Thinking Through Israeli Statecraft

Applying his unusual analytical powers to the ‘statecraft’ of his own country, Yehezkel Dror points to some remarkable successes, but enumerates failures that we ignore at our own peril.

Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval

Israeli Statecraft: National Security Challenges and Responses, by Yehezkel Dror. Routledge, 246 pages, $138

At a time when things may seem to be falling apart, both within and outside Israel, political scientist Yehezkel Dror looks into the future − far into the future. “The usual measurement of time by years is inadequate when conflicts with robust societal, cultural, and emotional layers are involved,” he announces in his new book. “Generational transitions are often needed for deeply held beliefs, passions, emotions, and attitudes to change.”

Israeli border police watch Palestinians return to their homes in Jenin, June 1967.Credit: Aryeh Kanper (LAAM)

This might be as good an entry as any into Dror’s “Israeli Statecraft: National Security Challenges and Responses,” for it exhorts the reader to be patient. Indeed, patience may be necessary not just when it comes to meeting and responding to Israeli national security challenges, but also when it comes to this book, perhaps the most thoroughly scrupulous assessment of Israel’s political and security paradigms ever published.

This is not an easy book − few of Yehezkel Dror’s books are. Perhaps Israel’s leading authority on public policy ‏(he won the Israel Prize for Management in 2005‏), Dror is a theorist and a practitioner of a rare sort. Alongside an illustrious academic career ‏(whose institutional base was the Hebrew University of Jerusalem‏), he has served in multiple capacities as an adviser to numerous Israeli governments and think tanks. Dror’s engagement in the public service extends over four decades − for the most part behind the scenes, but not always; indeed, his most recent appointment was also his most high-profile one − as member of the Winograd Commission on the Second Lebanon War. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that his writings can be a bit dizzying at times in their tendency to shift back and forth from the highly abstract to the ordinarily mundane: After all, the overriding goal of so much of his writings has been to bridge the chasm between theory and practice. Yet given the depth of this chasm in Israel − a chasm marked, among other things, by very little movement of academics between universities and government as well as pitifully little contact between intellectuals and decision-makers - any writing that attempts to bridge the divide is bound to generate a sense of vertigo.

But for all its difficulties, Dror’s latest book will be highly rewarding for at least two types of readers. The first are those concerned with Israel’s future well-being. But there is a second audience for whom this book might be appealing − philosophically inclined readers who might pick up on the book’s underlying claim that states can advance the happiness and welfare of their citizens. For although the conceptual and philosophical underpinnings of this book are relegated to only a few short paragraphs, they should not be overlooked. As Dror rather modestly points out, “statecraft” is “humancraft,” which is to say that it concerns itself not only with raison d’etat but with what the author terms “raison d’humanite.” Or, as he concludes ‏(perhaps a bit too diffidently‏) at the end of his book, since “humancraft is largely based on statecraft, a better understanding of statecraft is also highly desirable from the perspective of humanity as a whole.” A bit cryptic, these sentences seem to suggest a rather Hobbesian worldview that, at the very least, gives the state primacy over the welfare of human beings − or to put it in more Hobbesian terns, that it is ultimately the state that is in charge of preventing our individual and national lives from being nasty, brutish and short.

To what extent has the Israeli state succeeded in this goal? Given Dror’s long-term horizon, the jury is still out. Nevertheless, the author offers a fascinating evaluation of Israeli national security policy successes and failures to date. To appreciate the full depth and breadth of his evaluation, however, it might be useful to pause on what he means by “statecraft,” itself a challenging concept. “In this book,” Dror states in his introduction, “it is used in the sense of coherent, long-term and broadband political-security paradigms, assessments, frames of appreciation, orientations, stances and principles, dealing with issues of much importance to national security, whether explicit or implicit in actual state behavior.” The book, again, is not easy, and given this somewhat long-winded definition of its key term, the discussion below is almost bound to be reductive. It is important to acknowledge this before we proceed.

Salient failures

In his evaluation of Israeli statecraft since the founding of the state, Dror cites such successes as the decision to declare the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948; the forging of diplomatic relations with all the key Western powers, especially the United States; the policy of nuclear ambiguity; and convincing the Arab world that Israel cannot be destroyed by force. But it is the list of failures that are most instructive, not least where improvements can still be made. And among Israel’s most salient failures, according to the author, are its policy toward the occupied territories, starting immediately after the Six-Day War, and its lack of response to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative − the offer by all the states of the Arab League ‏(followed by all the member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference‏) to normalize relations with Israel if it would withdraw to the 1967 lines and agreed to a negotiated solution to the refugee issue. And while Dror argues that Israel’s dismal response to the Arab Peace Initiative can still be mitigated, its failure to develop an appropriate strategy for the occupied territories and the Palestinian issue “deserve[s] to be regarded as a ‘statecraft fiasco’ in the full sense of that term.”

Curiously, Dror’s evaluation of Israeli statecraft since statehood leads him to conclude that a net assessment of its achievements “cannot but grade it as ‘outstanding.’” But given the weight that the Arab-Israeli conflict exerts on his analysis, this magnanimous appraisal comes off like an intellectual act of noblesse oblige. Whatever forgiving light the author tries to cast on the history of Israeli policy-making, it does little to soften the hard-edged indictment that comes out of this book; to judge by Dror’s final analysis, even the term “fiasco” does not seem adequate. As the author delves more deeply into the matter, Israel’s handling of the occupied territories emerges not only as the worst failure in its history, but as “the epitome of statecraft failures.” And it is not only a fiasco, as Dror points out in a moment of pained reflection, “but a nemesis in the classical sense of retribution for hubris.”

The author’s methodology draws heavily on systems as well as complexity theories, two theoretical paradigms that are increasingly popular in the areas of organizational intelligence, organizational design, knowledge management, and corporate strategy. Although a bit hard going at times, this methodology enables him to establish a compelling theoretical basis for modeling the conflict and for evincing some important insights about Israel’s statecraft failures in addressing it. As already suggested, the dimension of time is critical to Dror’s analysis − time being a necessary ‏(albeit insufficient‏) ingredient for farsightedness. The lack of farsightedness ‏(which is due to the inability to conceptualize the measurement of time on a generational scale‏) lies, according to the author, at the very heart of Israel’s statecraft failures with respect to the occupied territories. These include the reluctance during the first years after 1967 to turn the conquered territories into bargaining chips for a future peace agreement; the lack of a comprehensive settlement policy that would take into account future contingences, such as limiting construction to compact settlement blocs that could reasonably be expected to become a part of Israel; and the inability to update official conceptions of what is required for Israeli long-term national security. The author also decries the government’s failure to maintain control over settlement activities, build a social and economic infrastructure in the occupied territories for future peace, establish a border excluding most of the West Bank Palestinians from Israel, and understand that the residents of the territories will not remain compliant forever.

It is important to note that while these failures are specific to Israel’s strategy for the occupied territories, they also reflect problems inherent to Israeli political-strategic culture in general, according to Dror. For instance, he argues that there is a culture of stalling until many good options are no longer available, that military plans are not examined thoroughly or critically enough, that too much is taken for granted, and that unfavorable contingencies are not sufficiently accounted for.

Imbalance in thinking

Towering over all these, according to Dror, is an imbalance between civilian and military thinking − an imbalance that invariably yet disastrously tends to leave to the military what should be decided by civilians. Or as the author puts it elsewhere in the book: “The basic understanding that violence is a handicraft serving statecraft” − which is to say must be subordinated to it − “has not been adequately absorbed by the Israeli statecraft elite or translated adequately into fitting institutional processes and decision-making processes.”
Dismal though these failures are, and though partly unavoidable when statecraft works under the pressure of time ‏(say, in crisis or emergency situations‏), they are unforgivable when they define a strategic response to an extended challenge, when there has been plenty of time for thinking, learning and improvement.

The longer that mistakes are allowed to continue, the author seems to argue, the harder they are to fix. Or as he puts it, given “the deep-rooted Arab hostility to the existence of a Jewish state in the ‘land of Islam’ ... Israel’s national security policy must seek ways to intervene in history with a critical impact adequate for bending history’s trajectory toward peace, or at least toward less violence.” For Dror, the long arc of history does not bend toward justice; it bends toward more pernicious, not to say devastating, levels of violence. Hence our obligation to strive toward the best possible policy that human cognitive faculties can develop. And while we should always aim for peace, the most optimal outcome will probably be less violence.

And yet, even as − or rather precisely because − Dror does not believe that a final-status agreement with the Palestinians may be around the corner, he advances an extremely compelling argument for the strategic urgency of striving for a regional peace. In this sense, too, his book is a powerful indictment of every Israeli government that has failed to advance this strategic goal − and in more specific terms, every Israeli government since 2002 that has failed to respond to the Arab Peace Initiative. ‏(This, of course, amounts to every single one − from Ariel Sharon’s through Ehud Olmert’s to Benjamin Netanyahu’s.‏) And yet unlike its disastrous failure to deal with the occupation, Israel’s strategic thinking and response to the Arab Peace Initiative is barely a decade old and can still be reversed.
To be sure, Dror is not a sentimentalist, let alone an idealist. Although he titles the chapter dedicated to Israel’s peace paradigm “Israeli embassy in Riyadh” ‏(an Israeli embassy in Saudi Arabia being the very emblem of Arab-Israeli peace‏), the challenges he outlines are hard and many. He expects Israel to face staunch opposition from radical Arab and Muslim actors, pressure by the Palestinians for rapid achievement without dependence on Middle East-wide progress and a demand by some world powers to push an ideological agenda of “democracy and human rights” that might hamper the progress of the regional peace paradigm. And, of course, we can anticipate determined resistance to such changes on the Israeli side and complications posed by the ongoing transformations across the Arab world, which have only intensified since the book was published this past summer.

But Dror is not one to waste time. Even if a comprehensive Middle East peace remains elusive, a lot can be done to advance it now. In one of the book’s most boldly irreverent moments, Dror turns inward, advocating a paradigmatic shift in Israel’s policies concerning its Arab minority. As he puts it, “a number of steps are required without waiting for comprehensive peace, including: vigorous action to assure full personal equality of the minorities and to advance their economic well-being and integration; rapid progress toward making the state services provided to minorities equal to those provided to Jews; equality of obligations, including civilian and military service; and strict avoidance of symbolic steps which cannot but increase alienation, such as requiring discriminatory declarations of loyalty.”

Always mindful of the real difficulties that lie ahead, however, no sooner does Dror complete this list than he admits that the measures he has outlined are probably far from sufficient − indeed, that additional “solidarity-strengthening steps” may be in order. And so he gives us a few more that, he concedes, may be “premature” for contemporary Israel, but may ultimately be necessary and perhaps even inevitable. These include a stanza to the national anthem that might speak to Israel’s Arab citizens, permitting the Arab minority to add an Islamic star and crescent to the Israeli flag, and granting the Arab population measured cultural autonomy. Scrupulously rigorous, boldly visionary and refreshingly blasphemous, Dror’s new book is necessary reading for anyone for whom the future of Israel is important.

Yonatan Touval is a foreign policy analyst and member of the board at Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.



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