In late February 2002, shortly after Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah presented columnist Thomas Friedman with his famous Saudi peace plan, the director of Israel’s vaunted Mossad went to his boss, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. His advice: Welcome the initiative as a bold step toward peace.
The plan offered Israel full recognition and normalized relations with all 22 Arab states, plus a declared end to the Israeli-Arab conflict, in exchange for Palestinian statehood along the pre-1967 lines. The Arab League was due to discuss the plan at a summit in Beirut at the end of March. An Israeli green light would help it along.
Sharon responded warily, then-Mossad chief Efraim Halevy told me some years later. He wanted clarifications. They agreed to ask that Sharon be invited to Beirut to get answers first-hand. Halevy approached an Arab League contact, who returned with a question: What would Sharon say in Beirut? Sharon replied that he would decide once he got there. And that ended that.
In Beirut, emboldened by Israel’s silence, the Syrians demanded a poison-pill clause calling for a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem with an implied right of return. The drafters softened it with words requiring Israeli consent. Israelis hardly noticed; for them the plan had died a day before, on March 27, when Hamas bombed a community Seder in Netanya, killing 30 Israelis, in a declared attempt to derail the pact. In fact, it had been buried weeks earlier in the prime minister’s office.
The Sharon-Halevy exchange encapsulates the fraught relationship between Israeli political leaders and security professionals over handling of the Israeli-Arab conflict. It also helps to explain some of the frustration American and international leaders feel when they try to navigate Middle East diplomacy and repeatedly find themselves lost in the thicket of Israeli and Diaspora Jewish politics.
Ever since Israeli Military Intelligence first concluded in 1988 that the Palestinian leadership had turned a corner and accepted Israel’s existence, the generals and spymasters have been interrogating the enemy, listening in on meetings, studying documents and weapons inventories, becoming increasingly convinced that an agreement is within reach that will leave Israel safer than it is now.
And ever since then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir rejected that 1988 Military Intelligence report, the political leadership has been following Palestinian public statements, tracking public opinion and concluding that the benefits of conceding territory are not worth the risk.
Neither side is unanimous, though the defense community is nearly so. Of the 18 living ex-heads of the IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet, all but one — former IDF chief (and current defense minister) Moshe Yaalon — believe the Palestinian leadership is willing to make a deal for a separate state and that Israel would be safer with it, even based on the 1967 lines, than with the status quo. Most have spoken out in favor of welcoming the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for talks. No Israeli government has done so.
On the other hand, Israeli governments have seesawed between left and right. Every government of the left has entered formal peace talks with the PLO, under Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Ehud Barak in 2000 and 2001 and Ehud Olmert in 2008. Each round advanced in grueling fits and starts — including Arafat’s famous walkout from Camp David in July 2000, which was promptly followed, less famously, by continued talks.
Each round came close to agreement. And each was abruptly cut short before the finish line when the Israeli leader was felled — by assassination in 1995, coalition collapse in 2001 and corruption charges in 2008.
Each fallen government was succeeded by a conservative one, which held up the talks’ failure as proof that the Palestinians can’t or won’t close a deal.
The military, by contrast, saw the Palestinians’ repeated return to the table as evidence that they might.
What do the security services see — or think they see — that the politicians don’t? How could the two readings of Palestinian intentions — and of Israel’s own security needs—differ so radically? That deserves a column of its own. We’ll get to it next week.
Before we do, we ought to ask a closely related question: Why the gap comes as such a surprise to so many American friends of Israel. For all American Jews’ concern for Israel’s welfare and security, the actual substance of Israeli security doctrine is virtually unknown in this country.
Consider the stunned reactions to “The Gatekeepers,” the Oscar-nominated documentary featuring all six ex-heads of the Shin Bet domestic security agency discussing their shared critique of Israeli West Bank policy. It evoked confusion, disbelief and anger. Rabbis questioned whether the defense chiefs fully understood Israel’s defense needs.
Consider last April’s Jerusalem Post conference in New York, where the immediate past heads of the IDF, Mossad, Military Intelligence and Israeli National Security Council stunned a paying audience of 1,000 local Jewish activists by unanimously describing the chaotic Arab Spring as a strategic opportunity — not a threat, as it’s universally described here.
These are just the latest examples. I could name dozens more. Lately, though, the clashes are more frequent and more visible. The defense chiefs are speaking out more than they used to. Traditionally they’ve kept their peace, even after retirement to civilian life. Lately there’s a widespread sense of anxiety that time is running out, that the government is missing a historic opportunity.
American Jews take their cues on Israeli security from Israel’s elected government. Israel’s generals and spies rarely wade into public relations. But they do speak to one audience: counterparts in the Pentagon and CIA, with whom they are in daily contact as allies. From there information flows up directly into the White House.
Thus Israeli governments trying to make their case in Washington often find themselves clashing with administrations that have formed plans to support Israeli security after normal consultation with Israeli colleagues. It’s a constant comedy of errors, but it’s not funny.
And when administrations reach out to American constituencies concerned for Israel — that would be us Jews — they end up confronting people who’ve never heard the basics of Israeli defense doctrine.
Which brings us to Secretary of State John Kerry and his unusual June 3 appeal to American Jews, via an American Jewish Committee conference, to pressure their leaders to support the two-state solution and the Arab Peace Initiative. It’s not unusual for administration spokesmen and Jewish community leaders to talk past each other. Rarely is the confrontation so direct. But that’s where we’re headed, out of the best intentions on all sides.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).