Funded by U.S. Neocons, Think Tank Researchers Now Carving Israeli Policy

Shalem fellows have moved on from libraries to government offices, turning abstract research into policy.

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

The rooms at Beit Nativ, the Jerusalem building that houses the Shalem Center, have been gradually emptying in recent months, with fellows at the neoconservative research institute taking their leave one by one. But rather than signaling a slump, the depletion is actually a sign of the think tank's unprecedented success, because instead of writing scholarly books and articles, the Shalem fellows are now sitting in government offices, helping turn abstract research into concrete policy.

The picture looked quite different a year ago.

At that time, economist Omer Moav, a senior fellow at the center's Institute for Economic and Social Policy, was still busy writing an article for the Shalem journal, Azure, called "Who Needs Employment Security," which argues that worker protections sometimes hurt weaker segments of society. Now he heads the Finance Ministry's Council of Economic Advisers. Another senior fellow, historian Michael Oren, was busy critiquing "You Don't Mess with the Zohan," an Adam Sandler movie about an Israeli soldier who fakes his death and becomes a hair stylist in New York, which Oren, the author of "The Making of the Modern Middle East," described as a complete renunciation of the Zionist idea. He has been selected as Israel's ambassador to Washington.

And Shalem distinguished fellow Moshe Ya'alon, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who wrote a recent Azure article whose Hebrew title was "The diplomatic process can wait," is now the minister for strategic affairs. Natan Sharansky, another distinguished fellow and the chairman of the Shalem Center's Institute for Strategic Studies, is awaiting his appointment as chairman of the Jewish Agency. His 2004 book "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror," which was published through the center, hit the headlines when George W. Bush publicly recommended it. The book was co-written with Ron Dermer, who now heads the information directorate in the Prime Minister's Office.

When the Shalem Center was established in 1994 with the aim of bringing neoconservative thinking into the Israeli political and cultural discourse, along the lines of American think tanks it was thought to be on the margins of Israeli intellectual life. Yoram Hazony, the center's provost and one of its founders - who is also one of Netanyahu's friends and former advisers - said when the center was established that Israel was in the midst of an "ideological degeneration" that had to be stopped. The institute was founded with the aid of American Jewish donors, including the Bernstein family, Sheldon Adelson, George Rohr and Ron Lauder.

In the United States, research institutes like this serve as the intellectual hinterland of Republican administrations, leading critics of the Bush administration to argue that the White House was in effect being run by neoconservative intellectuals from think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and the Project for the New American Century.

'Politicians don't read philosophy'

There is no think tank today with as much influence on the Israeli government as the Shalem Center, which has extensive resources, despite being a small institute.

"Had I not been in the Shalem Center, I wouldn't be an adviser today to [Finance Minister] Yuval Steinitz," said Moav. "What is special about the Shalem Center is the attempt to influence policy and not merely to deal with academic research. I always had an interest in economics as academic research, but I cared a great deal about the State of Israel and it was important for me to have an influence. The Shalem Center gave me a good platform to invest in research about policy."

Moav is skeptical about the claim that the research center exerts sway over the prime minister, but said, "Netanyahu and the Likud party are sympathetic to the Shalem Center because they share a similar economic and political ideology. The economic agenda is liberal, and that is very convenient from my point of view."

Ofir Haivry, an associate fellow at Shalem's Institute for Philosophy, Political Theory and Religion, said the Shalem researchers' role in the government can be linked to the center's emphasis on practical policy.

"People like Omer Moav and Michael Oren are our success stories," said Haivry. "We give these researchers the tools that free them to do research studies dealing with policy, and to make the politicians aware that they exist."

He said the researchers will differ from most political appointees. "Usually most politicians or directors general who are responsible for economic or diplomatic policy do not read philosophy," said Haivry. "They do not sit down and read Milton Friedman. Therefore translating the ideas into policies must be done by someone who can digest this and turns the ideas into something user-friendly."

Money, money, money

What is the secret that has made the Shalem Center so much more influential than similar research institutes? Sarit Ben Simhon, a Tel Aviv University researcher who studies the role of think tanks in Israel, says the key word is money.

"The order of magnitude of the funding they received is one of the highest in the country," she said. "There is no other institute of this kind that can compete with them from the budget perspective."

The funding discrepancy has a significant effect on the think tanks' ability to influence policy, said Ben Simhon.

"There is a direct connection between the mode of funding of institutes of this kind and their ability to influence," she said. "Most of the institutes in Israel that deal with social and economic policy can be placed on the left side of the map, but they get very limited budgets. The left-wing institutes cannot spend time on formulating and promoting their world view because they don't have the money. Because of lack of resources, they write paper after paper, but their influence is limited. The Shalem Center has such large budgets that it can encompass large numbers of fields and employ people on a daily basis for a prolonged period. The Shalem Center funded the research carried out by Moav, Oren and Sharansky for a good few years. Other institutes are unable to do so."

Bringing intellectual prestige to the right

"The American right understood that it had had political successes, like Bush and Reagan, but that it did not have intellectual prestige," said political analyst and literary critic Nissim Calderon. "That is why they decided to circumvent institutionalized academic knowledge and set up these think tanks. The same is true of the Shalem Center, which zealously supports a market regime and an aggressive and armed concept of propagating democracy. The neoconservatives in the U.S. brought disasters to the world, and now they are doing the same in Israel."

But Moav said not all the Shalem researchers share the same political views.

"On the average, people in the Shalem Center have right-wing views," he said. "But this is not a right-wing institute by definition. I personally am a supporter of the 'smaller' Land of Israel as opposed to others at the center who support the settlers. But in Israel, the typical intellectuals are very left-wing politically and economically, and that is why they don't like the Shalem Center."

"The Shalem Center's founders understood very well the role that could be played by intelligence in politics and the formulation of policy in Israel," said Ben Simhon. "The message that Yoram Hazony and Daniel Polisar [Shalem's president and one of the founders] brought with them was long-term work. They define themselves as marathon runners and say that their vision is for another 50 years ahead. They want to train people in Israel who will go into the media, politics and the business world and will be decision makers in years to come, with the world view of the Shalem Center being neoconservative, Zionistic and based on Jewish culture. These are neoconservative concepts that they brought with them from the U.S. and adapted to Israel."

Haivry said the Shalem Center's people are already looking forward to the young generation of the center's graduates who are gradually getting involved in making policy.

"Many of our graduates now have junior positions in the treasury, the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry," he said. "When they hold discussions, I hope they take with them a little more understanding and deeper principles."

Writing two years ago in Haaretz, Calderon said: "The aim of the Shalem Center - unlike that of the intellectuals of the left - is to conquer the Knesset rather than the universities." Calderon believes that his prophesy has been fulfilled, albeit earlier than expected.

But he notes that though the Shalem Center may have been modeled on American neoconservative think tanks, its rise is corresponding with their decline.

"This is happening at a time when in the United States itself, [President Barack] Obama is trying to make up for the neoconservative experience, which tried to do away with the welfare state," said Calderon, "and the idea that the Islamic world is one big axis of evil on which the values of the democratic capitalistic world must be imposed."



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