Recently I was talking with someone who favors direct negotiations between Israel and Hamas. He said that Israel could afford to do this because Israel was so much stronger than Hamas. On another occasion, it was suggested that Israel could afford to withdraw from all the territories and meet all the demands (even accept Arab refugees) of the PA in the name of peace, because “Israel is as powerful as NATO”.
In both cases my discussion partners were ignoring two salient points: the very real external and internal constraints on the use of Israel’s formidable military power, and the physical and societal vulnerability of Israel.
It’s been said (OK, I just said it) that in recent history Israel has often had all of its enemies’ ducks in a row but then was not allowed to pull the trigger.
For example, in 1956 an angry Eisenhower forced Israel to withdraw after successfully capturing the Sinai peninsula and the Gaza strip. In 1973, Israel was forced by threats from the Soviets and US pressure to allow the surrounded Egyptian Third Army to escape destruction. In 1982, Yasser Arafat and his PLO men were allowed to flee to exile in Tunis under the protection of a multilateral force. Supposedly an Israeli sniper had Arafat in his sights but was not permitted to fire; one wonders if an Oslo process could have brought peace had he done so. And of course in 1991, Israel absorbed scud missile attacks from Saddam’s Iraq because the first President Bush did not allow Israel to use her power in self-defense.
In January of this year, then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni flew to Washington while the IDF was awaiting orders to begin the third phase of Operation Cast Lead, the entry into Gaza city which would bring about the capture or death of the Hamas leadership and its destruction as a fighting force. She returned with a near-meaningless memorandum of understanding, and shortly thereafter Israel began to withdraw from Gaza without executing Phase III. The IDF was out of Gaza before Barack Obama’s inauguration, and although it was not publicly admitted by Israel or the US, many observers think that Livni received an ultimatum to this effect.
Internal constraints also affect the exercise of Israeli military power. Israel could have completely wiped out Hamas in Gaza with a combination of aerial attacks and artillery fire, in a matter of days and before international pressure could be marshaled to prevent it. This could have been done with almost no risk to IDF personnel, just as the Russians did in Grozny, Chechnya. But no Israeli government — or the Israeli populace — would have been able to accept the thousands or tens of thousands of Palestinian civilian deaths that would result from it.
I can also mention Israel’s nuclear deterrent here. Unlike some other nuclear powers, Israel has never used its capability to threaten other nations, but has always held it in reserve to deter attacks with weapons of mass destruction or as a last-ditch option if the country is in danger of being overrun (as was feared in 1973).
This naturally leads to a discussion of vulnerability. It’s often said that one can’t appreciate how small Israel is without seeing it. At its narrowest point, a person could walk across it in a few hours. In 2006 we saw how easy it was for Hezbollah to do large amounts of damage with short-range missiles that are almost impossible (so far) to intercept and which can be launched from mobile or easily hidden portable launchers.
Israel’s relatively small population (6 million Jews, 1.5 million Arabs) is concentrated in its coastal plain where even a single strike by a chemical or nuclear warhead could do a huge amount of damage. Its standing army consists of less than 180,000 soldiers (in comparison Egypt has 450,000, plus an almost equal number in paramilitary forces). Even a few casualties have a great of effect in the small population. Finally, because of its small size and lack of resources, Israel can’t fight a war for more than a few weeks without receiving supplies from abroad.
Israel’s enemies have perfected asymmetric warfare techniques, including the use of proxies and the manipulation of more powerful external forces to leverage their own capabilities. As a result, we have absurd situations such as Hamas and Hezbollah siting their weapons depots in heavily populated civilian areas so that Israel will either avoid attacking them or attack them and be blamed for civilian death and injury. Needless to say, such reports will be exaggerated, and then will be given the widest currency by the allies of Hamas and Hezbollah in the ‘human rights’ community.
The special situation of Israel in the world media, where it is presented as the paradigm case of evil and oppression, makes this even more effective since no actual evidence is required in order to work up worldwide expressions of fury and hatred (for example, consider Human Rights Watch or the Aftonbladet libel).
This negative climate in world opinion then makes it possible for other nations to reduce support for Israel or constrain her actions (in the case of the US), stand by without opposing terrorist aggression, or even support it — on the grounds that whatever happens to Israel is her own fault. Thus much of Israel’s military power is neutralized.
The Obama administration’s campaign to impose a ‘solution’ to the Israeli-Arab conflict — which may seriously weaken Israel’s ability to defend herself by replacing the IDF with less-than-worthless international troops in the West Bank and perhaps even force Israel to transfer the Golan Heights to Syria — is a good example of the force multiplication technique by which external powers are used by Israel’s qualitatively weaker enemies to neutralize her military advantage and increase her vulnerability. Recent American hints about Israel being asked to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty are another example.
So, yes, Israel has a world-class air force, deliverable nuclear weapons and competent ground and naval forces. But the employment of this power, especially against opponents employing asymmetric warfare techniques, is severely constrained by external and internal pressures. In addition, Israel is vulnerable to attack with little strategic depth or ability to absorb casualties. And present trends, particularly in the US, seem to be to increase the constraints and the vulnerability.
The myth that Israel is a superpower is nurtured by those who would like see her even more vulnerable and less able to use her power.