The people vs. the experts

It doesn’t matter that many of Israel’s retired military leaders are out of touch with the rest of the country on both Iran and the Palestinians. Here’s why.

Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Amos Gilead (right) speaks with former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams. Credit: Herzliya Conference.
Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Amos Gilead (right) speaks with former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams. Credit: Herzliya Conference.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

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.

Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Amos Gilead (right) speaking to former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams. Credit: Herzliya Conference.

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 Iran.

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.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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