Among the accusations directed at Israeli policymakers is the assertion that they have no policy of national defense. It comes most prominently from Knesset Members affiliated with opposition parties, along with individuals retired from senior positions in the IDF or one of the other security services (Mossad, Shin Bet), with echoes from media commentators.
Those to the right of center criticize the government for stopping short of defeating the enemy, either in Gaza or the West Bank, up to and including the present wave of knifings.
Those to the left of center claim that the lack of a policy appears in the absence of a serious political effort, along with a military campaign, to reach an agreement with Palestinians that will end the violence.
What each is really saying is that they would do things differently if they were among those making Israeli policy.
To say that a government has no policy is an oxymoron, or something which cannot exist.
Policy is what governments do, whether it works or not, whether we approve of it or not.
We should define a government's policy in any particular field (health, education, security) by what it declares, and what it does. We must be conscious of the problems associated with implementation. Often the declared policy isn't what happens. Laws aren't enforced; money isn't delivered as promised; individuals with responsibility for carrying out a policy screw up; conditions change; individuals high or low decide to do something else.
One can describe an Israeli policy of national defense, which has evolved over the course of nearly seventy years (or more if we count the pre-State period), and in response to disappointments in the pursuit of earlier policies.
Current policy is likely to change in response to events and continuing discussion among those who make and implement policy, and with changes that occur in the political leadership. Chances are that changes will not be dramatic, but incremental, i.e., a bit at a time.
Policy as it has evolved has both military and political components. These components may not satisfy the critics, but they amount to a policy.
The political component rests on the assumption that no Palestinian leadership currently in power or likely to reach power in the near future is prepared to make peace with Israel in anything like the terms that Israel will accept.
Another political assumption is that major foreign powers have limited tolerance for what Israel could accomplish militarily. Aspirations for a Palestinian state living at peace alongside Israel are widespread enough to have become the conventional wisdom. Israeli settlements over the 1967 lines are widely viewed as illegal, pending an agreement with the Palestinians. Should Israel take dramatic steps toward expelling significant numbers of Palestinians or incorporating areas settled by Palestinians into Israel, the country would run the risk of economic and political sanctions.
In short, Israeli policymakers operate in a framework where they recognize that there is no solution to the problems raised by Palestinians.
Principal elements of their policy are to do what is necessary to discourage Palestinian violence, without aspiring to end tensions or the motivations of Palestinian activists to try once again to defeat their Zionist enemy through violence.
Don't make things worse is a major component of the policy. It means using appropriate levels of force, without so much as to push many more Palestinians to a posture of fighting to the death because they have nothing to lose, or provoking significant opposition from international powers.
Another element is to recognize Palestinians autonomy in running their own affairs, and accepting Palestinian entry to Israel, with appropriate inspections or permits for work, medical care, family visits, and religious observances. Borders with the West Bank are more open than those with Gaza, given differences in violence. Israeli security personnel cooperate with Palestinian colleagues, and enter Palestinian areas of the West Bank in limited operations.
Given the success of Israel in holding the line over the years, the tolerance for its existence and its policy now extends to a number of Arab governments, beyond those that have signed formal treaties of peace.
What about Prime Minister Netanyahu's frequent assertions that he supports a two-state solution?
And what about Prime Minister Netanyahu's comments during the recent election campaign that he opposes the creation of a Palestinian State?
We can see him squaring that circle with comments that he would support the creation of a Palestinian state, provided the Palestinians recognize Israel as the State of the Jewish People, accept a reasonable accommodation with respect to boundaries and Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and something acceptable about Jerusalem. There is no mention in his squared circle about Israel's acceptance of Palestinian refugees.
So far there is no sign of Palestinians accepting Netanyahu's formulation, so we are stuck with the status quo, more or less.
We can see the working of Israel's policy in the most recent operations against the occasional rain of missiles from Gaza, and the current wave of knifings, shootings, and killing by automobile in areas of Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Israel tolerates claims by the Gaza leadership that it was victorious in the recent warfare, and allows the pile of rubble and some 2,200 deaths to convey the reality, with little of the billions for reconstruction that were promised having actually arrived from Muslim and other governments. Occasional marches of Palestinians toward the boundary fence, or even a few penetrations of the fence have been met with initial efforts at crowd control, then serious gunfire, and a number of deaths and injuries among the Gazans, with little if any injury among IDF personnel.
The most recent pattern of attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank has been described as suicide by cop or soldier. Many of the incidents have been directed at points with a heavy incidence of police or soldiers, with people in uniform being the targets. However, most Israeli injuries have been light or moderate. In some cases the attacker has been dealt with before reaching a target, and the frequent result has been death by gunfire.
One can ask about the absence of more deadly means of suicide, with a bomb in one's satchel or sticks of explosives strapped around the waist. So far we have not seen anything like this. The greatest escalation apparent among the Palestinians is occasional attacks with firearms. Assessments are that Palestinian leaders have worked against any mass killing by suicide or other means, both to deflect a bad press internationally, and to hold off the destruction of neighborhoods as the IDF was led to do in Gaza or in the West Bank against a wave of suicide bombings in the second intifada from 2000 onward.
Principal lines of Israeli security policy, as culled from statements and activity, are
Don't expect an optimal solution. Indeed, there is no solution apparent as far into the future as we can see.
We must cope, i.e., to do what is necessary to discourage and minimize violence, act against it when it occurs, and act as narrowly as possible in order to avoid escalation, i.e., don't make things worse.
Stay within the frameworks of our own morality and international tolerance by minimizing casualties among non-combatants, but remain primarily concerned with minimizing our own casualties.
Planning for the future focuses on the likelihood of "more of the same," but also takes account of escalating problems from elsewhere. Currently "elsewhere" features Iran, the Islamic State, and whatever emerges from the chaos in Syria, and Islamic motivated violence in the Sinai.
We can argue about any number of mistakes Israeli policymakers committed in the past, or whether each has been viewed properly as a lesson not to be repeated.
The list and alleged lessons come along with political inclinations, not unlike criticisms of current policymakers.
Should Moshe Dayan have conveyed control of the Temple Mount to Muslim religious authorities, and should Israel have avoided mass expulsions of Palestinians from the West Bank and Jerusalem in 1967?
Should Israel have pursued a more moderate attack against the Palestinians in Lebanon in 1982, and withdrawn from the country earlier?
Should Israel have been more aggressive in dealing with the Intifada that began in 2000?
Should Israel have avoided a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, without some assurance of a political accommodation?
What we have achieved isn't ideal, but not all that bad compared to Europeans facing who knows how many refugees joining already restive Muslim populations, and the United States with a President who can't bring himself to recognize the problems in Islam, make a significant contribution to the battle against the Islamic State, and sees achievement in a problematic agreement with Iran.
לכלכם, חג חנוה שמח
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem