As Israel Turns 57, New Fights Displace Old War Mentality

By Yossi Alpher

Published May 20, 2005, issue of May 20, 2005.

Let’s take a moment, as Israel marches into its 58th and perhaps most challenging year, to ponder the Jewish state’s evolving strategic interests.

First and perhaps most significantly, the perception is gradually sinking in that, for the foreseeable future, conventional military attacks on Israel are a thing of the past. The last conventional war imposed on Israel by a coalition of its neighbors was in 1973. With the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s army in 2003, the no-conventional-war reality became semi-permanent. There is currently no conceivable Arab war coalition. No less a warrior leader than Ariel Sharon is mothballing tanks and planes to save money.

Concomitantly, with the threat of land war reduced, Israeli attitudes toward territory are changing: Gaza can be abandoned; a few Egyptian soldiers can return to patrol the border with Gaza and Israel. More and more Israelis believe that occupied territory filled with hostile Arabs is a burden, not an asset, even if it is part of Eretz Yisrael.

This assertion bespeaks another new reality: Israelis increasingly place a premium on the demographically Jewish nature of the state. The second intifada, coupled with the Palestinian leadership’s implied threats at the failed peace talks in 2000 regarding “existential” issues, such as the right of return and Temple Mount, convinced some 70% of Israelis to give priority to demography over geography.

Israel triumphed militarily over that intifada, to the extent of producing a Palestinian leader who acknowledges the mistake of invoking violence. But while Israel has shown it can contain terrorism, it also has shown that it cannot eliminate it.

So much for what is, by and large, good news. There is also plenty of bad.

Iran’s nuclear and terrorist threat leads the list. Iran is the last country in the entire region to actively preach the destruction of Israel. It practices what it preaches by supporting Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran is almost certain to go aggressively nuclear unless stopped by force — or unless the regime becomes more moderate, in which case Tehran’s nuclear capability might be of less concern. The coming year could be decisive.

A second, more puzzling regional threat now emerging is, paradoxically, Bush-style Arab democratization. Thus far, democratization appears to be strengthening pro-Iranian militant Islamist parties and movements in Iraq, Palestine (Hamas) and potentially Lebanon (Hezbollah). Moderate but authoritarian states considered friendly to Israel and the United States, such as Jordan, are understandably worried. We have to ask in this respect whether the “Let the chips fall where they may” democratization approach of the administration is, on balance, good or bad for Israeli security in the near term.

Another entire category of emerging security threats to Israel in its 58th year is a radical rise in internal violence. One immediate catalyst is disengagement.

The challenge that disengagement poses to the ideological settler community brings to the fore fundamentalist Jewish extremists and their rabbis, whose loyalty to Eretz Yisrael exceeds their perceived obligation to obey the laws and authority of the State of Israel. Everything from the Temple Mount mosques and the prime minister’s life to the unimpeded flow of traffic on Israel’s highways is currently at risk.

On another domestic level — that of nonideological criminal activity — violence is also on the rise: among families, in schools and in road rage incidents. Some blame the ills of a prolonged and increasingly brutal occupation and the struggle against Palestinian terrorism. Others don’t see a correlation.

One way or another, the country needs a far larger and more sophisticated police force. Manpower must be diverted from the Israeli military to the Israeli police — urgently.

Israel’s security also suffers increasingly from its political system. In the past 20 years, the Palestinian issue has brought down every Israeli government, while none has proved capable, before collapsing, of moving more than a step or two closer to resolving the issue. In the past four years, two Sharon governments have fallen this way; the current coalition is unlikely to last much beyond this summer’s disengagement.

The Israeli system enables small and medium-sized parties with sectarian agendas to demand coalition representation and ensure that the consistent will of the majority of Israelis to end this conflict does not find expression in a stable government. The expectation that, after one of these elections, a coalition will emerge that resolves the Palestinian issue is sadly not based on political reality.

Returning to the international scene, additional threats loom. One is international sanctions and pressures: from tribunals like the International Court of Justice and groups like the nonaligned nations, to American Protestant denominations and municipalities and NGOs like the British Association of University Teachers. Some of these moves are legalistic, others anti-Zionist; a few reflect a global rise in antisemitism that must also concern Israel.

Finally there is the near-term future of American-Israeli relations. From September 11, 2001, until Yasser Arafat’s death last year, President Bush understandably viewed Israel under Sharon as a “good guy” nation and Palestinians as the “bad guys.” The emergence of Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinian leader poses the prospect of change.

If, against considerable odds, Abbas’s democratization and stabilization efforts succeed; if Bush, who inspired them, then insists on the implementation of a fair two-state solution, and if Sharon continues to see a peace process as a dangerous slippery slope, we may witness some sort of crisis in American-Israeli relations in the course of the coming year.

A few security-related warning signs, such as American pique over alleged unauthorized transfers of weapons know-how to China and the “spy” case involving the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, may or may not be harbingers. A stronger indicator could be Bush’s admonition to Sharon at their Crawford summit a few weeks ago that, after disengagement, a peace process will be doable.

For all the question marks on Israel’s security agenda, one thing is certain: Year 58 will not be dull.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.

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