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The Knesset Loses a Philosopher

It’s a ritual that Israel observes before every election. One or more highly-qualified exemplars of what an Israeli parliamentarian lose out in their party primaries or decide, in disgust or exasperation, not to run again. This year’s latest victim is … Read More

By / December 23, 2008

It’s a ritual that Israel observes before every election. One or more highly-qualified exemplars of what an Israeli parliamentarian lose out in their party primaries or decide, in disgust or exasperation, not to run again. This year’s latest victim is Isaac Ben-Israel, MK for the Kadima Party.

In an interview with Ari Shavit in this morning’s Ha’aretz (which doesn’t, for some reason, appear on the website of the paper’s English edition) Ben-Israel explains why he’s not seeking reelection, and why he’s disappointed with Kadima. “The real strategic threat to Israel is the state of its political system. That threat is more dangerous than the Iranian bomb and the economic crisis,” he declares.

Ben-Israel (whose name in Hebrew is Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael) has one of the best brains ever to grace the Knesset. He came to the legislature after a long career of IDF service as a pilot, in air force operations and intelligence, and weapons development; he has headed the Israel Space Agency and the security studies program of Tel Aviv University. In the midst of all that he managed to get advanced degrees in physics, mathematics, and philosophy.

So what? The Knesset has plenty of generals. It’s even got another philosopher, the Likud’s Yuval Steinitz .

Two decades ago, Isaac Ben-Israel published an intriguing little book in Hebrew called Dialogues on Science and Military Intelligence. It’s an analysis of the intelligence debacle of the Yom Kippur War in the form of a series of hypothetical conversations between a philosopher, a senior army officer, with occasional interjections by other characters, like a psychologist and a historian. Ben-Israel argued that the philosophy of science—in particular, that of Karl Popper and his followers—offers an epistemological method that military intelligence organizations would do well to follow.

In his book, Ben-Israel proposes that the reason Israeli intelligence failed to understand that Egypt and Syria were preparing an attack was that intelligence officers were looking for information to confirm their theories and beliefs about Arab intentions and capabilities. But instead of looking for confirmation, he writes, a good intelligence officer should try to think of what kind of incoming information would falsify his thesis—and comb the reports coming in for precisely these items.

This kind of sober analysis should and can be done in army intelligence. It’s a lot harder to do in politics and government, where image is as, if not more important, than rational policy making. And that’s why Ben-Israel is quitting.

I don’t always agree with Ben-Israel. He comes down more often on the hawkish side than I do. I’m skeptical about the wisdom of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, which Ben-Israel favors. He’s skeptical that talks with Hamas can help solve the Gaza impasse; I think they need to be part of Israel’s strategy.

But we’re both skeptical of those, on the right and the left, who think that just dialogue or just force can solve Israel’s security problems. When Ben-Israel advocates the use of force in Gaza, he acknowledges that it cannot in the short term end the missile attacks on Israeli territory. The use of force is a tactic, not a strategy. It has to be part of a larger strategy in which Israel uses diplomacy and military power in proper balance. We need to talk to Hamas, but talking won’t help if we don’t show them that we’re willing to take risks to defend ourselves. Military action is useless if it is not predicated on the realization that eventually, in the end, you need to talk about armistices and borders and commerce and the environment that we share. A responsible government is one that explains to the public that there are no easy answers.

Ben-Israel’s frustration is hardly unjustified. As I wrote here last month, Israel’s large parties (and some small ones) have instituted a system for electing their slates that looks democratic but actually promotes the worst kind of mediocrity. And the press here—as in the U.S.—certainly shares the blame. Most journalists who write about politics offer celebrity gossip or horserace commentary rather than delving into the candidates’ philosophical outlooks and stands on the issues. He’s certainly correct that a political system that keeps us from having intelligent discussion of the issues and planning for the long term is more dangerous than nukes, missiles, and a plummeting stock market. Maybe it’s time for him to join the Green Movement/Meimad list and give it the benefit of his sharp mind and philosophical acumen.

Read more by Haim at South Jerusalem

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