This blog has tended to stay away from delving into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but over the weekend I had the fortune of attending a screening of The Gatekeepers. For those not familiar with the film, it entails interviews with every surviving Director of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security services. While there are many ‘money quotes’ regarding Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, the most important acknowledgment is that Israel has been engaged in “short-term tactics with no long term strategy.”
This insight should be given heightened importance given the current impasse in Israeli electoral politics. While Likud did ‘win’ the recent parliamentary election, obtaining 31 seats (a loss of eleven from the previous Knesset), Netanyahu has so far been unable to create a governing coalition. So far, Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi (who came in second and fourth respectively in the elections) have not signed on with Likud to join any coalition. Labor (third place) rejects any Likud partnership. On 2 March 2013 Netanyahu was granted a two week extension to his attempt to forge a coalition. If unsuccessful either another party gets a shot at forming a government or new elections will need to be called.
In such an arduous political climate one must ask how likely it is that Israel will move beyond tactical planning and into a more strategic mindset. The Gatekeepers from the film describe an Israeli state security apparatus that is extremely capable at dealing with threats in the short-term. Tales of taking out radicals with phone bombs or precision aerial strikes abound, but none of them see any strategic direction. While these operations are impressive from a certain standpoint, what is the overall goal? In order to formulate a strategic plan there must be some degree of political will. The ongoing parliamentary horse trading does not bode well for any new strategic process.
There are no easy answers for these questions. While the film does not offer a new strategic framework for Israel, it does suggest a way to lay out the groundwork for creating one. Perhaps one of the most important suggestions coming from the film is a rethink of who is who and what role they can play. Avraham Shalom, Shin Bet Director from 1980-1986 and one of the men on the team that captured Adolph Eichmann, states:
Talk to everyone, even if they answer rudely. So that includes even Ahmadinejad, [Islamic Jihad, Hamas], whoever. I’m always for it. In the State of Israel, it’s too great a luxury not to speak with our enemies…Even if [the] response is insolent, I’m in favor of continuing. There is no alternative. It’s in the nature of the professional intelligence man to talk to everyone. That’s how you get to the bottom of things. I find out that he doesn’t eat glass and he sees that I don’t drink oil.
Any strategy must take a realistic assessment of the ground. No Israeli strike is going to dislodge Hamas from Gaza. Additionally, no strike will eliminate Iran’s capability to create nuclear weapons; a strike will delay them at most unless we are envisioning a long-term game of whack-a-mole. Dealing with people we don’t want to deal with would be an important first step in creating a new strategic outlook. The last situation Israel wants to find itself in is one in which, in the words of Ami Ayalon, Shin Bet Director from 1995-2000:
“We don’t realize that we face a frustrating situation in which we win every battle, but we lose the war.”
Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.