Writing in the margins

Israeli think tanks are criticized as ivory tower, or for suffocating in the bear hug of gov't.

think tank 88 (photo credit: )
think tank 88
(photo credit: )
The large, metal nameplate on the door says Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies, yet to doubt the address is perfectly natural. After all, who would expect one of the country's major think tanks to be holed up in a stucco-sided bungalow on Bar-Ilan University campus in Ramat Gan? But while BESA mails out glossy, baby-blue policy booklets to readers here and abroad, the center itself is Sabra functionality to its core - a secretary, a water-cooler and a visiting Indian doctoral student typing away on the computer. There's not even an intercom. "This is the whole kingdom," says Efraim Inbar, the center's director, with a grand sweep of his hands. None of BESA's two dozen research associates work here on a full-time basis, Inbar explains. This arrangement keeps down costs, which is a priority given the center has an annual budget of only $250,000 - one-eighth of what the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University spends. "Most of our budget goes to activities, not administration. To the 'fighting units,' as it were," he brags. The question, though, is what those "fighting units" really accomplish in the corridors of power. Since 1991, and with increasing frequency over the last five years, BESA researchers have been running with the big boys in the National Security Council and Foreign and Defense Ministries. Still, the government does what it wants, advisory forums be damned. "Arik [Ariel Sharon] didn't want to listen to anyone but Arik," says Inbar. "Rabin didn't want to listen to anyone but Rabin. You know the stereotype of an Israeli leader." The problem, however, is not just stubborn politicians. Think tanks stand accused of lagging behind the information curve, of recycling bits of conventional wisdom; if decision-makers seem to be listening, it is only because they are going through the motions. Yet despite the criticism, policy institutes have led on certain issues, such as unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, strategic ties with Turkey and domestic reforms. THE GROWTH OF THINK TANKS In all, the country has around two dozen think tanks, ranging from university-affiliated centers, such as BESA, to endowed independents like Jerusalem's Israel Democracy Institute, both of which were set up in 1991. Some centers are little more than a post office address and one very opinionated man. Nowadays, the more famous policy wonks go on TV to debate whether the Iranian leader means what he says or how the newest government budget will affect people in the Negev. They write papers about nuclear strategy. They are, in effect, the bridge between academia and politicians, notes Jim McGann, co-author of Comparative Think Tanks, Politics and Policy Advice. But it was not always this way. The first institutes in the country used to deal with safe, second-tier issues. For example, the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, founded in 1959, focused - and still focuses - on civil society and its relationship to the state, while The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs initially addressed the Jewish political tradition as derived from the Bible and later sources. The Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, the flagship of foreign policy and security institutes, only emerged in 1977 - nearly two decades after Van Leer. (The Center got the name "Jaffee" in 1983 thanks to a large donation from American philanthropist Mel Jaffee.) Col. (ret.) Ephraim Kam, the current deputy director of the Jaffee Center, says the 1974 Agranat Commission, which examined the Yom Kippur War debacle, served as the catalyst for this new type of think tank. The commission blamed the IDF's vaunted intelligence branch for lulling the country into a false sense of security with its dogmatic notion of when Egypt would attack. The oracle had finally failed. Accordingly, the now-deceased Maj.-Gen. Aharon Yariv, who had headed the IDF's Intelligence Corps a year before the breakout of the war, founded the Center for Strategic Studies because he "felt that there should be more public debate on security issues," notes Kam. Today, the Jaffee Center has an annual budget of $2 million (drawn primarily from private donors in the Diaspora), employs a dozen full-time researchers, and examines such issues as terrorism, the peace process, regional arms control and unconventional weapons. But Yariv did not just build a think tank; he built a think tank culture. The first policy memo at the Center for Strategic Studies - an analysis of the Arab oil embargo - was authored by Uzi Arad, who now heads the Institute for Policy and Strategy, established in 2000 at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. The general also played mentor to Shimshon Zelniker, the current executive director of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Finally, Dore Gold, who now heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), served as director of the Jaffee Center's US Foreign and Defense Policy Project until 1996, before going on to become ambassador to the United Nations. THE MAKING AND MARKETING OF A POLICY BRIEF The JCPA is set on an impressive piece of real estate: a palatial, Arab-style building with slender, vaulting windows and a stone balcony nestled on the corner of Rehov Tel Hai and Rahel Imenu, in Jerusalem's leafy Old Katamon neighborhood. After a three-year stint as ambassador to the UN, Gold took over the once rarefied think tank in 2000 and pushed it in the direction of foreign policy. His newest baby is the Defensible Borders Initiative. "We learned an extremely important lesson over the last 10 years," he says. "The Palestinians wanted a state and the Israelis asked in return for peace, which, though worthwhile, is an abstraction. And when it comes to an abstraction versus a concrete goal, the concrete goal wins." To remedy this situation, Gold has been pitching a policy brief coauthored by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, former ambassador to France Meir Rosenne, and MK (Likud) Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Entitled "Defensible Borders for a Lasting Peace," the brief makes the not all-together new argument for Israel's retaining the Jordan Valley while moving the final boundary eastward into the West Bank. So far, though, the idea has picked up support from Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya'alon as well as high-level American military officers. In addition, Hebrew copies of "Defensible Borders" were sent to the leaders of every political party, and several politicians have asked for private briefings. "You have to have the right angle at the right time," says Gold. With an annual budget of over $800,000 (but no affiliated university to pay faculty salaries), Gold has to pick his policy battles carefully. This means first testing the waters with conferences and staff discussions before committing to have someone do the research. Gold himself is a veteran of the American TV circuit thanks, in part, to his two books, one about Saudi Arabia supporting global terror and the other slamming the United Nations - the latter hitting the stands just in time for the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal to break. In fact, the ex-ambassador is probably the only Israeli think tank director to have made it as a guest on the wildly popular Daily Show with Jon Stewart. But to get attention means a lot of work: It requires hustling for the e-mail addresses of congressional aides and ex-officials; printing more papers in Hebrew to reach a local audience, and putting out a mass e-mail Daily Alert for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations ("It's like putting a small capsule on a Saturn-5 Rocket," he says). Another think tank fighting to attract attention to its research (as well as money for its coffers) is the Tel Aviv-based Israeli Institute for Economic and Social Research, founded in 1995 and chaired by Roby Nathanson. Most recently, the institute estimated that, over the years, a whopping $14 billion had been sunk into West Bank settlements. "We try to build up our relevance one project at a time," says Nathanson, who used to head the national Histadrut union's economic research department. "We also try to keep our briefs under 1,000 words. We know that decision makers do not read more than one page." BUT IS IT EFFECTIVE? Of course, distribution and publicity is just half the story. A think tank may hand out all the free position papers it wants, but that doesn't mean they are being considered or even read. How does a policy director know whether he is actually affecting change? "It's hard to tell if we have an impact," Kam admits. "Sometimes it's based on feelings. Other times it's by hearing references to us in speeches." Back at BESA, Inbar has to deal with the same question, especially when trying to coax a paper out of a researcher. Many academics prefer to see their works in a prestigious journal than collecting dust on some bureaucrat's desk. Inbar, Kam and others all say that their researchers participate in private briefings at the National Security Council, foreign ministry and at intelligence agencies. It sounds impressive, but is the think tank crowd just being talked to or does the government take suggestions? "It depends if they agree with you or not," Gold grimly notes. For the most part, The Shalem Center in Jerusalem has been spared this experience because it is not, contrary to popular opinion, a think tank but a conservative education center. It produces a quarterly political journal called Azureand, starting last year, an academic, peer-reviewed journal called Hebraic Political Studies, which looks at early republican thinkers who took their inspiration from the Old Testament. Still, Shalem does do a bit of policy in the economic realm; Hebrew University lecturer Omer Moav writes newspaper opinion pieces for the center on various subjects from a free market perspective. Moav is still an innocent. He has not yet been invited to sit and be patronized by finance ministry people, so he measures his success by how many readers comment on his op-eds. "On Globes[an Israeli business online news site], if you get 20 talkbacks, that's a lot," he says. THE INSIDE-OUTSIDE PARADOX Shimshon Zelniker, the executive director of the heavily endowed Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, sits in an upscale caf in Ramat Hasharon, enjoying his carrot juice and hamburger. Between bites, he discusses the grand vision of his Dutch Jewish patrons and what is wrong with the local think tank culture. "Science and liberal notions of progress are not barriers to atrocities and to barbarism," says Zelniker, explaining the post-World War II philosophy of Polly Van Leer. "There must be a strong civil society to protect the citizen from the state." Seeing itself as the town hall of the marginalized, the institute plays host to the non-official Track Two diplomacy between Palestinians and Israelis and publishes the journal Theory and Criticism, a lightning rod for post-Zionist writers. Still, Zelniker praises The Shalem Center for publishing the works of Leo Strauss, Karl Popper and Edmund Burke in Hebrew. "It's a terrific and timely counterpoint to unbridled liberalism," he says. He turns brutal, though, when discussing other think tanks. Zelniker contends that the so-called experts have far less access to specialized knowledge than their customers, the political-military establishment. If think tank analysts are invited to defense briefings, he says, it is just to keep up democratic appearances and nothing more. Harsh stuff, but is it just the sour grapes of an intellectual outsider? Not really. Arad, who served as a senior Mossad official before heading the Institute for Policy and Strategy, airs some of the same criticisms. He says decision makers have never developed the habit of reading policy briefs because what was published was not consistently good or timely. "Look at Jaffee," Arad says. "They should have dominated this past year with the situation in Iraq, but you saw the TV news calling on ex-military officials more often than they did experts at think tanks. That's pretty revealing." For Arad, the solution to the relevance problem lies on the inside. Researchers need to work their way into the official loop, to familiarize themselves with what ministries and agencies are doing and how they tackle problems. Being a former security official or general is an advantage. Unfortunately, this leads to a whole new problem: the recycling of bureaucratic clich s. It's the classic inside-outside paradox. "Think tanks must be very independent if they want to produce a different sort of knowledge than can already be heard at the Shin Bet, Mossad and Foreign Ministry," says Yoram Meital, chairman of Ben-Gurion University's Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy. After all, what's the point of reproducing what's already been said? This call for out-of-the-box (versus inthe-loop) thinkers finds support from Steinitz. Sometimes, a civilian unburdened by state secrets has greater liberty to speculate on strategic problems than does an insider, he argues. However, the media only care about sound bites from generals, and politicians take their cue from journalists. "If I bring an expert on game theory to the Knesset Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense," says Steinitz, "the media won't come, and so the politicians won't come either." In other words, Arad's TV anchors have not identified the problem with civilian policy wonks - they've caused it. ACCOMPLISHMENTS Despite the criticism leveled at think tanks, there are a few success stories. BESA, for example, has built ties with counterparts in India and Turkey, giving it a cache and broader geographical perspective lacking in other places. On the domestic front, the Van Leer Jerusalem institute pioneered in the 1980s a series of texts for the school system about Israeli Arabs, and has just recently field tested a new civics curriculum to teach students about their responsibilities as students in a democracy. In a similar vein, Yoram Hazony, director of The Shalem Center, led a successful crusade against a junior high school textbook put out in 1999, which gave short shrift to David Ben-Gurion and aspects of Zionist history. The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), notes president Arik Carmon, has spearheaded a project to finally give the country a constitution - and with it "a stable civil society, institutions or a normative framework." The project, which reflects a broad consensus of opinion, spun off from the center in October, and now Constitution by Consensus operates as a political lobby. IDI vice president Lorraine Gastwirt notes that the center's annual Economic Conference (often called the Caesarea Conference because that's where it was originally held) brings together academics, business people and officials to discuss research on the budget, poverty, hi-tech, and globalization. "It's extremely influential," she says. "People beat down the doors to get here." Finally, the Institute for Policy and Strategy just had its sixth annual Herzliya Conference. Employing the interdisciplinary, task force-style reports used at the Aspen Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations in the United States, these conferences attract the cr me de la cr me of the establishment. Arad notes that, in addition to the idea of unilateral withdrawal, many of the recommendations that found their way into the Dovrat Commission on education reform were first aired at the Herzliya Conference. These are all very small steps for the world of think tanks, but Zelniker puts it all into perspective. "Democracy is about believing in incremental change," he says. "Skepticism leads to passivity."