Why Israel Worries

Jerusalem views America as quixotic at best, absent at worst as the foundations of its security erode.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is momentarily breathing a sigh of relief now that he can blame Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas for scuttling the latest round of peace negotiations. Abbas’ reconciliation pact with Hamas in Gaza allows Netanyahu to wash his hands of the peace process—because militant Hamas will not even acknowledge Israel’s right to exist—to focus on more acute Israeli security worries.


The Israelis have been exasperated that the United States has wasted time, attention and diplomatic capital on this failed round of negotiations with the Palestinians. The Israelis see the Palestinian issue akin to a house in the neighborhood with electrical wiring that is not up to code. It needs to be fixed, least it risk causing a fire in the future. The Israelis, however, see other neighborhood houses ablaze in Syria and Iran. The Israelis want the United States to come running with a water hose, but, instead, they see the Obama administration coming with an electrician’s toolbox. That exasperation was publicly revealed when Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon undiplomatically called Secretary of State John Kerry “obsessive and messianic” about the peace process and hoped that he “gets a Nobel Prize and leaves us alone.”[1]


The Israelis think that the Americans too willingly accepts the Arab narrative that the “root cause” of all the problems in the Middle East lie in the failure of the Palestinians to have their own nation-state. The Israelis of all political stripes know all too well that even if they and the Palestinians were to some day live in separate nation-states enjoying neighborly bliss, most of the region’s troubles would remain. From the Israeli security standpoint, the conflict with the Palestinians is manageable, its costs tolerable, and its dangers longer term; the fallout violence from the Arab Spring and Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions are here and now and should be high on the American security agenda.


American national-security officials and military commanders have their hands full these days, but few would want to trade places with their Israeli counterparts. Israel has impressively defended itself in numerous wars for several decades against unfavorable odds. Despite those military feats, the foundations of Israeli security have cracked and crumbled rapidly since 2011 and the onslaught of the so-called Arab Spring. Notwithstanding Israel’s military prowess, the country’s security is growing more precarious on a numerous fronts, and the Israelis are gravely concerned that the United States might prove to be a fair-weather friend in future contingencies.


A cornerstone of Israel’s security foundation has been the “cold peace” with Egypt since the 1979 peace treaty. Israel and Egypt, bolstered by American economic and security assistance, have mutually enjoyed a secure border along the Sinai Peninsula for more than thirty years. The Arab spring, however, has jeopardized that security stability. The future course of the regime in Cairo is uncertain. The military regime for now seems content maintaining the peace treaty with Israel. But Jerusalem wonders how long the military regime will last and whether or not its redoubled political repression will eventually backfire to bring the Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood back into the streets en masse, and from there back into the halls of political power. Even if the Egyptian military regime hangs on, the situation along Egypt’s border with Israel continues to deteriorate. Tribes and Al Qaeda-linked jihadists are growing in influence and operations in the Sinai and mixing with human trafficking from Africa into Israel.


The upshot is that Israeli security planners no longer have the luxury of assuming the border with Egypt is secure. They will have to devote more resources to maintaining security there than they had in the past even while Israel’s security along the borders with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan are growing more precarious.


The Israelis had secured their border with Syria during the 1967 war by capturing the Golan Heights. With that high ground the Israelis could comfortably gaze into Syria, and on a clear day they could even see Damascus. The Israelis were confident of their air superiority over the Syrian air force given the results of their air battles in 1982, in which Israel downed about eighty Syrian combat aircraft without losing even one of their own. Having bested Syrian ground forces in the 1967 and 1973 wars, they were also confident of their ground forces’ superiority over Syrian forces. And having watched, listened to, and studied the Syrian forces arrayed across the border for decades, the Israelis were confident that in the event of another war, they could yet again humble Syria’s military.


Times have changed and now the Israelis peering from the Golan Heights into Syria see a land burning and in chaos. The Israelis worry that the collapse of Syrian forces from border areas is opening up power vacuums that will be increasingly filled by militant jihadists coming from around the world to oust the Syrian regime. The Israelis have to worry that should they accomplish this task, Islamic jihadists will use their Syrian foothold to mount cross-border operations against Israel, much as Hezbollah and its Iranian benefactors have done from Lebanon since the 1980s.