Four months ago, on May 14, I wrote on this site about a case before Israel’s Supreme Court over a petition by the Yesh Gvul movement protesting the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) use of white phosphorus shells during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008. During their deliberations, the IDF presented the justices with documents, which only they were allowed to see for security reasons. Actually, the approval of the highest ranks of the IDF was necessary for the Supreme Court justices to even see these documents. The documents concerned the mandatory procedures for the IDF's use of white phosphorus, which is banned by international laws of warfare.
This was one of the debates that human rights organizations in Israel force on the IDF every so often, knowing full well that discussions of these matters cannot take place in any other forum besides the court. Although these discussions are of moral value and although the Israeli army is defined as a “people’s army,” the Israeli public does not engage in these discussions. Instead, the public attaches “cosmic importance” to the phrase “sensitive security matters.” Such matters are taboo and must never be violated. There is to be no arguing about it, because anything that affects the security of the state in any way whatsoever lies outside the boundaries of the public discourse.
Public exposure, civil dialogue and the legitimacy of debate over matters of principle are not seen by most Israelis as the obligations of those bodies charged with maintaining their safety and security. As far as Israelis are concerned, anyone who speaks openly about matters that would be better off kept confidential and discreet is actually helping the enemy. And so, there is no value or principle worth spending time debating.
This attitude of most of the Israeli public to matters of security does not sanctify a democratic worldview. This is the only issue on which Israelis would prefer to keep silent. They don’t want an open debate. They have absolutely no interest in other views or other opinions when it comes to the most sacred cow of Israeli society. In fact, this attitude is so entrenched that they accept it as a given that Israel’s approach to security requires the country to avoid any public discourse about matters of defense, because security and defense override any moral values in the state of Israel.
Israel’s security approach took shape over the years, independent of the country’s democracy, as a separate entity. It was perceived as something that deserved preferential treatment, as something that must not be touched in any way, and about which there must never be any matter-of-fact debate. Not only do the country’s most senior journalists and commentators, and in fact, the Israeli media at large, refuse to critique security matters. Many of them do not keep their respect of the security approach to themselves either. Yes, Israel is a democratic state, except when it comes to matters of security. That lies outside the scope of any democratic parameter.
This explains why Israelis watched in awe and even ridicule this week as the US congressional foreign affairs committees discussed whether to approve or disapprove granting the administration permission to launch an assault on Syria. Israelis are stunned to see the debates conducted on TV, before the nation and the world. They don’t understand who these people are, or who gave anyone the opportunity to come in and watch them debate the finer nuances of an attack on Syria in a discussion which, according to the Israeli approach, should have been held only behind closed doors.
To the average Israeli, the Americans seem to be living in a dreamland. Instead of launching a surprise attack, they discuss and debate all the aspects and implications of the attack in front of the entire country. Where is the American version of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee? Where is the Secret Services Committee? Why don’t they turn off the cameras and microphones? And where the hell is the censor?
The real difference is between two opposite worldviews. There isn’t a single American citizen who thinks it is delusional for a momentous decision, such as launching a military attack, to be brought before Congress for an in-depth debate that examines all possible scenarios. This is especially true when the matter under discussion is a war against a foe who does not threaten the security of American citizens, but a moral war intended to defend the citizens of a distant country, Syria, as well as Syria’s neighbors.
Secretary of State John Kerry had no choice but to work up a sweat and remain in the spotlight for many long hours, while he threw all his weight behind convincing the members of Congress that it is America’s responsibility to spring into action against a target that threatens world peace. “The debate here is not about President Obama’s red line, but about the world’s red line. It’s about humanity's red line. … We have allies who depend on us,” he told the members of Congress.
This is democracy, regardless of whether we agree with this approach or ridicule it. This is how a superpower acts when it wants to offer a model of government for the rest of the world to emulate. The name of the game is democracy. This is true as far as human rights are concerned, and it is equally true about how weighty decisions such as declaring war on a war criminal are made.
And yet, despite all that, the author of this article, a child of the Middle East, who was born and raised on the Israeli approach to security matters, has a hard time understanding how the mission’s operational objectives will be met after the enemy listened in on the debates and prepared itself accordingly for an attack. This writer deals with the same dilemma faced by all the decision-makers in the United States. When ranking priorities, what should come first? Surprising the enemy on the battlefield? Or being fair, weighing all the options, and preserving the democratic tradition that every American values and respects, a tradition they see as a red line that must never be crossed under any circumstances, not even when it’s a matter of security.
Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.