Inside a Foundation for Defense of Democracies Sponsored Junket to Israel

by John Walbridge

I am in Israel at the moment, having just completed a terrorism tour for academics sponsored by a group called the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). The organizer described them as “hawkish,” which is certainly true. The tour mostly focused on the mechanics of terrorism and counter-terrorism (how to make a suicide vest, how to stop someone wearing one, etc.) and consisted of lectures by and visits to people (usually well connected, upper mid-level) and units belonging to the police, para-military, and regular army. Direct talk about politics was mostly avoided. This dovish isolationist has to admit that it was a fascinating program, and I can recommend it to others. It’s called the Academic Fellows Program, if anyone is interested.

That said, I can make a few observations about Israel’s attitudes towards Iran and related issues based on what I heard and saw.

1) Nobody seems to be thinking very far ahead. It is not surprising that bomb squad officers should be obsessed with the next bomber, but even a senior retired intelligence officer, discussing “long-term” scenarios, only went to 2030, did nothing but project the most negative current trends, and had no suggestions for improving Israel’s long-term prospects. The settlers were an exception to this, but their strategic calculations relied on the assumption that God was going to back up their property titles, which seems uncertain to me.

2) There is a striking unwillingness to see things from the point of view of the other side or to recognize that the other side has legitimate interests that need to be taken into account. Apart from not asking the most obvious questions (“Why do people hate us so much that they are willing to blow themselves up to kill random Israelis on the street?”), I didn’t hear anyone talking about what Iran’s interests might be, what Hezbollah’s interests were, or how they should be taken into account. An Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officer on the northern border, which has been peaceful for six years, seemed utterly baffled by my question about whether the situation might be satisfactory for both sides, given that Hezbollah controls the south securely without Israel occupying any significant territory of interest to them and that between Hezbollah long-range rockets and the bloodymindedness of the Israeli air force, both sides have every reason to avoid a war. There is even a hotline to avoid misunderstandings.

3) There is an obsession with Iran. A settler leader and aspiring right-wing Israeli politician (and former senior aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) was explaining why a peace agreement giving the West Bank–sorry, “Judea and Samaria”–to the Palestinians would be militarily unacceptable. He took us to a settlement on the edge of the Samaritan hills and pointed to the towers of Tel Aviv on the horizon. “Imagine,” he said, “if Iran were here!” “Iran!” I blurted out, my resolve to keep my mouth shut overwhelmed by surprise. “What’s Iran got to do with it?” He looked at me as if I was a child.

Iran is going to take over Iraq. Jordan is very weak, so that will fall to them too. Then they will control Judea and Samaria and be able to attack Tel Aviv.

This preposterous scenario was extreme and our hosts apologized afterwards for exposing us to the naked political nuttiness of the settlers, but the notion that Iran might be lurking under every bed was widely shared.

4) Everyone seemed to think that Hamas and Hezbollah would automatically do Iran’s bidding. There is no recognition that they might be autonomous actors beholden to Iran for support but pursuing their own interests too. I don’t have much doubt that Hezbollah would refrain from making trouble with Israel if Iran asked them to do so or that Iran would order Hezbollah and Hamas to attack Israel if Iran was attacked. On the other hand, it is far less clear that Hezbollah would risk its own destruction at Iran’s order.

Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

Fairness compels me to say that some of these attitudes were shared by Security Studies and Political Science types in our delegation.

I will leave the question of Islamophobia for another time, but had you heard, as I did from a senior former intelligence official, that Muslims have no sense of right or wrong because in the Qur’an Adam disobeyed God but did not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? I thought you would want to know.

All of this adds up to a lot of possible reasons why Israel might make major strategic miscalculations, both overreacting to provocations, real or imagined, and missing opportunities for positive progress. If, as seems to be the case, Americans concerned with these issues are picking up these attitudes towards Iran and Islam from Israel, there is every reason to be scared.

— John Walbridge is Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University. He teaches a variety of courses on the Middle East and has published, edited, and/or translated some ten books on various aspects of Islamic and Middle Eastern culture.

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  1. ““Why do people hate us so much that they are willing to blow themselves up to kill random Israelis on the street?””

    This question could be asked by Shiites in Iraq as well as by Israelis.

    The answer is religious intolerance. The same thing that leads to the persecution of Bahais in Iran.

  2. Since i am the “senior retired intelligence officer” who is quoted here as discussing “long-term” scenarios, who “only went to 2030, did nothing but project the most negative current trends, and had no suggestions for improving Israel’s long-term prospects” and later on misquoted as saying that “Muslims have no sense of right or wrong because in the Qur’an Adam disobeyed God but did not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? ” I feel that I ought to respond.
    Your description is a classic example of how a person hears things through his ideological prisms and picks and chooses half-quotes that prove his ideological position.
    Yes, I “only went to 2030”. Most people who attempt to do political analysis in such a volatile region would not dare go that far. However from your point of view this is short sighted. I am a bit surprised since in my meetings with American think tanks and government assessment bodies in the US and Europe, I found very few who dare go beyond half a year. As for the negative current trends – you ignored my reference to the fact that the Iranian regime is highly unpopular, that even an Israeli attack won’t change that for the long term and that a change in Iran would have a significant positive effect on the region, neutralizing much of the fear of the “Shiite crescent” among Sunnis. Of course I did not speak about positive issues relating to Israel’s economy as that was not the subject of my talk. However, what exactly should be considered “positive” in the entry of the region into predominance of a radical Islamist ideology (the Muslim Brotherhood and its branches) that is on record as calling for the destruction not only of the State of Israel but highlighting the Hadith: Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him; but the tree Gharqad would not say, for it is the tree of the Jews. This does not augur well. I can understand that from an American point of view you may believe that such a movement will eventually reconcile itself with the US and its ability to cause damage to the US is limited. However, from the Israeli point of view, this means that the chances of a peace process in the near and mid terms become slim.

    You also seem to just not understand the implications of the fact that Israel’s “security envelope” is worn thin having lost the security of relations with the Egyptian regime, the high probability that Syria will remain unstable and the ramifications for Jordan. Is there anything positive in that?

    You quote some settler on Iran to show that there is an “obsession” with Iran. I do not think that it is an obsession to fear the predominance of a regime that has declared as its goal the destruction of Israel. The slogan “Israel will be destroyed” or “Israel will be wiped off the map” are ubiquitous in the regime’s propaganda. The real fear of Israeli strategists is of a “poly-nuclear” Middle East that will not be as stable and secure as the MAD era of the Cold War for numerous reasons that you choose to ignore. It is the duty of political leaders to deal with eventualities that – even if they may not be high-probability – they are very high consequence.

    To ignore the dangers of destabilization of Jordan would also be a grave mistake. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is already trying to destabilize Jordan through its branch there, destabilization of Syria (that has already happened) and the potential of a strong Jihadi-Salafi movement there (already exists) can have a dangerous effect on Jordan. Without a regime in Jordan that prevents terrorism against Israel, we may find ourselves back in the spiral of pre-emption, retaliation and war that we knew before 1970.

    I was particularly shocked at the way you misrepresented my statement about Islamic theological principles. This seems to me to be rather disingenuous. I did not say that “Muslims have no sense of right or wrong” but that Islam does not recognize the capacity of the human being to know the difference between good and evil, and hence puts the emphasis on obedience to Allah and “intent”. There are numerous contemporary Islamic discussions that prove that (for example: in a large symposium of the most prominent scholars of the Sunni world in Saudi Arabia in which they reached the conclusion that the attackers of 9/11 must be in Paradise since they believed that they were doing Allah’s will and Allah, who did not give them the ability to know the truth and does not impose on a person a burden he cannot bear, will judge them by this intent. Sense of right and wrong is, essentially socio-psychological and most people do not analyze these feeling through theology. However at the ideological level this cannot be ignored.

    Interesting that you comment on an unwillingness to see things throughout the point of view of the other side. Certainly, you could not break through your own ideological positions to understand the Israeli side. A situation of constant mutual threat is not “satisfactory” and the Israeli Air Force is not “bloddyminded” as you put it. I would ask you to find another country – including your own under a Democratic President – that phones all residents of a building from whence rockets are being launched to warn them to get out of the building during a war because we are going to attack the launchers. Aborting of air attacks because of proximity of civilians is far more frequent in the Israeli Air Force than in the American…

    As for whether or not Hizballah will do Iran’s bidding – seriously, Nassrallah has gone on record numerous times regarding his commitment to do so. There is also a plethora of information on record – including in the public domain – regarding the level of control of Iran (IRGC) on Hizballah. I am always amused by American academics who prefer theoretic deductive thinking over facts. Ultimately – God (and the Devil) is in the details.

    Finally – the question “why do people hate us so much” – have you asked yourself that about 9/11. I would like to know what conclusion you reached. Hatred is a old as Cain and Abel. Hatred towards Jews, per se, is a bit younger but not much. Arab anti-Israeli sentiment is deeply rooted in an amalgamation of Islamic supremacy (inconceivable that the Jews who are supposed to be second class citizens are a regional power), classic anti-Semitism (the Jews are descendants of pigs and apes), loans from European anti-Semitism (Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion) and a sense that there is support from the Western Left of their positions. Surely, other peoples who have been in conflict have as strong a rationale for mutual hatred (Germany and all of Europe, Britain and Ireland, etc.). Unless you are totally blinded by ideology you surely cannot compare Israel’s behavior towards the Arabs or Muslims as worse than many of these cases. It always amazes me that Western left-leaning academics tend to find that Arab hatred towards Israel is, somehow, “understandable’ or justified more than their hatred towards the West itself.
    Shmuel Bar

  3. And one more point: your logic would dictate that the Jews in Auschwitz should also have engaged in soul searching “why do they hate us so much that they want to exterminate us”. Surely there must have been some reason that derived from their behavior. Surely had they acted otherwise, they could have convinced Hitler that his desire to exterminate them was misguided. Actually, the Gypsies, the retarded and the homosexuals should have asked the same question as should the Armenians who were massacred by the (Muslim) Turks, Rwandans, Bosnians, Darfurians etc. Hatred does not need a rational reason, Actually it tries to avoid them.

    Of course you may say that such comparisons are not in place, that there are those whose actions justify such a level of murderous hatred and those who do not. This reminded me of a famous exchange between Harvard’s racist president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, and the great American judge Learned Hand. Lowell announced that he wanted to reduce the number of Jews at Harvard, because, “Jews cheat.” Judge Hand replied that “Christians also cheat.” Lowell responded, “You’re changing the subject. We are talking about Jews.”

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