Israel: The Canary In The Coal Mine


After Arab terrorists killed nearly 3,000 innocent Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, I thought the world would see Israel’s plight in dealing with terrorists in a new light: a democracy subject to the violent hatred of those seeking to destroy “Big Satan” (the U.S.) and “Little Satan” (Israel), along with Western values of human rights and freedoms.

Perhaps there were those who came to see Israel as the canary in the coalmine, the warning sign of imminent danger to our way of life. Others failed or refused to see the connection.

In following world events I can’t help hearing the echoes of the Israeli experience. Most recently, two major issues in the news regarding American foreign policy — the use of drones in conducting a war against terror, and negotiations with Iran in preventing a nuclear war — have me thinking about comparisons to Israeli strategies and recent history, and lessons that could be learned.

The pained look on President Obama’s face, and his words of personal apology in announcing that an American drone strike killed two innocent non-combatants, spoke volumes about the moral dilemma involved in the use of the increasingly popular form of warfare that is imperfect in its implementation.

The appeal of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), particularly for the U.S. after more than a decade of sending soldiers to fight, and too often die, in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that they can pinpoint and kill the enemy without the risk of endangering American lives. The downside, as underscored by the news of the accidental deaths of two civilian aid workers, Warren Weinstein, an American, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian, who were being held hostage by al Qaeda in Pakistan, is that hitting the intended target is based on available intelligence analysis, subject to human error.

With calls now for the U.S. to review and revise its drone policy, which is based on the “near certainty” that innocents would not be harmed in attacks on the enemy, it would be helpful to look to Israel and its stringent approach to the use of drones. Israel’s defense forces go out of their way to avoid civilian casualties — warning non-combatants in advance of an air strike and often calling off a “hit” against terror leaders because of the possibility of killing innocents as well. It’s a problem compounded by the fact that Hamas fighters operate from civilian locations, defying the rules of civilized warfare. The bitter irony, though, is that Israel is accused of crimes against humanity when in fact its army may well be the most humane in the world.

Amos Guiora, an Israeli-American law professor and expert on the ethics of warfare, has criticized the U.S. for too broad a definition of a legitimate target, which he characterizes as “far too suggestive of ‘guilt by association.’”

He notes that the Obama administration’s targeting of those “likely” to be engaged in terrorist activity “casts an unacceptably wide net.” (The definition was upgraded recently to the target being an imminent threat to the U.S., but drone strikes in Pakistan were exempted.)

By contrast, Israel’s policy, which Guiora helped carry out when he served in the IDF, is based on “going to great lengths to gather and verify intelligence to ensure that potential targets are, in fact, still actively involved in terrorism.” In addition, Israel applies a proportionality analysis, taking into account whether the military gain in eliminating the target is worth the risk of civilian casualties.

True, mistakes have been made, but the IDF’s criteria and track record reflect a deep commitment to maintaining a high moral standard. The U.S. and the rest of the world would do well to emulate it.

On the Iran negotiations front, I have written here of my fear that Obama is so invested in the effort to normalize Iran’s revolutionary government that he seems willing to ignore the growing evidence that it will not change its goal of establishing an Islamic hegemony, backed by a nuclear arsenal. The president’s dismissal of recent, virulent comments by Iran’s supreme leader about the U.S. as “devil” and Israel as a pariah state deserving elimination recall the reaction of Shimon Peres to Yasir Arafat’s calls for jihad soon after the Oslo Accords were signed.

“Give the man his rhetoric,” Peres told me in an interview at the time.

He, too, was so committed to the peace effort that he and other Israeli leaders turned a blind eye to repeated violations of the agreement.

Jewish history has taught us all too well that when your enemy publicly states his intention to destroy you, take him seriously.

Even the pragmatic Yitzchak Rabin believed that at the first post-agreement terror attack, Israel would send in its forces and wipe out the Palestinian threat. But that was not to be, and the situation festers two decades later.

Similarly, Iran already insists the interim agreement differs markedly from the understanding the U.S. and its partners have of it. And Obama’s comments on the ability to “snap back” sanctions into place if Iran violates the accord seem especially fanciful. China and Russia, who make up part of the U.S.-led international effort, are anxious to resume trade with Iran, and Moscow has already announced a deal to provide Tehran with sophisticated defense missiles.

The president would be more believable if he were more realistic. He should make the case that the planned agreement would delay for a decade or so an Iran with nuclear arms — not prevent it, as he has long pledged.

I am well aware that it is easier to expose large holes in the interim agreement than to offer a practical alternative that would keep Iran from ever having a nuclear weapon. But it is sophistry for Obama to frame the debate as simply a choice between going to war with Iran or signing a deal that offers potential peace. He leaves out the possibility of toughening up the deal or further tightening the sanctions.

We should not be more afraid of Iran walking away from the talks than they are of facing more economic hardship and the real threat of military action.

As Israel marked its 67th anniversary of statehood last week, a pessimist would focus on the existential threat a nuclear Iran represents for the Jewish state and the increasing diplomatic isolation it faces. An optimist would emphasize the miraculous existence and growth of this tiny state, flourishing as a dynamic democracy in an increasingly chaotic neighborhood.

Both views reflect truths, and the ongoing struggle to survive and thrive despite hardships is the story of the Jewish people since our forefather Jacob — later named Israel — wrestled with an angel.

I take comfort in the biblical assurance that Jews are an eternal people. And in times of stress, I am reminded of the three words of wisdom King Solomon, the wisest of all men, engraved on his ring: Gom zeh ya’avor — this, too, shall pass.

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at