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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Failure of Perception and Self-Deception: Israel’s Quest for Peace in the Context of Related Historical Cases

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Egypt, Europe and Israel, Palestinians, Peace Process, Syria, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 450   March 2001

An examination of the historical record reveals many examples of failures of perception, and of leaders and governments refusing to integrate compelling information of existential importance. Taking account of new information and responding to changing circumstances is vital to man’s relationship with his environment. When a dysfunction in the process of absorbing important new knowledge and correcting mistakes occurs, the faculty of rational judgment may be fatefully impaired. While, collectively, the attitude of a society is the sum of those of individuals, occasionally, the perception of a single individual in an influential position may be sufficient to determine a government’s policy.

The process of learning and integrating new information has usually been the domain of psychologists, educators and philosophers, but this aspect of human behavior may also be examined in historical perspective. The accomplished French historian Marc Bloch once wrote, “Misunderstanding of the present is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past.”1 In this spirit, it would be valuable to identify and describe a number of cases taken from the relatively recent history of the twentieth century, which bear remarkable similarities.

Here we will examine Stalin’s systematic refusal to believe that Hitler would launch the invasion of Russia (Operation Barbarossa, 22 June 1941); two examples of the response of Jewish leaders to the reality of the destruction of their people; and, more recently, the “mistaken conception” in Israel’s strategic plan which resulted in its vulnerability and heavy losses in the Yom Kippur War (1973).

Military errors of judgment and political errors of judgment are generally similar, except that the former can often be corrected in wartime after a military miscalculation has occurred. In contrast, political errors can persist for sustained periods of time without their deficiencies being recognized, and hence are much more difficult to correct. As a rule, mistaken perception of reality, when related to public policy, usually becomes the subject of sustained scholarly attention in the wake of a disastrous setback.


Stalin’s Miscalculation

Probably the greatest miscalculation of all time was Stalin’s refusal to believe that Nazi Germany would ever attack the Soviet Union. So costly was this failure that casualty statistics in the Soviet Union have, until recently, been suppressed. They are thought to number between thirty and forty million. For this reason, the Soviet authorities did not permit the publication of wartime diaries, and for fear of giving too much expression to the feelings of veterans, were ambivalent about the public commemoration of the Great Patriotic War and honoring the combatants’ bravery. In Russia, the collapse of the Communist regime was required in order to facilitate access to the necessary sources.

During the spring and summer of 1941, Stalin received at least one hundred warnings of the impending Barbarossa campaign, from the NKVD, from Allied sources — including Churchill, and also directly from the German ambassador in Russia, Count von der Schulenberg. Stalin’s minutes in reaction to some of the NKVD reports were simply obscene.2 Levrenti Pavlovich Beria, wishing to strengthen his position as head of the NKVD, threatened punishment for those from outside who dared to send reports of a German invasion, and, on its very eve, wrote the following to Stalin:

I again insist on recalling and punishing our ambassador in Berlin, Dekanozov, who keeps bombarding me with “reports” on Hitler’s alleged preparations to attack the USSR. He has reported that this attack will start tomorrow….But I and my people, Iosif Vissarionovich, have firmly embedded in our memory your wise conclusion: Hitler is not going to attack us in 1941.3

In this context, a word has to be said about the “consumers” of intelligence information. It is clear that the provider of information operates in an environment that may have its distinct views. Not infrequently, the desire to please one’s “consumer” has been known to take precedence over the obligation to provide valid data of inconvenient content. This dimension of the relationship is of considerable importance because it embodies a dichotomy: the presentation of solid information and the refusal to accept it, even to the extreme of “striking the messenger.” In fact, on 21 June 1941, Beria ordered four NKVD officials who persisted in sending such reports to be “ground into labor camp dust.”4


The Jewish Council of Amsterdam

Within the context of World War II, the inability to integrate vital information was so considerable that the Dutch national historian, Lou de Jong, devoted special attention to it, particularly in the case of the Jewish Council of Amsterdam.5 One of the great challenges to the historian writing about the Netherlands during the German occupation is to explain why the fatality rate for Dutch Jewry was so high. Out of a prewar population of 140,000, 102,000 Dutch Jews were murdered. For Western Europe, this statistic is shocking and may be attributed to a number of factors, one of which was the high level of collaboration on the part of the Dutch civil authorities and the population at large.

Of no less importance was the inability of the Dutch Jewish leadership to recognize the hostile intentions of the Germans, which caused them to be misled by their preconceptions, one of which was that the hostility of the Germans was directed at Eastern European Jews but certainly not against them. Another preconception current in the summer of 1942, at the height of the deportations, was the mistaken belief that the Allies would intervene shortly, and Germany would be quickly defeated.6 These beliefs prevented large numbers of Dutch Jews from drawing the conclusion that they were in mortal danger and that they might have been able to improve their chances of survival by going into hiding.


Justice Frankfurter’s Disbelief

Having devoted systematic attention to the same subject, Walter Laqueur expanded the study in his book, The Terrible Secret.7 He wrote that “the disintegration of rational intelligence is one of the recurrent themes of all those who have written about that period on the basis of inside knowledge.” In his study, he gave a particularly dramatic example of perception failure in his report of a conversation which took place in late 1942, in Washington, D.C., between Jan Karski, a high level member of the Polish resistance, and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Part of Karski’s mission was to warn American leadership of the destruction of European Jewry, then in full progress. Walter Laqueur thoroughly interviewed him and presented the following account:

Karski told Justice Frankfurter everything he knew about the Jews, and when he finished, the Justice said some complimentary things and then, “I can’t believe you.” Chiechanowski [the Polish Ambassador to Washington], who was again with him, told Frankfurter that Karski had come under the authority of the Polish Government, and there was no possibility in the world that he was not telling the truth. Frankfurter: “I did not say this young man is lying. I said I cannot believe him. There is a difference.”8

Frankfurter’s response points to an important step in the cognition process: that in order to integrate and “know” facts, it is necessary for the recipient to accept them as plausible. In the context of the medieval philosophical debate, whether one has to “believe in order to know,” or “know in order to believe,” this case gives some guidance: one must truly believe in order to know. The issue also has practical implications, for if he had accepted the validity of Karski’s report, he would have been obliged to adopt a certain course of action deriving from the responsibilities of leadership. Perhaps in Washington circles of the time it just would have been too unpleasant to be known as an advocate of the Jewish cause, and it is quite possible that such feelings may have carried some weight in the justice’s personal decision.


Golda Meir Ignores a Warning

A similar encounter between individuals took place nearly thirty-one years later when King Hussein, accompanied by Prime Minister Zayd al-Rafai, called on Golda Meir to warn her of an impending war. They came twelve days before the outbreak of hostilities, roughly on 25 September 1973.9 We do not have an account of the dialogue but do know from the contextual background that she did not act on it. The widely held view in Israeli military and defense circles, which later became known as “the Concept,” was described by the Agranat Commission in the following terms: 1) “Egypt would not begin a war as long as it did not have the capability to strike at the main bases of the Israeli air force; and 2) Syria would attack Israel only with Egypt.”10

Golda’s meeting with King Hussein took place in a context of events where, according to a report that appeared in Yediot Ahronot, over 1,500 warnings of the military build-up reached Israel before October 1973.11 The progressive steps of preparation for war, the early warning indicators, and strategic warnings12 were thoroughly reported but not acted upon. One of the reasons attributed directly to this terrible failure was the role of Eli Zeira, head of military intelligence, who suppressed information that did not conform with his understanding of the situation. “On Friday morning, about 28 hours before the beginning of the war, Major-General Zeira summed up his estimate: ‘All indicators are that the Egyptians and the Syrians are not going to attack but they fear us.'”13 One political scientist, Uri Bar Yosef, unequivocally described this suppression of information as “unethical.”14 Nevertheless, in historical context, some thought must be devoted to the community of “consumers of intelligence” and the type of information they wanted to hear. In our efforts to comprehend what went wrong, we must also be mindful of this factor. When compared, Beria’s and Zeira’s reports bear a remarkable similarity, despite the different circumstances and the political systems under which each functioned.


Inconvenient Information

Contemporary history has no lack of leaders being confronted with “inconvenient” information of existential importance and refusing to act on it. In practice, “inconvenient” information becomes so because integrating such knowledge usually demands an inconvenient course of action. When such failures do occur, the damage may be compounded by active deception initiated by a resourceful enemy or the introduction of a technical or tactical refinement. One does not learn the meaning of such developments until it is too late. During the Yom Kippur War, Egypt’s introduction of portable missiles on the battlefield and in anti-aircraft applications came as a most unpleasant surprise. To site another example, the case of France in World War II, Marc Bloch noted the German army’s “methodical opportunism,”15 particularly its capacity to move speedily over terrain, among other things, which became an unforeseen advantage:

What drove our armies to disaster was the cumulative effect of a great number of mistakes. One glaring characteristic is, however, common to all of them. Our leaders or those who acted for them were incapable of thinking in terms of a new war. In other words, the German triumph was essentially a triumph of intellect — and it is that which makes it so particularly serious.16

Failures of perception may occur even in the presence of abundant and repeated warnings and indications, as was the case with Operation Barbarossa and the Yom Kippur War. After the fact, the powers that be do not welcome the dispassionate investigation of such failures. As mentioned above, it took the downfall of Soviet Russia to open the archives there. A complete and thorough investigation of Israel’s intelligence failure in the Yom Kippur War has yet to be done.


Taking Risks for Peace

On 26 March 1995, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin received an American interfaith delegation led by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. At this friendly and relaxed meeting, Rabin described the basic elements of his government’s current peace initiative. He first pointed out Israel’s growing economic advantage in comparison to the other countries of the region, which for them was becoming a source of concern. Rabin explained that with the Iraqi missiles fired at Israel’s population centers during the Gulf War (1991), the best assurance of security would be to make peace with its neighbors. He considered that Israel’s greatest enemies were Iraq and Iran. Therefore, Israel should endeavor to make peace with Syria and the Palestinians. While explaining this point, he volunteered the view that “the Palestinians are not our enemies,”17 and stated that so determined was he to implement his policy that he was fully prepared to push a peace agreement through the Knesset with his government’s majority of one vote.

Not only did Rabin consider that the Palestinians were no longer enemies, he also hoped that the PLO could serve as Israel’s ally in its war against the terrorism of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. During the mid-1990s, there was a struggle between the rising forces of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world and the old Arab nationalist leadership. Arafat’s expected battle with Hamas was supposed to be the Palestinian microcosm of this region-wide Middle Eastern drama that was transpiring in Algeria, Egypt, and even in Syria. On the basis of this theory, Rabin proceeded to take risks for peace.

This approach conformed with a view which he had articulated earlier in his career, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, namely, that it was desirable to take risks in pursuit of peace — and that even if such efforts failed, the effort would be justified.18 Independently, President Clinton had made it clear since 1993 that the U.S. would offset any risks that Israel assumed — presumably with increased U.S. assistance. Evidently, Rabin felt that he was taking a calculated and limited risk in concluding the 1993 Oslo Accord with the PLO. He did not view the Palestinians as a strategic threat to the State of Israel, like Iran or Iraq, that could put Israel’s existence at risk. For Rabin, Palestinian terrorism was only a tactical problem, so that even if Oslo failed, the risk to Israel was minimal.

Several aspects of Rabin’s policy proved to be problematic. First, if the major assumption that “the Palestinians are not our enemies” proved untrue, then all policies based upon it would prove unsound — not the least, the basic policy objective of bringing closure to the long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, terrorist suicide bombings in the heart of Israel’s cities radically increased, so that more Israelis lost their lives in Palestinian terrorist attacks in the first three years of the 1993 Oslo Accords than in the previous decade. Arafat did not fight Islamic fundamentalist terrorism as expected; the head of Israeli military intelligence, Major-General Moshe Ya’alon, admitted: “Sadly, I cannot say that at any point since it entered the territory, in May 1994, that the Palestinian Authority acted decisively and in a clear-cut way against the terrorist operational capability of Hamas, as well as Islamic Jihad.”19 On another occasion, Ya’alon explained that Arafat was actually benefiting from the military potential of his Islamic opposition. Their military potential could be used as a form of pressure on Israel: “Arafat is preserving this situation for final-status negotiations with Israel.”20 Ya’alon’s predecessor, Major-General Uri Saguy, warned Israel’s political leadership that a “Lebanon-like situation” was developing in Gaza, to which Foreign Minister Shimon Peres replied: “You are destroying my peace.”21

Second, there was another unspoken but implied assumption that, should peace with Syria or the Palestinians require territorial concessions, including the sacrifice of many settlements, the prime minister would make use of the slimmest possible parliamentary majority. One may ask what would be the costs and the domestic political risks of implementing such a traumatic measure in the absence of a national consensus. At the time, Prime Minister Rabin underestimated and misjudged the deep convictions of the settlers and other parts of the Israeli body politic who sympathized with them when he contemptuously declared: “they can turn like propellers.” This approach helped polarize Israeli society.

Many of the basic elements of Rabin’s policy have been implicitly accepted until today. At risk of oversimplification, only the extreme right and the extreme left seemed to have fully grasped the true price of such a full agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, namely, giving up nearly all of the land and over 100 settlements to the Palestinians, while the political middle remained inert. The government of Ehud Barak (certainly during the 1999 election campaign) refrained from discussing this price and instead focused on the withdrawal from Lebanon.

With the failure of the Camp David negotiations in the summer of 2000 and the outbreak of the recent violent uprising on the eve of the Jewish New Year 5761 (29 September 2000), both the soundness of the peace process and the willingness of the Palestinians to conclude a final agreement became the subject of an urgent public debate. Organizations directly under Yasser Arafat’s control like Fatah-Tanzim and his Force 17 Presidential Guard opened fire on Israeli civilians and military personnel; violence was perpetrated by central organs of the Palestinian Authority and not just by Arafat’s fundamentalist opposition. It now may be possible to state that the nature of the discussion has been transformed, and the “consumers of information” have became the body politic itself. This is basically a healthy development for a democracy.

There is yet another unsettling possibility which could be derived from the basic premises discussed above, and that is the feeling — unarticulated to date — that an isolated Israel might not be able to defeat its enemies militarily and that the best means of achieving security would be to appease them. Former Chief Justice Moshe Landau of the Supreme Court of Israel did not use the term “appeasement,” but described its essence in Ha’aretz Magazine on 6 October 2000. He also referred to the Palestinian “strategy of stages,” which will be considered further:

I fear for the state’s survival….I see great external dangers facing us. But the internal dangers are even greater: the general feeling of bewilderment, the confusion of concepts, the social disintegration, the weakness of the national will, the lack of readiness to fight for our lives, and the illusion that peace will obviate our need to fight and defend ourselves. These things give me no rest…I say that it’s actually some of those who believe in a “peace of the brave” who are real cowards….So they chase after Arafat and beg him to agree to our huge concessions because they are trying to salvage whatever can be salvaged, to salvage some kind of enclave, some kind of Jewish canton a la Singapore around the Tel Aviv region. But, of course, this is an illusion….I believe that we face adversaries who are much cleverer than we, adversaries who know that they have to proceed in stages. As far as they are concerned, things are entirely clear: they don’t want us here, but in the meantime, they are prepared to make do with whatever they can get at each stage that moves them closer to their ultimate objective.22

One of the reasons why Prime Minister Barak refused to establish a national unity government was his stubborn belief in the peace process, even in a state of mounting terrorism and hot war. MK Dalia Itzik, his fervent supporter, whom he was known to use as a channel for bringing his ideas before the public,23 declared in a television appearance, for example: “there is no military solution, only a political one,” a proposition which did not depend completely on Israel. Again, what helped keep the diplomatic drive for a political solution on track, despite Palestinian violence, was the conventional wisdom that the uprising of September 2000 was only a tactical problem rather than a strategic threat. Yet, historically, this type of low-level terrorism has lead to escalation, as was the case in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1982. In 2001, the example of this new terrorism, broadcast on Arab satellite television, was capable of mobilizing the Arab street in surrounding lands, threatening to convert low-intensity violence into a major strategic challenge for Israel. As long as the Barak government perceived Palestinian violence as a purely tactical problem, which could be managed by diplomatic means, it did not seriously consider the military options for coping with this threat.

In addition, the debate became partially an issue of Israeli internal politics, without much regard for the facts, and in this there may be a dangerous development. Furthermore, Prime Minister Barak uncritically adopted Rabin’s practice of taking great risks for peace, even to the point of recklessness, dashing to Camp David after a defeat in a no-confidence vote in the Knesset. He had hoped to push a peace agreement through by means of a national referendum instead of a regular Knesset vote, where his prospects would have been poor. At Camp David, Barak opened by revealing Israel’s maximal position (at that time!), something an experienced negotiator would not have done.24 One may deduce from the outcome that things did not work out as he had hoped, and that he made a serious miscalculation whose implications must still be analyzed.25 In fact, Palestinian Authority Communications Minister Imad Faluji disclosed that the most recent intifada was not a spontaneous reaction to the September visit of then opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount, but was planned after the peace talks failed in July 2000.26

Several possibilities come to mind: 1) whatever Barak put on the table would have been inadequate; 2) the other side did not want closure through negotiation; and 3) in the wake of the disorderly, unilateral retreat from Lebanon, the Palestinians sensed weakness and decided to use violence and terror as tools of negotiation. They may have thought that they could get what they wanted without any agreement at all.


Coping with the New Reality

The problem of coping with this new and unpleasant reality found further expression in the debate which took place within the Barak government over publishing a White Paper documenting Pales-tinian violations of previous agreements. Although the government sponsored the publication, its existence and content have encountered a good measure of internal hostility, and there are indications that the American State Department did not like it at all.

Its preparation and release stirred a blazing controversy within the government itself. The internal dissent delayed the document’s disclosure for a month and led to some modification of its more sharply formulated contents….Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami has serious doubts about the wisdom of a policy turnabout that aims at planting the full onus of blame squarely on Arafat, and the Foreign Ministry originally declined to disseminate the White Paper to diplomatic missions overseas.27

The White Paper neither identifies its author (named in the press as Colonel Eran Lerner of Military Intelligence) nor does it indicate the fact that it is a government document.28 It lists Palestinian violations of their contractual agreements as follows:

  1. Direct use of violence;
  2. Ambivalent attitudes toward terrorism and, at times, outright complicity;
  3. Failure to collect illegal weapons;
  4. Incitement to hatred;
  5. Size of the Palestinian Police Force;
  6. Palestinian security organs operating outside agreed areas;
  7. Illegal use of Gaza airport;
  8. Conduct of foreign relations in breach of the interim status agreements;
  9. Breach of economic infrastructure agreements;
  10. Large-scale criminal activities, including car theft and excise tax fraud;
  11. Failure to protect Jewish holy places in Nablus and Jericho.29


The publication classified the different categories of violations which, when viewed as a whole, reflect elements of a coherent program. Some are a cause for great concern, such as the size of the police force, smuggling of arms, incitement and propaganda, the systematic policy of breaking agreements, and tolerance of large-scale crime.

The number of Palestinian policemen, in breach of the interim agreements, on the date of the White Paper’s publication exceeded its legally permitted strength of 30,000 by 10,000 men.30 The PLO has failed to collect illegal weapons31 and is suspected of smuggling in more weapons via Dahaniyyah Airport in Gaza.32 There are indications of a serious arms build-up including the introduction of illegal classes of weapons. In addition, the PLO has made use of propaganda as a means of incitement to hatred,33 through the educational system and media, for the purpose of mobilizing the population of all ages.

Although the White Paper only touched on the subject, large-scale crime approaches the proportions of economic warfare in the form of assets lost and destroyed. In 1997, 46,018 cars were stolen; in 1998, 41,962; in 1999, 30,824; and in 2000, the figure is estimated to be 28,300. Recently, the tendency has been to steal newer cars, and their average value is about $12,500. The average value lost to the economy for the past four years approaches roughly $46 million per year, not including the proceeds of their resale in Israel as rebuilt cars or as replacement parts. In addition to the direct loss, there are indirect damages, such as the wasted man-hours of the owners of stolen vehicles, manpower devoted to this problem by the police, and funds spent on preventive security measures.34 These figures do not include other preferred classes of stolen property, which include agricultural equipment, machinery, and livestock.


Diplomacy as an Instrument of War

Another noteworthy aspect of Palestinian policy implementation appears to be the use of diplomacy as an instrument of war by other means, if one may reverse von Clausewitz’s concept. This refers to the technique of systematically making and breaking agreements, the “strategy of stages,” and Arafat’s favorable references to the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah,35 which Muhammad concluded in 628 CE with the tribes that controlled Mecca and which he later violated when it was expedient. According to this doctrine, one may sign a treaty with one’s enemy, if one were the weaker party. When one’s strength increases, one may conveniently violate such obligations, as did the Prophet. As part of the Palestinian strategy, fighting and negotiating go together as part of the “continuous nature of the Palestinian Jihad.”36 When combined with this practice, the above infringements indicate a serious effort to mobilize all walks of Palestinian society for war against Israel. In January 1996, Nabil Sha’ath described the strategy at a forum in Nablus:

We decided to liberate our homeland step-by-step….Should Israel continue — no problem. And so we honor the peace treaties and non-violence….If and when Israel says “enough,”…in that case it is saying that we will return to violence. But this time it will be with 30,000 armed Palestinian soldiers and in a land with elements of freedom….If we reach a dead end, we will go back to our war and struggle like we did forty years ago.37

Indeed, as already noted, the Palestinian Authority has been engaged in more intense efforts at arming itself for this sort of eventuality. Israel’s Chief of Staff, Lt.-General Shaul Mofaz, declared on 28 February 2001, that the PA was engaged in a massive buildup of weapons, including small arms, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft weapons, as well as mortars: “the Palestinians are making a very big effort to smuggle ammunition and arms into the territories, especially into the Gaza Strip, by sea, and by tunnels from Egypt to Rafiah.”38 Concurrently, the Palestinian leadership made it clear that its hostile intentions against Israel remained unchanged. Although the Palestinian National Council (PNC) has twice taken formal decisions to revise the Palestinian National Covenant (1996 and 1998) calling for Israel’s destruction, the PNC Chairman, Salim Za’anoun, stated on 3 February 2001, in the official Palestinian Authority newspaper, that the Palestinian Covenant remained unchanged and was still in force.39


An Historical Analogy

A student of twentieth-century history may find the book from which the PNA borrowed a page (or two). Although every historical event is unique, there is more than a coincidental similarity between the Palestinian mobilization and Germany’s secret rearmament and preparations for war, which began in the early 1920s, more than a decade before Hitler’s rise to power. While the analogy between Germany of the inter-war period and the post-Oslo PLO may not be perfect, their similarities are noteworthy, because Nazi Germany gave the modern world the prototype of the criminal totalitarian state, a challenge which forced the democratic states to develop an appropriate response. In the first instance, democratic states must insist upon adherence to signed agreements — the Versailles Treaty and the Oslo Agreements — with respect to permitted levels of armament. Secondly, the leaders of democratic states must understand that failure to insist upon adherence to armaments limitation in treaties only increases the chances of armed conflict.

The basic component of the German effort worth recalling is the quiet retraining of soldiers:

First it involved retaining in military service any ex-soldiers or ex-officers who were willing to help. These were at first organized in a series of scattered “Free Corps,” which under various innocent-sounding titles and in the guise of sports organizations, travelers’ clubs, or even commercial enterprises, carried out a kind of gangster existence interspersed with regular military training. Later they came more and more under central direction and formed the “Black militia,” as it was called. This was not a large body numerically; it probably never totaled more than thirty thousand men. But these men were trained and organized to be the cadre of the German Army of the future; they were to provide the framework of militarist experience and ideology into which millions of German youths and men could be fitted when the time was ripe for coming out into the open.40

The other elements of the program were the hiding of weapons and concealing their production. The general staff was financed through donations of German industry, and the government provided various industries with secret subsidies for the production of weapons.41

At a later stage, after the National Socialists seized power, propaganda and indoctrination were used as a means to prepare the population for war:

The masses of the German people were taught to think and act as though they were already at war. To the young men and women that meant conscription and labour service with military discipline. To the children it meant on the one hand the para-military activities of the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls, and on the other hand indoctrination in school classes with the idea that war was the natural state of affairs so long as any of Germany’s rivals still survived….It is no exaggeration to say that by the time of the Munich crisis [1938] the ordinary German had already learnt to think of himself as being a member of an armed fortress, accepting privations and restrictions on his liberty as self-evident, ready for still further privations and restrictions as soon as his leader gave the word of command.42

Another element of German diplomacy was its own “strategy of stages,” based on systematic violation of treaties:

For Hitler, in fact, a treaty was simply — and literally — a ruse de guerre. He himself on more than one occasion admitted this. On one occasion he bluntly declared “We interpret treaties as we think fit and we do not submit to the judgment of others.” In an apostrophe to Mr. Chamberlain, who had pointed out that the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 was a breach of a freely and solemnly given pledge, he said with bitter sarcasm: “I thank you, Herr Chamberlain, that you do not believe that I would ever be a traitor to my own people.” In other words, no treaty was binding which might conflict with Germany’s immediate national interests….He would guarantee any frontier and conclude a non-aggression pact with anyone; nothing of the sort would restrict his freedom of action when the time came.43

The German model of use of propaganda as a tool for mobilizing a whole society, in preparation for deprivation and war, may better explain the systematic incitement of hatred of Jews and Israel which finds expression in the Palestinian educational system and media — and the use of children in violent confrontations. These are not random events but part of a program. Further, the technique of breaking agreements, used as a policy tool, may follow the German example, although the principle may be found in the Islamic cultural tradition. Another parallel not mentioned in the White Paper but still valid for this discussion was the use of the Sudeten German minority as an instrument for destabilizing Czechoslovakia.


The End of the Barak Era

On 6 February 2001, the Barak era in Israeli politics came to an end. Ehud Barak, who had received the largest mandate in any Israeli election up to that time, experienced a defeat of unprecedented proportions and left office in discredit. The highest priority of his whole term in office was the pursuit of a peace settlement, which he carried out at the expense of programs that governments normally undertake to advance the general well-being of their citizens, such as improving social services and assuring a continuous supply of drinking water. It was not because of the national shortage of hospital beds or that little children in development towns did not get hot lunches that Ehud Barak was voted out. The average Israeli did not feel physically secure in his person and property. Both in objective and subjective terms, an intolerable deterioration of security had taken place: in the cities, on the roads, and in the countryside. Jerusalemites did not know if their city would be divided. Settlers and kibbutzniks of the Jordan Valley, the Golan, Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, as well as the Negev, were left in the dark as to what the future would hold, and if the government would stand by them. It should be noted — and not in passing — that the primary and most sacred obligation of any government is to assure the safety of its citizens and the continuity of the state. Simply stated, the Israeli electorate and ultimately his own party decided that Barak had not done his job and sent him home.

The decision of the Israeli electorate, when taken in the context of its own concern for safety and personal security, brings us back to the subject of this essay. The outgoing government experienced a major failure of perception, if not self-deception, which brought harmful and negative consequences. The basic assumptions upon which the Israeli peace process had been founded were proven unsound, namely:

  1. The PLO was not hostile and could be a potential partner;
  2. That one could preserve security without deterrent force;
  3. That one could end terror by “removing its causes”;
  4. That the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel could be ended through negotiation.


This policy failure was compounded by the government’s refusal to take cognizance of the many warnings and indications that its policy was not working. The essence of this refusal to face an inconvenient reality is embodied in its disassociation from the findings of its own White Paper, which documented Palestinian violations of their contractual obligations and their bad faith.

Related to the major public affairs issue is the moral dimension: the mental climate in which this perception failure took place. One of its characteristics was a worldview that was prepared to accept civilian casualties and make territorial sacrifices, departing from established national traditions (and the government’s publicly stated commitments). There was a type of ideological mindset, a mixture of political immaturity and arrogance, which abandoned the basic purpose and historical roots of the Jewish state, which was to create a sovereign state where Jews could live in safety. Only in a world where opportunism had taken the place of principles could it have been possible to countenance daily casualties of terror. There was a sense that only the small circle of the elect really knew best how to make peace. At the same time, some believed that peace was a matter which rested only in Israeli hands. When former Prime Minister Barak resigned to call new elections, some members of this group served him an ultimatum, demanding that he make peace within weeks — as if this were possible! Another component of this system was the inability to accept the fact that one’s neighbor could ever harbor hostile intentions toward the Jewish state, or that its citizens could be detested simply because they were Jews. An incapacity to cope with anti-Semitism in its various manifestations, Western and Arab, would also explain the disastrous failure to defend Israel in the media war and against the Arab campaign of hatred and incitement. If one failed to grasp the raison d’etre for a Jewish state, then certainly it would not be possible to defend it.

Should one examine the issue purely on its merits, the effectiveness of a public policy may be measured in terms of its architect’s hopes and expectations. The objective of its endeavors was to ensure Israel’s security by ending the conflict with its neighbors. One may ask if this objective has been attained, even partially. The answer is definitely negative. On the contrary, the would-be peacemakers enabled an enemy, now heavily armed, to establish a territorial base close to its population centers and to exploit this advantage in order to victimize its citizens. The Sharon government will now have to address this complex reality, hopefully with a new Israeli response.

If there is a lesson for the new Israeli government from the 1993-2001 period, it is the urgent need to re-examine the assumptions that underpin the diplomatic initiative that became known as the “Oslo Process.” Great errors of judgment in twentieth-century policy-making have usually been associated with military miscalculations, particularly those of Great Britain and the Soviet Union at the start of World War II. Although the Israeli intelligence community was for the most part aware of the mistakes that the political leadership was making, the grave harm to Israel’s security did not become evident as a result of a surprise attack, but as a consequence a process of erosion that transpired over nearly a decade. Having experienced the near equivalent setback of a surprise attack in incremental stages, Israel now faces probably the most critical and difficult juncture in its history. As Churchill reversed the fortunes of Great Britain more than half a century ago, it is now Prime Minister Sharon’s task to save the State of Israel from the cumulative effects of years of fundamentally mistaken diplomacy.

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Dr. Joel S. Fishman received his doctorate in modern European history from Columbia University. He lives in Jerusalem with his family where he works as a professional photographer and publishes on topics of contemporary historical interest. The author wishes to thank Drs. Robert Kaplan, Manfred Gerstenfeld, Professor Zvi Ophir, and Mr. William Meyer for their valuable suggestions and contributions. This essay is dedicated to the memory of the author’s late father, Dr. William H. Fishman, 1914-2001.

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  1. Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, trans. Peter Putnam (New York: Vintage Books, 1953), p. 43.
  2. Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield; The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the K.G.B. (New York: Basic Books, 1999), p. 93.
  3. Ibid., p. 94.
  4. Ibid.
  5. L. de Jong, Een Sterfgeval te Auswitz (Amsterdam: Querido, 1967).
  6. J.S. Fishman, “On Jewish Survival during the Occupation; The Vision of Jacob van Amerongen,” Studia Rosenthaliana 33, 2 (1999):167.
  7. Walter Laqueur, The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth about Hitler’s Final Solution (Middlesex: Penguin, 1982), p. 205.
  8. Ibid., p. 237.
  9. Uri Bar-Joseph, “The Wealth of Information and the Poverty of Comprehension: Israel’s Intelligence Failure of 1973 Revisited,” Intelligence and National Security 10 (October 1995):234.
  10. Ibid., p. 229.
  11. 28 September 1998.
  12. Bar-Joseph, passim.
  13. Ibid., p. 233.
  14. Ibid., p. 236.
  15. Marc Bloch, Strange Defeat, trans. Gerard Hopkins (London: Oxford University Press, 1949), p. 36.
  16. Ibid., p. 49.
  17. Rabin expressed himself in the same terms in his last speech, but the passages from the official transcript were mysteriously edited out. Rabin said: “I want to say plainly: We have found a partner for peace among the Palestinians — the PLO, who was once an enemy and has ceased terror.” Akiva Eldar, “PLO and Syria Cut Out of Rabin’s Last Speech,” Ha’aretz (English Edition), 8 November 2000.
  18. Address of Prime Minister Rabin at the Dinner of Alumni of Columbia University, Migdal Shalom, Tel-Aviv, 16 January 1975.
  19. Ma’ariv, 16 April 1998.
  20. Ya’alon made this analysis before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in January 1996. See Dore Gold, “No Security, No Peace,” New York Times, 29 March 1997.
  21. See Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Those Who Are Guilty,” Jerusalem Post, 27 March 1996.
  22. Interview with Justice Moshe Landau, Ha’aretz Magazine (English Edition), 6 October 2000. This quotation has been lightly styled.
  23. Aluf Benn and Danna Harman, “Camp David Dispatch; No,” The New Republic (Internet edition), 7 August 2000.
  24. This was the conclusion of Ariel Sharon, who commented in an interview, “Being inexperienced in negotiations, he [Barak] thought he would come to Camp David and put all the concessions on the table and that Arafat would embrace him, thank him, kiss him and love him. But Arafat is experienced. He immediately took everything and started to demand more.” “Q & A: Ariel Sharon,” Washington Post (Internet edition), 8 October 2000.
  25. See particularly Aluf Benn and Danna Harman, “Camp David Dispatch; No,” The New Republic, 7 August 2000. This article provides valuable insights and a description of the state of mind which prevailed during and after this encounter.
  26. Lamia Lahoud, “PA Minister: Intifada Planned Since July,” Jerusalem Post, 4 March 2001.
  27. Aluf Benn, “White Paper Tiger Unleashed,” Ha’aretz (English edition), 24 November 2000.
  28. Ibid. Colonel Eran Lerman of Military Intelligence was put in charge of compiling data and drafting the document in English.
  29. Palestinian Authority and P.L.O. Non-Compliance with Signed Agreements and Commitments: A Record of Bad Faith and Misconduct (Jerusalem: Government Press Office, 2000), pp. 5-6. The language of the above headings has been lightly styled. This document will be referred to below as the White Paper.
  30. Ibid., p. 38.
  31. Ibid., pp. 28-31.
  32. Ibid., p. 38.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Personal communication, 31 December 2000, Shmuel Malkis, Economist of the Federation of Insurance Companies of Israel.
  35. White Paper, p. 10.
  36. Ibid., p. 11.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Jerusalem Post, 1 March 2001.
  39. Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, 3 February 2001, as translated by MEMRI.
  40. Lindley Fraser, Germany between Two Wars; A Study of Propaganda and War-Guilt (London: OUP, 1944), p. 78.
  41. Ibid., pp. 79-80.
  42. Ibid., pp. 98-99.
  43. Ibid., p. 107.