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Elevating the Debate

Israel’s parliament offered up a useful counterpoint this week to the mud bath that is America’s national debate on intelligence and counter-terrorism policy. In a crisp 80-page report, the Knesset on Monday released the findings of a special subcommittee investigating the performance of Israel’s intelligence services before and after the Iraq war. The report is blunt and uncompromising, yet avoids assigning personal blame. The questions it raises are structural and conceptual, as they should be.

If only our own debate were so reasoned. Instead of examining the issues raised by the September 11 attacks and the troubled aftermath of the Iraq war, our leaders insist on dodging responsibility, proclaiming their eternal rightness and smearing their critics. Instead of re-examining structures, concepts and assumptions, everything is dragged down to the personal level.

The Knesset investigation, chaired by the cerebrally hawkish Yuval Steinitz of Likud, begins by acknowledging something that America’s leadership hasn’t yet managed to own up to despite a year’s worth of mounting evidence: that the Iraqi threat was vastly overstated. The source of the exaggeration at the Israeli end, the panel concluded, was a series of malfunctions within the intelligence services, which supplied a mixture of conjecture, speculation and hype dressed up as fact that drove the Jewish state to the brink of panic.

The malfunctions were twofold, the report said. For one thing, the agencies simply didn’t have up-to-date information, a frightening lapse in today’s dangerous world. Equally disturbing, the agencies, particularly the army’s intelligence branch, had developed an overconfidence in their ability to assess Arab intentions and capabilities, leading them to present as facts what were actually no more than estimates. The politicians and the public willingly played along, looking to the soldiers and the spooks to give them some sense of certainty in a world grown increasingly terrifying. The Knesset panel’s solution is to get the intelligence branch back to its core mission of collecting data and leave the job of interpretation to the elected politicians.

The report is equally forthright on some other key issues, including the role that Israeli assessments of Iraq may have played — unintentionally and indirectly, but palpably nonetheless — in ratcheting up alarm levels in other Western intelligence agencies. The report also scores the Israeli spy agencies, particularly the Mossad, for utterly failing to detect the dramatic developments in Libya, including both its surprisingly advanced nuclear program and its secret rapprochement talks with Britain and America.

The Steinitz report comes at a sensitive moment in Israeli public discourse. A debate has been raging for months, touched off last fall by the 30th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, over the role played by entrenched preconceptions in distorting the Jewish state’s decision-making processes. Back in 1973, Israel’s leadership, still awash in the euphoria of the Six-Day War, underestimated its neighbors’ willingness and ability to mount a military assault. As a result, it was caught unawares by a devastating surprise attack. The continuing trauma of 1973 has led, many analysts say, to a reverse sort of rigidity, a virtual ideology of alarmism, in which soldiers and politicians habitually overstate threats in hopes of avoiding another surprise. That ideology appears to have played a role in driving the alarmist reports on Iraq.

The Steinitz report already has its share of critics, and their caveats are important ones. The panel’s ranking Labor member, Haim Ramon, complains in a minority report that the panel overstated the army’s role in setting off the false alarms last year and downplayed the government’s share of blame. Some critics whisper that there was an agenda at work; after all, they note, the army’s intelligence branch, despite its alarmist reports on Iraq, has more often been a moderating force in the past decade, at times irritating Likud hawks with its benign assessments of Palestinian and Syrian intentions. The proposals to clip its wings sound to some critics like a case of shooting the messenger.

Nonetheless, the Steinitz report will begin a public discussion among Israelis, and it focuses the discussion on the issues that need addressing: not whether the Iraqi threat was overstated but why, and how a habit of knee-jerk alarmism may have left the nation more vulnerable rather than less so. Those are the issues America should be debating right now. If only we could.

America’s defense hawks, who so delight in pointing to Israel as a model in waging war and fighting terror, would do well to look to Jerusalem for lessons in self-scrutiny. It’s possible to fight a war, know your enemies and still be forthright in admitting when you are wrong.

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