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A Failure of Imagination

It’s ironic that Amos Yadlin expounded his proposal for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank just one day before the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teens were found there. Yadlin is one of Israel’s most respected former senior defense officials; aside from his record as a senior air force officer and head of Military Intelligence, he has scrupulously eschewed hyperbolic partisan attacks on Israel’s political leadership of the kind that have disenchanted mainstream Israelis with many of his colleagues. Yet he appears to share another of his colleagues’ fatal flaws–a complete inability to imagine that the security status quo could ever change.

Yadlin’s proposal has many problems; David M. Weinberg of the Begin-Sadat Center ably analyzed several of them yesterday’s Israel Hayom. But the one I found most astounding was one Weinberg didn’t address: Yadlin’s assertion that, having defeated terror, Israel could now afford to quit much of the West Bank.

It’s certainly true that Israel defeated the second intifada (2000-05), and some of the tactics it used, like the security barrier, would remain in place under a partial pullout like Yadlin proposes. But Israel’s most important counterterrorism tactic was boots on the ground: In 2002, the Israel Defense Forces effectively reoccupied most of the areas vacated over the previous decade under the Oslo Accords, and they never really left again. This enabled Israel to do the daily grunt work of counterterrorism: arresting suspects, interrogating them for leads, seizing weapons stockpiles, and so forth. As I’ve explained before, this ongoing effort is what ultimately dried up a supply of recruits that once looked limitless: Only when the likelihood of being arrested or killed became too high did terror become an unattractive proposition to most Palestinians.

Thus the minute the IDF departs, so will the crucial factor that has restrained terror over the last decade. And terrorist organizations will respond by escalating their activity. After all, as the Palestinians’ enthusiastic support for the teens’ abduction amply shows, their motivation to commit attacks hasn’t declined; what has declined is only their ability to do so.

But once Israel has withdrawn fully from the territory–not a mere troop redeployment as in the 1990s, but a full-scale evacuation, including the dismantling of settlements–it will be powerless to launch the kind of prolonged counterterrorism operations needed to suppress renewed terror: Anything more than brief incursions will become politically untenable, just as it has in evacuated Gaza.

Yet Yadlin appears incapable of imagining a recurrence of the second intifada’s deadly terror, which killed more than 1,000 Israelis, most of them civilians. As far as he’s concerned, we’ve defeated terror; now it’s safe to withdraw.

This echoes former Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s assertion in January that since “there is no eastern front” right now, Israel can safely withdraw from the Jordan Valley. The eastern front, as I noted last week, is now back in spades, revived by the Islamic State’s takeover of large swathes of Iraq. Dagan’s mistake was that he couldn’t imagine the possibility of such a change: As far as he was concerned, the eastern front was gone, so it would stay gone.

Both men exemplify a problem common to many defense professionals: They understand military tactics and capabilities, but they’re no better than anyone else–and often worse–at predicting political developments. Dagan was blind to the possibility that Syria’s civil war and the jihadi groups it spawned could affect Iraq’s stability, and perhaps even Jordan’s, while Yadlin seems blind to the possibility that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank could spark a resurgence of terror.

That’s why defense officials’ policy recommendations should always be treated skeptically. Making good policy requires an ability to imagine the likely consequences of both your own actions and those of other players. And defense professionals, at least in Israel, seem to be sadly lacking in that ability.


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