May I, an American citizen living in the United States, comment publicly on Israeli decision making?
I recently criticized the Israeli government for its exchange with Hizbullah in "Samir Kuntar and the Last Laugh";
to this, the eminent counterterrorism expert at Tel Aviv University,
Yoram Schweitzer challenged the appropriateness of my offering views on
this subject. In "Not That Bad a Deal," he explained to Jerusalem Post
readers how the "contents and tone" of my analysis "patronizing and
insulting, overlooking as they do the fact that the government and
public have the right to decide for themselves …, and to shoulder the
resulting price." He also criticizes me for offering an opinion on
Israeli issues from my "secure haven thousands of miles away."
Schweitzer (director of the Terrorism and Low Intensity Warfare Project
at the Institute for National Security at Tel Aviv University) wants me
not to judge decisions made by the Israeli government.
Schweitzer does not spell out the logic behind his resentment, but
it rings familiar: Unless a person lives in Israel, the argument goes,
pays its taxes, puts himself at risk in its streets, and has children
in its armed forces, he should not second-guess Israeli decisionmaking.
This approach, broadly speaking, stands behind the positions taken by
the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other prominent Jewish
I respect that position without accepting its discipline. Responding
to what foreign governments do is my meat and potatoes as a U.S.
foreign policy analyst who spent time in the State and Defense
departments and as a board member of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and
who as a columnist has for nearly a decade unburdened himself of
opinions. A quick bibliographic review finds me judging many
governments, including the British, Canadian, Danish, French, German, Iranian, Nepalese, Saudi, South Korean, Syrian, and Turkish.
Obviously, I do not have children serving in the armed forces of all
these countries, but I assess their developments to help guide my
readers' thinking. No one from these others countries, it bears noting,
ever asked me to withhold comment on their internal affairs. And
Schweitzer himself proffers advice to others; in July 2005, for
example, he instructed Muslim leaders in Europe to be "more forceful in their rejection of the radical Islamic element." Independent analysts all do this.
So, Schweitzer and I may comment on developments around the world,
but, when it comes to Israel, my mind should empty of thoughts, my
tongue fall silent, and my keyboard go still? Hardly.
On a more profound level, I protest the whole concept of privileged information
– that one's location, age, ethnicity, academic degrees, experience, or
some other quality validates one's views. A recent book titled I Wish I Hadn't Said that: The Experts Speak - and Get it Wrong! humorously memorializes and exposes this conceit. Living in a country does not necessarily make one wiser about it.
During the Camp David II summit meeting of 2000, when Ehud Barak headed the government of Israel and I disagreed with his policies,
more than once, my critique was answered with a how-dare-you
indignation: "Barak is the most decorated soldier in Israeli history –
and who are you?" Yet, analysts now generally agree that Camp David II
had disastrous results for Israel, precipitating the Palestinian
violence that began two months later.
Ehud Barak, the most highly decorated soldier in Israeli history, made mistakes.
It is a mistake to reject information, ideas, or analysis on the
basis of credentials. Correct and important thoughts can come from any
provenance – even from thousands of miles away.
In that spirit, here are two responses concerning Schweitzer's take
on the Samir al-Kuntar incident. Schweitzer argues that "to fail to do
the utmost to rescue any citizen or soldier who falls into enemy hands
would shatter one of the basic precepts of Israeli society." I agree
that rescuing soldiers or their remains is an operationally useful and
morally noble priority, but "utmost" has it has limits. For example, a
government should not hand live citizens to terrorists in return for
soldiers' corpses. In like manner, the Olmert government's actions last
week went much too far.
Another specific: Schweitzer claims that, "relatively speaking, the
recent exchange with Hizbullah came at a cheap price. It is debatable
whether Kuntar's release granted any kind of moral victory to
Hizbullah." If that deal was cheap, I dread to imagine how an expensive
one would look. And with Kuntar's arrival in Lebanon shutting down the
government in giddy national celebration, denying Hizbullah a victory
amounts to willful blindness.