Who’s being rational?

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LIFE IN southern Israel is unbearable. Since last January, on average, 6.3 mortars and rockets have been fired from Gaza on southern Israel every day. As Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i warned the heads of the communities around Gaza last week, due to the improvements in the Palestinian arsenal since Israel vacated Gaza two years ago, the Palestinians now field missiles and rockets with extended ranges that place 130,000 Israelis under threat of missile attack.


Wednesday, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi made clear that if Israel wishes to secure its citizens there is only one thing it can do. It can conquer Gaza.


In a speech at Tel Aviv University, Ashkenazi explained, "It is impossible to defeat a terrorist organization without eventually controlling the territory. The good situation in Judea and Samaria is the result of our control over the area and we will not be able to achieve victory in the conflict [in Gaza] simply with indirect fires and attacks from the air."


Presumably Ashkenazi made this point Wednesday morning at the security cabinet meeting. But apparently, he was no match for his competition.


Squared off against Ashkenazi was Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Livni warned her colleagues that securing southern Israel will destroy the peace process. If Israel secures the south, the Arabs and the Bush administration will get really mad. And "moderate" Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will turn his back on the peace process and reunite his US-trained Fatah forces with the Iranian-trained Hamas forces. Livni's message was clear: The government must choose between security and the peace process.


Livni won the argument. The peace process won out against the security of southern Israel.


The Olmert government's preference for process over substance is not unique. Indeed, it is malady shared by governments throughout the free world. The philosophical foundations of this malady are similarly common ones.


THE SEPTEMBER 11 attacks on the US intensified a dispute that had been brewing since the end of the Cold War about the definition of rationality. The two warring factions in the debate, which has raged throughout the free world, can be referred to as the rationalizers and the rationalists. Each side has given its own definition of rationality and those competing definitions have formed the basis of the camps' competing policy prescriptions for contending with the threat of Islamic terrorists and their state sponsors ever since.


The rationalizers include politicians like Olmert and Livni and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and security and policy apparatuses like the CIA, the State Department, the Foreign Ministry and their counterparts in Europe.


The rationalizers define rationality as susceptibility to foreign pressure and willingness to be appeased. According to this view, if your antagonist is willing to negotiate with you, then he is rational. And since he is rational, he is capable of being appeased. And since he is willing to be appeased, he isn't really your enemy.


The US intelligence community's National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear capabilities and intentions is a textbook example of the rationalizers' view. The NIE, which asserts that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 as the result of the program's exposure and the international scrutiny that followed, concludes that "Teheran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs." And since Iran is rational, the NIE recommends that the US and its allies make Iran an offer which entails "some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways."


The rationalizers' view of rationality is alluring for two main reasons. First, its essential argument is that the West is solely responsible for determining whether the world will enjoy peace or suffer the ravages of war. If Western states cough up a proper package of concessions, then the terrorists and their state sponsors will negotiate with them. If Western nations refuse to make the necessary concessions then the terrorists and their state sponsors will attack them and the nations of the West will have only themselves, and their obstinacy to blame.


Beyond that, since the Arab and Islamic world's rationality is solely a function of Western will, the ideology of jihad which informs terrorists and their state sponsors is immaterial. As far as rationalizers are concerned, there is no reason to close down jihadist Web sites or indoctrination centers. Indeed, there is no reason to challenge the validity of jihadist doctrines and values as all.


This view too, resonates in the NIE. The report makes no mention of the fact that Iran's regime was founded on the values of jihad. It ignores the fact that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters believe that by fomenting Armageddon they can hasten the coming of the Shi'ite messiah and bring forth an era of Islamic global domination in a world in which the US and Israel are but bitter memories. Had the NIE taken these ideological views into account, its authors might have noted that it makes perfect sense for the ayatollahs to be pursuing nuclear weapons.


But taking the Iranian regime's ideology, values and aspirations into account would involve crossing the lines into the opposing rationalists' camp. For rationalists, it is rational for a state's policies and actions to reflect and advance its values, aspirations and beliefs. As a consequence, it is essential to understand and confront those beliefs, values and aspirations.


Just as the rationalizers' views are attractive because they place all the power to determine issues of war and peace in the hands of Western nations, so the views of the rationalists are unattractive because they assume that the free world cannot alone determine the course of events. It cannot influence a society's adherence to jihadist beliefs and aspirations. The most it can do is take actions to prevent jihadist societies from acting on their beliefs.


When Ashkenazi explained that the conquest of Gaza is the only way to secure southern Israel, he was representing the rationalist camp's view of rationality. Since the Palestinians overwhelmingly support the jihadist aim of destroying Israel, it is rational for them to attack Israel for as long as they can. Since Israel cannot change the way the Palestinians understand the world and the meaning of life, the only way it can protect its citizens from murder is by taking away the Palestinians' ability to attack.


PERHAPS THE strangest aspect of the rationalizers' disparagement of the importance of ideology is the lengths they go to in order to ignore jihadist ideology on the one hand and appease it on the other. Agents in counter-terror units of the FBI, for instance, are discouraged from studying the Koran. Their chiefs argue that only a tiny minority of Muslims in the US and worldwide ascribe to a religious-supremacist interpretation of the Koran which upholds and encourages terrorism, slaughter and war to the death against non-Muslims and therefore what the Koran says is irrelevant.


Yet if it is true that only a tiny minority of Muslims think that Islam is a supremacist political as well as religious creed, then the rationalizers should treat the actual jihadists with contempt similar to that which they exhibit towards white supremacists. After all, doing so shouldn't bother the rest of their co-religionists who reject their views. But the opposite is the case.


FBI agents undergo Islamic "sensitivity training" by people who are themselves the su
bjects of their counter-terror investigations. US military personnel at Guantanamo Bay are forced to wear gloves when they touch copies of the Koran belonging to their jihadist prisoners.


More disturbingly, in their rush to placate this irrelevant tiny minority of jihadists, Israeli, US and European officials willingly trounce their core values of the rule of law and freedom of expression. In Israel, Israeli Jews who build homes without permits are prosecuted to the full limit of the law and ejected from their homes. Israeli Arabs who have built entire towns illegally are ignored by authorities in the interest of avoiding diplomatic consequences or stirring up passions.


In the US, one can stand outside the White House and burn the American flag without fear of criminal charge. But if a person draws a pig on a copy of the Koran in a public library, he is liable to find himself under arrest for committing a hate crime. And in Europe, you can participate in a demonstration invoking Islam as you call for the destruction of Britain or Holland or Demark without fear of legal action, but if you publish a caricature of Muhammad in your newspaper, you may find yourself the subject of a criminal probe and forced into hiding for promoting racism.


In Israel, it is difficult to convince people that the ideology of jihad is unimportant. But the rationalizers have two other ways to convince the general public and their political base that they are right to ignore the enemy's actions and intentions and concentrate on efforts to appease. First there is the fear factor. Given the overwhelming nature of the Arab and Islamic world's hatred of Israel and the Jewish people, Israel's rationalizers defend their preference for imaginary peace processes over security by arguing that Israel cannot afford to fight a war. Far better than facing that hatred on the battlefield is the option of preemptive surrender. As the rationalizers argue, if Israel shrinks into the 1949 armistice lines, builds a big wall and hides behind it, then maybe the Arabs will forget that we're still here and leave us alone.


Politically there is the fact that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima party was founded on the view that territory has no defensive value and that preemptive surrender is a reasonable national strategy. To acknowledge that territory is important or that surrendering territory to your enemy strengthens your enemy and weakens you would involve admitting that Kadima's founding principles are all wrong. So Olmert and Livni and their associates maintain the fiction, do nothing to secure southern Israel and seek to transfer Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria to Fatah terrorists.


Since September 11, the rationalizers have won most of their policy battles with the rationalists and the results of their victories have been both ironic and tragic. As a result of the rationalizers' control of policy, the only ones who consistently engage in the rational pursuit of their interests, values and aspirations are the jihadists and their state sponsors. For their part, the leaders of the free world seem intent on living out George Orwell's observation that "the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it."



Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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  • Marc Handelsman, USA 12/14/2007 at 19:46

    No rational government on Earth would tolerate irrational bombardment on their citizens, EXCEPT the Olmert one. It’s time for PM Olmert to let the IDF liberate Gaza from Islamic terrorists.

  • Anne Lieberman 12/15/2007 at 14:59

    Maybe the most brilliant piece you’ve ever written.

  • Alex 12/15/2007 at 19:14

    And what do you think of Obadiah Shoher’s arguments against the peace process ( samsonblinded.org/blog/we-need-a-respite-from-peace.htm )?

  • NormanF 12/30/2007 at 20:37

    The IDF has the means to protect Israel. It has the means to remove the Hamas menace from Gaza. The problem is the lack of political will among Israel’s leadership to order the IDF to do its job. It is compounded by a political system incapable of holding them accountable for their failure to protect the country.


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