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The importance of understanding complexity in other countries

The failures in foreign policy decision-making often stem from the natural difficulty in understanding the complexities of other countries. We tend to treat each country as a unified, homogenous, rational player and adopt policies accordingly. In reality, almost each and every country is comprised of many players who influence policy, both within and outside of government. This is also true of non-democratic countries. Time and again, we fail to recognize their impact on internal processes in different countries. It has become our ‘blind spot’ to policy decision-making.


This phenomenon was researched by Professor Graham Allison (I had the privilege to be his student at the Kennedy School of Government). In his book “Essence of Decision,” he analyses the decision making of President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ultimately, Kennedy was able to solve the conflict with the Soviet Union, which brought the two countries to the precipice of a nuclear war, because he understood the complexities of the different perspectives in the Kremlin.


We have seen this process play out in our own arena in different ways over recent years. The Israeli government for example, has ignored the Democratic Party in the US and by extension the sentiments of most American Jews, causing long-term damage to our relations with the United States and with the most important Jewish diaspora community.


We have also erred in our understanding of the need to empower moderate elements in Palestinian society and consequently strengthened the extremist supporters of terrorism. We have also treated Iran as if it were one cohesive, uniform whole, which in its entirety wants to eliminate us. In reality, there are different shades within the Ayatollah’s regime and the Iranian public. All these mistakes are in danger of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies which prevent us from advancing our long-term interests.


Too often, we talk about the ‘American position’, the ‘Iranian position’, or the ‘Palestinian position’, when there are different positions in each country that influence the decision-making process and must be taken into account.


For example, the Biden administration will have to consider the reality in which there are about 74 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump and will not disappear just because Biden was elected by around 7 million more Americans. The Democrats might lose one of the Georgia Senate races on January 5, giving the Republicans a majority in the Senate, and Biden will have a hard time advancing moves that require Congressional approval.


Iran is also expected to hold a Presidential election in June, and it is currently estimated that the more moderate camp headed currently by President Rouhani will lose. Sweeping statements about Iran rejoicing over Trump's loss do not consider the complexity within Iran. Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Zarif did want Trump to lose because they would like to see a return to diplomacy in general and the nuclear deal in particular. On the other hand, the ultra-extremists supported by the Revolutionary Guards prefer a Trump administration, which justifies their opposition to the agreement.


This is one of the reasons why Obama sought to reach an agreement with Iran faster than we had expected and it is also the reason why Biden is striving to return to the agreement as soon as possible. They both understand that an Iranian presidency that does not prioritize Iran's hegemony in the Middle East, which prefers a functioning Iranian economy, and is willing to compromise to that end, should be exploited.


Biden rightly understands that Iranian suffering due to the unilateral sanctions imposed by Trump, is not enough to stop the nuclear program which has progressed dramatically since the withdrawal of Trump from the JCPOA, and that achieving this requires an agreement and international legitimacy. It has been speculated that Biden's ability to return to the agreement will impact the outcome of Iran's presidential election in June. In other words, the failure of diplomacy will allow more extremist elements to rise to power, with whom it is more difficult to reach an agreement and curb Iran’s military nuclear program


The recent assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhri-Zadeh certainly strengthens all players who are opposed to an agreement and reject the diplomatic route - in Iran, Israel, and the US. Understanding this complexity explains the cold response from Democrat and European elements to the assassination, which was viewed as an attempt by Trump and Netanyahu to entice an Iranian response, rendering it impossible for the United States and the P5+1 powers to return to diplomacy.


Another example of the need for such complexity, is the way in which the majority of the Israeli public considers the Palestinians to be one united entity, which is supposedly uniformly opposed to an agreement with Israel. In reality, Palestinian society is divided into many different factions and positions. It is especially important to understand the significant difference between the PA leadership in Ramallah, which is interested in a settlement with Israel, and the Hamas leadership, which is not interested in a political compromise, but only in short-term arrangements. The idea that all Palestinians reject peace plays into the hands of Hamas and its leaders.


In this context, there is a similar interest on the right side of Israeli politics, the evangelical right in the United States and Hamas, none of which are interested in a political compromise. On the other hand, there is a partnership of interests between the Palestinian Authority, Arab countries, Europe and the US Democratic Party, which have a common interest in an agreement based on the Two States for Two Peoples solution.


It is important to understand that in Israel too, there is complexity beyond Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. For many years, polls have indicated that most Israelis support a diplomatic solution and an agreement with the Palestinians, even if it includes territorial compromise. However, this majority is not politically expressed due to the lack of leadership on Israel’s left and the success of the wrongheaded ‘spin,’ which some regard as an outright manipulation, that we have no partner for a settlement on the Palestinian side.


It is to be hoped that the Biden administration will not view Netanyahu and his government as the ‘be all and end all’ and will be able to conduct itself vis-à-vis Israel in a way that strengthens the majority of the public who support a return to diplomacy and an agreement. Such an understanding would allow for cooperation between the forces that are interested in a two-state solution, encompassing the majority in the United States, Israel and Palestinian society. This complex viewpoint is also important to instill within American Jewry, as its liberal majority appears in danger of moving ever further away from an Israel perceived as conservative.


It is important that we make it clear to our brothers and sisters in the United States that there are other voices in Israel, people who want a peace settlement, who believe in minority rights and social justice and who do not oppose progressive and liberal Judaism. This complex understanding will help us in setting smart policies and also in dealing with liberals across the world who are critical of our government’s policies but are also potential partners.


(This article was publishe by the Jerusalem Post on December 21 2020)

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