Most of my Jewish Press columns deal with Israel’s most urgent national security problems, especially those that have, or have had, a real or prospective nuclear component. What I have never dealt with on these pages, however, are the important and corollary issues of how Israel actually makes its national security policy.
Now, auspiciously, Charles D. Freilich, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard and a professor at Tel Aviv University, has written Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy (Cornell University Press), an authoritative and authentically magisterial answer to this vital question. There is much here for the reader to learn.
Let me start with the author’s conclusion, because, paradoxically, it represents an ideal place for me to begin. “The Lord is my shepherd,” quotes Freilich from the Book of Psalms, “and fortunate this is, for the decision-making process in Israel is deeply flawed.” Following 256 pages of meticulous and systematic investigation – an investigation that proceeds with all of the best architecture of modern social science, including appropriately careful delineations of “‘independent” and “dependent” variables – Freilich is intent to call all things by their correct names.
This is no narrowly partisan exegesis. This is no attempt to present a uniformly positive or contrived picture of Israel’s national security establishment. To the contrary, the author offers an entirely honest and open consideration that is often conspicuously less than visceral praise. To be sure, there is also a good deal of praise in Freilich’s book for the Israeli DMP, or decision-making process, but it is correctly based on a dispassionate and detached assessment.
What we learn is that needed changes in the DMP have simply not kept up with the growing complexities and synergies of Israel’s always-hostile external environment:
“Nearly sixty-five years after independence, the same basic political processes, which so successfully gave rise to the nation in its formative years, are still largely intact.”
Especially troubling to the author, the reader will discover, is that Israel’s DMP is more “chaotic” and “politicized” than in other countries, not by any means an intrinsically fatal disadvantage, but one, nonetheless, that has still managed to generate injurious “pathologies.”
Worth noting, at this point, is that Freilich has served as a senior analyst in the Israeli Ministry of Defense, and also as Israel’s deputy national security adviser. His assessments, therefore, are not simply an expression of outstanding academic scholarship, but the well-reasoned product of a distinguished and astute observer, one who has already had an important seat at the government table.
As a political scientist, I can admire the graceful way the author moves effortlessly between fashioning general theory and tendering elucidations of pertinent history. Combining the perceptual strengths of Isaiah Berlin’s “hedgehog” and “fox,” Freilich helps us see both one big decisional canvas and also many smaller, constituent elements.
Shaping a consciously nuanced model of national security decision-making in Israel, he applies it to assorted and carefully selected events of the past thirty years, ranging from Camp David I to the “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005 to the Second Lebanon War one year later.
The result is plainly disconcerting, as these seven cases reveal many critically lost opportunities, flagrantly unpardonable decisional errors, and an always highly politicized decisional context. While Freilich underscores the liabilities of Israel’s too-informal planning process, he also notes that this flawed process has allowed a relatively high degree of latitude or flexible response, as well as a gainfully self-serving sensitivity to pragmatic solutions.
Particularly helpful to the serious reader is the author’s continuous emphasis on “existential decision-making” as a critical component of Israel’s national security environment. Undoubtedly, this particular component is indispensable to understanding what drives the country’s DMP at its very core. In this connection, however, I would have liked to see greater attention paid to important details of Menachem Begin’s decision to attack Iraq’s nuclear reactor on June 7, 1981.
Of course, each reader will choose to assess the author’s selection of case studies differently according to his or her own personal hierarchy of concerns. But the connections between Operation Opera and the current threat of a nuclear Iran are unambiguously of the very highest urgency. Jurisprudentially, the attack on the Iraqi reactor was treated by Israel as a permissible expression of “anticipatory self-defense.” One may surmise that any future Israeli preemption against Iranian nuclear assets and infrastructures would have to be cast in very similar legal terms.
Freilich introduces his comprehensive and formidable book with an epigraph from New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman: “A country that sees itself living on the lip of a volcano, or inside the eerie halls of Yad Vashem, does not plan for the future, and does not think about bold initiatives. It only holds on for dear life.”
Thankfully, the entire argument of Zion’s Dilemmas impressively proves Friedman’s empty witticism to be not only glib and insensitive but also incontestably wrong. Israel, as we can learn from Freilich, actually does far more than merely “hold on for dear life.” True, its survival plans for the future are often fraught with “pathologies,” and, yes, the boldness of its initiatives are not always complemented by commensurately thoughtful policies, but, still, somehow, it has managed to survive against all odds.
A miracle, maybe. More than likely, however, it is “by wise counsel” and even by a “multitude of councilors,” that Israel will ultimately be able to ensure an enduring victory.
About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.
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