Perceptions on War and Defeat

Embracing Delusions: Lessons for the Olmert Government

There is an old adage to the effect that if your only tool is a hammer; every problem looks like a nail. That is, in geo-political terms, catastrophes are not caused because of insufficient information; they are caused because of incorrect analyses. Governments and armies must forever be concerned to avoid the element of surprise, yet history is replete with their failures to do so. In a chilling premonition of what was to come, Ambassador Richard Parker wrote just days before the 9/11 tragedies: “We must never become victims of our own myths and see our opponents through a distorting, ethnocentric lens. We would do better…if we educated our policymakers and military leaders more thoroughly to be wary of simple answers and to be more alert to the diverse character of the world’s peoples and the…complexities of their problems.” 1 Ambassador Parker’s caution was clear – if leaders become victims of their own delusions (and act upon those delusions – or fail to act because of them), they expose their nations to catastrophe. These delusions represent more than simple errors in judgment. They are indicative of threat assessments based on erroneous paradigms – sets of beliefs, perceptions or frameworks within which critical facts are considered (or not considered) and upon which risk or threat assessments are based. The ruling security paradigm propels everything from developing needs assessments, to how to position armies for battle, to decisions on whether to create an integrated intelligence infrastructure to deal with perceived threats. If the security paradigm is wrong, if its assumptions are incorrect, so to are the threat assessments, the rules, the regulations and the procedures that are based upon it.

In the case of 9/11, the ruling security paradigm provided that the hijacking and intentional crashing of commercial passenger aircraft into buildings was highly improbable despite intelligence warnings suggesting otherwise. Besides (so the paradigm went), the oceans that historically separated America from its enemies and its “technological edge” have always (and would continue to) keep America safe – or so it concluded. Consequently, intelligence information pouring into America (especially from Israeli and German sources) in the years, months, weeks and even days prior to the disasters were recorded, noted and filed, but given a low priority. Terrorist watch lists were neither shared nor integrated. A culture of secrecy prevailed within the intelligence community. In several cases, FBI field agents who presented documented concerns about suspected terrorists (in Minneapolis and Phoenix in particular) were ignored and, some were even reprimanded for wasting time and pursuing false leads. Even the laws governing the exchange of criminal and intelligence information between the FBI and the CIA inhibited the ability of the American security and intelligence community to conduct proper threat assessments. Prior to the tragedies of 9/11, the American security and intelligence communities had become captives to an erroneous security paradigm – a fundamentally flawed security and intelligence framework that prevented them from making proper risk assessments of the danger posed by extremist Islam to America and American interests abroad. And because the assessed risk was determined to be a low priority based on the paradigm, it was not significant enough to expend the necessary human and financial capital to deal with it.

The 20th century is replete with such errors including the failure of Stalin to anticipate Operation Barbarossa (the Nazi invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941) despite 84 warnings of a pending invasion from his generals in the field, because, as he stated, he had “shaken hands with the man (Adolf Hitler)”; the failure of American intelligence to anticipate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 despite a wealth of information suggesting that such an attack was imminent 2; the exceptionally high murder rate of Dutch Jewry during the Holocaust (102,000 of 140,000 Dutch Jews perished) due to the failure of Dutch Jewish leaders to recognize the extent of the threat posed by Nazi Germany 3; the American “blind spot” when it came to understanding the concept of martyrdom in Arab Muslim culture that showed itself on October 23, 1983 when a truck laden with the equivalent of more than 12,000 pounds of TNT crashed into the Marine headquarters building at Beirut International Airport, killing 241 US military personnel as they slept – this despite prior suicide bombings on its Beirut Embassy and numerous warnings that another major suicide attack was being planned against American targets 4; and the almost universal misreading by international intelligence agencies of Saddam Hussein’s true and stated intentions and actions toward Kuwait in 1990.

These erroneous security and intelligence paradigms have especially taken their toll on Israel. In 1973, Israel knew that it would eventually come into conflict with Egypt and Syria, yet despite all the evidence on the ground in early October of that year, Israeli military intelligence steadfastly refused to believe that that day had actually come. According to a report published in Yediot Aharonot, over 1,500 warnings of the military buildup reached Israeli intelligence before October 1973. The progressive steps of preparation for war, the early warning indicators were thoroughly reported, but not acted upon. That is because prior to the Yom Kippur War, Israeli military intelligence operated on the false security paradigm that the Arabs would never start a war they knew they could not win. Stubborn adherence to this concept assumed that Egypt would not go to war against Israel unless and until it was able to destroy Israel’s major military airfields in order to paralyze her air force and Syria would not launch a major offensive against Israel except simultaneously with Egypt. While Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Chief of Staff David Elazar and Mossad Chief Zvi Zamir were convinced that war was imminent and advised Prime Minister Golda Meir accordingly, Military Intelligence Chief Eli Zeira, relying upon his own “concept” of Arab intentions, disagreed. Zeira refused to draw the proper conclusions from “the facts on the ground” that indicated war was imminent. Even when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat ordered crossing equipment and tanks to the Suez Canal, Zeira and his staff continued to believe that Sadat was just bluffing – that it was all part of Egyptian military exercises designed to intimidate the Jewish state. As late as October 3rd, Zeira continued to insist that the prospect of war remained unlikely. Officers in the field who sent in reports of enemy buildups along the Suez Canal and the Golan Heights in the weeks and days prior to the commencement of hostilities were either rebuked or ignored. 5 Only too late did Zeira realize that he had made a terrible blunder. The surprise attacks across the Suez Canal and in the Golan Heights by Egyptian and Syrian forces in the early morning hours of October 6, 1973 almost led to the destruction of Israel.

The assumptions underlying the 1993 Oslo Accords were no different. The Accords were based upon Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s erroneous perception of Palestinian intentions. He assumed that the PLO was not hostile and could be a potential peace partner; that Israel could preserve security without the use of deterrent force; that Israel could end terror by “removing its root causes”; and that the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel could be solved through full and honest negotiation. Based upon this paradigm, Rabin was convinced that the true existential threat to Israel emanated not from the Palestinians, but from Iraq (under Saddam Hussein) and the ayatollahs in Iran. Rabin’s security paradigm told him that Arafat was desirous of making peace with Israel under the right circumstances. “The Palestinians are not our enemies,” he repeatedly told his Cabinet. He did not view the Palestinians as an existential threat as much as a “tactical problem” that could be resolved between “friends” provided that Israel was prepared to make “significant territorial concessions.” So he bankrolled the Palestinian Authority (PA), trained and armed the Palestinian police, rehabilitated his enemy from his Tunisian exile, believing all the while that he had laid the foundations for a lasting peace with his mortal foe. But his paradigm for peace with the Palestinians was a delusion that ultimately led to disaster. Even as Arafat returned triumphantly to Ramallah, he had already made his preparations for continuing his terror war against Israel. Despite repeated warnings from Israeli Military Intelligence officials that a “Lebanon-like situation” was developing in the territories, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told them – “You are destroying my peace.” 6 As early as September 8, 1993, five days before signing the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles (DOP), Arafat told an Israeli journalist who came to interview him in his Tunis headquarters: “In the future, Israel and Palestine will be one united state in which Israelis and Palestinians will live together” – that is, Israel would no longer exist. And even as he shook Yitzhak Rabin’s hand on the White House lawn under President Clinton’s outstretched hands, Arafat was assuring the Palestinians in a pre-recorded Arabic-language message broadcast by Jordanian radio that the DOP was merely one aspect of the PLO’s June 1974 “Strategy of Phases” (an approach supported to this day by his successor Mahmoud Abbas). That “Strategy” stipulated that the Palestinians should seize “whatever territory Israel was prepared or compelled to cede and use it as a springboard for further territorial gains until achieving the complete liberation of Palestine.” 7 In the end, more Israelis lost their lives in Palestinian terrorist attacks in the first three years following the Oslo Accords than in the previous decade, and it would become far worse as time went on.

The same delusions characterized the policy of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza during the summer of 2005 – a decision based upon his unshakable belief that Israel would be safer by disengaging from all contact with the Palestinians (an action that not only weakened Israel’s democratic institutions but propelled Hamas and Iran to power in Gaza); that he could win their hearts and minds and support Mahmoud Abbas’ stature among his own people by “jump-starting” the 2003 Roadmap to Peace – a plan predicated on the false assumption that the Palestinians are interested in peace with Israel and can be appeased into accepting statehood and Israel’s right to exist, by releasing hundreds of unrepentant Palestinian terrorists from prison (despite the experience of the May 20, 1985 Ahmed Jibril prisoner release where 114 of 238 terrorists released back into the West Bank and Gaza resumed their terrorist activities), 8 handing over West Bank towns to Palestinian security control, withdrawing from Gaza and dismantling Israeli military infrastructures in Gaza and the northern West Bank, supporting the incorporation of terrorists into the new Palestinian Security Services, and allowing the infusion of billions of dollars in foreign aid into the PA – funds that were known at the time to be used to support a culture of corruption, government malfeasance and terrorism. 9

Sharon’s belief in disengagement, like Rabin’s embrace of the Oslo Accords over a decade earlier, failed to correctly assess the risk involved, most notably, the numerous agreements violated by the PA since the Oslo Accords; the peace initiatives and ceasefires derailed by Palestinian terrorism; the recurring intelligence reports of increased terror-related activities throughout Gaza; prior knowledge that Mahmoud Abbas had been seeking large quantities of heavy weapons from more than twenty world governments in contravention of every international accord the Palestinians had signed with Israel and every pledge Abbas had made to the Bush administration and other world leaders to that date 10; the repeated warnings from Israeli military intelligence that Hamas was smuggling missiles, mortar shells, and Kassam rockets under the Philadelphi Corridor that connects Gaza with Egypt; Abbas’ declared intention to incorporate known terrorists into his new Palestinian Security Force; the long-term implications of Israel’s concession to stop pursuing Palestinian terrorists in Gaza and the West Bank (at that point in time) and allowing them to carry weapons in open violation of the Roadmap to Peace (which called for terrorists to be disarmed); Abbas’ declared insistence on demanding a “right of return” of Palestinians to Israel proper; his unwillingness or inability to dismantle the Palestinian terror infrastructure and implement law and order; the increasing control exercised by Iran’s Hezbollah operatives over many Palestinian terror cells, the decisive victory of Hamas over the PA in the January 2005 Gaza municipal elections; the rampant corruption throughout the Palestinian Authority; the “culture of death” that permeates all aspects of Palestinian society (two-thirds of Palestinians see terror as an effective weapon); the Palestinian perception that any withdrawal from Gaza would represent an Israeli retreat in the face of violence* and the speeches by Palestinian leaders to the effect that Gaza was merely the first stage in the phased destruction of “the Zionist enemy.”

Despite these danger signals, Sharon was determined to carry out his withdrawal while receiving nothing of substance in return from the Palestinians. In spite of the warnings from his intelligence and security chiefs that Gaza and the West Bank would explode in violence, and that Israeli cities would come under missile attack from terrorists based in the south and eventually the east, Sharon could not be dissuaded from his disengagement delusion, and he made clear that he would tolerate no dissent by sacking both his IDF Chief of Staff, Moshe Ya`alon and his Shin Bet Security Services Director Avi Dichter who fundamentally disagreed with his security paradigm. Both had warned Sharon that releasing hundreds of seasoned terrorists into the general Palestinian population would be an error of monumental proportions, and that a withdrawal from Gaza without first destroying the terrorist infrastructures there would sow the seeds of a second Lebanon and encourage even more deadly attacks on Israel after the terrorists were rearmed and reorganized – all of which has now come to pass. In the wake of the Knesset approval of the disengagement, Nabil Sha`ath (Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister) commented: “May this be only one step in the liberation of all of Palestine”, and Ahmed al-Bahar, a top Hamas leader in Gaza left no doubt that the Israeli withdrawal represented a major strategic victory for the Palestinians: “The painful and qualitative blows which the Palestinian resistance dealt to the Jews and their soldiers over the past four-and-a-half years led to the decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip,” he said. “The withdrawal marks the end of the Zionist dream and is a sign of the moral and psychological decline of the Jewish state.” As the former Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court (Moshe Landau) commented in 2000: “I believe that we face adversaries who are much cleverer than we are, adversaries who know that they have to proceed in stages. As far as they are concerned, things are entirely clear – they don’t want us here, but in the meantime, they are prepared to make do with whatever they can get at each stage that moves them closer to their ultimate objective.” 11

Emanuele Ottolenghi of Oxford University wrote recently: “In diplomacy no less than in war, deception works because those being deceived prefer to live within the deception rather than to acknowledge the sobering facts staring them in the face, and thereby to accept the frightening responsibility of having to act to address and reverse them.” 12 Given the nature of a society that places greater value on annihilating Israel than on building a modern Palestinian state; a society that extols the virtues of “martyrdom” to its own children, that hangs posters of “martyred heroes” in its restaurants and marketplaces, that preaches hatred of Jews and Israel in its schools, from its pulpits, through its media and throughout its culture, that urges the kidnapping of hostages for ransom, the use of women and children as human shields and stages exhibition killings to terrorize the enemy, it is difficult to believe that the appeasement-for-peace delusions of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in eliminating key security road blocks on the West Bank, discussing the deployment of an all-Arab peace-keeping force in Gaza knowing that such a force would inhibit Israel’s ability to respond aggressively to terrorist attacks emanating from Gaza, offering to return major strategic assets like Mt. Dov (Shebaa Farms) to Hezbollah (no doubt soon to be expanded to include the seven Shi’a villages that existed in the Galilee prior to 1948, and the large Palestinian refugee presence in Lebanon) and the Golan Heights to Syria and rehabilitating Syrian President Assad who, until now, has been regarded as an international pariah, increasing the credibility of Hamas by accepting a ceasefire knowing that the Islamist organization is merely buying time to enhance its military capabilities and strategic position in order to continue its war against Israel, offering unheard of unilateral concessions on Jerusalem, knowing that Mahmoud Abbas has no support among his people, no power to carry out any serious security agreements, and that any agreement Israel and the PA made would crumble a day later due to the PA’s weakness, and releasing terrorists like Samir Kuntar who have committed atrocities against Israelis in the past and who have pledged to do so again in future, not to mention upgrading the status of Hezbollah** and conveying the message to Israel’s enemies that it will pay any price for the return of its captured soldiers – dead or alive – one is left to wonder how many more delusions Israel’s leaders can afford to embrace before their nation is relegated to the dustbin of history.

*Prior to the announcement of the disengagement plan, 75% of the Palestinian public believed that the intifada had failed, but a few months after the planned withdrawal was announced, 74% agreed that the plan is “a victory for the armed struggle”. The initial poll results appeared in October 2003 in the official PA daily al-Hayat al-Jadida, while a later confirming poll was conducted in September 2004 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research directed by Khalil Shikaki.

**Such exchanges afford non-state terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas the same rights as lawful soldiers without requiring reciprocal obligations for captured Israeli soldiers. In dealing with Hezbollah and Hamas, Israel has downgraded the rights of its own captured soldiers by overlooking the terrorist organizations’ systematic depravation of POW rights for Israeli soldiers under the Geneva Conventions – specifically adequate facilities, care and communication with the outside world. (Justus Reid Weiner and Diane Morrison, “Hezbollah’s Triumph: The Long-Term Implications of Prisoner Exchanges,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, No. 565 July 2008.


  1. Ambassador Richard Parker, “Prisoners of a Concept”, Air University (ATC), September 6, 2001. The failure of the Bush Doctrine in the Middle East also represents an erroneous paradigm for American foreign policy in the Middle East that failed to understand and address totalitarian jihadist ideology which is ascendant throughout the Islamic world today (Clifford D. May, The Peace Test: Bush offered Palestinians a state; they said no deal,” National Review Online, July 3, 2008; Mark Silverberg, “The End of the Bush Doctrine,” Israel Insider, November 17, 2007).
  2. Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, Stanford, CA: Press, 1962.
  3. Joel Fishman, “Failure of Perception and Self-Deception”, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, March 15, 2001.
  4. Erik J. Dahl, “Smarter Intelligence”, The Boston Globe, November 23, 2004.
  5. Major Rodney C. Richardson, “Yom Kippur War: Grand Deception or Intelligence Blunder”,, 1991; see also Ambassador; Richard B. Parker, op. cit. and his earlier article in the Air University Review, January-February, 1981.
  6. Joel Fishman, op.cit.
  7. Efraim Karsh, “Arafat Lives”, Commentary, January 2005.
  8. Margot Dudkevitch, “Freed Prisoner Killed on Terror Mission”, Jerusalem Post Online, February 21, 2005.
  9. Steven Stotsky, “Does Foreign Aid Fuel Palestinian Violence?” Middle East Quarterly, July 1, 2008. This includes almost a billion dollars between January 2008 and July 2008.
  10. DEBKAfile, “Terrorists Shatter Phony Calm in Tel Aviv, Shop for Heavy Weapons”, February 26, 2005.
  11. Justice Moshe Landau, Ha’aretz Magazine (English Edition), October 6, 2000.
  12. Emanuele Ottolenghi, “The Iranian Shell Game”,, June 30, 2008.

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