Who should worry more?
Policymakers aspire to clarity. It is easiest to define and defend one’s actions according to fixed lines. Government benefits should go to individuals who meet certain criteria. Giving discretion to the people who carry out policy is problematic. It facilitates favoritism and brings charges of discrimination.
Yet some issues do not lend themselves to clear lines, and some of those who implement policy should have discretion. Physicians make some decisions according to widely accepted criteria, but are entitled to use the judgment they have been trained to exercise. In practice, police officers also use their judgment, even while the formal rules constrain them more than physicians or other highly trained professionals.
When pressure builds in criticism of what exists, we expect politicians to use their judgment, tilted by the ideology or party platforms they used to describe themselves to the voters.
Then there are the fluid issues of great national import. Threats of war or lesser possibilities in international affairs bring to the fore the need to adjust to powerful others, and the possibilities of great harm or benefit.
In a general sense, Israel’s problems are well know, but the details of what has to be judged are more often in the grays of ambiguity than in the clear contrasts of what should or should not be done.
Gaza and the Golan are appropriate examples.
How to respond to incidents of missiles or gunfire which may upset residents near the border, but do not cause great damage or casualties?
Those coming from Gaza most likely have been aimed at Israel and deserve a response, while those coming from Syria may only be poorly aimed side effects of warfare between others.
What to do about missiles that come only occasionally from Gaza, usually land in empty fields, with the only casualties being individuals needing treatment for anxiety?
Israel’s policy has generally been to respond at a low level, such as bombing facilities late at night when casualties are not likely, or an even more symbolic warning via attack on an empty field.
In regard to Syria, there have been no Israeli responses to incidents judged to be mistakes occurring on the other side. In response to something thought to be intentional, there have been artillery responses that have caused casualties among those thought to be responsible.
In both case, Israel’s primary concern is not to make things worse.
Israelis charged with making the decisions have had considerable experience. Politicians reaching high office have generally done so gradually, learning as they climb. Senior military officers have been exposed to strategic as well as tactical training, including a range of political views, intelligence reports and analyses about Israel’s neighbors, as well as years of work in different tasks as they have climbed through the ranks. Argument prior to decision occurs at the top of the IDF as well as in government. For an example of the thinking that occurs at the top of the IDF, see this.
At times, the forums that include the most senior military and political personnel decide that conditions require more than routine responses governed by the rule of not making things worse.
Operation Protective Edge is the latest example.
About this and previous occasions, Israelis quarrel about what was done, and what was not done. The points that have a chance for a serious hearing are likely to reflect knowledge about Israel’s adversaries and Israel’s capacities. In the case of the recent operation, there is widespread disappointment that Hamas was not completely vanquished, but also widespread agreement that Israel--or perhaps any conceivable alliance with more powerful nations--cannot eliminate completely the roots and supports of Hamas or any other version of fanatic Islam.
Giving good reason to stay away from us is a summary of current policy that has wide support among Israelis, even while we quarrel about these issues:
Was Israel’s actions too great?
Would Palestinian casualties and the extent of destruction cost more in international support than they accomplished in deterring Hamas violence?
Did Israel wait too long in order to respond forcefully, and did it exact enough damage and casualties to deter Hamas long into the future?
Wisdom demands that judgments expressed by those of us lacking some of the information be limited to a general standard of what appears reasonable. Micro-criticism of this or that is beyond the capacity of the ordinary citizen, or even journalists who claim access to high places. The records of official inquiries, typically based upon full access to documents and lengthy interviews with participants, have generally left some issues unresolved, or subject to dispute among those charged with the inquiry.
Indicative of the support for the Gaza operation is what novelist Amos Oz, an iconic advocate of greater accommodation with the Palestinians, said to a German radio audience.
“What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery? What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?”
Given the strength and unity of Israelis, against the political flabbiness of Europe and the U.S., One should wonder who should worry the most.
The Middle East has long been a confusing place for westerners inclined to judge others on the basis of their own experiences. Currently the chaos and fluidity taxes even those with long experience, knowledge of the languages and cultures. There are numerous groups fighting under the umbrella of Islam, with who knows what motives leading to warfare among those claiming the common purposes of opposing the government forces of Syria or Iraq, loyalty to Islam, or loyalty to the traditions of Sunni or Shia.
While Israel has the strength and the intelligence to take care of itself, there are several issues demanding an early response from other civilized countries.
How strong are Daish and other Islamic barbarians, and how threatening to western interests in the Middle East?
How to deal with the side effects or blow back of those movements, among the Muslim populations of Western Europe and the United States?
Both questions require tough judgments, against backgrounds of clumsy western efforts that arguably caused more harm than benefits over the most recent decades in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. The Obama-Kerry team has a poor record for its judgment of things Middle Eastern, and will not find it easy to assemble the wide coalition that it now says is necessary for dealing with Daish.
The blow back at home is no less dicey. Thousands of Europeans and at least a few Americans have gone to Syria or Iraq to fight with the most extreme, and some of those surviving will return home inspired to apply the lessons learned. Whether they try for mini- or maxi-equivalents of what happened at Ft Hood, the Boston Marathon, or 9-11, only time will tell.
Recent attacks against Jews by European Muslims have produced upticks in migration to Israel, and worries among Europeans about violence directed more widely than against Jews.
Dealing with the possibilities come up against laws and policies touching the sensitive issues of civil rights, ethnic profiling, and the discriminatory actions of individuals charged with security. Ferguson, Missouri provides a reminder of the tinder waiting to be ignited.
Israel is better off with simpler problems and acceptable solutions. Israeli Muslims who have gone over the border to fight with the Islamists have been arrested for consorting with the enemy. The police and security services gather intelligence among Israeli Arabs as well as the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. Ethnic profiling has occasionally been an issue at the screening points in the airport or by police doing document checks. There are efforts to improve training and minimize frictions likely to be counterproductive, along with wide recognition of focusing security on the most appropriate populations
Whether they like it or not, Europe and the U.S. have become part of what is roiling the Middle East. It is time for them to begin thinking like Middle Easterners.
Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.