Why does Israel pull punches?

I received an email today from a correspondent in Israel regarding my posting of the testimony of the naval commandos who landed on the deck of the Mavi Marmara. The writer had been a combat soldier, a veteran of a special forces unit, someone who knows what it’s like to rappel from a helicopter into trouble. He wrote,

I haven’t felt so mad, disappointed, and dishonored in a very, very long time.  Mad at the world who will not let us fight to win, and our leaders who feel they aren’t able to. Disappointed at my commanders who would put my courageous brothers in such a helpless situation, then shed the responsibility from themselves. And dishonored that with all our supposed military strength, moral standards, and economic successes, we continually fail to [defeat] the barbarians.

There are a number of issues here. First, whoever was responsible for the intelligence failure that resulted in the soldiers being instructed to expect to be met by ‘peace activists’ who might spit at them or call them names rather than a lynch mob — fire them.

But that’s only the smallest part of the problem. There is something wrong on a deeper level. Israel is viciously attacked but pulls its punches, almost as if the leaders are afraid that the world will get angry — as if there isn’t an almost endless supply of Israel-hatred out there already.

So for example we have the Goldstone report, and in connection with the Mavi Marmara affair, a Turkish account that says that

All of the evidence, including bullet traces on the Mavi Marmara and several eyewitness statements, reveal that Israeli forces started the attack and that even before boarding the ship the forces had already killed and wounded people when targeting objects and people onboard.

Of course if this were true, one wonders why the soldiers jumped into the middle of the lynch mob with paintball guns? Would the Turks say something different if they had landed with real weapons drawn? I suspect that if that had been the case, both passengers and soldiers would have suffered fewer casualties.

So why does Israel always pull her punches? Why does she always stop fighting while the enemy is still standing, as in Gaza?

In some cases there are psychological reasons. Some Israelis have internalized the enemy ‘s narrative. But that’s not the biggest problem.

The biggest problem is that Israel has developed an unhealthy dependence on the US. Israel’s greatest fear is that the US will cut off the supply of spare parts for expensive, complicated weapons systems. And the US is ambivalent toward Israel. Most US officials (but not all) want Israel to survive, but within 1949 lines. And they seem to want to maintain a balance of power between Israel and its neighbors, which means that Israel can’t be allowed to get too strong (see an example of this thinking here).

So while UN and EU resolutions are usually harmless, US actions can be very painful. And I think fear of US actions — or actual US interference, as happened in the Gaza war — are a major constraint on Israel’s ability to fight.

It is imperative that Israel begin to wean itself away from the US. It must develop other sources of weapons and other alliances. I understand that integration of weapons systems from multiple suppliers is a complicated technical problem, but it simply is unacceptable that the Jewish state has to behave like a banana  republic. This will be a long, difficult process, but it has to start.

There is another reason why Israel ought to reassess its behavior. It’s an unfortunate fact about humans that most of them do not respect restraint — they respect the exercise of power. It’s a truism that the Arab world always interprets a desire to compromise as a sign of weakness, but it’s not just the Arab world.

Greater force is not always the solution to a difficult problem — consider the Russians in Afghanistan — but restraint when force is called for only invites the other side to push harder.

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3 Responses to “Why does Israel pull punches?”

  1. Robman says:

    You open a huge can of worms here, Vic.

    I don’t think Israel’s seemingly irrational behavior that you describe is limited to dependence on the US, though that is obviously and issue of central importance.

    There is also the fact that Israel’s largest trading partner is the EU. It is a sad fact of political/economic geography that Israel is very much in need of access to European markets. I believe that dependence on this outlet for Israeli exports is really what causes Israeli leaders to lose sleep over “what the ‘Goyim’ will say”, even more than the relationship with the US. An EU trade embargo on Israel would be absolutely devastating to their economy.

    Israel is developing important trade and military relationships with India. India is Israel’s most important trading partner among individual states, and is also the largest market for Israeli military hardware. Indian nationals tend to be very pro-Israel; recent polls have shown them to be even more supportive of Israel than U.S. citizens, though by a small margin.

    However, India has thus far not demonstrated the courage to stand up for Israel in international forums, such as the UN. Right now, they have a temporary seat on the UNSC; they could face a test of this nature very soon, if this PA-sponsored resolution on settlements ever comes to a vote. If India is all that she is cracked up to be in terms of support of Israel – according to some Israelis who tout her as a replacement for the U.S. as a strategic partner – then we should expect a veto from her. If this vote comes to the UNSC, and India votes for it, then this proves the sad fact that, for the time being, Israel is stuck with the U.S., for better or worse.

    Outside of India, who could replace the U.S.? Certainly no one in Western Europe. Certainly not Russia. Certainly not China. Certainly not Brazil. Certainly not Japan. So, who?

    Real world, the only solution I see is for Diaspora Jews here and other U.S.-based supporters of Israel (e.g., conservative Republicans and Evangelicals) to organize and lobby effectively so as to overcome the “anti-Israel lobby” here in the U.S., and to move towards strengthening ties with the U.S. accordingly.

    Things look especially bad now with Obama as president, but even though no past president has treated Israel as a true ally, Obama is clearly the worst thus far. Things can change, and at least here, there is a past precedent for support and a popular basis for future support. Even with India, only the latter is true, and neither of these conditions are true for anyone else at all, at least not since the 1980s.

    Israel needs to weather the next three years, and we need to work/hope for a change in Washington. If Obama is re-elected, the situation will be especially grim.

  2. Vic Rosenthal says:

    I am not suggesting that Israel should dump the US — only that it should develop multiple sources for weapons and equipment that it can’t produce itself, as well as other alliances. Remember the Lavi? Israel was set to produce what would have been one of the best fighter aircraft in the world. The project was canceled for various reasons, the main one being that the US didn’t want competition in the world market.
    If Israel has no options except the US, then it’s a satellite.

  3. Robman says:

    Oh, I agree with you, Vic. I’m just saying that from where Israel stands in the here and now, this is going to be a daunting task.

    By the way, I just learned yesterday that India – who now has a temporary seat on the UNSC – is also supporting that hideous pending Palestinian resolution, about declaring all Israeli “settlements” east of the 1949 armistice lines to be illegal. The whole UNSC is…only the U.S. remains uncommitted as yet.

    So much for India as a replacement for the U.S. as a staunch ally and strategic partner….

    I’m sure if Canada had gotten a slot on the UNSC this time around, they’d veto it even if the U.s. didn’t. But for the first time in history, the U.S. didn’t support Canada’s bid for the seat, allowing the UAE to bugger them out of it so that Portugal could get the seat instead.

    This whole thing is so, so calculated. I understand now that Obama is ccoking up a laundry list of concessions they intend to present to Israel on borders and security – leaving aside ROR and Jerusalem for the time being, to say nothing of recognition – as an “offer they can’t refuse”. In other words, accept the U.S. diktat or the U.S. leaves Israel twisting in the wind before this latest UN outrage.

    You are right about the Lavi, and in hindsight, Israel absolutely should have fielded that aircraft. Again, I agree with you that Israel needs to broaden her base of support in the world. But right now, she is very, very lonely. Shoring up things with the U.S. post-Obama is her only realistic strategy for the near term, at least. (As for the immediate term – i.e., the remainder of Obama’s tenure in office – I don’t know what to advise. The situation stinks all around.)