Be careful with the notion that the West needs to ‘adopt Israel’s anti-terror strategies’

November 19, 2015

Not long after the end of operation Tzuk Eitan, better known among non-Israelis as Protective Edge, some high ranking visitors from the US Air Force paid a visit to their Israeli counterparts to learn about the methodologies and the lessons of the IDF from the battles in Gaza. The reception was generous, and the presentation thorough: here is what we did, the Israelis said, here is how we did it. The guests were shown videos of several attacks in which a “knock on the roof” procedure was used to warn civilians from the actual attack. They were exposed to some of the deliberations that took place before bombings, and to some of the occasions in which a military strike was canceled because of this or that moral consideration. No military in the world goes to such length to avoid hitting civilians. The Israeli Air Force, a senior military officer told me earlier this week, goes much further than the demands of international law. The IDF is much stricter in enforcing cautious policies than all other militaries that operate, in the Middle East and beyond.

He was not the only one to say that. The American guests – professional military men – also said that. And they said that with more than a kernel of criticism: you are creating a problem for us, they told the Israelis. If we are expected to follow such procedures, if we are expected to maintain such a level of cautiousness, it will be a problem for us. The Israelis had their response ready: you are a superpower. You will never be bound by what Israel does or does not do.

In Israel, the days following the Paris terror attacks were days of sober head-nodding. The we-told-you-so attitude was in full bloom. The it-is-time-for-the-world-to-realize tune was sung by the common people and by the commentators and by some of the less-careful leaders. Indeed: it is time for the world to realize that some of its policies (marking the wine of Samaria settlers) are futile, that some of its conventional slogans (‘Israel is using excessive force’) are ignorant, and that some of its knee-jerk reactions (‘Palestinian suffering is the root cause for everything’) are wicked. It is time for it to realize that Israel knows how to deal with terrorism better than most of them and is doing it, generally speaking (with all the necessary caveats about Israel being imperfect), in a way that does not impinge on its desire to remain a place that respects human rights and human life.

Last year, I was involved in conducting and writing a long study – Jewish Values and Israel’s Use of Force in Armed Conflict: Perspectives from World Jewry – from which I learned that at least when it comes to the Jewish world these realities are generally known and accepted. Jews hardly agree with all of Israel’s policies, but they do understand that “regarding Israeli actions in general over the past few years… most Jews feel that Israel has been meeting their ethical expectations.”

So now more voices in Israel are being raised to argue that it is time for the world to learn from Israel. Leaders, citizens and pundits make this argument, and the Times of Israel’s David Horovitz was notable among them in his latest article: “France, the United States and the rest of the West are now grappling with many of the anguishing dilemmas we have lived with for years,” he wrote, and then went into detail: “How do you maintain your liberties, the West is asking itself, while tackling enemies who abuse all freedoms? What kind of laws need to be enacted? Who do you allow across your borders? Under what circumstances should preventive arrests be made, and suspects held without trial, and the internet surveilled, and incitement constrained? Not easy, is it?”

Of course, Horovitz is right. Maintaining liberties while fighting terrorism is difficult. And Israel knows better than most how to do this.

But Horovitz – giving voice to a sentiment that is widespread among Israelis – also advocates for “the leaders and security chiefs of France and the rest of Europe and North America reach out to those Israeli counterparts they’ve so often judged and critiqued, to benefit from our bitterly accumulated experience in fighting Islamist terrorism.” And with this argument, the picture becomes more complicated, as one has to ask, “reach out” to what end?

If France needs teachings on how to close a border, how to secure a perimeter, how to gather intelligence, how to track and kill terrorists, how to guard against infiltrators, how to deal with radical groups – yes, Israel has a lot to teach. But is this the only challenge that the western world, Europe, America, and their allies, face?

The world has a lot to learn from Israel about the way to fight terrorism, but if the world adapts Israel’s approach in its entirety this would not necessarily be a positive development. And it is quite easy to see why.

Let’s play a game and imagine what would happen if the world does exactly what Israel does: America secures its borders and kills every terrorist that attempts to cross it. Europe learns to gather intelligence, guard train stations and shopping malls, verify the identity of people getting in and out. Let’s say there are no more attacks in Paris, New York is safe, London is calmed, Sweden no longer has a foreign minister in need of a brain transplant (Israel is not necessarily a great teacher when it comes to having smart ministers).

If all this happens, what happens with ISIS? Does it disappear, is it defeated? Of course, the answer is no. If the world turns to do what Israel does – guarding itself with great skill and great sensitivity to human rights – the problem of ISIS would still not be solved. The radicals would still be able to roam the Middle East, behead innocent people, destroy ancient archaeological sites, sell young girls away to slavery. They would still pose a danger to their neighbors, Israel included. They would still be on the road to success.

Israel needs to pause before it advocates to the world to do exactly as it does. Just think about the many things at which Israel was not successful: it did not prevent Hezbollah in Lebanon from becoming a formidable force of violent menace. It did not prevent Hamas from taking over Gaza and ruling it for a decade in which rounds of violence were a constant feature of bad neighborly relations. It did not prevent President Assad of Syria from bombing his own people, and it did not prevent the activities of terrorist groups, from Al-Qaeda to ISIS. In other words: Israel was not at all successful in shaping the region around it and making it a better, safer place – for Israel and for others.

Of course, Israel could do no such thing. It has enough troubles to worry about and limited resources. It has to be modest about its capabilities and precise about defining its interests. When in the early Eighties Israel engaged in a nation building exercise in Lebanon, attempting to crown a friendly leader and get rid of unfriendly ones, the attempt went badly. When in the early Nineties Israel once again engaged in a nation building exercise in the Palestinian territories, it yet again failed to bring about peace and prosperity for all.

Israel is blameless in failing to create a better Middle East. This region is a mess not because of the failure to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and not because of the necessary bombing of Gaza, and not because of the mistakes made by Israeli leaders, and not because of Israel’s existence. Thus, Israel has every right to suggest that foreign leaders be more cautious as they make Israel’s policies and faults the center of their Middle East universe.

But it also has to be somewhat more humble as it proposes that Europe or America learn from it how to deal with the Middle East. To propose that the West needs to learn to “adopt Israel’s anti-terror strategies”.

That is, because Israel’s mission in this region is simple to understand: to survive. The mission it prescribes for foreign powers – especially America, but now also Europe – is different. Less dire, yet more complicated: It wants foreign powers to calm the Middle East, to tame terrorist groups, to crush ISIS, to put places such as Iraq and Syria back in order. It wants these countries to fight terrorism not just at home, or close to home, but also to fight terrorism in faraway places such as Syria. It wants and needs them to realize by themselves everything Israel realized long ago, without forgoing its instinct of wanting to set an example to the world and be a leader in the world.

So yes, Israel can be a good teacher on how to “minimize the murderous threat to your citizens without getting too many of your soldiers killed,” as Horovitz aptly put it. But I am yet to be convinced that it can be a good teacher on how to lead the world “without getting too many of your soldiers killed.”

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