People vs. the Experts
By Jonathan S. Tobin
May 10, 2018
The polls of Israeli public opinion aren’t ambiguous.
About two-thirds of Israelis say they’re pleased with U.S. President Donald
Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal. Nor
is there much criticism from Israel’s political leadership, either in the
government or in the center-left opposition. As was the case with Israel’s
view of the pact in the first place, a consensus that stretches from the
moderate left all the way to the right believes that former President Barack
Obama’s effort to appease Iran was a terrible idea.
But not everyone outside of the far left or anti-Zionist
Arab parties agrees. Many of Israel’s retired generals and former intelligence
chiefs oppose Trump’s decision. Echoing the views of the Western
foreign-policy establishment, they were satisfied with what the pact had
achieved and now remain skeptical about Trump’s ability to follow up on his
move. As JNS
reported, the latest to weigh in on this matter is Amos Gilead, a retired
major general and former high-ranking figure in the Ministry of Defense. Gilead
opposes Trump’s decision and wonders why so many Israelis are pleased with
it—and he can’t come up with an answer.
The gap between the views of many of the retired military
elites and the overwhelming majority of the Israeli people is not isolated to
discussions of Iran. The same is true about the conflict with the Palestinians.
Most Israelis may think that a two-state solution is a good idea in theory, but
the overwhelming majority believes it’s not possible for the foreseeable
future because of the lack of a credible Palestinian peace partner.
Nevertheless, most of the retired generals and spymasters who have made their
views known feel that Israel must find a way to withdraw from the West Bank,
regardless of the consequences. The 2012 documentary film “The Gatekeepers”
illustrated this view with its interviews of six former heads of the Shin
Bet—Israel’s internal security service—who dissented strongly from the
stands taken by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Foreign critics of Netanyahu point to that film and
statements made by the country’s former military and intelligence leaders on
the Palestinians, in addition to the debate about Iran, as good reason to ignore
both the government and the opinion polls.
They argue that because “experts” about security think
that a retreat from the West Bank is necessary or that the Iran nuclear deal
should be kept in place, foreign friends of the Jewish state should listen to
them rather than the verdict of Israeli democracy. Some even say the situation
is similar to debates about global warming, in which many Americans negate the
views of most climate scientists.
But the problem with this point of view extends behind the
specious nature of that analogy.
Whatever one might think about the validity of computer
models that predict rising global temperatures, you don’t have to be a
military expert to understand that neither the Palestinian Authority that rules
the West Bank nor Hamas that runs Gaza is ready to recognize the legitimacy of a
Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn. To the contrary, if there
is a broad consensus in Israel that believes that peace is currently not
possible, it’s because Israelis have been paying attention to the events of
the last 25 years; they are relying on common sense, rather than on experts who
tell them to ignore what their eyes and ears tell them about the Palestinians or
Why do so many former generals and intelligence chiefs
dissent from Israeli consensus?
Part of the reason stems from politics. In the U.S.
military, officers tend to regard politics with distaste. The Israeli military
is more of a cross-section of society; as a result, the nation’s obsessive
focus on the right-left debate over security issues leads to a greater readiness
for retired officers to dive into politics, with many feeling more at home with
the secular left for cultural and ideological reasons.
The generals’ views are sincere, deeply held and based on
their experience in a conflict that has no easy or foolproof answers. But the
notion that their views are necessarily more valid than those of the Israeli
people isn’t backed up by recent events. Far from being ignorant fools who are
too dumb to listen to those who know better, most Israelis are savvy about the
many complicated issues facing their nation.
Unlike Americans, who may consider that reading The
New York Times makes them experts about the Middle East, average Israelis
live the conflict and follow what happens in their country. Most have served in
the military. More to the point, Israelis have paid the price for the folly of
experts before—those who advised trading land for peace with the Palestinians,
but then wound up having to explain why they got more terror in return.
Moreover, while the efforts of the Israel Defense Forces
throughout the 70 years of the life of the Jewish state have been heroic and
worthy of praise, Israelis know that generals and spies can make mistakes. As is
historically the case with most democracies, Israel has sometimes been
unprepared for the next war. Its leaders—both in and out of the military—can
fall victim to fallacious assumptions about their country’s foes that tell us
more about what Israelis want or expect than what is true of the other side’s
beliefs and intentions.
In a democracy, the people—and not classes of experts—rule. So while Israel’s retired military leaders are entitled to a respectful hearing, their views on the peace process or Iran are by no means dispositive, let alone so authoritative that they should be given a veto over civilians who are elected by the voters. In these circumstances, it’s time for the Jewish state’s friends to recognize that the voice of the Israeli people can be one of great wisdom.