It’s Not A Secret

There are times when Presidents and Prime Ministers make decisions which seem to be unexplainable. The average citizen views these types of decisions as negating all logic and ones that will not lead to any positive outcome. But immediately others chime in and claim that the average citizen is unaware and uninformed of the considerations surrounding the decision, and had they only known they would certainly have chosen the same path.    It’s purported that there is some piece of intelligence information or unknown fact which tips the scales the opposite of the way the citizen would think.  This line of thinking implies that regardless who is the head of state, the same decision would be made, because the circumstances, unbeknownst to the average citizen require that such a decision be made.

Many stand aghast at the recent concession of the Israeli government to release convicted killers in exchange that the Palestinian leadership return to the negotiating table with Israel, and now – with the release of more terrorists – continue negotiations.  Israelis shout “illogical”, “crazy”, “a serious blow to morality” due to the difficulty in comprehending such actions.  They contemplate how could any self respecting country release murderers in exchange for negotiations?  Where is the national interest? Where is the national pride? How could this possibly be in our interest? However, then come the rumors: American pressure, American threats, Jeffrey Goldberg’s column in The Atlantic, Iran, and an array of conspiracy theories to justify releasing terrorists in exchange for nothing.

Look at what some of the Cabinet members said.   Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, said: “There is a heavy price in the decision to release terrorists, in terms of justice, law and deterrence. I wish we were not facing this dilemma.”  Just a few days ago, before additional terrorists were released, Ya’alon said: “Our hearts are with the bereaved families, but the government must act with responsibility.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu commented that it serves the wider interests of the state! Before the latest release of prisoners, he said that the decision was “an inevitable one based on the reality we face. We are being forced to maneuver through a complicated international situation, with many challenges, that requires us to weigh many issues for the good of the state.”

Strategic Affairs Minister, Yuval Steinitz, said, “I will support the Prime Minister’s proposal, not because I think it’s a fantastic idea – to say the least – but because I think that in an international view, the Israeli government cannot be seen as one that rejects entering negotiations.”

What interests?  What dilemma? Ambiguous statements coated with rhetorical varnish served to the Israeli people as an intelligent analysis of international politics.

But this isn’t the first time government officials and ministers have used confusing language to explain their position.  Yuval Steinitz made a similar comment prior to the disengagement in 2005 – “This plan will improve our geopolitical situation” – only to be proven wrong.  How about Dov Weisglass’s comments on the disengagement: “If Sharon’s disengagement plan is torpedoed, politically it will be cause for everlasting regret. Our achievements will be lost. The international community will lose patience with us. It will take the same attitude toward us as it does toward Arafat. We will very quickly find ourselves up against a Palestinian state that uses terror against us and up against a world that is becoming increasingly hostile. We will find ourselves in a tragedy.”  No need to even attempt to refute these statements.

During the period prior to the disengagement, before the Likud winds started blowing in heavy opposition of the disengagement – which eventually led Netanyahu to resign from the government – this is what he said about the disengagement:  “Now that the train has already left the station, there is no choice but to support the prime minister and present him with demands and conditions [for the withdrawal].” Maybe presenting things as inevitable is the way to convince the Israeli population of a necessary decision.  Look at Limor Livnat’s statement as she sobbingly supported the disengagement.  She said that she made “the brokenhearted decision to support the disengagement plan. It was a hard decision.”

These are just a few examples of statements made containing ‘mysterious’ and ‘only if you knew’ and ‘I wish I didn’t have to support it’ reasons.  Yet history reveals to us that these statements are a bluff.  In general, history allows us to see events of the past, what was tried, what failed, what succeeded, and humbly knowing that we approach the challenges of today with an enhanced perspective.

Besides for general history, in the field of political science and international relations, there is another tool that allows people to study decision-making processes made by governments.  This tool is called personal “memoirs.”  Reading memoirs of Presidents, Vice Presidents, Prime Ministers, Generals, Foreign Ministers, and other high ranking officials, allows the citizen the ability to obtain a perspective as to what was being discussed in the corridors of power and at the highest levels of the government at critical times in the past.  Obviously, it is insufficient to read one person’s memoirs and to form an opinion on a specific event.  However, once memoirs and diaries of many players involved in certain decisions or event are read; one can know what were the issues being discussed before major decisions were made.  Once this happens, the average citizen realizes that the same ideas that he was throwing around with his friends at a bar or during a business lunch are very similar to discussions being held between Presidents and their staff behind closed doors.

When the Iranians took over the US embassy in 1979, the US – from the President to Congress – were clueless as to what to do.  Of course, some advocated a military operation while others advocated peaceful negotiations, but the bottom line was that nobody had any clue who they were dealing with;  what the nature of the organization was; intelligence information.  The whole event blindsided them.  Therefore amid the secrecy of how America would respond was a government that was baffled, confused and unsure of what to do, and only after a year and a half, when the prisoners ceased to serve a purpose did the financially strained Iran release them to an embarrassed America.

After the twin towers were attacked, Bush’s and Cheney’s memoirs reveal that their debates with their  regarding options for Iraq and Afghanistan were simple and no different from what the average man on the street thought.

But getting back to Israel, Moshe Feiglin, in his first speech to the Knesset, discussed this problem.  He said that as an officer in the IDF reserves, he warned the commander of the area about a certain flaw in his base’s security.  The commander dismissed it, and Feiglin naively assumed that he probably has a reason.  A few years passed and a terrorist took advantage of the security flaw to infiltrate that base and kill IDF soldiers.  Thus, Feiglin commented, if you see something wrong, don’t assume that the people at the top know better.

Many would agree that Netanyahu is facing a variety of challenges from the international community.  It’s possible that America is threatening to withhold sales on advanced missiles that would be used in an Iranian strike; maybe various Arab states in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia or the Emirates, have asked for this gesture to the Palestinians in exchange for use of their airspace or bases in an Iranian strike; maybe the US is threatening to give Israel problems at the UN if they don’t release the terrorists.  There are many reasons that can be given for succumbing to pressure, but at the end of the day it’s like taking aspirin for a chronic illness.  The illness will return shortly after the aspirin has worn off.  People forget that in the 1950s, the US was pressuring Israel to cede parts of the Negev to Jordan and Egypt.  Hence, pressure was, is and will continue; the question is if you as a leader are strong enough not to be blinded by pressure, which often times is eased after the initial thrust

It’s also possible that there really is no pressure and this is just another Israeli Prime Minister creating a twist that the whole world is against us so that he can make a move that serves his interests, party interests, or coalition pressure.  But the important thing is not to be fooled by ambiguous and fate-filled statements which claim that there is no other option except to release terrorists.    In twenty years, we will read the memoirs of our leaders and realize that this mountain that they are presenting is really a molehill; maybe a little bigger.   And thus we will know that things could have been done differently.



About the Author
Gideon Israel works at Sohlberg Consulting, which specializes in the infrastructure and transportation industry, and is the CEO of SAFE-T - a company that specializes in school safety. He has previoulsy worked for ambassadors and government ministers in Israel and authored a comprehensive policy paper on reforming US aid to Israel