October 15, 2019

Roger Cohen’s Game With Israel

For the life of me, I wish I could be a professional analyst — someone who makes a living telling people what world leaders think, why they think the way they do, why what they think is not what they say and how we ought to act knowing what they truly have in mind.

The nice thing about being an analyst is that no one cares if you are right or wrong; it is the sound of your conclusions that count, not the veracity of your premises.

Take Roger Cohen, for example, and his recent New York Times column “Hard Mideast Truths” (Feb. 11), which a friend sent me with a grim comment: “Only Peres is left of the founding leaders of Israel…. Israel needs peace to survive in the long run.”

Cohen is the Times columnist who spent months, perhaps years, on a tireless campaign to convince the West that the Iranian regime does not deserve our suspicion, that it can be reasoned with like any other regime and that it does not suffer from an irrational form of fanaticism. Cohen’s campaign was shattered last June by the reality of the Iranian election, its brutal aftermath and the deceptive progress of Iran’s nuclear capability.

One would think that an analyst who fails so miserably in reading the minds of the ayatollah would acquire some measure of humility or introspection before reclaiming an authoritative posture as a mind reader. A prudent analyst would take a year or two to examine one’s premises, scrutinize one’s inference-making processes or reboot one’s ideology and logical machinery.

Not Cohen. The ink is still wet on his “I erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness” (New York Times, June 14, 2009), and Cohen is back with the same style of logic, same underestimating premises, same conclusion-driven inferences, to offer a brilliant solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

His solution is predictable: “It does not make sense for America to bankroll Israeli policies that undermine U.S. strategic objectives,” therefore, the United States should punish Israel into action on all fronts; settlements, negotiation with Hammas, security compromises and more. But Cohen’s motive has a new twist: It is all for Israel’s own good, otherwise, “what then will become of the Zionist dream?” Israelis are too dumb, so the message reads, to understand that they need peace to survive in a long run, and only New York analysts understand the urgency of this need, and only they can come up with original and innovative solutions to Israel’s future. Israelis, with all their experts, historians, statesmen, peace activists, visionaries, philosophers and, yes, analysts are incapable of thinking out of the box; Cohen can, as he did on Iran.

I lament the day I chose to become a scientist. If any of my theories ever turn out to be wrong, God forbid, no journal would dare print my articles again, and all my theories would forever be suspect of dubious intentions. Not Cohen. He can twist reality at will, and readers continue to swallow his logic, axiom after an axiom, lemma after lemma, as long as the conclusion harmonizes with what they wish to hear: We can fix everything — just push whatever moves.

Take Cohen’s reasons for negotiating with Hammas. “The Hamas charter is vile,” Cohen admits, “but the breakthrough Oslo accords were negotiated in 1993, three years before the Palestine Liberation Organization revoked the annihilationist clauses in its charter. When Arafat and Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn, that destroy-Israel charter was intact. Things change through negotiation, not otherwise. If there are Taliban elements worth engaging, are there really no such elements in the broad movements that are Hamas and Hezbollah?”

If only I were an analyst, I would be exonerated from checking the facts, and I would be spared the embarrassment of finding that the Oslo accords were negotiated only after Arafat proclaimed, three years earlier, before the U.N. General Assembly in Geneva (Dec. 13, 1988) that the Palestinian National Council renounced “all types of terrorism” and had accepted resolutions 242 and 338 as a basis for negotiations (in truth, it did not, but the world heard what it yearned to hear).

As an analyst, I would not need to find out that things did not exactly change through those negotiations in the 1990s — the PLO, to this very day, has not amended the annihilationist clauses in its charter, as openly admitted by Farouq Kadoumi in an interview with a Jordanian newspaper (Al-Arab, April 22, 2004; see Benny Morris’ book “One State, Two States” for a detailed chronology).

On the contrary, an intractable Gordian knot has been created: Every Westerner now believes the charter is amended; every Palestinian says it is amended but believes it is not, and every Israeli knows what Palestinians believe. Not a healthy mindset for peace negotiations.

Most importantly, as a scientist, I would be obliged to acknowledge competing theories. For example, that the blood-soaked Second Intifada erupted precisely because Clinton and Rabin did not insist on seeing an Arabic text of an amended PLO charter on the White House lawn. Their naiveté, so the theory goes, gave Arafat the illusion that as long as the West buys into his double-talk, Palestinians are exempt from doing any homework toward peace. It subsequently made Israelis doubly suspicious of Palestinian proclamations and reinforced Palestinians’ delusion that they can achieve sovereignty without internalizing Israel’s permanency. Cohen now hands them another reinforcement and, once again, all in the name of peace.

Competing theories are cherished by scientists and abhorred by analysts. For a scientist, such theories pinpoint experiments one must conduct and questions one needs to ask; for an analyst, they just spoil the music of the wished-for punch line. Cohen, for example, simply “knows” that “the ‘existential threat’ to Israel is overplayed” — competing theories, elaborating on Israel precarious position do not deserve his attention. The dreadful sight of 40,000 unstoppable Hezbollah rockets aimed at civilian population centers in Israel does not deserve the attention of omniscient analysts. And I purposely do not mention the Iranian nuclear threat, Cohen’s specialty, or whether Israeli society can survive the dead, wounded, maimed and orphaned victims of any massive modern-day assault, because the consequences of competing David-Goliath theories are not on the moral screen of astute analysts like Cohen.

Or take Cohen’s manifesto of morality: “… past persecution of the Jews cannot be a license to subjugate another people, the Palestinians.” The competing theory, according to which Israel relentlessly seeks ways to extricate itself from an unwanted occupation, while Palestinians reject the very notion of end-of-conflict, will forever remain the province of scientists; analysts have a license to ignore the hard evidence that pours out of Palestinian media, schools and public discourse, which spoils the music of a wished-for theory.

Oh, that I might become an analyst someday — mesmerized by wished conclusions, falling for my own conjectures and liberated from the bonds of truth.

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (danielpearl.org), named after his son. He is a co-editor of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.