Israel's Power Paradox
Why is Benjamin Netanyahu selling national security woes to Israel's citizens when Israeli power and prosperity have never been better?
Israel has somewhat contained the havoc these rockets bring—for now. The challenge is growing ever difficult as Iranian proxies refine their armament capabilities. Relying mostly on Iranian technology with local manufacturing, Hezbollah is building precision missiles able to level the country’s vital infrastructures and civilian targets. Given the statistical errors of Israel’s missile interception systems—the Arrow (long-range), David’s Sling (medium-range) and Iron Dome (short-range)—the results will devastate.
Indeed, at the heart of Israel’s recently exposed “Shadow War” is the fight over precision missiles. In recent years, Israel has been targeting Syrian weapon stockpiles and facilities turning “dumb” rockets into smart ones with improved accuracy. Given Israel’s aerial advantage in Syria, Iran has begun to move these arms to Lebanon and now further in Iraq. Indeed, the recent drone attack in Lebanon appears to have struck crates with machinery to mix high-grade propellant for precision guided missiles.
In the years since Israel’s establishment, defense assumptions have not changed significantly. A fundamental belief is that most of the Muslim world will not accept the existence of an independent Jewish state in the heart of the Middle East –at least not officially—and it will, in time and when the opportunity presents itself, do its best to subvert it. Among Arab states, only Egypt and Jordan have signed a peace treaty. At the same time, their populations continue to harbor deep animus toward the Jewish state. The rest still at least symbolically adhere to the Arab League boycott. As for covert relations with regional neighbors, the late head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan noted that Israel is the Middle East’s mistress who all enjoy, but with whom they avoid serious commitment. Israel continues its struggles to become a legitimate lover.
This may seem pessimistic, but realities have taught Israelis to view threats through the worst-case scenario. The military realizes that any agreement with regional regimes are volatile, fickle, and susceptible to turn, like their governments. The last eight years in the Middle East— from the Arab Spring which rocked Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria, to the Iranian fueled civil wars in Yemen and Syria, along with Tehran’s bear hug in Iraq—have only strengthened this basic assumption.
On the premise that Israel’s presence is not regionally welcome, Israel’s existence is not based on its ability to change the views of its neighbors, but on deterring them. Herein lies the paradox former Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror introduced. If the IDF is strong, he argued, then war is deterred. Yet, the longer peace lasts, and deterrence is effective, the further the memory of the previous war recedes, increasing the chances of a new conflict. Therefore, the common Israeli assumption is that war will continually be a logical and feasible reality that the public may be forced to confront on a moment’s notice.
Israelis understand that the true measure of the terrorist threat is not how many cafes are blown up, but how many attacks were foiled. Since the beginning of 2019, three hundred major terrorist acts have been thwarted by the Israeli Shin Bet, most of them orchestrated by Hamas’s “West Bank Bureau” and corresponding West Bank boots on the ground. If these attacks took place, then a third Intifada would likely have erupted, and the Palestinian Authority would have disintegrated.
Endless wars, failed peace initiatives, and the rise of Hamas upon Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, are ingrained in the Israeli psyche. Over and over, Israelis feel, justly or not, that they have given peace a chance and it hasn’t worked—and it realistically won’t work for the foreseeable future.
Israelis understand that the future is uncertain. They know that the one thing that is sure about what lies ahead, is another round of fire, conflict, operation, call it what you may. The coming war may be even costlier, but no more decisive than the last. That is why the Israeli public will never exclude worse-case scenarios in their security assumptions.
As Israel’s elections near, the inclination of the Israeli voter is clear. The theater of Israeli politics rests against a backdrop of culture and education so ingrained that it cannot result in a coalition offering a paradigm shift or a risk-taking alternative to the status quo.
The Startup Nation’s scintillating success belies a people who from history and experience are fundamentally skeptical, aware that the good times rest on shaky grounds. Its grand yet vulnerable accomplishments only make the stakes higher. But this perpetual dread of the end has helped the ever-ceasing-to-be people prepare for every scenario—and emerge alive, though scarred.
Eyal Tsir Cohen is a visiting fellow at a think tank in Washington, DC. Eyal led a career in the Israeli civil service for the last thirty years in various senior positions focusing on counter terrorism and national defense strategies.
Eliora Katz is Middle East analyst at a think tank in Washington, DC. She was previously a Bartley Fellow at the Wall Street Journal.