Every time I get depressed about politics in Israel, I try to remember one salient fact: their political system still sometimes functions better than ours.
A case in point is the remarkable series of events that have taken place in recent months regarding an Israeli attack on Iran. In January, Meir Dagan, the recently retired head of the Mossad, Israel’s external spy agency, warned that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were plotting an attack against Iran, which Dagan called “the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.” With him and a couple of other powerful security officials gone, he warned, the reckless civilians now had a free hand. Dagan, however, was too pessimistic. On Friday, Israel’s most prominent columnist, Nahum Barnea, wrote a front-page column in the mass-market tabloid Yediot Ahronot suggesting that the new crop of officials running Israel’s military and intelligence services also were pushing back hard against war.
Why is all this impressive? Because it is exactly what did not happen in the United States in the run-up to the Iraq War. In 2002 and 2003, many in the U.S. military and intelligence agencies opposed invading Iraq, but they were either silenced or ignored. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cowed his counterpart in the uniformed military, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers, into submission. And when the head of the Army, Gen. Eric Shinseki, suggested that the U.S. might not have enough troops to do the job, the White House humiliated him by quickly naming his replacement. Studies from both the military and the State Department that warned about the war’s aftermath were buried. Skeptical intelligence professionals either were bullied or bypassed as Dick Cheney and his acolytes created their own parallel system of intelligence analysis. In private, CIA director George Tenet told Bush what Bush wanted to hear. And in public, both Tenet and Secretary of State Colin Powell trudged off to the United Nations to vouch for intelligence that their own staffs knew was mostly hype.
The point is not that Israel’s government is exaggerating the intelligence about an Iranian nuclear program in the way the Bush administration did about Iraq’s. In the Iranian case, the intelligence seems much stronger. The point is that Israel today—like America in the Bush and Cheney years—has a leader prone to apocalyptic interpretations of foreign threats. (Every time you hear Netanyahu compare Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler, and himself, implicitly, to Winston Churchill, it’s worth remembering that the Israeli used the same analogy to justify his opposition to the Oslo peace process in the 1990s. Since Netanyahu entered politics roughly two decades ago, it’s hard to find a year that he did not consider the equivalent of 1938). Moreover, Israel today—like America in 2003—is coming off a string of series of hubris-inducing military triumphs. For America in 2003, it was the Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, and the apparent success in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s fall. For Israel today, it is the preventive attack on the Iraqi nuclear facility in Osirak in 1981 and the more recent strike against the alleged nuclear site in Syria, successes that have bred confidence in Israel’s capacity to knock out nuclear programs from the air.
Powered by these ideological visions and military triumphs, Barnea argued, Israeli leaders are rushing to war without a serious public discussion of the potential consequences. That’s exactly what happened in the United States in the run-up to the Iraq War. The difference is that in Israel today, Netanyahu and Barak aren’t getting away with it. As Larry Derfner recently detailed in 972mag.com, Barnea’s column has sparked a massive debate about what might happen after Israel attacked. Yediot Ahronot followed his column with an investigation warning that a war with Iran could bring “missiles and rockets on Israeli cities, terror attacks on dozens of Israeli targets worldwide, Israeli pilots in the interrogation rooms of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.” Interior Minister Eli Yishai from the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas declared that he was “losing sleep” over potential retaliatory strikes from Iran and its Lebanese ally Hizbullah. A new poll by Haaretz shows that only half of Israelis now support an attack.
Why is their system working when ours did not? In Israel, as in the United States, military and intelligence officials are generally more cautious than civilian leaders when it comes to war, largely because they know firsthand how crude and unpredictable an instrument war is. But the Israeli system is less hierarchical. The military and intelligence agencies in the United States certainly leak to the press, and use bureaucratic tactics to box in their civilian overlords. At the end of the day, however, soldiers and intelligence analysts are trained to give their professional advice and then get out of the way. In Israel, the lines are more blurred, and bureaucrats are more freewheeling in speaking to the press. This has its disadvantages, but in a case like this, it gives the antiwar generals and spies greater leverage to fight back.
The second reason the Israeli system is working better than ours is that the Israeli prime minister’s office is much weaker than the White House. Although Netanyahu instituted a National Security Council during his first term, it is still vastly weaker and smaller than its American counterpart. And there is no equivalent of Cheney, who from the White House virtually wrested power away from the intelligence agencies. Indeed, the Israeli prime minister’s office has very little capacity for any planning at all, which makes it more dependent than the White House on the analysis that comes from the lifers in the security establishment. Israeli governments are also coalitions, prone to backbiting among ministers from various parties, a disunity that strengthens the hand of the permanent security officials.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, Israelis trust security officials and distrust politicians. That’s true to some degree in the United States as well, but in America, most people revere a military with which they have little personal contact. They mouth deferential platitudes but at the end of the day, military leaders are almost as remote as political ones. In Israel, by contrast, the military (and the intelligence agencies with whom it is deeply intertwined) is “us,” the institution in which everyone (or at least everyone Jewish) serves. For Israelis, therefore, disregarding military leaders represents an assault on the institution that, more than any other, binds Jewish society together. Israelis don’t take that lightly.
In other circumstances, all these strengths of the Israeli system might not be strengths at all. But today, they seem to be helping Israelis stop, think, and argue before launching a war with potentially horrifying consequences not just for Israel but for the United States. And for that, we Americans should feel grateful, and a little envious, too.