Why Time Is on Israel’s Side: A Long-Term Perspective on Israel’s Security Challenges

By February 3, 2009

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 64

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Despite the current Palestinian, Arab and Iranian threats, Israel’s generational prospects for peace and security as a Jewish and democratic country are quite good. As a matter of policy, Israel can and must assume that America will roll-back the jihadist threat to Israel and the West over the next decade. Beyond this, Israel’s strategic position should improve as long as it can limit suicide-bomber and rocket damage to tolerable levels; maintain freedom of action to occasionally use measured force in self-defense (as it did in Gaza); and preserve internal stamina and morale. The key is US action to weaken the Iranian-backed and Saudi-encouraged terror-supporting regimes in the region, and there is every reason to bet on eventual US success in this essential task.

With new governments coming to power in Israel and the US, now is a good time for a long-term assessment of Israel’s security situation. In the past, some Israelis have supported “peace” approaches with the argument that even though the evidence made their prospects seem poor, “there was no alternative.” The absence of a better alternative is a strong argument, but unfortunately it is also the argument used by people who sell pills that claim to protect you from earthquakes.

This essay describes how Israel can live with earthquakes; that is, the unpleasant security-diplomatic world it faces. If we put aside hopeless and dangerous diplomatic options such as the search for a “New Middle East” (the Oslo process), unilateral disengagement strategies, or taking sovereignty of the whole Land of Israel now – there is ample room for optimism.

If we take a long-term perspective, of, say, several generations or a century, Israel’s prospects for peace and security as a Jewish and democratic country are quite good. This is not guaranteed – except perhaps by Divine Providence – and the result depends partly on how we act and partly on developments over which we have very little influence. Nevertheless, it is far less an “impossible dream” than was Herzl’s goal of creating a Jewish state in Israel.

The long term trend in the world is clearly toward democracy and peace. Eastern Europe is going democratic, as are the modern countries of Asia, and many countries are becoming modern. It is hard to believe that radical Islam can overcome the rest of the world. Its threat will come to an end as did fascism and communism. Then the realistic part of Palestinian society will have a chance to make its voice heard.

Diagnosis

What are Israel’s security problems? It faces low-level terrorism by suicide bombers and by rockets and missiles. This requires IDF “dirty work” to keep Palestinian terror in check. This includes the steady work the IDF and GSS in Judea and Samaria and the kind of intermittent military project just completed in Gaza. Israel faces a few dangers: international economic sanctions isolating it from the world; Iranian (and later perhaps other) nuclear weapons; and internal fatigue, division, or collapse, particularly if it continues to agonize excessively over how its security requires it to act towards the Palestinians, and to be distressed by international condemnation.

Each of these problems will be discussed below in turn. Israel’s security situation is bad enough that it is justified to look for a way out; although it is not so bad that it cannot brace itself to do what is necessary and go forward, staying away from desperate attempts which worsen the situation – as Oslo did. In most ways Israel is far better off than its Jewish predecessors were 20 or 60 or 100 years ago (although the results of Oslo and the momentum of the current attempt to mobilize jihad are major setbacks).

What puts Israel in the spot it is in? And what changes may happen to the forces that bear on Israel?

The first critical feature of Israel’s condition is the Palestinian public and political behavior. Briefly put, the Palestinians are determined to destroy Israel, and no concessions or improvements in our treatment of them will induce them to give up their goal. Secondly, the Palestinians have a weak and corrupt political system and leadership. Poor conditions will persist, despite any amount of assistance they receive, until they learn to develop better political leadership. In addition to making their lives miserable, their inadequate political system makes it harder for them to move toward realistic accommodation with Israel. However, the Palestinians’ weak political behavior makes it easier for Israel to protect itself against their attacks.

By themselves, the Palestinians would not pose too great a problem. They are made more dangerous because of the support they receive from the Muslim and especially Arab worlds. For the most part, this support is not based on Muslim or Arab concern for the wellbeing of Palestinians; it comes mainly from distaste for non-Muslim control of lands formerly ruled by Muslims in the heart of the Muslim part of the world, and also from antagonism to the US and the West. The strength and importance of the Arab and Muslim support for the Palestinians depends on the political situation in the world. Today it is somewhat weakened by the Arab fear of Iranian regional power-seeking.

Another critical feature of Israel’s situation is Europe’s position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is determined primarily by European reactions to Muslim diplomatic power, to the Muslim internal challenge, and to the jihadi movement. European positions also are influenced by Europe’s relationship with the US, and perhaps by some degree of anti-Semitism – although this is not a decisive component. The European perspective is supported by some Americans and some Israelis.

European opinion and policy about Israel is in no way an independent and objective evaluation that merits moral or intellectual respect; it is a political response to European perception of their political realities. They will support the Palestinians until there is a basic change in their own policy toward Muslims, jihad, and the US. European funding of Palestinian leaders who prefer fighting to peace is one of the reasons such leadership stays in power. Also, since State Department professionals, and elements of the American political elite often have great respect for what the western Europeans say, the danger of the US neglecting diplomatic protection for Israel is largely bound with pressures from western Europe.

The dominant element of the current political situation in the Middle East is the effort of Islamist jihadists to mobilize Islam for a violent jihad against the US, Israel, and the West; and the American-led program to defeat this effort and prevent a “real jihad.” At the same time there is also a major conflict between a coalition led by Iran and resistance to it by the Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. If the US wins, Israel’s situation will get better; if the US loses, Israel’s situation will get worse. President Obama’s inaugural speech recognized that the US is in such a struggle, speaking of a “war” against a “network.”

Betting on US Success

It is likely that the question of whether the US can prevent a real jihad in this generation will be settled over the next, say, three to ten years. A judgment that Israel will be in a worse situation three years from now implies a belief that the US will fail to prevent the current attempted jihad from expanding into a real jihad. That is, it is a bet that the US effort to reduce the number of governments supporting terrorists to zero – will be setback.

Of course the US might fail. It is plausible that five or ten years from now the struggle will still hang in the balance; but it is equally plausible that by then we will know whether the US can prevail. In any case, it is a mistake for Israel to assume that the US will fail, or to make policy on the belief that the power of terrorist-supporting governments (primarily the current governments of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria) will be greater three years from now than it is today. As a matter of policy, Israel should expect the US to win and prepare accordingly.

The US has more economic and military power than any combination of countries. It has a healthy democracy, which is one of the reasons for its economic and military power, and for its continued vitality and dynamism. It has – uniquely for the major Western powers – a growing population, which by the end of this century will be approximately half that of India and China. While its political leadership and intellectual elite are showing signs of the European form of national fatigue, its population still believes in itself and cares about American freedom. America has never lost, and it is unwise to bet that it will lose in the future – although it may go the wrong way for a long time, causing its allies great losses.

Conclusion

The big picture today is that many Arabs and Muslims are influenced by their hope that the US can be defeated by radical Islam – although that hope is dampened by the apparent positive outcome in Iraq. There is widespread fear in Europe that it is too dangerous to resist Muslim encroachment on either domestic or foreign policy. Nevertheless, Israel has good reason to believe that this Muslim hope will be dashed. It is probable that over the next 3-10 years the US and its allies will overcome this challenge. Such a failure of the jihadi enterprise will substantially change the political environment for the better, even though the struggle to reconcile Islam to the non-Muslim world will likely continue for generations.

If during the next three to five years Israel does no more than continue to limit suicide-bomber damage to the level that it has maintained since Operation Defensive Shield in 2002; if it wisely employs offensive tactics like the recent campaign in Gaza to suppress rocket attacks; if it preserves internal stamina and morale; and if the US weakens the terror-supporting regimes – Israel will be in a far better position than it is today. The major remaining question relates to the attempt by the current Iranian regime to acquire nuclear weapons and to use them to destroy Israel directly or indirectly. This challenge will have to be overcome.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Dr. Max Singer
Dr. Max Singer

Dr. Max Singer, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a founder of the Hudson Institute. He specializes in US defense policy, US-Israel relations, and long-term strategic planning. Email: [email protected]