Nur Özkan Erbay - Washington, DC
In "Fortress Israel", Tyler demonstrates an epic portrayal of Israel's martial culture of Sparta presenting itself as Athens. Tyler takes us inside the military culture of Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and Benjamin Netanyahu, introducing us to generals who make decisions that trump those of elected leaders and who disdain diplomacy as appeasement or surrender.
Fortress Israel shows us how this martial culture envelops every family in Israel. So ingrained is the martial outlook and identity, Tyler argues, that Israelis are missing opportunities to make peace even when it is possible to do so. "The Zionist movement had survived the onslaught of world wars, the Holocaust, and clashes of ideology," writes Tyler, "but in the modern era of statehood, Israel seemed incapable of fielding a generation of leaders who could adapt to the times, who were dedicated to ending . . . [Israel's] isolation, or to changing the paradigm of military preeminence."
Patrick E. Tyler is an author and former chief correspondent for The New York Times and the Washington Post. He is the author of three books: A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East from the Cold War to the War on Terror, A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China, a history of U.S.-China relations since the 1972 opening by President Richard Nixon, and Running Critical - The Silent War, Rickover and General Dynamics, a history of the U.S. nuclear submarine program under Admiral Hyman G. Rickover.
"Military impulse lives so prominently in the Israeli chest"
Q: In your newly released book you described the characteristic of Israel statehood in historical context and how the military shape the political culture and landscape in the country since 1950's. Could you please give us a brief summary and evaluation of this characteristic?
A:. I think what I tried to put out for the western audience was what is the source of this Marshall impulse; this military impulse that lives so prominently in Israeli chest. Going back to the 1950's so many archives and diaries have been opened up. You have to go back to 1950's to understand how Ben Gurion and how the leaders around him came in that first decade up against the decision: Do we engage the Arabs over the long term or do we fight them over the long term. Because that is a profound decision but it is also a profound fork in the road. Beacuse one side, the military side says you have to arm yourselves extensively over a multi decade program of arms build-up. You have to go for the a nuclear weapon, you have to do so with a great deal of stealth and secrecy, duplicity and how you deal with your firends and enemies. On the other side you are much more open, you are taking risks by exposing yourselves. You are having to absorb some of the blows of terrorism, people who are angry have lost their homes and land but your overall objective is peace. That is the strategic objective. That means you do so that you have enough armaments to defend yourself but basically every bit of your focus is on diplomacy and engaging with your enemies and rivals. People don't understand how profound that fork in the road is. There was a man to take over the leadership from Ben Gurion; Moshe Sharett he was destroyed politically by Ben Gurion. People have to understand that story because every political fight in Israel is related to the same set of issues.
"Did anyone listen to Sheikh Yasin back in 2004? NO."
Q: What kind of role do these predominant militarist characteristics play in Israel's foreign affairs today? What are the motives behind it? Why is so hard to choose diplomacy for Israel?
A: If you look at the Gaza flare up that just occured. More than a hundred Palestinians died just three years after fourteen hundred of were killed and in an earlier invasion four thousand buildings in Gaza were leveled. There was enormous destruction in their society and you ask yourself how can diplomacy help you there? They are shooting rockets on us. You can't bring up this argument just spontaneously. You have to say it was Israel pursuing a diplomatic strategy aside from a military strategy that might have helped. There was Sheikh Yasin back in 2004, a leader of Hamas who was interested in a long term truce with israel. Did anyone listen to him? Did anyone opened a secret channel to find out what he was talking about? The answer to that is: NO. Because there was no one in Sharon's government at that time. Actually there were secret Turkish brokered talks which I spent a lot of time trying to decipher. There was a guy named Alon Liel who was working with the Turkish Prime Minister Office to try to get track II negotiations open which Olmert then took over. So there were people who were interested in talks. They weren't part of Israel's Foreign Ministry anymore but people understood that the only way to get results in the long term is to create options that are not military-based, that are to talk. To talk secretly, productively about how to solve problems. Israel's culture finds that very hard to do because the military is so preeminent and also so absorbed but also absorbed with working on military contingencies that crowds out diplomacy and diplomacy was looked at as being risky, a kind of an appeasement that doesn't get resolved easily. That is the military gets quick results.
Q: Could we make the same connection between Sheikh Ahmed Yasin and Ahmed Jabaris's killings by Israelis? Because some reports says Mr. Jabari was also pursuing finding a way to reach long term truce.
A: Some people have written that he was working on opening a secret channel for negotiations. One of the intermediaries has written a column how just days before Mr. Jabari was killed he had a meeting with him and he was talking about the possibility entering some secret talks that might lead to a Hamas reintegration into an acceptable political environment. But once there is a political decision declaring someone as a "terrorist" military doesn't go around thinking about all these people by saying, 'we should probably find a way to talk to them'. No. They think that's the enemy and their job is to kill the enemy.
"In Israel it is impossible to see where the army ends and where the government begins"
Q: Do politics in Israel give this preeminent role to the military or does the military use this power forcibly?
A: I have to say that the political culture in Israel is very tightly knit with the military establishment. There is no way to see where the army ends and where the government begins. In his office, the prime minister has people in uniform who are his aides. Knesset has people in uniform. The military is the institution that provides them with intelligence, information, staff support, recommendations and policy ideas and so they are deeply reliant on them. Therefore, they are mutually reinforcing each other. When the army argues that you have to consider the class of these people and Hamas is a terrorist, politicians say why not and I want the army on my side. It is good politics to go along with them. They declare off limits, this is a terrorist organization and we don't talk to them. You know Yasser Arafat was in that position for many, many years. It took Yitzhak Rabin to say the only way to negotiate for peace is to talk to your enemy. You have your people in security establishments now; they are kind of like voices of the wilderness. When I mentioned Ephraim Halevy who was the head of Mossad and he was a Rabin man who comes from the diplomatic tradition, he was arguing that we have talk to Hamas because there is no other way to make peace.
"In Israel, families are suffused with the military ethos"
Q: What are the reflections of this militarized characteristic on Israeli society? You have mentioned that young Israelis are ignorant, don't know much about reality and do not have any idea of what is going on in their circle?
A: Well, the effect that has on society is that every family becomes a military stakeholder. If you have 4 children and you know they are all going to go to the army and you yourself are in the reserves until the age of 49, then the whole house is suffused with the military ethos. Sparta means the army is the country to a greater extent. So, if the leaders of the army create the propaganda, in the logical sense they propagate our position, we propagate how we look at Hamas. So in the army you hear that information channel and you absorbed that. It unifies and galvanizes the country behind the central set of talking points, thinking points and logic which may not be logical at all. And they are not tested because there is no counter bailing institution that says to the army, 'your logic is off here, you are wrong'. Maybe there are enemies, but we have to negotiate a contingency also, because that would create options and it's in our interest to do that. That's the weakest part of Israeli society; Diplomacy, compromise, negotiation, statesmanship, is regarded as a low form of existence.
Q: So, under these conditions will Israel be able to make peace some day?
A: They can. I think what happened in the late 1980's. Yitzhak Rabin was a former general and political figure who saw from the Intifada and other events that there had to be a better way than the military. There is no military solution for the population of Palestinians who live among us and next to us who have their own national aspirations. We have to try something else. No Israeli politician has ever spoken this way. Rabin had a strong following among the younger generals in the general staff. There was a great deal of support for him within the military leadership. A lot of generals were skeptical but Rabin had a group of generals who were politically active. After he was killed the forces in the military that saw Sharon coming shifted politically to align themselves with Sharon's outlook. Sharon's outlook was completely different. He had the military and undermining what Rabin had built which was a strategic objective for peace. And they came back to the strategic objective of attack and repression.
"Despite being against her will, Hillary Clinton has also been trapped into this administration, kind of like mouthing the AIPAC talking points at times"
Q: How about current US.-Israeli relations? You also state that the Obama administration first term was a big disappointment for the sake of the peace process and the U.S. administration is using AIPAC's talking points for the most part in Washington. Is it only because Israel doesn't give the U.S. diplomatic flexibility? Despite the fact that many people know in Washington, President Obama and Netanyahu don't like each other personally but President Obama has given full support to Israel's recent Gaza attack..
A: He is up against the same problem. In other words he was essentially defeated by Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu, who would rather focus on Iran and anything but the peace process. And at home here in Washington, Obama has the domestic situation that is so all-consuming with its importance and urgency on the fiscal cliff, our debt crisis, our unemployment rate and the economy in general. That is a searing domestic issue that will probably decide the next presidential election. So what can he do? Can he take the risk of alienating part of the senate or house by getting so energetically involved in the peace process that he is going to change all the noise of Israel supporters to try to better their position tactically every day? He can't afford to alienate those forces in Congress. He is going to get through all those legislations that have to go through this term to fix our economy. That's what he is trying to balance. I think he is idealistic enough and he wants to make a dent in this, just in the way Bill Clinton did. Hillary Clinton wanted bill Clinton in. She has also been trapped into this administration, kind of mouthing the AIPAC talking points at times. You know this is against her will, against her sentiment which is more about being interested in pushing the peace process. That is hard to do for her but politicians do that.
"Making concession to the Arabs was a violation of Zionist code and DNA"
Q: You use the quote of Former President Nixon in your book referring that Israel and Golda Meir had not given the US "diplomatic flexibility" to resolve the issues in the Middle East at that time. You think Israel will provide this flexibility to the U.S in the near term?
A: In Golda Meir's time the notion of compromise, the notion of making concessions to the Arabs was politically impossible. They believe that they beat them in 1967 at the cost of six hundred lives and thousands of casualties. So, making concession to the Arabs was just a violation of Zionist code and DNA. Anwar Sadat was really interested in making a deal, Golda didn't bring herself to do anything because she was obsessed by her own domestic politics.
Q: Can we say the same situation goes for the Netanyahu government today?
A: For the moment Yes, Golda didn't last and fell apart. Yitzhak Rabin came in for his first premiership, he wasn't successful but it was important. Netanyahu has many enemies in the Israeli military and security establishments. He is not an admired person even though it is a paradox he is such a strong Prime Minister. Because he has the entire right wing and society lined up very intensely. Whereas the other side, the left or center side is fractured so it is hard to defeat that. The arrival of millions of Russians over the last 15 years has had a profound effect on the Israeli electorate. But I believe, and I served in Russia I know about the Russians, that you can't assume that the Russians will always be the way they are and they will not change their minds. Those who came in with a very hard view against the Arabs, they were left of the center on social issues and they want the socialistic government to take care of them. But they were quite willing to go back though a security government hard line against the Arabs, I think that would break down over time. I think Russians will help the Israelis over the time. Look at the security situation in America in a more constructive way with the help of allies like Turkey. I think Turkey's position is very influential within Israel.
"I think Israel miscalculated the effect of Mavi Marmara. If they had known the cost they would not have done it. It is regretted by almost all across Israel"
Q: You just stated that "Turkey's position is very influential within Israel". Can you elaborate on that? Also, Turkey seeks an apology after Israel killed 9 Turkish citizens in the Mavi Marmara Incident. Do you think that Israel is close to an apology?
A: I think if Israel had known going into that crises, what the storming of those ships would cost them, with their extremely productive relationship with the NATO ally, as the largest country to the north Turkey, they wouldn't have done it. I think they miscalculated the effect. It got out, it looked like they over killed and it was their ally. So, then their ally asks is that the only way you could have dealt with this issue. Because you are going there with legitimate protestors. It's not the way to treat friends. It is the way Americans felt after the Israelis attack and sank the USS Liberty during the 6 day war and killed 70 Americans on that ship. We asked the question is this the way you treat a friend and ally. The American flag was flying over that ship and even your controller said it might be American. Ships and plans continued to attack because so they were so militarized into it and everybody wanted to kill.
I think Turkey is a historic, important NATO ally and an extremely important country in the region. Therefore, the loss of relations with Turkey I think is regretted by almost all across Israeli society. It makes them feel more isolated in the long term.
"Israel's unfortunate status quo"
"The Turkish PM's words shocked Israel, to hear that voice from such a large country it used to be a close ally with back in time"
Q: There seems to be a high probability that Israel and the U.S. will not be able to sustain its status quo any longer for a couple of reasons. With the political landscape, people's demands in the region have been shifting enormously. For how long will Israel continue to follow militaristic doctrines and avoid diplomatic solutions under these circumstances? Also for how long can the United States continue to back Israel?
A: It is an unfortunate status quo but it could remain frozen the way it is with Israel as a regional superpower armed with nuclear weapons in isolation from the region which it lives. But also capable to strike and affect its neighbors in a negative way anytime it chooses to do so. That's not a very constructive way to arrange a neighborhood but it could stay that way if nothing moves forward politically. You can't move forward without diplomacy. Israel is not exactly behind diplomacy these days. I am sure they are secretly in talks with Turks because they are working full time to repair that relationship. Your Prime Minster called them a terrorist state. I think it shocked Israelis to hear that voice from such a large country it used to be a close ally with. It's painful and disturbing and makes them think that errors could change. Partly fueled by the Arab awakening and fueled by other historic grievances that would make Israel even more isolated and dangerous place to live.
"No Question. America will continue to back Israel"
Q: Do you think the Obama administration will continue to back Israel in his second term?
A: No Question. America will continue to back Israel. That doesn't mean just Obama. If he saw an opportunity tomorrow to move the process, if something happens to open the window he would seriously jump in again. The problem is the forces are very strong against him right now. We have a big problem at home and he can't take a risk alienating part of the congress over the Middle East. There are high stakes in Middle East negotiations which inflames both sides all while he is trying to rescue our economy.
"People don't want to seem anti-Israel in US Media and institutions"
Q: We know how the Israeli Lobby plays an active role in the Hill, the Congress and the U.S. Media. Wasn't it hard to write a book on Israel presenting the historical context of Israel's militaristic statehood and failing diplomacy? Isn't that an issue of burden for a journalist and historians? At least we know that from other books written in the past…
A: My book is attacked in a couple of reviews. But it was more of an ideological attack and they didn't seriously engage with my book. A lot of mainstream media are staying away from the book because it is a thought issue for the media, for big institutions to deal with. They don't want people calling up saying 'Oh, you are anti-Israel because you said something favorable about this book'. This book is not ideological. I am a historian and I approached it with the interest of a journalist.
Thank You for this interview.