War Not War

When Israel’s Military Experts Disagree

11.22.13 6:59 PM ET

Over the past several days, two men with impeccable security credentials have said polar opposite things about Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians.

+972 Magazine reported on Monday that Israeli Defense Minister and former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon told a Tel Aviv audience that “When there is a peace process, the Israeli issue comes up in the Palestinian media at the level of de-legitimization and hatred…. Our victims are victims of the diplomatic process. And when we stand firm and do not look like we are about to give up, that’s when we receive quiet.”

On the other hand, The Times of Israel reported on Saturday that Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri, former head of the Shin Bet, told a different Tel Aviv audience that achieving a two-state solution is “imperative for Israel’s future.” Several outlets reported that in discussing the intra-governmental tensions over negotiations, Peri added that “sooner or later this rift will reach the cabinet table—and one of the parties will have to leave the cabinet table.”

Both of these men are intimately familiar with Israel’s security establishment and its relationship with the Palestinian people. Both know the long, bloody history—indeed, both played central roles in shaping that history, spending decades deep inside the security apparatus and achieving the highest post available in their respective fields.

Their disagreements aren’t new: Take for instance Peri’s and Ya’alon’s responses to the Arab Peace Initiative, first offered by the Arab League in 2002, then again in 2007, and re-introduced this past summer. The API is broadly similar to every peace plan ever placed on the table: Two states based on the 1967 borders with modifications, a shared Jerusalem, and a mutually agreeable resolution of the refugee issue, in exchange for an end of conflict.

Here’s Peri on the API: "One of the good alternatives to the Israel-Palestinian conflict that need to be examined and that has been brought up lately is the Arab League Peace Initiative. The initiative signals the path ahead."

Here’s Haaretz on the Defense Minister’s reaction: “[Ya’alon] dismissed the recent Arab League agreement… as nothing more than ‘spin’ and a ‘dictation’ to Israel to give up territory before discussing its own demands.”

To which Peri responded: “It is vital and important that Israel do everything to return to the negotiating table. The Arab peace initiative is one of the main ways to do this, and it is our duty to consider it seriously; [statements such as Ya’alon’s] only distance us from the negotiating table.”

Such stark conflict among those who have been tasked with defending Israel is not nearly as rare as one might believe. Also this week, even as Ya’alon joined Prime Minister Netanyahu in sharply criticizing US efforts at rapprochement with Iran, The Christian Science Monitor was reporting that “Israel’s military intelligence seems open to a deal, even one that relaxes the Western sanctions on Iran that Mr. Netanyahu has vocally supported.” And of course, the documentary The Gatekeepers demonstrated quite clearly that Peri’s positions are broadly shared among his immediate peers.

So what we seem to have here are differences of opinion.

That is to say: The experts—who are undeniably and incontrovertibly expert in their fields—disagree. As humans are wont to do. They have each lived a life informed by certain events and a particular skill set and knowledge base, and reached contradictory conclusions.

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Without wishing to put too fine a point on it, people on the outside of this debate can only do one thing: Pick a side. I cannot deny that Moshe Ya’alon knows a thing or two—I can only say that from my experience of watching the conflict very closely for a very long time (and learning in part on the words of many people who are at least as expert as he), I believe Ya’alon is mistaken.

We can’t know, of course, because nothing in Israel’s past comes remotely close to what might happen if it successfully negotiates a two-state agreement establishing a viable, independent State of Palestine living in peace and security alongside the State of Israel. We can imagine, we can make educated guesses, but history offers us nothing genuinely comparable, and regardless, the future is always unknown. (And no, the retreat from Gaza is not comparable: For one thing, Israel’s withdrawal wasn’t negotiated, and for another, Israel still occupies the Strip in every legal, or meaningful, sense).

What we do know, though, is what has gone before. We do know that decades of wars, wars of attrition, uprisings, border incursions, manhunts, attacks on terrorist bases, acts of terrorism, the digging and destruction of tunnels, and the building and extending of walls—has gotten us nowhere. Palestinians surely don’t live in peace and security, but neither do Israelis. The families who face rocket fire in the south, or send children into combat units, or must yearly accept condolences on Memorial Day are testament to the success of Israel’s security policy to date.

It’s important to note that when Peri discussed the sharp disagreements within the government in which he serves, he was referring not to himself and Ya’alon, but to the ideological chasm between his party, Yesh Atid, and the far-right settler-dominated party HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home). The Defense Minister, on the other hand, is a leading member of Likud, the Prime Minister’s party and thus the coalition’s senior party.

It’s possible that Netanyahu will look at the range of expert opinion before him and decide that not only is HaBayit HaYehudi wrong, but so is his Defense Minister. It’s possible that all this will come to a head and break up the coalition.

But if that happens, considering the Prime Minister’s history to date, I don’t think that it’s his right flank that will be going home. It seems to me that he has picked his side, and it’s not Ya’akov Peri’s.