Paul Pillar

Speaking Truth to Power in Israel

Emanating out of Israel over the past several months has been a remarkable series of dissents from senior and respected members of the Israeli national-security establishment against positions taken by the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu. The dissenters are individuals whose dedication to the security of Israel is, given their careers, beyond question. They also are men whose experience and expertise make them worth listening to. Some have commented on the long-term peril to Israel of letting the conflict with the Palestinians fester while indefinitely occupying all of the West Bank. More recently, they have addressed the subject the Netanyahu government has put at the top of its public agenda, which is Iran and its nuclear program.

Most of the observations have come from former senior officials, who naturally are freer to speak openly and honestly than when they were in government. But some similar dissents have even emerged, albeit in far more nuanced and fragmented form, from currently serving officials. The current head of Mossad, Tamir Pardo, has questioned the notion that an Iranian nuclear weapon would pose an existential threat to Israel. Last week Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, the chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said in an interview that Iranian leaders were rational people who he expects will see the advantage for Iran of agreeing not to build a nuclear weapon. Advocates for the Israeli government quickly tried to spin the general's comments as not contradicting the government's positions. But in fact, the remarks diverged sharply from the efforts of Netanyahu and his ministers not only to question the rationality of Iranian leaders but also to bad-mouth the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 as a damaging waste of time.

Then on Friday came a scathing critique of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak from Yuval Diskin, the immediate past head of the internal-security service Shin Bet. Diskin said the pair act out of messianic sentiments but, noting that “I have seen them up close,” they are in fact not messiahs. Diskin stated that Netanyahu and Barak have been “creating a false impression about the Iranian issue” and “appealing to the stupid public” by suggesting that resort to military force would eliminate the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon rather than, as is more likely, motivating Tehran to take the decision it has not yet taken to build a bomb.

Americans listening to these exchanges in Israel should draw several conclusions. First, we are seeing one of Israel's most admirable characteristics, which is free and vigorous debate among Israeli citizens enjoying liberal democracy. Whatever are the faults in that democracy—especially the part with a lot of people living under occupation and not enjoying political rights—there is still a part where such rights prevail. In fact, Israel, with its vigorous debates on such matters, goes one better than the United States, where discussion of issues involving Israel is contorted and constrained by what is at best political correctness and at worst a code of omerta. Debates in the United States about Israel would be more informative if they were more like debates within Israel.

Second, we should listen to the substance of what the experienced Israeli national-security professionals are saying. Diskin, for example, really did have a lot of experience observing Netanyahu in action. And Netanyahu really is exhibiting a combination of misplaced messianism and misleading the public.

Third, the Israeli debates are a reminder that the policies of the Israeli government of the day are not to be equated with the interests of Israel. Any government gets to define national interests, and the best way of pursuing them, as long as it is in power. But that definition is only an act of temporary control. Even in a democracy, the definition may be a narrow and warped version of a larger sense of the national interest. In the previous U.S. administration (which, of course, was ushered into office by hanging chad and a court decision), neoconservatives seized control of national-security policy—enough to start a major offensive war—but the resulting policy did not advance the national interest and did not even emerge from a majority sense of the national interest. Netanyahu's government is the product of coalition building under the Israeli electoral system amid ethnic and religious complexities and the weakness of parties of the Left and Center.

Finally, and related to the third point, Americans who consider themselves supporters of Israel ought to think carefully and hard about exactly what they are supporting. Falling in line with what Prime Minister Netanyahu is saying is most definitely not equivalent to supporting Israel. If it were, it would be as if—Republicans in particular ought to get this comparison—foreign endorsement of policies and pronouncements of Barack Obama were being used as the measure of friendship toward the United States. Passionate attachment to any foreign country has a bad enough effect on the security and interests of the United States. The effect is even worse when the attachment is to a particular foreign leadership that isn't even acting in the best interests of its own country.