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Is Time on Israel’s Side?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Taking a closer look at Israel’s security picture.

Conventional wisdom dictates that time is not on Israel’s side. According to this narrative, the ticking demographic time bomb of Arabs outnumbering Jews between the Jordan and Mediterranean in the foreseeable future, Iran’s accelerating efforts to achieve a nuclear weapon, and the Palestinian-led charge to delegitimize the Jewish state all mean that Israel’s leaders need to reach a peace settlement fast, before it becomes a pariah state, a theocracy, an apartheid state, or a combination of the three.

As with most of the international discourse on Israel, things look very different on the ground. I recently returned from a two week trip there, the first seven days of which were spent with 20 up-and-coming American national security professionals on the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ (FDD) National Security Trip to Israel. I spoke with a wide variety of Israeli national security experts and professionals, including professors from Israeli universities, current and former government officials, Israel Defense Forces officers, and journalists. My colleagues and I had the chance to engage with former IDF Chief of Staff and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, former head of the Mossad Meir Dagan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his closest advisors.

There are several glaring national security questions currently facing Israel, and I sought to gain a sense of the range of opinions in Israel today on solutions to these issues. How do Israelis think the Iranian nuclear weapon can be stopped, and do they expect a military strike in the next year? How did the revolts in the Arab world affect their security situation? Is a breakthrough with the Palestinians possible? Can liberal Israeli society hold together, given the extraordinarily complicated pressure applied on it by Haredim, Bedouins, Arabs, and the violent far-right?

Iran and the bomb

Though Israel’s situation is often described as untenable, and therefore an agreement must be reached, many Israelis see the situation as quite sustainable.

Most Israeli experts are not excited about the prospect of Israel striking Iran. Mofaz, Dagan, and Uri Lubrani, former Israeli ambassador to Iran, all expressed their firm belief that if the military option is necessary, it is infinitely better for everyone involved if the United States takes the lead. Israel will pay a painful price no matter who attacks, but the chances of landing a significant blow are much higher if America strikes. Israel could inflict some damage on Iran, but the number of aircraft available and the great distances Israeli air force pilots would have to fly makes an Israeli attack much more complicated than an American-led one. Comparisons with the 1981 Israeli strike on the Iraqi Osirak reactor are irrelevant, as a total of eight planes destroyed one site in that attack. The Iranian program is far more complex, protected, and diffuse.

Experts in both government and academia agreed that the real solution to the Iranian nuclear problem is regime change. The best a military strike—even an American one—could achieve is to delay the program for a few years. Indeed, more than one expert I spoke with opined that a nuclear-armed Iran is not necessarily the greatest danger per se, rather it is this particular regime.

The general sense I felt is that an attack is not imminent. Of course, if an attack was in the works, one would expect the Israeli and U.S. governments to create the impression of business as usual. Still, there is time to give the combination of sanctions and covert action—and possibly popular revolution—a chance before resorting to an attack.

However, the calm given off by decision makers and experts is not necessarily felt among those who would have to fight in the war that would surely follow a strike. On several occasions, I heard reservists say they felt war would break out within the year. Sitting in the kitchen of a junior reserve officer in his kibbutz home, I spoke about the security situation with him and another reservist friend. Conversation soon turned to Iran, and the officer’s friend said to him, “Who knows what will happen, but I’d suggest you check your equipment, make sure everything still fits.” He certainly believed war might come sooner rather than later.

Israel, the Arab Spring, and the Islamic Winter

Comparisons with the 1981 Israeli strike on the Iraqi Osirak reactor are irrelevant, as a total of eight planes destroyed one site in that attack. The Iranian program is far more complex, protected, and diffuse.

While Iran has been on Israel’s radar for years, the Arab Spring surprised Israel no less than the rest of the world. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was no lover of Zion, but he could be relied upon to preserve the peace treaty and keep pressure on Hamas in Gaza. Many Israelis feel that ultimately, real peace is only possible between peoples, not between Israel and autocratic Arab rulers, and that in the short term things are going to be more complicated for Israel. The phrase “Islamist Winter” came up at every discussion of the recent turmoil.

Lying low is the best option for now, government officials expressed. Although Israel is sympathetic to some of the non-Muslim Brotherhood opposition groups, few of them are interested in Israel’s support, be it material or verbal. Inserting Israel into an internal Arab conflict has little benefit for Israel. Best to sit back and monitor the situation, they said, and when an opportunity arises for cooperation, be ready to take it.

There was vigorous debate among Israeli academics on whether Israel could eventually work with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Mira Tzoreff of Tel Aviv Center’s Moshe Dayan Center argued that the Muslim Brotherhood is fundamentally a pragmatic, non-violent movement, one with which Israel should seek cooperation.

Though many casual observers of Israel have been certain that the Arab Spring would come to the Palestinians, the protests have not really reached Palestinian society. There have been no massive popular protests against either the Israelis or the two Palestinian governments, and the orchestrated marches on Israel’s northern border in May and June last year were not comparable events. Less surprisingly, Israelis expressed a variety of views on how the country should proceed in their ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Shaul Mofaz saw an interim security agreement with the Palestinians as both possible and extremely important. Others, including veteran journalist Ehud Ya’ari and Yossi Kuperwasser of the ministry for strategic affairs, are entirely unconvinced that the Palestinians, including Mahmoud Abbas, have any interest in reaching a final status agreement to put an end to the conflict. According to Ya’ari, the goal of the Palestinian leadership is an arrangement that will give them freedom of movement across all of the land between the Jordan River and the sea, and close economic ties with Israel.

Israel will pay a painful price no matter who attacks, but the chances of landing a significant blow are much higher if America strikes.

Though some Israelis on the left continue to argue that Israel must strike a deal soon, decision makers are not feeling much pressure to do so. Why take a risk and give up land or security control when the “moderate” Palestinian leadership continues to refuse recognition of Jewish claims to the land or even the existence of a Jewish people? Managing the conflict, while not at all an ideal option, is seen as quite reasonable. And it is certainly better than making concessions to a movement that is not going to accept any of the compromises needed for a real peace. Though Israel’s situation is often described as untenable, and therefore an agreement must be reached, many Israelis see the situation as quite sustainable—a booming economy, a firm alliance with the world’s strongest country, new allies in Europe and Asia, and hostile regimes collapsing under social unrest and revolution.

Broader Issues

Israel’s security situation looks even better with the discovery of huge quantities of natural gas off its Mediterranean coast. Experts expect the gas fields to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year and give Israel energy independence. But things are not as rosy as they seem. Now that gas has actually been discovered, the Israeli government has been renegotiating the contract they signed with Noble Energy, the American company that made the discoveries. The short-sighted public perception that a foreign company is profiting unduly from Israel’s natural resources leaves Netanyahu with little wiggle room. But Israel will get nothing if it doesn’t reach an agreement with Noble, and mid-sized energy companies are not going to explore the rest of Israel’s territorial waters if they don’t trust the word of its government. The government-appointed Sheshinski Committee recommended a compromise proposal last week that will allow Noble and its partners to turn a handsome profit while paying taxes at levels comparable to other Western countries.

Haredim have pushed for gender-segregated buses and sidewalks, and recently spit on young girls going to school.

Those of us listening for it picked up on a subtle but repeating theme among the experts’ discussion of internal dangers to Israel. Though most officials did not specify which sector they felt threatened by, there is widespread recognition in Israel that the violent far-right wing is increasingly brazen and lawless. This small fringe group is a fervently religious movement dominated by young activists that rejects the legitimacy of the state and is loyal only to settling the land and promoting their vision of Judaism. To stop any progress in cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, they have accelerated a two-pronged campaign in recent months. Attacks have included recent mosque burnings, which were angrily condemned by Israeli leaders across the political and religious spectrum. Far-right activists turned their violence on the IDF as well, destroying military equipment and attacking IDF officers. Even Israelis who support the Jewish presence in the West Bank realize the danger these extremists pose to Israeli security and democracy.

Much ink has been spilled in America by erstwhile friends of Israel lamenting alleged assaults on Israeli democracy by the current Knesset. Any halfway serious investigation of these claims shows how overwrought they are. Israeli politicians speak irresponsibly to one another, flinging around epithets like “fascist” and “racist” with abandon. The sensationalist Israeli press picks up on these fights and amplifies them to the outside world. A bill to regulate noise from houses of worship, including the Muslim call to prayer, was decried as an assault on Islam and religious freedom—a fairly ridiculous charge considering France, Belgium, and Switzerland have similar laws. As do Egypt and Saudi Arabia. And the bill did not even pass the Likud ministerial committee. Another bill that did pass the Knesset would restrict the amount of funding foreign governments could provide to Israeli nongovernmental organizations seeking to influence state policy. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel called the bill “a severe affront to Israel’s democratic character and part of a larger effort on the part of specific MKs to curtail the work of human rights and social change organizations whose agenda and/or activities differ from their political views.” Netanyahu adviser Ron Dermer finds this charge ridiculous, and asked how Americans would react “if Code Pink was funded by the French.” Most of the controversial laws do not make it beyond the initial hearing stages, and the ones actually passed are quite moderate and reasonable.

Many Israelis feel that ultimately, real peace is only possible between peoples, not between Israel and autocratic Arab rulers, and that in the short term things are going to be more complicated for Israel.

Mainstream Israelis do feel that a legitimate affront to democracy has been posed by the increasing marginalization of women in the public spaces of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Haredim have pushed for gender-segregated buses and sidewalks, and recently spit on young girls going to school. When police arrived to remove signs asking women to walk on certain sidewalks, they were met by violent Haredi protesters. Mainstream Israeli society is pushing back, however, and hard. Female activists have been riding the segregated lines and sitting among the male Haredi riders. Netanyahu pledged to take immediate action against Haredi extremists who harass women in public. I noticed multiple signs on egged buses stating that all passengers may sit where they please, and anyone interfering with their choice is violating the law. Recently, police arrested Haredi men for cursing at women sitting at the front of ultra-Orthodox buses, and an Orthodox female right-wing parliamentarian led her female colleagues in a highly public ride at the front of segregated buses.

Still, the actions of some segments of Haredi society have not kept the Israeli leadership from recognizing the incredible potential of the ultra-Orthodox sector. Both high-tech executives and government officials spoke to me of the need to integrate the disciplined and extremely intelligent Haredi youth. And, encouragingly, Haredi men and women are responding to government efforts. At a summer job fair in Jerusalem, over 4,000 Haredim showed up, exceeding the organizers’ expectations. Israel’s Arab citizens are another source of economic potential the Netanyahu government is developing. The government approved 680 million shekels for the Druze and Circassian sectors, and 800 million shekels for the development of 13 Arab communities. President Shimon Peres established Maantech, an initiative to recruit and place Arabs in Israeli high tech companies. It will take years before the Haredi and Arab sectors begin to catch up with the rest of the country, but the attention and investment from the government is moving Israel in the right direction.

As usual, Israel’s national security is not as imperiled as many experts abroad would have us believe. The Iranian nuclear program is a dangerous and complicated problem, but for now Israel is choosing a mixture of diplomacy, cooperation with the United States and European Union, and covert action. The Arab revolts present huge potential problems in the short term for Israel, but they do open a window for real peace down the road. For now, Israel is best served by staying out of the fray altogether. The Palestinian issue is not remotely close to any resolution, and will remain that way for the foreseeable future, but hastily making real concessions for no new accommodations from the PA is not a course the Israelis are interested in taking. While the right-wing legislative assault on Israeli democracy is a fiction, there are real internal stresses on Israeli society and security, and mainstream Israelis have taken notice. The war between the IDF and far-right activists is heating up, and extremist ultra-Orthodox have outraged secular Israelis by their treatment of women in the public sphere. Complex and perilous challenges do face the country. With patience, creativity, cooperation with the United States, and a bit of luck, Israel can maneuver through the current uncertainty while moving its economy and society forward.

Lazar Berman is the American Enterprise Institute’s program manager for Foreign and Defense Policy studies.

FURTHER READING: Berman also writes “Might Israel Know What It’s Doing?” “Beyond the Basics: Looking Beyond the Conventional Wisdom Surrounding the IDF Campaigns against Hizbullah and Hamas,” “Black Tea,” “The Lessons of the Second Lebanon War,” “The 2011 Nobel Prize and the Debate over Jewish IQ,” and “Breaking the Peace Process Paradigm.” Arthur Herman explains “How Israel's Defense Industry can Help Save America.” Danielle Pletka asks “Is Israel About to Attack Iran?” Jerry Weinberger contributes "Egypt, Israel, and the Muslim Brotherhood."

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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