Home inFocus Israel (Summer 2019) Israel’s Security: Hardly Rosy, but Never Better

Israel’s Security: Hardly Rosy, but Never Better

Hillel Frisch Summer 2019
Israeli soldiers look at Jerusalem’s Old City. (Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

To size up the technical aspects of writing my inFOCUS article, I looked at Marian Tupy’s “Things Are Getting Better – So Why Are We So Gloomy?” [Spring 2019] I quickly realized that the substance of his excellent article set the basis for an article on Israel’s security, even though Israel is never mentioned by Tupy and “geostrategic security” only briefly.

Many articles on Israel’s security begin and end in gloom, for reasons that are probably obvious to those who follow Israel and Middle East affairs. Gloom is the least of emotions historical events such the destruction of the Second Temple and the last vestiges of Jewish sovereign in the Holy Land and the more recent Holocaust elicit.

The continuous succession of leaders of populous states since then who vowed Israel’s destruction, from Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser to Iran’s Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, counsel gloom and pessimism.

Especially disconcerting is the Islamic Republics with which Israel does not share a common border. Israel’s leaders for decades after the Iranian Revolution still believed that Iran’s leaders would change course to the mutual benefit of both countries. Not only has such change failed to take place, the Islamic Republic spews its invective, continues its nuclear program, and deepens its attempts to set a missile siege of vast proportions on the country through its Hezbollah proxy in the north, and its Sunni ally, Hamas, as well as directing and funding other terrorist activities directed at Israel.

A source of light for many are the United Nations with its affiliated organizations, other international NGOs in their thrust to enshrine universal human rights and bring the planet to a world that knows war no more.

In Israel, they cast a giant shadow despite their lofty goals.

Israel and its advocates look in bewilderment and of course with gloom at how Israel accounts for 60 percent of condemnations in UN bodies, when in North Korea alone 25 million people have been politically enslaved and terrorized for almost as long as the Palestinian refugee problem existed.

Zionism was the Answer, Wasn’t It?

The stance these international organizations and fora take against the Jewish state brings into question the very validity of modern Zionism, which is the staple ideology and identity of the vast majority of Israel’s citizens.

Zionism was supposed to be the answer to the “Jewish problem.” Jewish individuals and communities faced a rising tide of ethnic nationalism in the countries in which the vast majority of Jews lived at the beginning of the 20th Century, such as Poland, Russia, and Ukraine.

Solving the problem through immigration to Palestine to establish a Jewish homeland seemed to be the appropriate solution, particularly as the Western democracies – “the kingdoms of mercy” in the words of leading rabbis at the time – closed their doors to Jewish mass immigration in the second and third decades of the 20th century.

Nearly 100 hundred years later, the antipathy Jewish individuals and communities faced for not being “Polish,” “Russian,” or “Ukrainian” is now directed at Israel as the state of the Jewish nation. The so-called solution, Jewish statehood, seems to have become a major international problem instead.

And to top it all is the gist of Tupy’s article that – even in the best of times, indeed, humanity writ large has never had it so good – most of the human species are biologically and psychologically disposed towards being pessimistic!

Yet, Israel’s many security challenges should hardly elicit gloom.

The Good News

The basis for the good news about Israel’s security environment can be found, ironically, in the basic historical scheme proposed by Arnold Toynbee, hardly a friend of either Israel or the Jews.

Toynbee argued that states and societies that prosper most are those challenged by their environment. States and societies that are relatively protected by seas, good climates and basic agricultural attributes do less well than those challenged. The emphasis, however, is being challenged rather than being overwhelmed. Clearly, Holland could do little against an overwhelming Nazi Germany.

Allies of the United States, who used to be called the Asian Tigers in light of their substantial economic and scientific gains, seem to match Toynbee’s scheme. Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, not only economic miracles but deepening democracies as well, were challenged by their environment. That they were not overwhelmed is probably due to their alliance with the United States, which helped balance each against its powerful neighbor.

Israel is fortunate to be an ally, albeit unofficially, of the United States, and the days of being possibly overwhelmed by Arab states working in tandem to war against Israel with Soviet support that might have called for U.S. military intervention, have long since passed.

Unlike American allies in Europe and Asia, Israel never sought American troops as the “trip wire” they were in Western Europe against the Soviet Union and continue to be in Japan and South Korea. Neither does the United States fly sorties or deploy ships to defend Israel’s airspace and shores as it does on behalf of those states.

These key differences show up in the real as opposed to the formal amounts of United States military and civilian aid. Israel is officially the biggest recipient of U.S. aid. But this does not take into account the costs of American troop deployment within the borders of these European and Asian allies, the costs of deploying ships and planes and costly joint naval maneuvers, which run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Cost Accounting

In the real accounting, U.S. aid is about $3.9 billion – about one percent of what the United States spends on its official and costly allies. Israel is also the only ally that spends on its military budget more than the United States as a percentage of GDP. NATO countries, by contrast, spend less than half of what the United States does as a percentage of GDP and less than their military commitment to NATO requires. This freeriding is made possible not only because of the effective American security umbrella, but also because the U.S. is willing to finance it for advanced states – who President Trump rightly says should foot more of the bills relating to their own security.

Israel’s close relationship is a tremendous boon for the country and rewarding to the United States as the joint projects in missile defense and tunnel detection well prove.

As Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slips out of the Western orbit and links with the more fundamentalist currents in the Middle East and as Egypt becomes absorbed domestically with keeping its ship of state afloat, Israel holds a privileged position being the strongest ally in the Middle East to the leading democracy in the world, particularly under the Trump administration. This is a cause for celebration rather than gloom.

Facing Adversaries

For three decades at least, Israel, despite facing numerous enemies, increasingly confronts them on a one-to-one basis rather than on simultaneous fronts. In 1948, the fledgling state faced the combined (though hardly coordinated) assault of the armies of four states and the more minor contribution of a fifth, Lebanon. In 1967, Israel confronted three states and in 1973, two, with important contributions of two others, Iraq and Jordan, whose tanks stopped the Israeli advance on Damascus.

As the passion for war-making of Arab states has dwindled, or even been extinguished in the face of cumulative pain, Israel’s new enemies, non-state actors such as the PLO, Hezbollah and Hamas increasingly act alone despite a rhetoric of togetherness. Thus, when Hezbollah confronted Israel for over a month in 2006, not only did not one Arab state, including Syria, Iran’s ally, join the fray, neither did Hamas. Hezbollah likewise stood on the sidelines during the three rounds of warfare between Hamas and Israel in the winter of 2008/9, 2012, and during the 55-day duel in 2014.

So divided have Israel’s foes become that even the Palestinians no longer act in unison against it. Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza and the Palestinian partition into two de facto “states,” Hamas-controlled Gaza and the West Bank Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, when Gaza under Hamas spews flames against Israel, the inhabitants living under Abu Mazen in Judea and Samaria, remain passive and when the latter protest, Hamas–controlled Gaza falls silent.

The weekly and by now almost daily confrontations against Israel’s security fence in Gaza over the past 15 months reflects this as well. Hamas’s hope that these activities would generate an intifada against both the Palestinian Authority and Israel has completely failed.

The failure of Israel’s foes to come to each other’s aid even pervades Syria, where Iran is trying to military bases and establish an arms industry specializing in the production of precision guided missiles the Islamic Republic could employ against Israel or supply to its proxy Hezbollah. Israel’s numerous sorties to foil this plan (over 200 to date) has not elicited any external support, even from Hezbollah.

Don’t Call it Rosy

Though gloom is not called for, neither can Israelis evaluate their security predicament as rosy.

Iran continues its military nuclear efforts and makes advances in missile production to deliver warheads. The probability that Iran would launch nuclear missiles against Israel is small, not least because Iran is a very vulnerable country despite its vast size.

Were it to make such a move, Israel would have no inhibitions about destroying the island port, Kharg, from which over 80 percent of its energy exports are shipped. Oil and gas exports account for between 40 and 60 percent of Iranian government revenue (depending upon the fluctuating price of energy and the state of Western sanctions).

Another convenient target is Iran’s second vulnerable nodal point – Bandar Abbas, Iran’s biggest port on its southern coast. To strike at Kharg is to strike at Iran’s financial life-line; to strike at Bandar Abbas is to strike at its imports. Nearly four-fifths of container imports to the country run through this port. Container imports are those finished goods – cars, trucks, apparel, electronics – countries import that make the difference between living in the 21st century and the 19th.

Nevertheless, though the probability of Iran’s nuclear strike is small, the effects were one to occur, are great.

Israel also has to contend with Iran’s attempts to create a missile siege on the people. Iran’s long-term goal is to provide its proxies Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, and its ally, Hamas, with precision-guided missiles. This would be a game-changer to Israel’s detriment in the regional balance of power, which is why Israel is focusing on the Iranian build-up in Syria to thwart its aims.

Meeting the two-dimensional dangers – the nuclear ballistic threat and the more conventional missile siege Iran’s proxies are trying to impose on Israel – are serious challenges to Israel’s security, but they are hardly overwhelming. Israel’s ingenuity, its people’s resolve to meet these challenges and a close relationship with the world’s leading democracy and military power are the foundations for response to make sure that even these serious challenges to Israel’s security will not be overwhelming.

Hillel Frisch, Ph.D., is a professor of Political Science and Middle East History at Bar Ilan University and a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.