse than the Hamas. Even if the Hamas will agree for a short hoodna [phonetic—ceasefire], the others will not. Each time someone takes some moderate positions, new organizations are created that take more extreme positions. And now, with the addition of the religious aspect to the conflict, it is a serious problem.

What happens in Israel is really sad, because the Israelis are losing their sensitivity. It can be understood, if every day you have tons of Qassam missile rockets fall on Israeli towns and villages—not settlements on the West Bank, but in Israel proper, on schools, on high schools. My wife teaches at Sapir College, not far from Sderot. They got already three or four Qassams there, the school. So they will say nothing.

But once Israel attacks, and unfortunately it hits civilians, then the U.N. Security Council condemns Israel. So the Israelis become blasé and they don't want to hear about it. In fact, the Israeli media covers very little what is going on in Gaza. People don't want to know about it. It is very bad for the Israeli moral values.

PARTICIPANT: What about the suffering of civilians?

YORAM PERI: Civilians suffer, of course. There are some Israeli journalists who write about that, but there is a routinization of the suffering. You can understand why. You shouldn't accept it, but you can understand why it happens.

So on both sides there is a vicious circle. I didn't like it, but I am afraid that I have to adopt the view of the former Israeli minister of foreign affairs, Shlomo Ben-Ami, who thinks that without a third partner the Israelis and the Palestinians will not be able to solve the problem. We need a third partner, and preferably the United States, but only if they do the right thing, not the wrong thing.

QUESTION: I agree with you that this was a very unwise war and that there were many unintended consequences that were really, I think, quite devastating for Israel. I won't go into all of them.

But what baffles me is that the public opinion in Israel, from what I've read, is very critical of the leadership now, particularly the minister of defense, who had no experience whatsoever in defense or war. Why have there not been any changes made? Why hasn't Olmert made changes? It seems to me that the public opinion within Israel was very critical of the war.  Why isn't there more of a clamor, first of all, from the population within Israel to get rid of him or to make a change, and why hasn't Olmert made a change, because the advice he got was quite devastating?

One other question: Why isn't there more criticism of the military because their judgment was so poor? If, indeed, the military advised Olmert, they gave very, very, very bad advice.

YORAM PERI: Your analysis derives from the fact that you are familiar with the American system, not with the Israeli system. Olmert cannot change the position, he cannot. It's a coalition, and his major partner in the coalition is the Labour Party. Peretz is the leader of the Labour Party. It is for the Labour Party to decide who is going to be their representative in the cabinet.

QUESTIONER: But there was a suggestion recently to change the system.

YORAM PERI:
Yes. It will take some time. But there are suggestions that the Labour Party will demand that Olmert will be changed, and there are other proposals that both of them will leave the coalition. Israel is going through a crisis, and the reason for the crisis is that there is no real alternative.

In 1973, there was a similar crisis after the October war, but then the Labour Party was in power for forty-three years. It had the world record of a democratic party in power. But once there was the failure, the mishap, of the October war, people turned to the leader of the opposition, who lost elections one after the other since 1948—1949, 1951, 1955, 1959, 1961, 1965—and then they chose him as prime minister.

Today this is not the situation. People have lost confidence with the entire political structure, and there is no clear alternative within the Kadima for Olmert, within the Labour Party for Peretz, within the political structure for these parties.

So the reaction of most Israelis is depression and withdrawal into their private gardens. You don't see so many demonstrations. People are fed up and there is lack of activism.

It will take some time, because people are very unhappy. The level of support is very low for all public institutions—from the president, for other reasons that have nothing to do with the war, which Prime Minister Putin liked; to the chief of the police; to the supreme court; to the chief rabbi; to the Knesset; and the military, for the first time. There is a decline in the level of confidence. We are going through a hard period.

The first thing that we will have to see is what will be the conclusions of the special commission that was established by the government under the supreme court judge Vinograd. If this commission comes out with very firm criticism of the prime minister or the defense minister, that might turn the wheel. Before that, I cannot see a change because there is no alternative. There is no alternative.

I spoke earlier about the two schools of thought that created this stalemate in Israel. What happened in the third year of the Intifada was a great novelty. I call it the Israeli third way, unlike the British or European third way. When Sharon as prime minister realized that he could not squash the Intifada, he could not end the Intifada, he felt that there was a new perception developing in the public opinion and he crystallized it. It had three elements.

The first element was that there is no partner. The Palestinians are not ripe for negotiations, for peace. We will not have peace in our time, in our generation. We have to wait. That was the novelty.

Second, in spite of that, the continuation of the occupation is not an asset but a liability. Therefore, Israel should withdraw from part of the territories to increase our security—not to create peace; there is no chance of having peace. He began to talk about charash (silence, quiet). Today Israelis don't talk about peace anymore; they talk about quiet, charash, silence—namely, a lower level of hostilities, a lower level of violence.

The third element is let's do it unilaterally because there is no partner. What happened in the war in Lebanon—and if some of you have any relations with Nasrallah, please convey this message to him—he destroyed that third camp.

What happened with Sharon is he had to devise a new party to pursue this new third way. He took with him half of the nationalist camp, to the Left, and there was a majority of Israelis who were willing to give back territories, even knowing that there would be no peace. But once that was done and Israel withdrew from Gaza, and the Hamas continued to attack us, and then the Hezbollah in Lebanon—and Lebanon does not have any claim from Israel, and we thought that the United Nations agreed, accepted the line, and everybody is happy—and then we are attacked.

So the majority of the Israelis said, "The third way is the wrong way, because here we are giving back territories and what do we get in return? Continuation of violence."

So half of the nationalist camp that moved to the Left moved back to the Right and half of the peace camp moved to the Right. Today, there is still a majority of Israelis who say that eventually, in ten to fifteen years, when peace will be closer, we will have to give back territories; but in the near future forget about giving back territories.

Mr. Shimon Peres, who always has the most developed sense for the public opinion—this is the reason that he has remained in politics forever—said a few weeks ago that in the next five to ten years, no question, we are not going to contemplate giving back territories and dismantling settlements.

So that was the awful effect of the war in Lebanon. Perhaps this is what Hezbollah and Nasrallah wanted. If this is what they wanted, they got it.

QUESTION: Thank you. Just to build on the question earlier, first of all, Mr. Rumsfeld was around for a very long time and our president didn't see fit to remove him. So I'm not so sure why Mr. Olmert should be expected to remove his chief of staff so quickly. That's number one.

Number two, it's really the question of public opinion and how much it drives rational behavior. Now, if you watched any of the hearings yesterday in the Senate, you had these poor generals who were being pummeled by the senators, and the senators kept saying, "But the public doesn't want this." Now, that doesn't seem to figure. I don't know what they should be doing or not doing, but how much weight does public opinion have over rationality or good planning?

Just one last thing. When General Mofaz was in between jobs, he was in a small group in New York. I asked him at the time about the West Bank. I said, "What role does the West Bank play in terms of Israeli security?" He mumbled a little bit. I repeated the question. Then he said, "It's entirely political." That's what he said at that time. Now, apparently he has changed his mind several times. He said it in front of twenty people, so it's not my imagination.

YORAM PERI:
When did he say that?

QUESTIONER: When he left his first job, before he got the new job in the government, so it was in between things. My question is: How is it possible to arrive at some rational decision in planning future policy? Is it possible, or do we have to keep going like this forever?

YORAM PERI: It is possible, but definitely not if you tend to give too much attention to the public opinion. Ben-Gurion used to say, "I don't care what the people think; I know what they need." On the one hand, you can say that is not democratic. But I believe that leadership is really examined when the leader knows what is needed and pursues a policy that he thinks is the right policy. Eventually, the people will decide whether to vote for him or not.

If you devise your policies according to the shifting public opinion, that is very bad. And, indeed, I can give you two examples, one from the Right and one from the Left, one of Netanyahu and the other of Barak, who were too much attuned to the public opinion and therefore changed their minds.

Two years ago, I wrote a book called Telepopulism: Media and Politics in Israel, in which I described the revolution that took place in the Israeli political system during the 1990s, when your system, where the media is so important, got into Israel. It was novel to us. We lagged behind you about twenty years and ten years after the Europeans. So the things that you are very much aware of—for example, the role of campaign experts and public opinion—became very novel.

There was a story when Netanyahu was in the midst of very serious negotiations, he asked his counterpart to wait a minute because someone came to him and whispered something into his ear. What he whispered was the results of the public opinion poll concerning the proposal. That is what the gentleman who spoke to Netanyahu put before him. This is not a way to handle international relations.

Barak, who almost agreed to the major lines of the settlement between Egypt, Israel, and Syria, withdrew at the last minute because of public opinion polls that he received.

So I think that you have to be attuned, that you have to listen to the people, but you cannot conduct serious foreign relations if you are too sensitive to public opinion all the time.

QUESTION: I sometimes think that the Israeli National Security Council was established to make the folks of the foreign ministry feel better about themselves, because now they are not the people least regarded; it is now the National Security Council.

I'd like to distance myself a little bit from politics and the current events. I hate to take our dirty laundry out in public, but as an Israeli I am very concerned about the core problem that I think lies here and everything else is just a symptom. We're talking about lack of planning as a norm, I think, in Israeli society; the over-politicization of the system on all levels. For someone whose unit was active in the last campaign in southern Lebanon—you said Israelis are blasé and they're frustrated. Yes, and it is very, very serious.

As a young boy, I remember demonstrations after the Lebanon war, or even during the Lebanon war, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating. And then, during the Oslo years, if you take the other side of the political map, there were hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating against Oslo. So the public, it seems, was a lot more involved. They felt there was something wrong and they wanted to correct it. Now there is almost this innate dismissal—or, as you described it, blasé or fatigued.

This is something that really upsets me. When I read in the Israeli newspapers, or example, recently that Halutz was actually appointed because Sharon felt that he was the most intelligent guy around and that he won't object to the pullout from Gaza like "Boogie" did—when I hear that, that that's the reason why you appoint somebody to be chief of staff, even though I admire Sharon and Olmert, that boils my blood. So,my question is: What do you think about this core issue, which is basically the public and what can be done about it? Because for people who care about Israel something has to change.

YORAM PERI: You are right in describing some of the weaknesses of the Israeli political system. But it is beyond that. It is even not political culture. It is the culture of improvisation.

Now, the Israelis are very good at improvisation, and it gives some advantages. I mean no Israeli will plan his summer vacation in January. You will plan your summer vacation, you will buy the tickets, somewhere in July. When we hear about you, that you are planning your vacations six months ahead, we say, "You are crazy. In six months you know what can happen?"

Indeed, in the Middle East many things happen in six months. Would we have ever thought in the beginning of summer that we would be in the midst of war?

The major developments that affected Israel's history were unexpected. Did you ever expect the Soviet Union to collapse so soon? Did you ever expect to have a million immigrants, 20 percent growth of the population in Israel, within three to four years? Did you ever expect in the 1950s to have 600,000 Jews coming from North Africa, creating the makeup of the Israeli society, with all the problems between those who have and those who have not ? Ashkenazim-Sephardim, and all that? The major 1967 war, which created the major issue that we are still busy with for the last forty years, was unexpected. It came suddenly in the summer of 1967. So Israeli politicians and Israelis at large say, "Don't plan for more than two years."

I remember when I was the political advisor to Prime Minister Rabin, I used to ask him, "So what will be the third step?" He used to tell me, "Are you crazy? The third step? I don't know the second step. It's good if I know the first step. If the first step will be the correct one, the second step will be the correct one. Third step? Who knows what can happen?"

There is a wonderful Jewish story about that, about the dog and the rich man. The Jewish community lived in a village in Eastern Europe and the rich man who owned that village decided that he wants to get rid of the Jews—enough; he doesn't like the Jews there. So he called the rabbi and he told him, "I'm going to push you out. I don't want you anymore. I don't like you."

What can the rabbi do? I mean he's in real trouble. So he said, "I want to ask you one thing. Let me teach your dog to talk. If I'm able to teach him, don't disperse the Jews. If not, then disperse the Jews."

There was quite a pause, but then the rich man said, "All right, five days. Teach the dog to talk." He gave him the five days.

The rabbi came back to his fellows and he told them what happened. He said, "The bad news is that he wants to throw us out, but the good news is that we have five days. In five days either the rich man will die or the dog will die. We'll see."

So the Zionist movement really operated like that. This was one of the strengths of the Zionist movement, to look for opportunities, to find ways to maneuver. If you live surrounded by millions of people who don't want to see a Jewish state in the Middle East, you have to have flexibility.

So we pay in one way —we don't plan our summer vacations six months ahead—but, on the the hand, we have other good characteristics. Because of that, I believe that we will be able to overcome this crisis and to learn from the mistakes and to be better in the future.

QUESTION: "The military" is a comprehensive term; so is the term "generals" in this case. Part of the problem with the war recently is that there was a conflict between the Air Force generals and the Army generals in the case of boots on the ground. How is that to be resolved in Israel in the future?

YORAM PERI:
It will be resolved definitely in one way: I don't see in the next twenty years any Air Force officer as the chief of staff in Israel. He was the first one and the last one.

JOANNE MYERS:
I thank you for a refreshingly candid presentation. It was really terrific. Thank you very much.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less