Monday, August 21, 2006

Feel the Strain

The political crisis in Israel is deepening within the government and the public at large. The governing coalition is threatened by the refusal of Labor members of the Knesset finance committe to approve a Kadima move to cut $400 million from the current education and welfare budgets. The cuts are intended to help pay for the war, without increasing the taxes on business. A Kadima official has threatened negotiations with other (rightwing) parties to offset the implied threat of Labor's leaving the government. Within Labor itself, efforts are building to dump Amir Peretz as leader.

Generally, the situation resembles the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war (1973), which Israelis then considered at best a tie. Most Israelis are dissatisfied with the current cease fire, with their government and with army leadership. Approval ratings for Olmert, Peretz and Halutz have fallen sharply; they will be no more than 25% in the next opinion polls. Opposition inside and outside the government has apparently checked Peretz’s effort to keep the postwar inquiry at the ministerial level and narrowly focused on tactics, operations and logistics. The inquiry board that he appointed met today and promptly suspended its operations. Olmert’s effort to set up an inquiry at the governmental level, also with limited powers and scope, will likely fare no better. The public and even some government figures wants a broad investigation that looks at strategies and decision making, as well.

One guage of the public mood is an online, non-scientific poll, by Israel’s largest newspaper, the hawkish Yedioth Aharanot. Readers told who they would vote for if the elections were today. Olmert, Peretz, and Benyamin Netanyahu (Likud) each received a couple of percent; leftwing leader Yossi Bellin (Meretz) had virtually none. But both far right wing leader Avigdor Lieberman (National Union) and Ariel Sharon (Tel ha-Shomer) each had percents in the mid-40s. Not having a “none of the above” choice, I chose Sharon, because, in his present condition, he would do the least harm.

A rather muffled debate during the war was over the need to probe even more deeply into the Israeli mindset that went to war. Several writers have argued that the hasty response to launch a massive attack on Lebanon was driven more by machismo than rational calculations. Retired left-wing leader Shulamit Aloni latched onto the theme in a bitter column today. She excoriates the men in Israel’s government for their incapability to consider diplomacy before charging to war. Moreover, she says, they rejected Foreign Minister Tsippi Livni proposal to first try tough diplomatic moves, like giving Lebanon a 72 hour ultimatum to return the soldiers, because a woman proposed it.

Similar ego involvement may have biased the men’s decision to expand IDF operations on Friday, August 11, just as the Security Council was approving the cease fire. The decision makers could have taken less than what they originally wanted, by accepting the cease-fire on the spot. Or they could gamble they would improve their military situation (and their reputations) through more fighting in the days before they had to accept the cease-fire. They chose to gamble. The two more days of fighting produced no significant gains for Israel, but earned it a reputation for spite in some eyes and cost it some forty more soldiers. (Israelis Dan Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky showed the preference for the gamble over the sure loss is a common distortion of rational decision making. This result is part of their Nobel prize winning (Kahneman, 2004) research on decision making heuristics. In particular, it shows the effects of framing on decision. Since the result has been in the literature for 25 years, it is doubly disappointing that Israeli decision makers were unaware of such professionally relevant knowledge.)

Israelis also want an investigation of the failure of their external propaganda. Most still believe that in any of their conflicts, they are entitled to the world’s sympathy. When it is not forthcoming, they blame anti-Semitism, Arab oil money and their own ineffective propaganda. Hopefully, any investigation of this failure would also ask why the world no longer accepts Israel’s standard exculpation of being a victim. Unfortunately, with few exceptions like foreign minister Tsippi Livni, the government and army leaders are clueless as to how people outside the Bush administration and the US Congress think. This is an arrogance of power that Israel cannot afford. The lack of attention to media any place but in the US, is a fatal flaw when fighting a guerilla force. In such conflicts public relations victories are important. Some attention to that point might also keep army and government officials from spinning clumsy lies, for example with regard to the success of commando raids.


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