The Four Musketeers

This was certainly a journalistic coup: Yedioth Ahronoth succeeded in assembling four former heads of the Shin Bet security service, all with long records of service to Israel’s security, for a collective interview.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on November 25, 2003.)

This was certainly a journalistic coup: Yedioth Ahronoth succeeded in assembling four former heads of the Shin Bet security service, all with long records of service to Israel’s security, for a collective interview. And what’s more, all of them said more or less the same thing. According to the four, Israel is at the edge of a precipice, facing an abyss – catastrophe is staring us in the face. To emphasize their views on what needs to be done at this critical time, they all signed on to Ami Ayalon’s agreement with Sari Nusseibeh for the partition of the territory west of the Jordan River between Israel and the Palestinians.

Looking at that agreement, or for that matter, at Yossi Beilin’s Geneva agreement, one is reminded of Jabotinsky’s reaction to the Peel Commission’s Palestine Partition Plan of 1937: “nisht geshtoigen, nisht gefloigen,” i.e. nothing will come of it. The interview of the former Shin Bet chiefs, as should have been expected, aroused a media storm, and was quoted far and wide throughout the world. It is not likely to strengthen the hand of the Israeli government at this time. But it will pass and soon be forgotten.

Other newspapers might try to compete with Yedioth Ahronoth by assembling additional quartets to declaim their views on the situation. They could try four former chiefs-of staff of the IDF, or four former heads of the Mossad, four former defense ministers, or maybe even four former chief rabbis, to add a spiritual element to the prognosis.

Possibly, four former presidents. One of them, Ezer Weizman, has already made sure to let us know what he thinks of the contents of the Yedioth Ahronoth interview. All would probably be glad to be pulled out of retirement and make their views known. It is unlikely that they would be in accord with the four musketeers of Yedioth Ahronoth. It might be worth doing, as it would balance the apocalyptic views of the former heads of the Shin Bet.

We have just spent the last few weeks reminiscing over the Yom Kippur War, in which a whole high school class was decimated in the first 48 hours of the Egyptian-Syrian attack, because the government did not order the mobilization of reserve units in time. Have we really learned the overriding lesson of that terrible war? Beware of predictions that leave no room for uncertainty. Predictions on the course of future events are at best no more than an intelligent guess, and at worst a gross mistake. Making decisions based on such predictions, without allowing for the uncertainties embedded in them, is liable to lead to tragic results.

Based on the information reaching the government and the IDF in the days before Yom Kippur 1973, nobody could discount the possibility of an upcoming Egyptian-Syrian attack, and mobilizing the reserves was the obvious move called for to counter that possibility. The expected penalty for not mobilizing in time was certain to be far larger than the expected penalty for a mobilization that would turn out to be unneeded. But this simple calculus escaped the government at the time, because they listened to the “certain” predictions of the head of IDF intelligence, without taking into account that nobody, not even the head of IDF intelligence, could predict future events with certainty.

Now along come four former heads of the Shin Bet who predict that we are on the verge of a catastrophe. Nobody could have faulted them if they had said that catastrophe for Israel was one of a number of possible future scenarios, and that government decisions should take into account that possibility as well. But in their predictions, they don’t seem to want to leave any room for doubt, forgetting that doubt is an essential element in decision-making under conditions of uncertainty.

Just how likely is the “catastrophe scenario”? Is it likely that Israel – a country with a population of over six million, with an army that rates well as compared to the best in the world, a treasure-house of technology in this age of high technology, a modern industrial economy – stands on the verge of catastrophe? It would seem that Israel’s margin for error is substantial, substantial enough to even support mistaken government decisions. Nisht geshtoigen, nisht gefloigen.


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