On statecraft and decision making

Prof. Yehezkel Dror says Israel must not remain fixated on the Palestinian question.

Yehezkel Dror 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yehezkel Dror 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Weak, very weak,’ Prof. Yehezkel Dror answers when asked to grade Israel’s statecraft. Not that other countries fare any better in the view of one of Israel’s pre-eminent scholars of political science, but then again, he explains, for other countries statecraft is not an existential issue.
“Look at the United States,” says Dror, his voice rising in a crescendo in frustration. “The National Security Council, RAND Corporation – highly intellectual thinkers, and despite all their experience they are abandoning Iraq. Abandoning it!”
“So for others it’s not better, but for others it’s not existential. Nothing will happen to the United States. Even if there are a few mass terror events, that’s very bad, very tragic, but nothing will happen. Nothing will happen to Europe. There is no Islamic-Western war waiting in the shadows. So I can say that our statecraft is not worse than others, but wishing to maintain a Jewish state in the Middle East you have to be very good and our statecraft is not very good. Where is the Jewish genius? Not in statecraft.”
Born in Vienna, Dror, 83, who still speaks with a heavy Austrian accent, came to Mandatory Palestine as a child in 1938, escaping the Nazis at the last moment. He is reluctant to reveal biographical details. When I ask if he can tell me a little about himself, he instead says he will send his CV. An Israel Prize winner, he possesses a resumé that includes a doctorate from Harvard, a spell as a senior staff member at the RAND Corporation, consulting for governments and multinational corporations as well as advising several Israeli prime ministers dating back to Levi Eshkol.
We meet at the offices of The Jewish People Policy Institute, of which he is a founding president, to discuss his latest book, Israeli Statecraft: National Security Challenges and Responses (reviewed on page 39).
The book was born in part out of Dror’s work on the Winograd Commission where he was a member of the panel that investigated Israel’s failures in the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Viewing top Israeli decision makers in depth, he concluded that the Israeli decision making “culture” was flawed.
Those flaws, Dror explains, have their roots in triumphalism, militarism and fundamentalism; in anxieties deeply rooted in Jewish history and reinforced by being surrounded by hostile neighbors and in the lack of a statecraft tradition in Jewish history.
A KEY failing of Israeli statecraft, Dror suggests, is an inability to adopt a long-term historical perspective and to see the Middle East conflict as a whole. Israeli statesmen, he says, have followed the West in being fixated on the Palestinian issue.
“What I regard as the main contribution that I put forth in the book,” he says, “is the view that local peace cannot hold. The conflict is deep. It has deep cultural, historical reasons. In order to divert history in a different direction, a large-scale intervention is necessary, which means a comprehensive settlement.”
Reach an agreement with one enemy, says Dror, and a new one will appear. Israel, he posits, has missed good opportunities to strike deals with its rivals, both near and far. For Dror, the biggest missed opportunity was the Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed in 2002 at the Arab League summit in Beirut by then-Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia when Ariel Sharon was prime minister and reintroduced at the Riyadh Summit of 2007 when Ehud Olmert led the country.
“Not to follow up the Arab Peace Initiative is a fiasco,” exclaims Dror. “What happened? Olmert declared that we are very happy, that we will immediately take it up, but then, basta finito, nothing. Do something. Put it to [the test]. Don’t accept all the conditions, but follow up on it. You had a very favorable president, George W. Bush. This was the time to do it.”
The problem is, contends Dror, that politicians tend to wait until the chips are down.
“When times are good, they don’t engage in historical abstract thinking and say ‘things cannot go on like this.’”
“Nothing lasts forever,” he warns those who believe the status quo can be maintained and that Israel has the enduring support of the US.
“Things are not quiet, they are quiet on the surface,” he says. “They cannot remain quiet. Never mind the Congressional support, they will get tired of it. They have budgetary strains, how long will they give all the money? They are reducing their own security budget, we cannot rely on it for ever.”
So how does Dror grade Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his handling of Israel’s statecraft?
The prime minister scores “brilliantly” for his handling of the prisoner swap for kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, “not bad” on what Dror labels “pointillistic affairs” – short-term tactical decisions – but when it comes to a longer-term strategic vision and to the peace process, Netanyahu scores “zero.”
“Dithering in a dynamic situation when time is working against Israel is no good,” says Dror. “Saying, ‘okay, let’s sit down and negotiate without conditions,’ is fine, but it is meaningless. It has already been done 10 times. I think that Netanyahu is right in feeling that he can’t get anything out of the negotiations with the Palestinians, but he is wrong by not throwing at history the idea of taking up the Arab Peace Initiative that would achieve a broad settlement including a two-state solution.”
Dror doesn’t buy the argument that with all the turmoil unleashed by the Arab Spring, now is not the time to be taking risks.
“No time is good for taking risks,” he says. Of course, he notes, it would have been better to take the initiative while George W. Bush was president of the US, a moderate authoritarian ruler was in charge in Egypt, relations with Turkey were good and Iran was further away from a nuclear bomb.
“But,” he says, “this does not imply that an initiative is out of tune with present events, although it may need adjustments so as to appeal to Arab ‘street power.’ Turbulence loosens rigidities and new governments may welcome initiatives meeting many of their objectives, and if the initiative does not rapidly bear fruits, the very throwing of an Israeli surprise at history will reverse the negative trends in its international standing and provide a more stable basis for relations with the US, other powers and Islamic states, including repairing the breach with Turkey.
“I tend to the opinion that Israel has to seriously consider its longer-range future in the Middle East,” he continues. “The standard retort I get is: ‘Let’s wait until all the Arab States in the Middle East are democracies, then let’s reach a deal.’ If they are all peaceful democracies, then don’t make a deal. The region will be stable in any case. We need a deal because things are unstable, because it’s a wild neighborhood with an increasing proliferation of weapons.”
WITH REGARD to Iran, Dror says that Israel needs to rely on “ultimate deterrence,” that an attack on Tehran’s nuclear facilities will only be counterproductive and that the real danger Israel faces is from a gradual wearing away of its staying power.
“Assuming you attack, then so what,” he says. “In five years they will recuperate with absolute determination for revenge. The idea that an Israeli attack will make Iran into a peace-loving country is not on my horizon. I don’t know anything like this in history, I know the opposite from history.... Iran has a very low probability of being a suicidal state. They have a long culture, a long history, they are much more involved in the Shi’a- Sunni conflict than in the Israeli side-issue. I think no one has any doubt that if Israel’s existence is in danger it will use mass killing weapons.
“The question,” he continues, “is not Israel being liquidated by mass killing weapons. It is of a slow erosion – attrition, intifada 3, intifada 4, mega-terror, heated borders, kidnappings and so forth that will erode morale.”
On the issue of Turkey, Dror agrees that domestic factors beyond Israel’s control have a major role in the rift between Jerusalem and Ankara, but says that Israel has its share of the blame. He describes Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s humiliation of Turkey’s ambassador as a scandal that would have led other countries to break off diplomatic relations immediately and cites the Mavi Marmara affair as an example of military policy trumping statecraft.
“On the Marmara business, if anyone thought in advance what are the implications of tactics A, tactics B, tactics C in respect of relations with Turkey this will be the surprise of my life,” says Dror. “I don’t have the data, but I’m willing to bet that no one thought about the implications on relations with Turkey... they thought about it in military terms, but they didn’t think of it in terms of statecraft.”
To improve Israel’s statecraft, says Dror, Israel must resolve tensions influencing its decision-making culture.
“We are influenced, necessarily and positively so, but too much, by a sense of triumphalism. Israel is a success. Nothing that I say, nothing that I write will reduce recognition that Israel is an unusual, in fact unique, historic success. It is an existential success. This leaves deep traces. At the same time it has anxieties deeply rooted in Jewish history before the Shoah, reinforced by the Shoah and reinforced by being surrounded by hostile statements. This makes it difficult to have a balanced view.”
Dror traces the fundamental issues of Israeli statecraft to the Six Day War when, he says, Israel, failed to leverage its control of the territories to advance its statecraft aims.
“During the Six Day War one could have changed demographic realities, moved populations. One could have used it [the territories] to advance a peace arrangement, but it was not done seriously. Or one could have made a serious effort to intensely settle select parts of it so some parts would become Israel and parts would be available for Jordan.
In other words there was an incapacity, a social inability and a leadership incapability to decide what to do with the territories. Understandable. Psychologically understandable. Value-wise understandable. Politically understandable – but understandable is not a justification for an existential issue.”
That failure, says Dror, and the ideology of the Greater Land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael Hashlema, have led to a distorted view of reality and have led some decision makers to hold a “quasi-mystic belief in Divine aid which is against all Jewish religious traditions and history.”
“To expect the future to work out all for the better without making far-reaching compromises is a clear denial of the trends of history,” he says. ■