Foreign Relations & International Law

Reflections on an Introduction to Israeli National Security Challenges

David Kris
Tuesday, August 9, 2016, 1:50 PM

As an American lawyer traveling in the Middle East, at the border between Israel and the West Bank, I can’t help but focus on the big, red sign that says, “This Road leads to Area ‘A’ Under The Palestinian Authority. The Entrance for Israeli Citizens is Forbidden, Dangerous To Your Lives And is Against The Israeli Law.”

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As an American lawyer traveling in the Middle East, at the border between Israel and the West Bank, I can’t help but focus on the big, red sign that says, “This Road leads to Area ‘A’ Under The Palestinian Authority. The Entrance for Israeli Citizens is Forbidden, Dangerous To Your Lives And is Against The Israeli Law.”

We are on our way to Ramallah, to visit with representatives of the Palestinian Authority (PA), accompanied by several Israeli citizens, including a retired general from Sayeret Matkal, the Israeli special forces unit, and former officers from Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency. The security officers are alert, but do not seem especially tense. I ask one of them about the sign, and he shrugs. We move forward.

I was there at the border, along with my wife, Jody, as part of an eight-day conference sponsored by Academic Exchange (AE) and the Yitzhak Rabin Center. In addition to meeting with Palestinians in Ramallah, our visit included discussions with senior officials in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Office of the Attorney General, diplomats, peace negotiators, and academics. We met also with advisors to the Israeli National Security Council, a justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, and noted experts in international law. In addition to Ramallah, we visited Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Lebanon border, the Gaza border, the Golan Heights, and Rawabi, traveling on foot, by car, bus, and helicopter. It felt like a semester-long university course compressed into a little more than a week, complete with high-powered guest speakers, daily field trips, and discussions over dinner and drinks lasting late into the night.

The AE conference was superbly designed and executed, and I am grateful for the experience. Apart from our guides, there were around 15 of us on the trip, mostly from the U.S. (two from Western Europe). Almost everyone in the group had some academic affiliation, including several who were full-time professors. Most of the group also had some former U.S. government service, and several were plausible candidates for at least one more tour of duty in the future. According to its website, “The goal of Academic Exchange (AE) is to deepen understanding of Israel within the international academic community.”

For me, that goal was easily met: I embarked on the trip quite ignorant, having been exposed to the conflict and other regional issues only a little while I was in government, and otherwise chiefly by inconstant perusal of mainstream news reports. I returned with an appreciation for the complexity of the challenges there, admiration and empathy for my Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors, and gratitude for the relative peace of life in the United States. I returned also with a desire to reflect, in a public writing, on the experience – an unaccustomed sensation, because my usual public writing style is, to put it charitably, highly technical, heavily footnoted, and wholly impersonal. This short paper, written upon my return, begins with a review of Israel’s geography, then addresses the Palestinian perspective, the challenge of Israel as a “Jewish-Democratic” state, the puzzle of Jerusalem, and closes with some observations on Israeli national security culture.

I expect this paper will be of greater interest to novices rather than to experts in the field, so I have included hyperlinks for those who want more information about particular topics. I have used only Wikipedia and official sites of entities to which I specifically refer (and, in two instances, CNN reports of recent shootings), without systematically reviewing (let alone endorsing) the linked material, and without any conscious intent through the choice of links to influence anyone on any seriously disputed question. All of the photos used here were taken by me or my wife.

A map of Israel, by OCHA, CC BY 3.0,


To understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or almost anything else of significance in the region, you need to get the lay of the land. To an observer from the United States, one of the most striking things about Israel, and the Middle East in general, is how small it is.

Depending on exactly what you count, Israel is roughly the size of New Jersey, with salt water on one side, and with around the same population: 8.5 million. (I found it easier to visualize the geography with this clever website that lets you click and drag countries and states from around the world and superimpose them on other parts of the map.)

Israel also has a very narrow neck, less than 10 miles wide between the Mediterranean Sea and the West Bank at one key point. From a helicopter, you can take in the water and the security barrier in one glance. As for the security barrier separating Israel from the West Bank, all of the Israelis we met referred to it as a “fence-not-a-wall,” and all of the Palestinians we met referred to it as a “wall-not-a-fence.” It’s a fence in some places and a wall in others. Most of it is a fence, but the parts that are a wall are mostly in more populated areas.

Part of the West Bank security barrier

Part of the West Bank Security Barrier

In the north, you can stand in an Israeli neighborhood park and look up at the yellow Hezbollah flag on the hilltop just over the border with Lebanon.

Hezbollah Flag on the Israel-Lebanon border

While we were there, patrolling IDF soldiers sat down at the adjacent picnic table, some with their backs to the flag, and unwrapped sandwiches for lunch. Israel has had soldiers in and out of Lebanon several times, with the last major conflict occurring in 2006 (referred to in Israel as the “Second Lebanon War,” the first one having occurred in 1982). But Israel doesn’t seem to expect much action there in the immediate future, because many Hezbollah fighters have been diverted to the Syrian civil war. On the other hand, we were pointedly told by our guide (a major in the IDF intelligence reserves), Hezbollah’s many missiles and rockets remain hidden in civilian neighborhoods throughout Lebanon’s south (U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in 2010 that “Hezbollah has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world.”)

The Israel-Lebanon border is marked with a green sign, attached to a fence with military-style camouflage netting, that has Hebrew, English, and Arabic writing. I can’t vouch for the other two languages, but the English says: “NO ENTRY. CLOSED MILITARY AREA!!!” I am aware of no official U.S. government warning signs of any sort that end with three exclamation points.

In the northeast of Israel lie the Golan Heights, an elevated area of around 500 square miles, landlocked between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. Israel seized the Golan from Syria in what Israelis refer to as the Six-Day War in 1967, the country’s greatest military victory, when future Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was the IDF’s chief of staff. But Syria nearly recaptured the Golan in what Israelis call the Yom Kippur War in 1973, which ended favorably for Israel but nonetheless caused the resignation of the country’s first (and so far, only) female Prime Minister, Golda Meir. I was told, and Wikipedia confirms, that the Israelis recruited Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser’s son-in-law as a spy, that he warned the Mossad (Israel’s foreign intelligence service) that the attack was coming, but that Meir ignored the warning.

Israel effectively annexed the Golan in 1981, where much of the local population is Druze – a religion whose adherents, we were told, form minority communities in several Middle Eastern countries, and who as a survival trait generally try to get along with the government of whatever country they find themselves in, a potentially challenging task. The annexation stands in contrast to Israel’s “mere” occupation of the West Bank, and seems to reflect an intent to remain indefinitely. Many Israelis told me how glad they were to control the Heights, which allows them to look down into Syria, rather than having the Syrian civil war play out in an area that looks down into Israel. There is a large, bright yellow sign at the Israel-Syrian Border: “MORTAL DANGER – MILITARY ZONE. ANY PERSON WHO PASSES OF [SIC] DAMAGES THIS FENCE ENDANGERS HIS LIFE.” In my informal reckoning of Israeli border-signs, this one is unsurpassed, despite the typographical error.

The Golan Heights certainly do offer a strategic advantage, but they also serve as a reminder of how close things get in this neighborhood: Standing on a plateau with a commanding view of Syria, I heard explosions, and imagined opposition and government forces exchanging mortar fire, or perhaps attacks being carried out by Jabat al Nusra (al Qaeda’s local affiliate). Our guide assured me that because the explosions came from a mile or so to our left, they were only IDF training exercises. That was a relief, but a directional marker topped by an Israeli flag and overwatched by the silhouette of a kneeling sniper reminds me that Damascus is just 60 kilometers (37 miles) away.

Looking down into Syria from the Golan Heights

Israel’s western border is the Mediterranean Sea, where its main commercial city, Tel Aviv, is located. Tel Aviv has a cosmopolitan, free, exciting atmosphere. Parts of it remind me a little of Miami, and its beach and boardwalk remind me of Santa Monica, albeit with a more international flavor. There are lots of young, fit, good-looking people playing volleyball or working out. An early morning jog took me past fishermen, runners, walkers, bikers, and a couple of middle-aged women performing Tai Chi in bright pink traditional Chinese clothing.

I also witnessed a few unfortunate souls still rubbing their temples, or sitting head-between-knees on park benches, evidently trying to recover from last night’s excesses. The U.S. embassy there has almost no security perimeter; it’s far more exposed, say, than the U.S. embassies in London or Paris. The city feels very relaxed, and I felt surprisingly safe and secure.

Shortly after we returned home, however, four people were killed by gunmen in a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market neighborhood. Then again, less than a week after that, 49 people were killed in Orlando, Florida by a gunman claiming affiliation with ISIL.

In Israel’s south, there is the 130-mile border with Egypt and access to a tiny corner of the Red Sea. Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt following the Camp David Accords in 1979, and readers of a certain age may remember photos of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and U.S. President Jimmy Carter smiling and shaking hands. The peace with Egypt has held despite Sadat’s assassination in 1981 by Islamic extremists, the fall in 2011’s “Arab Spring” of his successor, President Hosni Mubarak (who had ruled for the intervening 30 years), brief rule by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the takeover in 2014 by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Israel’s other major regional peace treaty is with Jordan, its neighbor to the east, signed in 1994 by King Hussein and Prime Minister Rabin. At Rabin’s funeral in 1995 – he was killed by an Israeli right-wing extremist who opposed the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO – King Hussein referred to him as “a brother, a colleague and a friend.

Tucked into the southwest near Egypt, a kind of notch cut from the bottom-left corner of Israel, is a little stretch of Mediterranean coastline known as the Gaza Strip. Since 2006, when Hamas won the elections in Gaza, it has governed in the strip. Gaza is around 141 square miles in area, roughly the same size as the City of Seattle, but it contains around three times as many inhabitants, nearly 1.9 million Palestinians. By all accounts, Israeli and Palestinian alike, they live in squalor. A UN report issued in 2015 said that the “social, health and security-related ramifications of the high population density and overcrowding are among the factors that may render Gaza unliveable by 2020, if present trends continue.” Most of the Israelis I encountered would agree in part or in whole with this dire prediction. When you stand on the Israeli side of the security barrier, looking into Gaza, it feels like you can hear the bomb ticking. We met one woman who lives in an Israeli neighborhood within sight of Gaza. She is a potter, and she invites us to stick small bits of colored ceramic on the barrier to make it less ugly. Most of us do it, but the ceramics make a pretty thinveneer on the thick, concrete slabs.

At the threshold to the potter’s studio, we saw (as we were meant to) pieces of Hamas rockets launched at the neighborhood in the 2014 conflict. We were told that rocket fire destroyed a neighbor’s house and killed one of the occupants.

Israel took Gaza from Egypt in the Six-Day War in 1967, and withdrew its settlers and permanent ground forces in 2005 (a process referred to as “disengagement”), but maintains control of access to Gaza by sea and air. Today, Israel has just one functioning land border-crossing checkpoint with Gaza. We were told that Egypt has basically closed its border with Gaza, and has flooded smuggling tunnels with seawater. This works, but it also makes the nearby land non-arable, and can trigger sinkholes and other damage. Hamas’s website calls on Egypt to re-open the border, but that doesn’t seem likely any time soon, because Egypt’s military leaders fear the connection between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and (at least as reported in the New York Times) have accused Hamas of training Muslim Brotherhood operatives who killed Egyptian officials.

The Gaza-Israeli border crossing, called Kerem Shalom, is managed by an energetic man, who was a Gaza settler before the 2005 disengagement. He says he had good relations with his neighbors there; he also says he still sometimes dreams in Arabic. He carries a pistol, describes being wounded a couple times in past action, and has a sunburn from spending so much time outside with his staff – definitely a hands-on guy, leading from the front. He shows us fragments of Hamas rockets that exploded in and around the checkpoint during the 2014 conflict.

Kerem Shalom is an impressively large and complex operation, not least because trucks apparently don’t travel through it. (Benjamin Wittes and Matthew Waxman wrote a long piece about the Kerem Shalom operation a couple of years ago.) Instead, cargo is transferred on forklifts between Israeli and Palestinian vehicles inside the crossing point itself. It is, in this respect and others (including some of its personnel practices), a much more complex arrangement than what I recall from touring the U.S-Mexico border around 2010. Among the concerns underlying these practices is profound fear of hostage-taking: IDF soldier Gilead Shalit, captured near Kerem Shalom in 2005, was held for five years somewhere in Gaza until exchanged in 2011. It’s terrible when people are killed, we were told, but kidnappings can create a long, excruciating national ordeal.

I ask whether there was any problem with border-crossing outside the checkpoint – i.e., the smuggling of persons or cargo over land. The answer seems to be basically no: There is a security barrier, and lots of monitoring, apparently including live video, and the border is small enough (less than 50 miles in total) that it’s feasible to have someone always watching the TV screens. (There follows a brief discussion of Donald Trump’s proposal for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, which is around 2000 miles long; the Israeli reaction to this is probably best described as puzzlement.) On the other hand, Israelis are very concerned with the possibility of attacks from tunnels originating in Gaza. The tunnels are more of a strategic military asset to be held in reserve by Hamas until needed, not a transportation or smuggling system for routine use.


Although Hamas controls Gaza, a different Palestinian political party, Fatah, controls the government in the other major area of Palestinian population, the West Bank of the Jordan River. The two parties are not reconciled. Fatah is led by President Mahmoud Abbas, age 80, who is described by some smiling Israelis as being in the 11th year of his first five-year term. He’s a relative moderate, and is perceived by the Israelis I encountered as being genuinely committed to non-violence. The two big fears we kept hearing concern what happens after he dies or leaves office. Who will succeed him? I get no consensus on this question from either Israelis or Palestinians. Also, one of our Palestinian teachers told us that Abbas has used emergency powers to enact laws without proper parliamentary approval; these laws apparently remain in effect until the next session of parliament, at which point they must be adopted or rejected. What will happen then?

The West Bank is divided under the Oslo Accords into three main areas, A, B and C, with differing levels of Palestinian and Israeli civil and security control. Area A, where we went on our visit to Ramallah, is supposed to be fully under Palestinian control for both civil administration and security, though the Palestinians complain that the IDF nonetheless enters at will. We drive past the ominous red sign and park our bus, and we are met by a Palestinian protocol officer who drives us in a minivan to PA headquarters in downtown Ramallah. The Israeli Right apparently likes to assert that Ramallah has a lot of wealth, and that the Palestinians are overstating their poverty and misery. On the drive in, I saw what looks like a decidedly lower standard of living than I saw in Israel. On the other hand, you get to the PA meeting rooms by walking past a Range Rover showroom, and the paper we were provided for note-taking was from the Movenpick Hotel, part of a Swiss chain. (I was curious how the hotel stationery would list the address. Turns out it’s not that exciting: “Movenpick Hotel Ramallah, Almasyoun, Ramallah, P.O. Box 1771, West Bank, Palestine.”)

We take our seats in a basement conference room to receive the Palestinian Authority’s foundational argument. It is forcefully but politely delivered; like the Israelis, our Palestinian interlocutors have done this before. It consists of seven main points.

First, Palestinians harbor a profound skepticism about Israel’s stated commitment to a two-state solution – i.e., creating a Palestinian State alongside Israel itself – in part because, it seems, many Israeli government officials currently reside in the West Bank. The West Bank Israeli settlements are indeed expanding, and the Palestinians therefore believe that time is not on their side. We hear an analogy about a piece of cheese and two mice, one of whom is restrained, and the other of whom is at liberty and nibbling away at the cheese while they negotiate over who gets the ever-smaller uneaten portion. There are a lot of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and they have political power in Israel.

The Palestinians say they want the pre-1967 borders (UN Resolutions have called for both Israeli and Palestinian states) but we are also told informally that there is more flexibility than this, and that tit-for-tat land swaps to accommodate the ground-truth of current demographics (Israeli settlement blocs) may be possible. Such swaps have been discussed before, including in 2007 by Abbas and former Prime Minister Olmert in Annapolis, Maryland. On the other hand, some of our Israeli interlocutors believe that the Palestinians (even those in Fatah) are committed to the outright elimination of Israel.

Second, the Palestinian argument rejects the idea of making peace with the “Jewish State of Israel,” preferring simply “Israel.” By insisting on references to the “Jewish State,” the Palestinians argue, Israel must have in mind fewer rights and less power for non-Jewish residents. Arabs (largely Palestinian Arabs) already make up 20 percent of Israel’s population. Perhaps most importantly, referring to the “Jewish State of Israel” seems to the Palestinians like an acceptance of what they refer to as the Israeli “narrative,” under which the Jews held the land historically, and the Arabs trespassed for a few thousand years before things began moving in the right direction in 1948. So, they say, they will recognize Israel, but not Israel as a Jewish State.

This may strike outsiders as formalistic, but we hear over and over again, from Israelis and Palestinians alike, about the importance of narrative. There is, of course, a way in which narrative facts affect legal outcomes, including the definition of “occupied” under the Fourth Geneva Convention (GCIV) – if the territories are technically “occupied” by Israel, then even some Israeli experts think that GCIV forbids the settlements. But the issue of narrative is much deeper than any technical legal argument, and appears to be one of the most unyielding challenges in the peace process. Both sides in this conflict feel like victims, like oppressed minorities, and while Israel is clearly the stronger party now, its lens is set to wide-angle, embracing centuries of often murderous mistreatment (including, of course, the Holocaust). The Palestinians, on the other hand, focus on more recent times, and their mistreatment at the hands of the Israelis. The Jews have their national safe-haven, they say, why can’t we have ours? That is compelling. But the emphasis on competing narratives and assignment of blame goes beyond that, and reduces quickly to a zero-sum game, in which success may be measured only by the other side’s failure, gain only by the other side’s loss. An Israeli negotiator describes a statement he attributes to one of his Palestinian counterparts, which of course we can’t verify but which captures the essential point regardless of who said it to whom: “We don’t mind going blind if we can make you one-eyed.”

Third, while at least formally acknowledging Israel’s right to self-defense, the Palestinians say it should not extend to the occupied territories. Palestinians need to defend themselves in these territories and to maintain their national dignity and right of self-determination. The Israeli blockade of Gaza, and incursions into the West Bank, are inconsistent with that. We were told that the international community is increasingly recognizing the right of Palestinians to peaceful, non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem (about which, more below). The Israelis focus on violent cross-border attacks in Israel originating in Palestinian territory. To them, Hamas commits war crimes by intentionally embedding military equipment and personnel, including rockets, in residential neighborhoods, striking Israeli civilian targets, and hoping that Israeli counter-strikes will generate compelling images of Palestinian civilian casualties.

The Israelis seem to understand intellectually the point about Palestinian national dignity, but they either can’t for security reasons, or don’t want to, accept its full implications. Israel is politically, technologically, and militarily advanced. It won the wars in 1948 and 1967 and avoided defeat in 1973. It has a very powerful military. But it has had difficulty dealing with asymmetric warfare – the first, second, and (arguably) third intifadas and the 2014 rocket barrage have made it particularly anxious about cross-border attacks originating in Palestine. More than one Israeli asked me what the U.S. would do if it were faced with repeated rocket strikes on California or Texas that originated in Tijuana or Juarez, Mexico.

More broadly, our Israeli teachers seemed genuinely puzzled by the number of nearby failed or failing Arab states: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, are all pretty much disasters of one sort or another, and Lebanon is said to be paralyzed. We were told that Israel’s early leaders expected that surrounding Arab countries, founded on linguistic and national principles, would modernize, become Soviet clients, develop large armies, and eventually invade (and so, the story goes, Israel was justified in developing nuclear weapons). Leading sociologists of religion in the 19th and 20th Centuries – Marx, Durkheim, Weber – predicted that national identities would eventually prevail over religious ones.

In the event, however, the Arab Spring and its aftermath exposed the lack of political freedom, economic opportunity, and gender equality that pervades the region, and facilitated the rise of religious and tribal identities to eclipse national ones. We hear some very, very scary statistics about drought, limited economic opportunity, resulting inability to marry, and mounting frustration for young Arabs who may, as a result, be more open to extremism and violence.

So the challenge for Israel now is the weakness, not the strength, of these Arab states: Whom do you talk to if you want to negotiate with your neighbor, Syria? What do you do about the fact that Hamas rules in Gaza while Fatah controls the West Bank? (For what it’s worth, Fatah representatives told us that Israel should make a deal with Fatah and that Hamas will go along.)

The peace process also seems more complicated in part because the larger geopolitical kaleidoscope is twisting fast, raising once-unthinkable questions like whether Israel will someday find itself allied with the Sunni Arab states in an effort to resist the Shia in Iran and elsewhere. The old, reliable Cold-War alliances of Israel-U.S. and Arab-Soviet are also giving way: While we were in the country, Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced that Prime Minister Netanyahu would be making another visit to Moscow to meet with President Putin.

Fourth, the Palestinians want international involvement in peace talks, and they seem to favor (which Israel does not) international talks hosted during our visit by the French (neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians participated in those talks). They are the weaker party on the ground, and they say they need the benefit of third parties and international law to even the scales. There is speculation, by Israelis and Palestinians alike, about whether the U.S. will abstain (rather than veto) in the UN Security Council if some kind of pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli resolution is presented between November and January. The feeling is that President Obama dislikes Prime Minister Netanyahu sufficiently, in part because of the latter’s speech to the U.S. Congress in March 2015 on the Iran nuclear deal (available on You Tube), that he may bestow the abstention as a parting shot. I was really struck by how little regard there seems to be for the Obama Administration among both sides of the conflict; Palestinians and Israelis alike seem to view it as untalented, feckless and disengaged, at least during the last few years.

Fifth, the Palestinians also support the so-called BDS movement (boycott, divestment, sanctions) against Israel. They cite as precedents current or historical U.S. sanctions against Iran, Cuba, and Russia. Just as Iraq occupied Kuwait before the first U.S. Gulf War, so Israel occupies Palestine, they say. The fallback position seems to be BDS for the settlements only, and that the U.S. and other countries should deny visa waiver benefits to Israelis who live in the occupied territories (as opposed to Israel proper).

Sixth, the Palestinians say that the Arab Peace Initiative has been on the table for 14 years, and that Israel has not properly responded. According to the Times of Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu in May 2015 said in a press briefing that the “general idea” of the initiative is good, but that the “initiative is 13 years old, and the situation in the Middle East has changed since it was first proposed.”

Seventh and finally, there is the broader argument that it’s simply not possible to be rich and secure in Tel Aviv but poor and insecure in Ramallah. The lack of equal protection in the occupied territories, and things like separate roads for Israelis, are cited as the beginning of an explicit apartheid system, and it is strongly implied that without action soon, the clock is winding down to a big, violent confrontation.


In its initial rendition, this Palestinian seven-part argument is a bit of a set-piece, but there is undoubtedly something to it, and many Israelis I encounter make remarkably similar points, albeit using slightly different vocabulary. They know that the settlements threaten the two-state solution that is still the government’s official policy (although they differ on whether the two-state solution is worth seriously pursuing, at least for now).

And while it’s easy to dismiss the Palestinians’ formal concern about signing a treaty with the “Jewish State of Israel,” a core struggle for Israelis is what it means to be a “Jewish-Democratic” state. As many Israelis told me, their country makes sense to them only as a place of safety for the Jewish People, a national refuge from some very bad treatment going back a very long time. The country has around 8.5 million inhabitants, of whom around 75 percent are Jewish (around 20 percent are Arab, largely Palestinian Arabs, and the remainder is a mix of others). If Jews are going to be a minority in the country, some of them say, it would be better just to live in America. One speaker observes that Israeli Jews are the majority in their country but act and feel like a minority, while American Jews are a minority but act and feel like they are an integrated part of the hegemon.

But if Israel is Jewish, is there still a democratic commitment to freedom of religion and religious tolerance? There is a wide range of Jewish religious practice on display in Israel, from the ultra-orthodox to the relatively secular, but of course, there’s no doubt that the Jewish religious tradition is dominant in the state – beginning with the Star of David on the flag. Religion aside, if the key is Jewish ethnicity, what is the status of non-Jewish inhabitants, the Arab Israelis? When I ask about this issue in the context of Israeli schools, the answer highlights an important difference from the U.S. experience and perspective: Center and Left Israelis, I am told, generally believe in ethnic tolerance and diversity, but neither they nor the Arab minority wants a real melting pot. Instead, they support multiculturalism in the strong sense. When it comes to schools, for example, the preferred approach is separate-but-equal (there are some integrated schools, to be sure, but I am told that almost everyone prefers independence). In a speech given at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session in October 2015, Prime Minister Netanyahu appealed to Israeli Arabs to choose “coexistence.”

Without a Palestinian State, demographic trends (Israeli Arabs are reproducing faster than all non-orthodox Israeli Jews) and the added Arab population of the West Bank could make Jews a minority at some point in the not-too-distant future. The response to that will require compromise either of the Jewish or the democratic element of the Jewish-Democratic state. The Israelis I met do not want, and do not think they could survive international scrutiny if they adopt, a full-blown apartheid system designed to restrain the political and cultural power of that portion of an emergent Arab majority that lacks Israeli citizenship. I think the tension inherent in a Jewish-Democratic state without a two-state solution is one of those big, grinding, inexorable problems that will eventually overwhelm any efforts to defer, deflect, check, or avoid it. The clock does indeed seem to be winding down.


All this is most acutely felt in the context of Jerusalem, the eastern portion of which Israel seized in the Six-Day War in 1967, our home base for the second half of the conference. Our archeological guide told us that Jerusalem cannot be explained by any of the traditional criteria that characterize cities: It has inadequate water, almost no natural resources, and is not on high ground. That’s the first of many puzzles Jerusalem presents. During our visit, Jody was reading the city’s namesake book by Simon Montefiore, and she told me that the place is regularly overrun by one ethnic or religious group or another, which tends to destroy the other groups’ religious buildings and construct its own on top of them. The book is filled with colorful names and characters like “Fulk the Repulsive,” “Selim the Grim,” and “Zangi the Sanguine” (so named not because of his optimism), and is an impressive scholarly chronicle. Ultimately, however, she found the book a bit frustrating because, at more than 500 pages of text, it starts to feel like just one horrible massacre and desecration after another. We discussed briefly whether that’s a feature or a bug in the narrative.

Either way, Jerusalem packs a lot of religious significance into a very small space. Within a stone’s throw of each other you have the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They are profoundly significant places to religious Jews, Muslims and Christians. It’s tense in Jerusalem, much more so than in Tel Aviv. The Palestinians want their capital to be in East Jerusalem, but that doesn’t seem likely in the short run, and we were told that peace negotiators have tended to defer the problem of Jerusalem, kicking the can down the road so they can resolve the relatively “easy” issues of Gaza and the West Bank first.

While in Jerusalem, we stayed at the King David Hotel—the only hotel I will likely ever stay in that was once blown up on orders of a man who later became the Prime Minister of the country in whose capital it sits. The King David is where all the Presidents, Prime Ministers and other senior government officials (as well as rock stars, movie stars, and assorted glitterati) reside when they’re in town. There is a fascinating program that runs in a loop on the hotel TV about the history of the hotel; it includes a funny story told by one of the housekeeping staff about how, after Secretary of State James Baker’s room had been swept for listening devices by U.S. agents, a section of the ceiling caved in. The staff, who offered to clean it up, were told emphatically to stay out, and that Mr. Baker would be pleased to sleep among the scattered plaster crumbs. It’s a funny story, not least because part of me suspects that the Mossad triggered the cave-in and the maid worked for Unit 8200!

At one point on the trip, I considered whether I would be a lawful surveillance target if the Israelis had adopted the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a topic on which Ben Wittes and Susan Hennessey recently wrote in a different context. I concluded that I would not be a lawful target under FISA, because I am not someone who “acts in [Israel] as an officer or employee of a foreign power [the United States]” under 50 U.S.C. § 1801(b)(1)(A). During a briefing by otherwise voluble senior legal officials from the Attorney General’s Office and the IDF, I ask if they could comment on Israel’s rules governing electronic surveillance. I was prepared to offer them in exchange a summary from my book on U.S. law on the subject. It was literally the only time on the whole trip that any substantive question was answered with the single word, “No.” But my sense from some former Shin Bet officers is that the Israeli Supreme Court reviews at least some of the electronic surveillance inside Israel. We’re told by a Justice about the court’s relatively broad jurisdiction over government actions, including a famous decision in which it ordered relocation of a portion of the West Bank security barrier. I will need to look further into Israeli surveillance law, and in particular to review more carefully Chapter 6 of Global Intelligence Oversight, although I doubt I will ever really get to the bottom of things.


Unlike Israeli surveillance law, Israeli national-security culture in general is easily accessible, and my limited exposure highlights three differences from its American counterpart. First, there is a real openness to the psychological impact of violence and fear, whether imposed on or by Israel, and a relative lack of stoic machismo. During the visit, we take a tour of Yad Veshem, the Israeli Holocaust museum. One of our guides, retired General Dov “Fufi” Sedaka from the Israeli Sayeret Matkal special forces unit, did not join us on the tour, explaining that he had been there many times, and still can’t make it all the way through without breaking down. Fufi is one of the warmest, most empathic, emotionally sensitive commandos that I’ve ever met. He told me about some of his military activities, which led to a long, interesting conversation about not hating your enemy. I think he believes that hatred clouds your judgment and corrodes your soul. He did not strike me as any kind of hater – quite the opposite – although he is a fighter, and readily acknowledged killing other men in battle.

Over the course of our discussions, Fufi repeatedly referred to the “trauma” of conflict and violence, particularly in connection with the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He told me about the day it started, in which he was happily at synagogue, saw Israeli soldiers running by outside, stepped out to ask them what was happening, was told that a war was about to begin, immediately reported for duty, quickly deployed north, and helped provide reconnaissance and infantry support for Israeli armored units that had, by then, already lost the vast majority of their tanks. In the end, Israel largely prevailed in the conflict, but Fufi is still troubled by it, and the implications had Israel lost. Fufi was later the military governor of Gaza and the West Bank, and he is also clearly troubled by the difficult conditions and trauma facing the Palestinians. I get the same sense, in one way or another, from many of the Israelis I meet on this trip, and I don’t think it’s just lip service or posturing for the American visitor.

The other two cultural features I specially note are directness and informality – we were told that enlisted personnel in the IDF routinely refer to generals by their first names; I see very few men wearing ties; and everywhere there are photos or sculptures of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s George Washington, wearing a swimsuit and doing a headstand on the beach, his two wings of white hair partly buried in the sand.

I should say that one other big difference, related to the other three, is that virtually all young Israeli women and men serve two or three years in the IDF (typically before attending university). The galvanizing effect of this is difficult to overstate. Fufi tells me that one of the first things when two Israelis meet is often an exchange of service histories. I need to look into current and historical proposals for mandatory national service in America, which because of our size and other factors would obviously need to be different from the Israeli approach. But even with those caveats, if it were supported fully by a committed President, my visit to Israel makes me think that a program of national service might take hold, and could be a massive game-changer for our country.

I also can’t help but make a comparison to U.S. political discourse. The Israelis have a rich, complex, messy kind of democracy that I find recognizable. But the relative psychological openness, directness and informality of Israelis still come through to me as differences. For example, our Israeli speakers all have a point of view on the contentious issues we discuss; more than that, the issues are typically quite personal to them. They don’t hide either their point of view or their personal stake. But they do all tend to acknowledge roughly the same facts, and many of the same facts as our Palestinian teachers (who, unlike their Israeli counterparts, do seem to wear ties).

I may be leaning on the wheel a little here, striving for a tidy explanation, but I think there is some connection between these differences and the relative geographical proximity and level of local violence in the Middle East. In the U.S., there’s enough room for everyone to have their own facts, and their own torqued arguments, and our wars are far enough away that we can avert our gaze when necessary. We certainly don’t like admitting to the individual and collective trauma that results from those wars (for Americans, Afghans, Iraqis or others). This poses a lot of challenges. Which is not to say that the Israeli approach is necessarily more effective; the results of peace negotiations speak for themselves. But I make a note to look into whether anyone has done any good trans-national comparative social or political science on the topic.

* * *

In the first days at home in Seattle, breathing the cool air of America’s Pacific Northwest and appreciating our good relations with nearby Canada, a glimmer of this unfamiliar writing, a personal reflection made public, begins to call for my attention. Typing its last sentence, I think it may be a kind of obeisance to the important nature of the discourse and challenges from which I’ve just returned.

David Kris is a founder of Culper Partners, with more than 30 years of experience in the private sector, government, and academia. He has been a corporate director, general counsel, deputy general counsel, and chief compliance officer; assistant attorney general for national security, associate deputy attorney general, and a trial attorney at the Justice Department. He serves on advisory boards for several government agencies and as a FISA Court amicus curiae. He is the author or co-author of several works on national security and teaches national security law. He is a member of the board of directors of Lawfare.

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