Carnegie Council's U.S. Global Engagement program gratefully acknowledges the support for its work from the following: Alfred and Jane Ross Foundation, Donald M. Kendall, and Rockefeller Family & Associates.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the Carnegie Council. I'm David Speedie, the director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement here at the Council.
It's a great pleasure for me to have tonight's guest here, Chuck Freilich. I've been trying to get Chuck for a while, and finally it has come about.
Very briefly, Dr. Freilich is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He teaches political science at Harvard, the University of Tel Aviv, and, I have just learned, at three universities in New York—Columbia, NYU, and Yeshiva. He talked about spare time. I'm not quite sure what that is. But he is ubiquitous.
He was formerly the deputy national security advisor for the state of Israel and was earlier a senior analyst at the Israeli Ministry of Defense. He is a prolific author of books, opinion pieces, scholarly articles, and is a frequent media expert commentator in the United States, Israel, and beyond. He is also, I like to think, a friend and a former office next-door neighbor.
He has just returned from a few months in Israel. As I said, we've tried to get Chuck here for a while. There has perhaps never been a better time to have him. We asked him—the title of the event here—to deliver what we call a "Report from the Middle East."
As we know, Israel lives in an interesting extended neighborhood. The greater Middle East is certainly getting our attention from the recent elections in Israel, which I know Chuck will mention, with the distinct cooling of the Arab Spring euphoria in Egypt, the protracted and tragic civil war in Syria, and just yesterday the assassination of the opposition leader in Tunisia. So in the context of this extended regional maelstrom, Chuck brings not just a regular sort of commentary but a very interesting and critical lens through which one may see Israel in its contemporary environment.
The lens is that of how Israel constructs and conducts its national security policy. In fact, that is the subtitle of his new book, Zion's Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy. In the book's introduction, Dr. Freilich offers the following two observations: First, "National security policy has been at the forefront of Israeli political life for over six decades;" second, "Israel has not developed a sophisticated decision-making process commensurate with the vital importance of national security issues for the nation."
So we have the paradox of national security policy at the forefront of Israeli political life but lack of a sophisticated decision-making process. Please welcome Chuck Freilich, who will explain that paradox. Thank you.
CHARLES FREILICH: Thank you very much, David. It's my pleasure to be here. I didn't know it was so hard to get me here. It's ordinarily not that hard.
In any event, I wanted to start with a really quick and fast overview of what happened in the elections and, more importantly, what that means for policy in the few primary areas, and then I'll devote a few minutes to the book.
But I can't talk about the elections now without first telling you the story that made the rounds four years ago in the last elections, during the transition when Olmert was still the outgoing prime minister and before Netanyahu entered office. The story is that some guy comes to the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, knocks on the door, and Olmert's wife answers.
He says, "Hi. I'd like to see the prime minister, please."
She says, "Well, you know he's not really the prime minister anymore. In any event, he's not home."
"Thank you very much." Walks away.
Fifteen minutes later, the same guy comes, knocks on the door, "Hi, I'd like to see the prime minister, please."
"I told you before he's not really the prime minister anymore. In any event, he's not home."
"Thank you very much." Walks away.
Fifteen minutes later, the same guy comes, knocks on the door, "Hi, I'd like to see the prime minister, please."
She says, "Tell me, what are you, stupid, are you dense? I told you he's not the prime minister. Don't you understand?"
He says, "Yes, I understand. It's just so good to hear it." [Laughter]
So the good thing about that is you get to change the names every few years and you can localize it.
This was the first election in Israel's history which, believe it or not, had nothing to do with national security policy. It was all about domestic policy. The first time in the country's history.
I would say that there is a good reason for that and a bad reason for that. The good reason is that Israel has become relatively secure and can now start focusing on things that people in most countries want to look at, which are mostly wallet issues. The bad reason was that people in Israel, and on the Palestinian side as well, maybe in the Mideast as a whole, have frankly despaired of the chances for peace anyway, so why waste our time talking about that? Let's focus about something that maybe we can do something about.
The big winner in this election was Yair Lapid. You all read about it in the paper. He ran on a platform which was almost entirely domestically focused.
The elections as a whole had to do, first and foremost, with what is in Israel something of a wedge issue, the issue of the role of the ultra-Orthodox community—military service, they're exempt to date; transfer payments to the ultra-Orthodox population—and then a variety of other economic issues—the cost of living, the cost of housing; electoral reform, which for the first time in a long time is now on the agenda.
The big loser in this election, of course, was Netanyahu, the Likud, and the right wing. The Likud went down from 42 to 31 seats and the right as a whole lost four seats, so it was a four-seat gain for the left, or the center and the left— actually mostly for the left.
The question is—and this is a question; I don't know the answer—whether we have now seen a bottoming out and the beginning of a revival of the Israeli left, which was totally decimated by the failure of Camp David in 2000 and the Intifada afterwards.
The second big winner was Bennett, the head of a hard-right religious party—not ultra-Orthodox but a hard-right religious party. Interestingly, he may join Lapid in trying to get through a similar domestic agenda.
Netanyahu is in a position today where, on the one hand, if you just look at the numbers, he can form almost any coalition he wants—a right-wing coalition, a centrist, or centrist-left coalition—with or without the religious parties. On the other hand, it's going to be very, very hard to form any one of these coalitions. It's going to be really difficult to do so.
To assess how this will affect foreign policy, of course, is hard to do until we know who is in the coalition. But let me try and make a few quick assumptions, or predictions more correctly.
First of all, I think it's fair to say Lapid will probably be in any coalition. It will probably be a more centrist one. Whatever it is, it will be a more centrist one. This probably bodes well for U.S.-Israeli relations. Hopefully, the friction of recent months will decrease. I think Netanyahu knows that it's not tenable in any event, and hopefully his new coalition partners will make that easier. And I think Obama also knows that it's not tenable, and that's why we're seeing that he's going to be visiting Israel some time next month, literally days after, hopefully, the coalition is formed.
But at the same time, the primary issues are the same primary issues and they will still be there. There will be the peace process/Palestinian issue; there will be the Iranian issue; there's the Syrian issue today. On these issues some of the differences, many of them, will certainly remain, or at least the questions will remain.
Let me start with the peace process. Had we gotten together two weeks ago, before the elections, I would have said, if I had been asked to advise the American administration what to do—and I say this as someone who desperately would like to see a breakthrough for peace—don't even try now. Or if you want to do a little low-level exploration, fine, but don't give it a serious effort.
The big question that is going to be debated in the administration, is probably being debated already these days, is: Do we actually really want to make a major push? Do we possibly even want to put an American peace plan on the table? That's pretty much the ultimate American step.
My position two weeks ago, and largely at the moment, would be: Don't do it, because it is going to fail. There is no way it's going to work. What Clinton couldn't do in 2000 with the Barak proposals and traumatic peace proposals, what Bush couldn't do in 2008 with Olmert's equally dramatic proposal, aren't going to happen today. You don't have a partner on either side.
I think trying and failing at this point is worse than not trying, because the Mideast peace process has had too many failures. Both on the Palestinian side and on the Israeli side, people have despaired of the chances of success, and another failure will simply erode whatever limited residual goodwill and hope is there. So I would have said, "Bide your time, bite down, wait until more propitious circumstances exist."
Now, I'm not sure that that has changed. The elections in Israel may now have provided for an opening—and I say "may;" I'm not sure. On the other hand, there hasn't been a change on the Palestinian side. As long as the Palestinians remain divided between West Bank and Gaza, they cannot reach a deal. They certainly can't deliver on it. Maybe they can sign a deal, but they can't deliver on it. Gaza is for all practical purposes an independent entity today.
And if they do manage to reconcile—which I believe is very unlikely, but let's say they do—it will be a paper agreement, it will not be a true reconciliation. In any event, it will, I would say, almost definitely be on Hamas's terms, and Hamas's terms are not acceptable to Israel or to, frankly, most of the international community, certainly the United States.
So I would say, Go slow, cautiously. See if there is an opening on the Israeli side. See if you can get the sides talking at some low level. Set some limited objectives to go on for that. In the meantime, there are so many other issues related to the peace process and other non-peace-process issues on the agenda at the moment, focus where you can do something. Prevent a breakdown of the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Prevent the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Prevent renewed warfare or violence on the West bank. Prevent the collapse of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. There are so many other things that can be done at the moment that are more immediate.
Iran: 2013 may or may not be the crucial year. We've heard it before. If you remember, a few months ago Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak were saying that the crunch might come between late spring and the summer of this year.
Now, what we have seen twice already in the last year or so is that when the Iranians reached the critical level of uranium production, of medium enriched, which would bring them almost to the bomb, they have diverted it to a civilian use, because they clearly do not want to reach a crisis with the international community. They want to reach the nukes, but they don't want to do it in a way that will lead to an absolute crisis and maybe get them attacked by the United States or Israel or whomever. So they have diverted twice.
Take a look at the calendar for this year. Presidential elections in Iran in June. The new president comes into power in September. That means we just have a few months until the elections. Probably not the period in which Iran—or any country—is able to make major concessions. And just by the way, if there's any hope for that, the Supreme Leader Khamenei just came out with a statement yesterday destroying any hope for that in any event. But with the elections looming, it's unlikely that this is a period in which they could make the concessions. And conversely, it's also not the period in which they probably want to reach a crisis.
So the question is whether they are going to decide to avert again. If they do, then we've gained far more time. It will bring us towards the end of the year, maybe even into 2014. If not, 2013 may be the crunch.
Now, I for one, if it was up to me, I think the United States should put a dramatic proposal on the table, the so-called grand bargain. Some people say, "That's too much, the traffic can't bear that, the Iranians can't go for that, so make it a limited deal." Well, that's what the United States has been trying to do for the last year, and there has been no traction. The Iranians have simply refused to pick up the ball.
I would still put a grand bargain on the table, and I would make major concessions in that grand bargain, because the bottom line has to be, even at a heavy cost, to get the Iranian nuclear program to be suspended, to be stopped. I think we all have to agree on one thing, and that is that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable.
To the extent that we can deal with it through diplomacy, through sanctions, everybody prefers that; and certainly nobody is talking of other means as long as there is any hope of that happening. So put the deal on the table, see if they can accept it.
I think the United States needs it also for its domestic opinion, for the international community, to show that this isn't the case of Iraq, that every option has been exhausted before we then turn to other options. Hopefully, we won't have to get there, but we may reach that point.
For Israel, certainly the situation has become even more difficult now. President Obama to date did not, let's say, demonstrate great enthusiasm for military action, and his two new appointees, the secretary of state and secretary of defense, do not look like they are particularly eager to go the military route either.
The Israeli cabinet may. We'll see again what the coalition is. Netanyahu may have a harder time in this new coalition in getting the required majority. The person who I would say is—this is of course still speculation—most likely to be defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon, former chief of staff, is actually somebody who is known to have not been an advocate of precipitous military action. He hasn't ruled it out, but he certainly has not been eager to do it.
Aside from that, then there are all the other costs related to action. What is the Hezbollah response, the Hamas response? What will the Iranians do? Their direct capability is limited. What effect will this have on what's happening in Egypt, on the peace treaty with Egypt, potentially on the situation in Syria?
So this is a momentous decision if and when it has to be made. Hopefully, we won't reach that point. But the bottom line is I believe we have to agree that Iran cannot be allowed to go nuclear.
Egypt: I think the chances of Egypt becoming in any way a moderate democracy are slim at best. Far more likely that Egypt will become, the direction I think it is heading today, a radical Islamist state. Hopefully, it won't be radical, it will be moderate. There is a danger or the possibility that the military will decide to step back in. That could happen.
I think in any event, whichever scenario plays out, Egypt is going to be in a period of prolonged chaos and instability. At the end of that period, one of the previous scenarios will end up being the one that evolves.
Bottom line, I think the best we can hope for is an Egypt which is less pro-Western, less pro-American, and less committed to the peace with Israel. That's the best we can hope for. And there is a danger that it could be much worse than that. For the first time in four decades, Israel now has to take into account that it can find itself at war again with Egypt.
Certainly, I think the chances of the peace treaty itself being in force a few years from now—I will be thrilled to see that happen. I don't think it's going to be there. That doesn't necessarily mean warfare, but for the first time in four decades that could happen—a dramatic change for the worse in Israel's strategic circumstances, a dramatic change for the worse for American policy in the Mideast. Egypt has been the linchpin of American policy in the region since 1974.
We also have to make sure that the Egyptians do what they can to clamp down in Sinai, which has become lawless. Not only is it a problem for Egypt, but it exports its violence towards Israel. It's a potential flashpoint which can lead to conflict—not necessarily warfare, but just more terrorist attacks from Sinai into Egypt. I'm not sure that the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty can bear another one of these attacks. Or putting pressure on Hamas—I'm not sure that the peace treaty will be able to survive another round with Hamas.
On Syria, The New York Times reported last week that the president wants to—this is my word—subcontract the problem to Jordan and Turkey, to let them handle the nuclear arsenal if the need to intervene militarily happens. I've got to tell you I was not impressed by that. This isn't just some other military operation. This is something that has to be pinpoint, it's got to be perfect, if it's done, if we reach that point, and it could happen tomorrow. The last thing any of us wants is to wake up tomorrow morning and there are Syrian chemical weapons in New York or in Tel Aviv or anywhere else in the world.
I'm all for burden-sharing with allies. The United States doesn't always have to be the one carrying the weight militarily, but I think it does have to be the one leading. In a situation like this, the only two countries I would trust to carry out an operation like this are the United States and Israel. No disrespect to anyone else, I would not subcontract this to any other country. Too dangerous.
And to the very, very limited extent possible, I think it's imperative that the United States do what it can. Israel can't do virtually anything on this. So the United States has to do what it can to try and actually help shape the future of Syria. There isn't a lot that can be done, but there is more that can be done than has been done until now.
We have to try and find moderate elements within the Syrian opposition. The administration is right, there aren't very many of them. There is no bright future there. But there are better and worse. We have to find the people to work with and we have to try, within the very limited ability that exists, to shape the future of Syria, because the way Syria is heading now is also to become a radical Islamist state.
They had a nuclear program until a few years ago, until someone bombed it in 2007. There may be something still going on. They've got lots of chemical and biological weapons.
The Jordanian regime is in some trouble. Morocco is in some trouble. Tunisia we just saw. Iraq can still come apart at any time. Civil war can break out again in Lebanon; there is spillover from Syria.
One big question is: What happens to Saudi Arabia? They have now gone through two crown princes in the last two years. The king is 90, in ill health, His heir apparent, the crown prince, is in his late seventies and very ill, no longer functioning, according to what I understand. There are, I think, five or six remaining sons of the founder, Ibn Saud. I think now for the next few years they could go from son to son, maybe every year or two switching, a new king. Can they hold that together? Are they going to skip a generation to the grandsons? Can that hold together? Will the sons who are skipped over and the other grandsons who are skipped over agree to this?
Now imagine Saudi Arabia as sitting on its petro-wealth with a comparatively large and spanking new military potentially in the hands of radical Islamists. Saudi Arabia is a radical state domestically, but until now they have been moderate externally.
And what happens in Iran? Remember the Arab Spring really began in the demonstrations in June 2009. How long is Iran going to remain the Iran that we know? Are the upcoming elections an occasion for change or not?
We are viewing potentially the redrawing of the entire Middle East.
There are two primary forces at work today in the Mideast. There is the rising power of Iran as a potential regional hegemon, and with it the rise of Shiism. That's something we have seen for the last couple of decades. The newer news is we see the rise of Sunni Islam and Sunni extremism in the last few years. These are two forces at battle with each other. The one place that they can cooperate—guess who? Israel. So Israel is right smack in the middle of this, and to a lesser extent the United States is as well. The United States is further away.
So we are in for a historic ride, shall I say.
I was asked to say a few words about the book. Believe it or not, Israel is a country with some interest in national security affairs.
This is the second—almost the first—book on the issue of how Israel makes decisions, the decision-making process. There was one book written in the 1970s by Michael Brecher, an excellent book. He didn't try to do what I did here, which is to develop an overall model of how Israel makes decisions. It was too early at that time probably for him to do that.
The book is critical. I spent 20-something years in the government in Israel. This book is, I would say, a work both of love and of frustration. So the book is critical of the process.
At the same time, let me preface my comments by saying, first of all, there is no such thing as a correct decision-making process. If there was, all countries would use the same process, we'd all be making right decisions. The fact is we all screw up all the time.
Second of all, what I call pathologies of the decision-making process, I don't think any of them are unique to Israel. Any scholar of American government, or probably most other governments, would identify most or all of them. Some of them are manifested in Israel to a far greater degree.
I think, if you look historically, by just about any yardstick Israel is a national success story in terms of socioeconomic development. I don't know if it's a stable democracy, but it's a very deep and strong democracy and it has built up an unusual military capability. So on the one hand it is a tremendous success story.
At the same time, I believe that Israel's success is despite its decision-making process, not because of it. There have been too many mistakes in recent decades, mistakes that could have been avoided.
Abba Eban, Israel's former defense minister, once said, in the way that only he could say it, "It's not true that Israel's governments never make the right decisions. They do sometimes, but only after trying everything else." We have tried that too many times and the price has become too heavy.
What I try to do in this book is try to understand what are the causes of these failures. There is also, of course, a chapter at the end with some recommendations for change.
What the book argues is that there are three primary causes for five primary pathologies: first of all, the external environment; second, Israel's particular form of parliamentary democracy, proportional representation; and third, the relative weakness of the civilian national security institutions compared to the defense establishment. I'll explain.
First of all, the external environment. It's commonplace to say that the Mideast is a tough neighborhood. It's extraordinarily tough. Israel is probably the only country in history that has faced not only a threat of politicide, destruction of the state, but a threat of genocide.
Europe is occupied by Germany in World War II. States are defeated. The governments are replaced by puppet governments or whatever. But the people continue to live. If you didn't belong to one or two select groups, you could live reasonably well—not great, but you got through the war.
Israel is the only country that has ever believed that it faces not just a threat of politicide, but of genocide. It has faced that threat potentially for decades. It is also a conflict which has been going on for a hundred years. In modern history I know of no other which is that long. There was the Hundred Years' War back in the 14th and 15th centuries, but not in modern times.
The rate of change in the Middle East is nothing short of breathtaking. It's not just the rapidity of change, it's the sweeping breadth of change. The Israeli national security establishment has to gear up for almost 180-degree changes all the time, fundamental changes that changed the entire ballgame. Israel has learned to do that. That's actually a sphere of excellence. But the demand that it imposes on the system is enormous.
Israel uses more news in a week than most countries use in a year, or more in a year than most countries consume in a decade. Crisis is the steady state in Israel. The country lives from crisis to crisis.
It is also an environment that is extraordinarily difficult to shape, to influence. I said before, in 2000, Barak offers to withdraw from virtually 100 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of Gaza, to divide Jerusalem, establish a Palestinian state. Arafat says no.
In March 2000 at the Geneva Conference, via President Clinton, he offers to withdraw from, in effect, 100 percent of the Golan Heights. Assad says no.
In 2008, Olmert comes up with a proposal to the Palestinians very similar to Barak's—in some ways more generous, in some ways less, but overall very similar. This time Abbas doesn't say no. He simply disappears; he never answers.
Israel is the only country that I know of that has won the wars and has been unable to dictate the terms of peace afterwards, or even achieve a peace, at least in some of the cases, afterwards. So really an unusually difficult environment.
Secondly, the proportional representation system. I won't go into it, other than to say that, on the one hand, the Israeli system is, if not the, it's one of the most representative systems in the world. Everybody has a voice. If you can get 2 percent of the vote, you're in.
In the United States, the average victory is 52–48, 53–47. Almost half of the people in the United States or Britain, in winner-takes-all systems, are unrepresented at any given moment.
In Israel, everybody is represented. The price Israel pays is in governability. The United States gets governability at the price of representation. This system has all sorts of effects for the decision-making process.
I said the weakness of the civilian national security institutions as opposed to the military ones or the defense ones. For reasons of Israel's historical development, the circumstances of how they developed, and pretty much all the resources in terms of money, in terms of personnel, went to the defense establishment. The foreign ministry has never been much of a player, and the national security council was only established a little over decade ago and is only first beginning to find its place.
This leads to five pathologies:
• The first one is that it's a largely unplanned process. Israel really doesn't do much long-term planning. It lives from day to day. That was inherent in the situation in the early decades.
But I don't think Israel has faced an existential threat for the last few decades. It may, arguably, in terms of Iran in the future. But for the last few decades Israel had the—I wouldn't even call it a luxury—ability to do more careful planning. There's a tradition, there's a history, of doing things and of thinking from today to tomorrow. Two weeks is long-term planning. The real problem here isn't so much the attention span or the length of planning. It's the failure to formulate policy objectives and priorities in a really careful, systematic way.
Policy planning or policy formulation is really three essential things. It's defining your objectives, your priorities, and then figuring out which option gives you the best bang for the buck. The failure to define the objectives and the priorities appropriately, systematically, is I think the primary failing in the system.
The result is a national style which emphasizes improvisation all the time. Israel is always improvising. Many of you know, of course, of the strategic surprise in 1973, the Yom Kippur War. Not many people are familiar with two other great strategic surprises in Israel's history.
For example, in 1998 it turned out, in January, that in May, Israel's 50th anniversary was going to take place. The country launched a crash program, of course, to prepare the celebrations because nobody was prepared. How could you know that it would be in May 1998 of all times?
Then, of course, two years later the country was taken totally by surprise once again. There was a millennium. How could you know that it would take place all of a sudden in 2000 and tourists were going to come like crazy?
In typical fashion, Israel responded to these events at the very last second, crash programs. Israel is really good at that. The IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] is especially good at that.
So improvisation, and it is dealing with the immediate issue rather than trying to address the overall problem.
• The second pathology is one of politicization. It exists everywhere in the world. There's politicization in the American system as well. I have no fundamental argument with politics. Politics are a good thing. That's how we citizens of free countries take the will of 300 million or 8 million citizens and turn it into something that we can all live with somehow.
The question is the degree of politicization. In the Israeli system, because of the proportional representation system, the politicization is extreme and politicization gets into everything. It should be there in some issues—the West Bank settlements, the peace process in general. That's an inherently ideological political issue, should be political. But not everything; and almost everything is affected by it.
The result is a political cabinet. They're not professional appointees. Look at who the defense minister and the foreign minister have been for the last couple of decades. Usually the prime minister's chief political rivals, the heads of other parties or leaders of his party, who spend most of their time trying to throw the bastard out of office. And these are the same three people who have to sit in the room and determine what the country's national security policy is going to be.
Now, most of the time they can put politics aside when they're dealing with serious issues. But not all the time. They're people. It gets there all the time. It affects things.
The cabinet as a whole is a political cabinet. They're not professionals. They're not experts in the field they are responsible for. They're beholden only to their party, not to anyone else.
The result is that Israel does politics-making, not policymaking. The criterion for decisions isn't what's best for the country, the way to best address the specific issue. It's, "What can we get through?" The minimal contentiousness that we can get through the cabinet?
So it all becomes a matter of coalition maintenance. The American president has three years to govern and then he's got to run in the fourth year. The Israeli president has about three days to govern and then he's got to run again. It's literally, from the second the guy is elected, he's worrying about all these guys are trying to throw him out of office.
• Here may be the most controversial finding in the book, which is what I consider, I think most of us would consider, to be an effective decision-making process. In other words, what I said before, carefully defining your objectives, your priorities, and then seeking the best option to meet them. That's exactly what the prime minister does not want to do in the cabinet or in the sub-cabinet, the Ministerial Committee on Defense, because the minute he says anything—remember these aren't his appointees, they're not beholden to him—he has now lost control. It becomes part of the endless Israeli political warfare.
The people of Israel were historically 12 tribes. Well, there are at least that many today. He loses control. And it's going to be leaked instantaneously, because everything in Israel leaks. So if you want to come even with some sort of tentative idea that you just want to bounce off people, you're sure as hell not going to do it in the cabinet or ministerial committee on defense. If it's a serious idea, you're not going to do it there because you're going to lose control and probably not going to be able to get it through if it's in any way controversial. So they don't.
So then there's a really good question: Where is decision-making done in Israel if it's not done in the cabinet or the Ministerial Committee on Defense? And it's not done there. That's where the formal approval is given. But it's really done in one of two forums: either the various kitchen cabinets—in Golda's days it really was a kitchen; under Netanyahu it started as a forum of seven, then became eight, then became a forum of nine select ministers—or, in really small informal forums—the prime minister, maybe the defense minister, possibly the foreign minister, one or two other senior officials. That's it. These are the places where people can sit down and actually talk.
The problem is they're not statutory. They have no power. They can then convey their preference either to the ministerial committee on defense or to the cabinet plenum. Those are the institutions that have to decide. But they're totally dysfunctional because of the politicization, because of their size. The cabinet is 30 ministers in recent years. You can't make a decision with 30. The Ministerial Committee on Defense is supposed to be small, so it's only 15. Again you can't do it. Everything leaks. So there isn't really an effective statutory decision-making process.
• The fourth pathology, uninstitutionalized process. I'll do this one very briefly.
The decision-making process in Israel is very idiosyncratic. It very much depends on who the individual leader or couple of leaders are. That's true of most countries. It's just more pronounced in Israel because you have this entirely informal decision-making process to begin with and because, like other parliamentary democracies, you don't really have a separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. As long as the coalition majority is there, the Knesset has no role whatsoever. The prime minister can do largely what he wants.
There's a problem in Israel, like in all countries, of coordination and integration between the different bodies. I think that's actually an area where Israel is better off than many.
• The last of the five pathologies is the predominance of the defense establishment. Now, I have no quarrel on that with the defense establishment. They do really good work. As a matter of fact, they do the best policy formulation work of anyone in Israel.
The problem is that they're the only ones who do it with any real influence. They affect all three stages of the policy development process.
Who tells the government what's happening? First and foremost, military intelligence. Mossad and Shin Bet have their roles, but when it comes to intelligence assessment, it's military intelligence overwhelmingly.
Then who tells the government what we should probably do about this? Well, the policy-planning branch of the general staff is to this date by far the most influential policy-formulation entity in the country. As I said, the National Security Council [NSC] is only beginning to have some influence.
So first the army says, "This is what's happening." Then it says, "This is what we should probably do." The government has to decide, but they are the ones making the professional recommendation. And then who's responsible for implementing policy? Usually the IDF. So they have huge influence.
The good news is that they do things very well usually. It's not as if their preferences always win out, not at all. There are many cases where prime ministers made decisions exactly contrary to what the IDF was advocating. There are cases where they did things without the IDF even knowing about it. The IDF was totally faked out about the Oslo process when it first started, for example.
Let me conclude with two final thoughts.
First of all, having described all the pathologies, there are some good things about the process—not that many. That's a short part of the book, unfortunately. There are recommendations in the book on how to improve things. You've got to read it if you want to find out about that.
I started out by saying there are three primary reasons for the failures.
One is the external environment. Unfortunately, that's probably not going to change very much for the better for a long time to come. If Israel was able to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, that would certainly improve things. I don't think, unfortunately, that is going to happen for a long time. In any event, even if it does, the Israeli environment is going to remain extraordinarily difficult for a very long time to come. So that's not the source of the solution.
Changing the electoral system—well, for the first time in years maybe there is now some hope of it—is probably not going to happen. Countries don't change their electoral systems very often. Israel did try doing it in the elections in 1996 and 1998. The conclusion, which I personally don't share but the majority seem to, was that the change was even worse than the original situation. So Israel went back to the old system. To change it again is that much harder now.
That really means that of the three causes we're left with the imbalance between the civilian national security institutions and the defense establishment. Well, the good news is that there is an NSC today and it is beginning to gain some influence. The good news is that the national security bureaucracy as a whole is infinitely more sophisticated than it was years ago. I know it personally from the post-Yom Kippur War period. It is night and day today both in terms of size and, more importantly, in terms of sophistication.
The problems that I've talked about this evening are mostly at the cabinet level. The IDF, the intelligence agencies, they all do good work. Their problem is what happens when this reaches the cabinet and enters the political process.
I think most of what can be done even in this third area has been done. There's still some room for improvement. The chances of doing it are at least slightly better there.
Thank you very much.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have two questions.
First, on the grand bargain with Iran, would that include Iran's ability to process low-grade uranium?
The second is about the continued development of settlements, how that affects the possibility of ever having a two-state solution, the relationships with Israel and Europe, and now the settlements around Jerusalem isolating, as I understand, East Jerusalem. Those are my two questions.
CHARLES FREILICH: Two minor, unimportant issues. [Laughter] The first one I can answer quickly, the second one less so.
Yes, I think it includes in the end, as the final concession, Iran gets to enrich up to the 5 percent level, the civil level.
I said before, I'm willing to make painful concessions because I want to see one thing: an end to the military program. If, for example, Iran wants an American regime guarantee—"No, the United States will not try to overthrow us"—they want other concessions, within reason I'd give them what they want because I want one thing. We'll worry about everything else afterwards. There are lots of other issues on the agenda. There's Iran's involvement in terrorism, their support for Hezbollah, their support for the Syrians. All of that is very nice. Let's resolve this one and then we'll worry about everything else.
On the settlements, I don't want to be in a position of supporting a policy here which I don't personally support. But I think you do have to put it in a certain perspective.
First of all, on two occasions, I said before—in 2000, Camp David leading up to the Clinton parameters in December of 2000; and then the Olmert proposals in 2008—Israel offered to give the Palestinians virtually 100 percent of the territory. Why do I say "virtually"? Barak said 97 percent with a 1-to-2 percent land swap. Olmert said 93.5 percent with a 6.5 percent land swap.
I think everyone recognizes today—the Palestinians themselves recognize it—that at least the settlement blocks will remain in Israel and there will have to be a land swap of a few percent.
The settlements aren't the problem. I think there's a false international image that comes down to a two word mantra, "settlements/occupation, settlements/occupation." No, that's not what this is about. The Arab-Israeli conflict started 100 years ago, way before anybody talked about a single settlement.
I'm not saying it's not a problem and it doesn't make life infinitely more complicated. It does, which is why I think it should be stopped. But that's not the real obstacle. Israel dismantled the settlements in Sinai, it dismantled the settlements in Gaza, when it thought it had a chance for peace.
I think—and I think, unfortunately, most people don't understand this—the real obstacle to peace is that much of the Arab world is not yet reconciled to Israel's existence and that the Palestinians have—tragically, I think, from their point of view, but it's not for me to speak for them; certainly tragically from Israel's point of view—the Palestinians have always taken an all-or-nothing approach. They said, "We prefer not to have a state at all to compromising a little bit on the territory and then living in peace next to Israel." Now, until that changes, yes, I would stop settling because it makes the ultimate deal that much harder. But that's not really what this conflict is about, in my opinion.
QUESTION: Two questions about your canvas of the neighborhood.
One relates to Syria, where you didn't mention anything about the Russians and the possibility of their influence there.
The other is Saudi Arabia, where the United States's increasing energy independence has the paradoxical effect of potentially diminishing its influence in Saudi Arabia and a growing Chinese influence because they are dependent on that energy, and Indian influence because they are investing in that area and they have some laborers there. So the overall big question is: Is the United States perhaps destined to play less of a role, and less capable of playing a role, and do other countries come into play in terms of an overall settlement bargain?
CHARLES FREILICH: Two more easy questions.
First, on Syria and the Russians. First of all, I think Assad's days are limited. It's a little bit like Mark Twain, that "the news of his death is a bit premature." But I would imagine sometime in 2013 he will no longer be with us.
The Russians are playing a losing hand here. They're playing it largely because they have nothing else left in the Middle East, except for Syria and Iran, and they are trying to do it to counter American influence as part of a global effort. Even if they are by far number two on the block today, they are still trying to counter the United States to the extent they can.
We have begun to see maybe in the last couple of weeks the signs of an impending Russian change. Part of the inadequacy, to my way of thinking, of the American response here—and I'm not an advocate of great involvement because I don't think there's a great deal the United States can do—but I think the United States could have done considerably more than it has. Part of it is because of Russian obstructionism, Chinese obstructionism.
Part of trying to help manage the transition, which is probably going to go bad no matter what, does require some American involvement, some American leadership, what I was saying before, trying to help, to the extent possible, to strengthen the limited positive elements that exist within the Syrian opposition.
I think there is a need for a no-fly zone. I don't think there's a need for any boots on the ground. But there is a need for a no-fly zone and some similar things.
And there is the chemical arsenal issue, which again I don't think requires boots on the ground, maybe some commandos or something, but not beyond that.
This business of not being willing to risk a single American serviceman is a bit much, because the United States is a global superpower. So I'm not agog at the policy of leading from behind or not leading at all.
Your second question about Saudi Arabia—first of all, you're absolutely right that the United States is importing less and the United States is undergoing its own shale and gas/oil revolution and will be increasingly less dependent on the Middle East for oil over the next couple of decades. Even today the United States isn't a big importer from the region.
But the United States still leads the international community in terms of trying to maintain a stable world economy. So even if it isn't importing that much from the Mideast, it wants everybody else to be able to import at reasonable rates.
If you're talking over a couple of decades, will this mean less American influence over Saudi Arabia? Maybe. On the other hand, remember the Saudis are totally dependent on the United States for their security. There has always been a grand bargain between the United States and Saudi Arabia: "You guys provide us with oil at reasonable prices; we ensure your security." That's still going to be there. The Saudis don't have an alternative. They can sell more oil to China or India. China and India and no one else in the world is an alternative provider of security for them. So I think for a long time to come that's not a big problem.
On the other hand, what happens if the Saudi regime starts wobbling and even changes significantly? That's a totally different picture. That's a different Mideast. Imagine a Saudi Arabia which is not only a radical, heinous regime domestically but starts becoming a radical regime externally. They're sitting on 26 percent of the world's oil with a large spanking new military, all American provided.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Chuck, if I could press you just a little bit on the Russia question, two quick thoughts.
First of all, Russia, for very good and obvious reasons—not just a historically nostalgic relationship with Assad in Syria—but Russia has profound concerns over what you see could be the denouement in Syria, a radical Islamist regime, and therefore it has a stronger interest probably than we do in avoiding that happening.
Second of all, Russia has taken the position of trying to negotiate what I would describe as a softer landing here, and that is some sort of negotiated process without Assad, the first step being Assad goes, then we decide. They have argued for a more modulated and gradualist approach. In fact, wouldn't this be a more sensible way of approaching a softer landing, a way of avoiding what you see as the worst potential outcome?
CHARLES FREILICH: I think it's too late for the soft landing. First of all, it would require that Assad be willing to make certain concessions. Even if he is, let's say, maybe willing to do it in the end to save his own skin, at this point the opposition senses blood, they smell blood, and I don't see them agreeing to less than regime change.
Can the change be managed in a more peaceful way? Possibly. But I think that this is a fight to the end.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Russia has had this on the table for a while, of course.
QUESTION: I'm Tyler Beebe.
Maybe this will be an easier question than the first two. As you know, Ahmadinejad in Cairo just yesterday got not only whacked by a shoe, which is a major insult, but he also got dressed down by a cleric about the intrusion of Iranian Shiites in the Egyptians' Sunni environment. Could you explain what all that friction is about and could it be resolved?
CHARLES FREILICH: No, not an easier one. You raised false hopes.
I said before the big story in the Mideast today—there's lots of big stories, but the big story—is this clash of titans, so to speak. It's a clash between an Iran which has been rising for the last couple of decades, trying to become a regional hegemon, and, for the last couple of years, really in a significant way since the Arab Awakening started two years ago, a rising tide of Sunni extremism.
The Arab Spring started out as a democratic movement. It was rapidly taken over by the Islamist forces and has really become an Islamist awakening, not a democratic one. Here, with the examples you gave, we are seeing exactly how it plays out in Egypt.
The Iranians severed relations with Egypt right after Sadat made peace with Israel. To this day they don't have diplomatic relations. That was the Iranian theory. They then named a street in Tehran after the guy who assassinated Sadat. The Egyptians still haven't forgiven them that.
Egypt, along with the other Sunni states, views the rise of Iran as a regional hegemon generally as something which is a dire threat to them, and if Iran goes nuclear, even more so. So you've seen this tension between the two countries for the last few decades.
You might have thought that now, with a Muslim Brotherhood regime in power in Egypt, that would change things. Maybe it will lead to an opening over time. We can't deny or discount that possibility.
But remember—and you quoted the imam who made the statement yesterday—there is a clash here between the Shiism and the Sunni school. So maybe the sides can overcome some of their divides, but it will take a long time, and it may not happen at all. There are serious strategic divisions between them and there is the serious religion schism there.
QUESTION: My name is Karim Saba. I have a couple of questions.
The first is about the U.S. policy with the Muslim Brotherhood. What do you think of it?
The second one is also about Iran. Yesterday, the Pentagon announced that they are going to shrink military prisons in the Persian Gulf. Also, the day before yesterday, Senator Lindsey Graham said that Chuck Hegel—and here I quote—"seems clueless" on the U.S. policy towards Iran. So do you think that the U.S. policy towards Iran is going to be softer in the coming few years?
CHARLES FREILICH: This is a really difficult issue for the United States, and it's a no-win situation. It starts, I think, with the question: What should the United States have done in the weeks before Mubarak fell? Was Obama right to have abandoned him as quickly as he did? I think he had to abandon him certainly within a couple of weeks after that, because the last thing the United States wanted to do was to be on the wrong side of history here. If this is going to happen in Egypt, you better be on the right side, both strategically and in terms of American values.
But I'm not sure that Mubarak couldn't have been saved. Maybe had the United States, both at the diplomatic level, the presidential level, had the United States military not been in constant contact with the Egyptian military saying, "Do not open fire," maybe he could have won. The fact is Assad is still in power two years later. Now, that's a historic question. I don't know the answer. And again, it's not an easy call because there are normative issues here of fundamental American values.
At the same time, look what Carter did with the Shah in 1979. The result wasn't totally favorable either to American interests. The same thing may be happening now with Egypt. The United States may very much live to regret what Obama did two years ago.
On the other hand, if things were heading in that direction anyway, as I said, you have to be on the right side.
How do you manage it now? Well, two weeks ago the Pentagon announced that they're selling more F16s and 200 more tanks to Egypt. Is that the right thing to be doing at the moment? I will be really surprised for the better if the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty still exists a couple years from now, and I think, at best, the American-Egyptian relationship is going to be much, much worse than it is today. Egypt may become a radical state. So do you want to be supplying them weapons, weapons which can be turned in various bad directions?
On the other hand, the military, paradoxically, is the most moderate and pro-American and pro-peace element within Egyptian society at the moment. You want to strengthen them. Do you not sell to them and alienate them as well? Do you not provide Egypt with emergency economic aid if you possibly can now and get the International Monetary Fund loan through? If you don't do that, you lose whatever influence you have. So it's a no-win situation, which will probably go for the worse no matter what the United States does.
On Iran, I said before I don't think President Obama has shown any eagerness to go the military route to date. He hasn't had to do it.
On the other hand, even without going that route, you can wield a bigger stick than he has, and I think he should have wielded a bigger stick. Instead of talking all the time about how we don't want to go the military route, he can say it differently: "If you force us to, we will." Now he has appointed two secretaries, very distinguished gentlemen, but neither one of them is known to be wielding a big stick here either. So I think that the message that Iran is getting is of American weakness.
The sanctions to date have a big effect on the Iranian economy. It has taken an enormous hit, but it has had zero effect on their policy.
The Supreme Leader Khamenei does not believe that the United States is willing to risk war, and in the end he seems to think as a matter of fact—this just came out in the last day or two—that the sanctions hurt the United States more than it hurts Iran. That's quite remarkable.
If we want to avoid going the military route—and we'd all prefer not to go that route—what we need is a really strong alternative. The image has to be of great determination. To the president's credit, he has imposed stronger sanctions than anyone, and they really are strong sanctions. But there's got to be a bigger stick in the background.
QUESTION: Sergey Yakushev, Russian Federation.
At the beginning of your speech you said—I wrote it down—"Israel became relatively secure." I understand that you probably mentioned it in the context of the election process.
CHARLES FREILICH: I meant militarily.
QUESTIONER: Are you serious?
CHARLES FREILICH: Very serious.
QUESTIONER: That is the question. Are you serious?
CHARLES FREILICH: Okay, good, fine. A totally legitimate question.
I think in the first decades, until the Sadat initiative, Israel faced an existential threat. I think since then, or since the peace treaty in 1979 to this date, there has not been an existential threat. There have been serious threats, there are even grave threats, but there is an entire world of a difference between existential and grave. I think today Israel does not face any existential threat, unless Iran goes nuclear, and you can argue even if that's existential.
The debate in Israel really is between two schools of thought, one which says, "Yes, a nuclear Iran is absolutely existential"—and the logical conclusion from that, by the way, is that Israel must then do everything possible to prevent it. The second school of thought says, "No, it's probably not existential, it's just dire." Dire is bad enough, but dire gives you some more flexibility and then you can do everything you can within reason, you don't have to do everything possible. I think Israel has won the wars and the wars have won it its existence. Its existence isn't in doubt anymore. Even if Iran goes nuclear, I don't buy it. Israel's existence is ensured.
There hasn't been a full-scale war since 1973. What there have been are bigger and smaller operations. For the foreseeable future, I don't see any change in that.
Short term at least, Egypt has been greatly weakened by what's happening, Syria has been devastated by what's happening. Who's going to go to war with Israel?
The problem is Hezbollah and Hamas. Hezbollah is a huge rocket threat. But that's not a threat to the existence of the country. That's, to overstate the case, a quality of life issue.
So I think Israel has won its existence, it has won its security. It has terrorism, it has rocket threats, but it's a different world for Israel today.
QUESTION: Bob Perlman. So whether it's Bibi or anyone else, wouldn't any prime minister, given what you just said, adopt a "hard line foreign policy"? I'd just like your reaction to that.
CHARLES FREILICH: On which issue?
The Iranian issue, for example, is a consensual issue in Israel. It's just about the only issue which is consensual. No, I have to modify that. It was consensual until about a year-and-a-half ago. But this is an issue where the difference of opinion is not political, it's not partisan in any way; it's substantive.
But on that, you can adopt the harder-line approaches, and there are some very serious people, such as the former chief of Mossad, Dagan, and the former chief of the Shin Bet, Diskin, and the former chief of staff, Ashkenazi, who didn't come out and say it openly like the others did, but he allowed it be known that he also was against military action. And all of them, by the way, say it's not that they're against it forever, under any circumstances.
But on other issues there is an enormous divergence of opinion in Israel both substantively and politically, and first and foremost on the Palestinian issue. That's an issue which in the end boils down to Israel's fundamental character as a state, as a society. It's a national security issue in the harder sense of a security issue, but no less importantly, to my way of thinking even far more importantly, it raises the question of whether Israel remains a Jewish a democratic state, which was its raison d'être. If that issue is in question, it's a serious problem.
QUESTION: Richard Davis.
You have not mentioned Turkey in your review. It has gone progressively more Islamist also in the last several years. What role do you see it playing in the future in this whole area of movement toward Islamism?
CHARLES FREILICH: You are absolutely right to point out that I didn't mention Turkey. It was in my notes and I missed it and that's a mistake, because Turkey is a major player in the region today, a very important player. I also happen to agree with you that it has taken a major turn for the worse in its policy in recent years.
The Turks thought that they might be able to become a regional leader again, and they may be able to down the line. The Arab Spring threw their plans out of kilter. For those who remember, two years ago they were in the midst of an attempt to conduct a major rapprochement with Iran and Syria. They were also trying to realign with Egypt as well.
Well, because of what happened in Syria, they actually became the country which has been most vocal in demanding Assad's end. That then led to a major downturn in their relations with Iran. So actually they were forced into, from my subjective point of view, a positive change. But at the time that was where the AK was trying to head.
People may not remember at the moment, but actually American-Turkish relations were quite tense at the time because of this change, and also because of the major dramatic downturn in Turkish-Israeli relations.
So short term this has been eased, but I think the long-term trends are quite negative. On the other hand, Turkey has not been able to, at least for the meantime, achieve the leadership role that it wants, and the rapprochement with Egypt that it was hoping for hasn't happened yet either.
Just yesterday, the Turkish foreign minister and Prime Minister Erdoğan came out with a statement that apparently, Israel's attack on the convoy was, of course, "state-based terrorism." I thought it was trying to prevent advanced weapons from being used against Israel. The foreign minister said that Turkey will not look the other way if an Arab country is the victim of aggression again. Is Turkey threatening war with Israel? Not great.
QUESTION: Do you think that American policy demanding a radical immediate step-down to Mubarak and then to Gaddafi and then to Assad increases the chances for the region for democracy? Or does it lead to chaos and ungovernability in the region, because all three were ready for negotiated settlements of the problem rather than to unilaterally step-down, leaving all this area as a black hole, which we witness now?
CHARLES FREILICH: That question is very broad and has a lot to do with values. I said before—I'll just give the example that I gave with the Egyptian case. Did the United States have to abandon Mubarak as quickly as it did? I'm not sure.
There is a question here of balancing American values, which are very, very important, with the exigencies of realpolitik. Sometimes the United States can favor its values and sometimes it can't. Life is difficult. There's no one answer.
I am not very optimistic about the Middle East going democratic. I hope it happens. If it happens, it will take decades, and we're in for a very long and very difficult ride in the meantime.
QUESTION: My name is Frederico Seve. I'm from Brazil.
Brazil is supposed to be a very important place for Israel because it was the Brazilian chancellor at that time that signed the creation of the state of Israel. So this is important. Not many people in Israel know this. All the people I know there, they don't know about this.
You have given a wonderful explanation about the whole situation. I understand that there is more tactics than strategy in Israel. Am I right or am I wrong?
CHARLES FREILICH: Yes, I agree with you, Israel tends to be mostly about tactics and not about strategy. That's a problem. I think it was in the early decades a function of Israel's circumstances because the country was literally living from now to tomorrow, and there were no resources to speak of, and the country didn't know if it would exist tomorrow.
That era is behind us. I believe Israel can sit back some more and take a longer perspective; it can breathe deeply.
I think, for example, on the Egyptian front, Israel is going to face serious problems in the next few years, even if the peace treaty doesn't come to an end. For example, there will be more terrorist attacks out of Sinai into Israel, and there will be additional provocations from Egypt. I think Israel will have to swallow very hard, absorb, accept things that are basically unacceptable, because the bigger prize is to try and keep the peace treaty alive.
But being able to take a somewhat longer view of things and to sit back a little bit is the luxury of a nation which I think now has become fundamentally secure.
DAVID SPEEDIE: I hoped you would be provocative. You have been. You have not disappointed. I appreciate that.
Since we are the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and this is a U.S. Global Engagement program, I'm very glad that American values and U.S. policy came up so much in the question time. Thank you for that.
Chuck, it was a remarkable presentation that went from geostrategic importance of the region to a description of Israel's cabinet that reminded me when you were talking of something of a hybrid between Lincoln's team of rivals and a British television show called Yes, Prime Minister that talked about a totally dysfunctional approach to a cabinet. So thank you for that wide-ranging presentation.