The pattern of Bibi’s desperate proposals

May 23, 2024
Jerusalem, Israel - January 15, 2017: The chamber of deputies in the Israeli Parliament is arranged with desks in a semi-circle, and a computer screen for each member.

What a twenty-five-year-old memo by Daniel Ellsberg says about the past failures of Lyndon Johnson and the current horrors of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The conversion of my friend Ellsberg, who died last June of cancer, from avid supporter of and adviser on the Vietnam War to perhaps its most important critic is well known. One of Dan’s major obsessions was with American leadership, specifically with the perversity of President Lyndon Johnson continuing to fight war that many of his closest advisers knew could not be won.

I thought of Dan after learning here in Washington that Israel’s—make that Benjamin Netanyahu’s—latest incursion into Rafah would be an all-out ‘go’ unless the Hamas negotiating team, now in Cairo, provides proof of the well-being of the thirty-three Israeli hostages said to be in its control. Without such proof, I was told by a senior American official, it will be “end game on.”

Which brings us to President Johnson. We now know that along with steadily increasing American troop involvement in the war and conducting bombing campaigns in both North and South Vietnam, he made no serious effort to engage in peace talks with the leadership of North Vietnam, despite a series of tentative offers from the North, whose basic precondition before serious talks was a temporary halt in the bombing. Time after time, as many histories of the war have reported, Johnson refused to agree to slow the bombing, and time after time such refusal led the North to turn away. He would announce that he was no longer running for re-election in March of 1968, when it was clear that the burgeoning antiwar movement in America, and the lack of success in the battlefield, made his re-election impossible.

Ellsberg, who never had a job after leaving government service and the national security sector, would go on to write a series of successful books and emerge as a leading spokesman for the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements in America. But he remained haunted by the war and by the seemingly irrational refusal of Johnson to agree to force the corrupt leadership of South Vietnam to join in settling the war with the North.

He could not understand why Johnson refused to see what was obvious at the time—America and its corrupt allies in South Vietnam would never win the war in the South—and respond accordingly. In April of 1999, as the Clinton administration and NATO chose to bomb Serbia in a similarly unclear scenario, escalating the conflict there and producing more and more refugees, Ellsberg drafted a memorandum about the early days of the Vietnam War, when Johnson made a decision to expand the American involvement in Vietnam. At the time, as Ellsberg knew, Johnson’s decision “was seen by at least some advisers and perhaps by the top decision-makers” as having a “real possibility to end in catastrophe.”

At that decisive moment, Ellsberg wrote, “the decision maker acts as if he (usually male) sees only one kind of success and one kind of failure. . . . He sees his own humiliation, or loss of office or power as catastrophic—equivalently, indistinguishably catastrophic compared to other types of catastrophe such as . . . huge loss of life among his own people, enemy civilians, coerced enemy draftees, neutral neighborhood populations. . . . [T]he massacre of ‘others’ is privately seen by men in power . . . as secretly available to them as an instrument of power although they publicly acknowledge norms that rule this out as ‘unthinkable.’

“Could any human, not clinically insane,” Ellsherg asked, “really act as if losing an election was equivalent to any of these disasters?”

Ellsberg answered his own question with what he called an “empirical rule” that is being put in play today by Netanyahu in Gaza: “There is no limit to the number of human ‘others’ that a man or woman in power will endanger or destroy or torture or afflict to avoid an otherwise certain, short-run loss of power (or perhaps even prestige), or even to make it less than certain.”

Ellsberg called this leadership phenomenon “The Desperate Proposal Pattern.” He argued that the pattern was in effect throughout the Vietnam War in terms of who was viewed as the disposables: millions of Vietnamese were seen that way by the US leadership. Netanyahu is not alone in his use of disposables; Kennedy and Johnson consistently chose to bet on “long shots” in his attempts to win the unwinnable Vietnam War.

I took Ellsberg’s thesis to two Israeli veterans, and old friends, who have fought—in both cases suffering grievous wounds—and served as ad hoc advisers in past wars for Israel. Dan wouldn’t have been surprised at their willingness to acknowledge failure and the need to be rid of Netanyahu and his ruling coalition, and to work with Israel’s Arab neighbours.

One quiet hero of many covert operations, some successful and some not, put it this way:

“This is a government led by a prime minister who is scared by his own shadow, indecisive, and compulsively mistaken, whose personal and political survivability are his sole and exclusive goals. Bibi has proven himself to be a master of propaganda, a magician of slogans and words that are impossible to achieve. . . . Even if he is forced out, there are no charismatic leaders to replace him. The IDF which served as the Israeli leadership greenhouse (now) produces many pale and gray generals. Most of the declared candidates to replace Bibi are unwilling to lead to a two-state solution.

“Israel faces an historic moment as most of the Sunni Arab states are ready and willing to accept her into a regional alliance based on military intelligence cooperation and economic teamwork. If we have the courage and energy to face reality and start with regional allies. . . . If we have the courage and energy to return to the real roots of Judaism: love your neighbour as yourself and sanctify life and not death, we may survive and elevate the region with us.”

Another former Israeli officer who suffered a grievous injury in combat and survived, acknowledged the failures of the current war against Hamas. Following the Ellsberg thesis, he told me that Bibi viewed his “survival in power” in the wake of the failures in Gaza as “more important than finding an alternative to Hamas in Gaza, getting on the road to ending the Israeli-Palestine conflict, and normalising Israel’s situation in the region.”

The only way forward, he said, “is to replace Bibi and the extremist government with a centrist, pragmatic government. Short of replacing Bibi and his current coalition, it is difficult to see how Israel’s strategic defeat in Gaza can be transformed into a meaningful victory.”

A more senior Israeli, who spent years advising on the inside, in both war and peace, would have endorsed the optimism expressed above, in terms of a future Israel as a good neighbour, but saw the burden of the past as being much harder to overcome. Especially, as he told me, in the wake of the disaster in Gaza.

The existential crisis facing Israel and its leadership today, he said, “is the result of a very unfortunate set of historical accidents. Some of Ben Gurion’s mistakes regarding the religious politicians, then regarding the Moroccan Jews, then Golda’s 1973 Yom Kippur War, then Begin’s love for the ultra-Orthodox and the extreme religious Zionists and his hissing hate for the Kibbutzim.” (Menachem Begin’s conservative Likud Party was elected to office in 1977 and stayed in power until 1992.)

“This created a three-headed monster of parasitic anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodoxy fused with ultra-aggressive, ultra-Zionist nationalism and with rampant politico-financial corruption. This is a historical set of blunders that took place while the ‘Old’ Israel of my parents set in motion a highly successful civil society of basic decency, social care, science, creativity, and productivity. Ah, and secular values.

“This [monster] society sprang to life last October 7 when the state system was heavily sedated. It [the Old Israel] has remained in opium slumber until today, [while] the headless-chicken-like-jerks [the new extreme religious right] allocating huge money to settlements and ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas.

“Which of the two Israels will win?” he asked.


Republished from SeymourHersh.Substack, May 08, 2024

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