How I Envy the Ideologues!

by David A. Harris
Executive Director, American Jewish Committee
New York, September 22, 2008

How I envy the ideologues when it comes to Israel-related issues!

It’s so simple and straightforward. The thinking is airtight, the solutions obvious, and the counterarguments mere distractions. There’s no room for self-doubt, no time for anguish.

If only the rest of the world would see things their way, all would be hunky-dory. Alas, those who don’t must, by definition, be out of step, behind the times, unenlightened.

Take five of Israel’s most pressing strategic challenges. 


To one set of ideologues, the answer is obvious: bomb away. Negotiations won’t work, the clock is ticking, and once Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, all bets are off. Waiting only increases the risk.

To another, the solution is equally simple: negotiate. If talks haven’t succeeded to date, it’s principally because the Western countries, including the United States, haven’t yet made the right offer to Tehran. As to time, there’s still plenty of it.

How comforting certitude is!

In reality, there’s no easy, much less foolproof, answer to the Iranian nuclear challenge.

A military attack? Perhaps, but, unlike Iraq after Israel successfully struck the French-built Osirak reactor, Iran has spread its program wide and, quite literally, deep. Moreover, the capacity to retaliate can’t be ignored.

American soldiers and interests in the region are an obvious target. Iranian-backed Hezbollah sleeper cells in dozens of countries could be activated. Israel would likely see a response from Iranian surrogates on its borders-Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The price of oil could go through the roof, adding to global economic woes. And the Iranian people might rally around the regime, strengthening its hold on power and supporting its determination to rebuild its nuclear capacity.

Diplomacy? Perhaps, but years of European-led diplomacy, supported by the U.S., have produced nothing. Actually, that’s not quite true. The talks have bought Tehran valuable time, which has been used to good effect.

More centrifuges have come on line, low-enriched uranium has been produced, missiles developed, and advanced weapons systems purchased from Moscow. Despite four UN Security Council resolutions, including three sanctions measures, and critical reports from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has ignored them all. In other words, neither “carrots” nor “sticks” have heretofore made any impression on Iran’s leaders. 

In sum, there’s no easy option.


To one set of ideologues, the answer is the IDF. Go into Gaza. Root out the bomb-making factories, terrorist cells, and smuggling tunnels from Egypt. Get the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders, who are declared enemies of Israel. Send a clear message that Israel won’t stand idly by while its soldiers are kidnapped, its towns shelled, and its very existence threatened.

To another, the answer lies elsewhere. There’s currently a negotiated “lull.” It means one can reason with Hamas, perhaps split off the “moderates” from the “radicals” in the leadership ranks. Military action in Gaza will only lead to re-occupation, with its moral and practical challenges. And by striking a deal on the West Bank, show Gaza’s residents that there’s another way.

Another tough call.

Gaza is a failed state in the making. Hamas leadership is taking its cue from Hezbollah in Lebanon, building its military strength and indoctrinating its youth in jihad and martyrdom. Yet, for the IDF, entering Gaza is not uncomplicated. Casualties could be high in one of the most densely populated spots on earth. And getting out may prove even more difficult than going in, which could lead, however unintentionally, to an extended presence. That’s exactly what Israel sought to end in 2005 when it pulled out of the strip.


To one set of ideologues, military action is inevitable. The longer the delay, the more dangerous the enemy. Hezbollah has strengthened its military and political position in Lebanon since the 2006 war. Estimates suggest as many as 40,000 missiles and rockets in its hands that can reach most, if not all, of Israel. The UNIFIL forces in the south haven’t stopped Hezbollah’s rearming. In fact, they’ve often looked the other way, fearful of confronting the terrorist group. Lebanon is moving toward Shiite dominance.

To another, the 2006 war proved that military action won’t work. Israel couldn’t defeat a few thousand Hezbollah fighters. Moreover, its actions catapulted Sheikh Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, into heroic status throughout much of the Arab world. The status quo may be imperfect, but the UNIFIL forces are keeping the two sides apart. Hezbollah claims that it’s fighting to regain “occupied” Lebanese territory from Israel, including the Sheba Farms, so why not negotiate, perhaps as part of a larger deal?

Once again, Israel faces a quandary.

Military action would trigger Hezbollah’s response. In 2006, the “rear” became a front line in the war. Cities in Israel’s north were targeted and civilians were under siege. In a new conflict, this could heighten, given increased firepower. UNIFIL forces would either be caught in the middle or forced to depart. Neither scenario augurs well.

Yet the trans-shipment of weapons from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah continues unabated. Neither the Lebanese armed forces nor UNIFIL force have shown any willingness to intervene. And the UN is unprepared to beef up enforcement of Resolution 1701, which authorized the recent deployment of international peacekeepers.

What should Israel do? To act could be dangerous. So could failure to act.


To one set of ideologues, it’s clear. No possible deal with Damascus could justify the loss of the Golan Heights. To anyone who sees the commanding heights, it’s obvious. Control means security. Loss of control, for a deal with an untrustworthy regime in Syria, poses immense risk and little assurance of return.

To another, Syria is ripe for a peace accord with Israel. Though a non-democratic state, Syria’s record with Israel since 1973 shows it can keep a deal if it wants to. And what’s more important-territory or peace? In an era of missile warfare, land doesn’t offer much in the way of security.

Yet another complicated issue.

Syria is a source of instability. Its porous border with Lebanon allows weapons to reach Hezbollah with ease. Its close ties to Iran are worrisome. Its nuclear ambitions, disrupted by Israel last year, underscore its danger. Its harboring of terrorist groups is a matter of record. And its blatant interference in Lebanese politics, including assassinations, is a sobering reminder of its thuggish nature. Can it really be trusted? What has it done of late to prove a change of behavior?

On the other hand, previous Syrian-Israeli talks have come close to success, suggesting a deal may be doable. Security arrangements to address Israel’s concerns have been floated. Removing Syria from the equation would improve Israel’s regional position. It might also lead to an accord with Lebanon, which otherwise won’t get out ahead of Damascus. And it could presumably drive a wedge between Syria and Iran.

To trade the tangible, the Golan Heights, for the intangible, a signed agreement, entails possible risks, yet offers potential opportunities. Which outweigh which?

West Bank

To one set of ideologues, no Palestinian state. It would pose a mortal danger to Israel (and moderate Jordan) by creating a rump state whose appetite for more territory would swell. It would inevitably lead to the division of Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal capital. Talk of a democratic and demilitarized state is wishful thinking. Neither would occur, given the Arab world’s record on both fronts. Instead, Israel would be confronted by a dysfunctional entity that could easily fall into the hands of radicals. And Israel’s heartland, including its main population centers and its international airport, would be at permanent risk by dint of proximity and topography. Meanwhile, Israel would have sacrificed the cradle of the Jewish people’s birthplace.

To another, only a Palestinian state, based on an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 armistice lines, offers a solution. Otherwise, Israel will face permanent conflict. And, for demographic reasons, it will corrode Israeli democracy. Israel must leave the West Bank and regain the moral upper hand. It must acknowledge that both Palestinians and Israelis have an attachment to Jerusalem. If Israel doesn’t engage with the current leadership of the Palestinian Authority, which wants a deal, then it will face much worse down the road, including increased demands for a one-state solution-and the end of the Zionist dream. It’s already late in the day. Israel must stop dragging its feet and, above all, halt settlement activity. It has a peace partner.

To state the obvious, this is the mother of all issues. To go further, differing interpretations exist of exactly what a two-state solution means-and they’re not merely points of detail. Compelling arguments clash. By now, they are well-known and well-rehearsed. Suffice it to say that there are risks whichever way you look. And while there may be glib answers offered for those risks, they’re often unsatisfying on closer examination.

Israel might have a new prime minister in the coming weeks. Whether it does or not, though, these five challenges will be there.

I can’t imagine a more difficult job anywhere than to be Israel’s leader. The responsibility is mind-boggling, the stakes immense, and the margin for error slim.

So, as the ideologues pursue their sacred visions, impervious to competing facts, my prayer is for the courage, vision, and strength of Israel’s leader-and those who help shape the policies pursued.

In a real world where little is black and white, and where strategic decisions can be unimaginably close calls, let’s hope for the wisdom required to get them right.

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