Red Alert

08.01.13

Israel’s Security Experts Cry 'Mayday'

The phrase “point of no return” was originally used to refer to a situation in which a pilot realizes that there is not enough fuel left for the plane to make it home. The term is now applied to any situation in which one is forced to remain on the present course because turning back has either become practically impossible or prohibitively costly.  This dire analogy is increasingly part of discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Much of this “point of no return" talk is coming from a most unexpected circle – the Israeli military and security establishment, most notably the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security organization). It isn’t just whispers either. These voices are coming from the top, and are both loud and unequivocal in their urgency.

On July 13th, the former head of the Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, issued a “mayday” in The Jerusalem Post urging Israel to take action and move towards a negotiated two state solution. Diskin, like others, including former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan and former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, argues that the window for a two-state solution is closing. He confronts Israeli politicians, writing that “the absence of true leadership willing to take real actions, instead of making idle statements, has me convinced more and more that this option…is becoming increasingly unrealistic and is no longer feasible”. If Israel continues on this path, he warns, it will soon pass the point of no return, the consequences of which would be incompatible with maintaining a “Jewish state.” 

A day later, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert echoed these sentiments. Speaking at a book release event, Olmert criticized the present government’s approach and warned, like Diskin, that Israel is at a point where it is “likely to miss the opportunity to preserve the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Among former Israeli security officials there is virtual unanimity that Israeli policy is, to continue the aviation metaphor, “red lining”: flying at an unsustainable altitude.

Several months ago the film “The Gatekeepers” was released to critical acclaim, even receiving an Academy Award nomination. It is based on interviews with all of the living former heads of the Shin Bet regarding pivotal moments in their careers and in the history of Israel. However, it is not these stories that drive the broader narrative of the film, it is the fact that each of these men comes out forcefully in support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What most impacts the viewer is not simply their consensus judgment but their rational, unwavering conviction in it. 

Watching from afar, this makes the future look a whole lot more promising. However, therein lies the problem. Those outside of Israel are paying more attention. While it made waves abroad, “The Gatekeepers” caused barely a ripple in Israel. A mere 22,000 Israelis saw it in the first month of its release.  

Does this mean that the Israeli people just don’t care? The evidence suggests otherwise. Polls continuously show that a majority of Israelis are in favor of a two-state solution. However, it doesn’t appear to be a matter of any urgency for them. In fact, very few Israeli political parties prioritize peace in their appeals to voters. The Israeli people, just like everyone else, are worried about issues like education and the economy. But, unlike other societies, Israel conducts a massive ongoing military occupation over millions of restive non-citizens. 

The nature of Israel’s parliamentary system of proportional representation enables this collective national state of denial. The necessity of forming large governing coalitions including many small parties empowers marginal sections of the electorate, which facilitates the avoidance of highly controversial but existential questions.  

The present circumstances have enabled Israeli society to simply stop thinking about the conflict, partly because nobody has any new ideas about how to solve it. Worse still, it reflects the fact that mainstream Israelis are effectively insulated from the reality and consequences of the occupation and can therefore choose to ignore it and proceed as if it doesn’t exist.

However, the former heads of the Shin Bet are not giving up hope. Neither should we. There is no rational reason why the consensus view of Israel’s national security establishment should remain ignored or sidelined. Indeed, everything to do with the occupation and the Palestinians was unaddressed in the Israeli elections held last January. 

It is extremely significant that these voices are not backing down. Diskin and Olmert's recent statements show that some prominent Israelis are determined to prevent the message of “The Gatekeepers” from falling on deaf ears. The Israeli security establishment is charged with the safety of the nation. They would be failing in that duty were they to sit back and silently let Israel pass the point of no return, only to later say, “we knew it all along.” 

In the words of Shaul Arieli, a retired Israeli colonel, “Our experience tells us that national security is more than what you see between the crosshairs (of a rifle). We believe that peace will provide better security than anything else.”

It is imperative that the government and the people of Israel start to listen. If they don’t, their national vehicle, the State of Israel, may soon reach the “point of no return” to the base station they want and need: a Jewish and democratic state.