Understanding Israeli decision making

In the past week, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has conducted deep-penetrating incursions into areas of “full” Palestinian sovereignty. These unique incursions came as a response to the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister and Arafat’s statement that he would not hand over the killers to the Israelis.

What did the Israelis desire to accomplish with their military blockades and temporary infiltration of all the major West Bank cities? Why did the Israeli government decide upon this course of action with all of its potential consequences for Israeli-American and Israeli-Arab relations? The simple answer that an Israeli spokesman would give is that the military actions were taken to find the killers and thwart other terrorist plots. However, any attempt to understand why Israel makes given policy choices requires a thorough, nuanced understanding of the Israeli political scene.

First, Israel is a truly democratic society; in many ways it is more democratic that the U.S. It has a multi-party, direct-representation political system that gives every sector of the Israeli populace its share in power and in the complex functioning of coalition government. This is very different than America, where our two-party system gives very little influence to minority views in actually shaping policy. In a dictatorship it is clear why an action is taken: because the dictator willed it. It may be that the dictator is taking into consideration many political scenarios in deciding upon an action, but in the final analysis it is the decision of one man which is responsible for all political and military actions. It is along these lines that the Palestinian Authority (PA), Syria, and Iraq function. Yassir Arafat, Bashar Assad, or Saddam Hussein make many calculations and then decide upon a course of action. Certain people describe Ariel Sharon as an autocrat, who directs calculating and scheming Israeli policies. These people would assert that Israel’s current military incursion has revealed Sharon’s true colors as a war-monger and one who wishes to crush and repress Palestinians and the PA. Certainly, the military incursions would not have happened if Sharon were strongly opposed to them and they do demonstrate that he feels force can be used to destroy terrorist cells and undermine the PA. I will put forth the radical thesis that Israeli policy is not directed by one or two individuals who make strategic considerations but rather it is formulated by an interplay of forces (both strategic and political) and as a result, the policies of the Israeli state are a hodge-podge of ideas and demands from different sectors and are not necessarily formed with primary attention to their functional consequences.

Presently, Israel is ruled by a unity government that incorporates the two major political parties: the right-wing Likud and the left-wing Labor party. Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister, is the functioning head of Labor. He exercises considerable power and he wishes to have continual dialogue with Arafat and minimize the military actions which enrage the Palestinian street and world opinion. Peres’s influence has forced Sharon to consent to certain meetings and probably reduced the scope of many security-motivated military actions. In recent weeks it has become clear that the army has its own policy ideas, and military spokesman and generals have made many remarks about what.actions the state must take.

The generals, who lead and direct military action, obviously influence policy implementation and it is increasingly dangerous if they attempt to mold public opinion as well. Lastly, the religious Zionists and the settlers in particular have a clear agenda and exercise a political weight far greater than their numbers. Moreover, their force is increased because Likud is in power and the religious Zionists are a part of its constituency.

It is well known inside and outside of Israel that the settlements are a thorn in the side of the Palestinians and that there actual strategic or economic importance for Israel is minimal, yet it is impossible for a Likud Prime Minister to abandon this radical fringe of the Israeli right which makes up less than 3% of the population.

Lastly, various actions taken by the Israeli government which appear to be exclusively in the sphere of foreign policy are taken not with foreign policy considerations in mind, but out of a jockeying for ideological legitimacy in internal Israeli political struggles. To use a recent and particularly troubling example, just a few weeks ago Sharon compared the United States actions of including Arab states in the coalition to fight terrorism to the Allied appeasement of the Nazis at the Munich Conference in 1938. Why did Sharon say this? Did he wish to enrage the Americans and Arabs? Did he hope the Americans would adopt a harder line against Iran and Syria because of his statement? No, Sharon wished to appear to be standing up to the Americans so that he would not lose support amongst his own nationalist right. He fears that he will lose his own ideological legitimacy and then Benjamin Netanyahu will reenter the Israeli political arena to the right of Sharon.

Now, we can see what factors were at play in the Israeli incursion into Area A last week. Sharon acted like a foolish cowboy, testing his relations with America and threatening America’s tenuous coalition, just so he could out-flank his opponents with in his own political party.

In America, “politics ends at the water’s edge.” That is, in our country Republicans and Democrats usually get together and put their differences aside in the formulation of foreign policy, and they don’t use foreign policy to fight internal political battles. Sadly, this maxim does not hold true in the Holy Land.

If Israel’s present military actions have been shaped by a combination of Sharon, Peres, the Army, the settlers, and Sharon’s need for ideological legitimacy, what consequences will they (in combination with the present events) have for Israel and the region?

Impossible to say, but to conclude with general apocalyptic predictions: I foresee increasing disorder on all fronts, a dramatic increase in the intensity of the present Intifada, and that in the Islamic world both the average citizen and the fundamentalist are gaining much reason for a seething anger directed at Israel, the West, and most dangerously at their own governments.