Arms Buildup and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process

By Dunn, Michael Collins | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Arms Buildup and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process

Dunn, Michael Collins, The Middle East Journal

Perilous Prospects: The Peace Process and the Arab-Israeli Military Balance, by Anthony H. Cordesman. Boulder, CO and Oxford: Westview Press, 1996. xvi + 287 pages. Notes to p. 306. Bibl. to p. 316. $69 cloth; $25 paper.

Nuclear Weapons in Israel, by Taysir N. Nashif. New Delhi: A.P.H. Publishing, 1996. viii + 112 pages. Bibl. to p. 118. Index to p. 124. n.p.

The Origin of the Arab-Israeli Arms Race: Arms, Embargo, Military Power and Decision in the 1948 Palestine War, by Amitzur Ilan. New York: New York University Press, 1996. xiv + 244 pages. Notes to p. 274. Bibl. to p. 280. Index to p. 287. $45.

The three books reviewed here differ enormously in subject matter, approach and method; what they share in common is a concern with the military balance in the Arab-Israeli conflict. All three of these books remind us that the Arab-Israeli conflict has, for much of its history, been an exercise in military competition. This review will look first at the two books addressing contemporary issues before examining the one with a historical approach, though that may seem to reverse the logical chronology.

There was a moment, in the post-Oslo euphoria of late 1993, when issues of military balance and the arms race, at least in the Arab-Israeli arena, seemed to be outdated relics of an earlier time. The bogging down of the peace process, the return of Likud to power in Israel, and the virtual deadlock in negotiations between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights have meant that some of the old scenarios are being considered again, and old fears revived. In late 1996 there was a great deal of talk in Israel about possible war with Syria, and open disagreement among senior Israeli generals about the likelihood of that prospect.

In fact, however, the world, including the Middle East, has changed more profoundly than some yet realize, and the likelihood of an Arab-Israeli war along the lines of those of 1948, 1956, 1967 or 1973 now seems remote. New conflicts are more likely to follow the pattern of the Palestinian Intifada (uprising) on the one hand, or of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon on the other, rather than of the conventional model of national armies clashing along clear-cut front lines. This is a world in which a Likud prime minister of Israel has met several times with Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, and in which a negotiating process, however much it may have bogged down or seemed to retrogress, is in place with each of Israel's neighbors. And, while there is still a vast quantity of arms flowing into the Middle East, the end of the Cold War has changed the nature of the arms race, in which the two competing superpowers were once arming opposite sides.

In this new world, Anthony H. Cordesman's latest contribution to the study of military balances in the Middle East is useful, if, in some ways, not quite satisfying. Perilous Prospects offers a scenario-driven analysis of various possible conflicts between Israel and one or more of its neighbors. As with any attempt to present scenarios, some are obviously more likely than others.

Anyone who has read Cordesman's large body of work on the Gulf, or on the Middle Eastern military balance generally, knows that he is skilled at comparing inventories and capabilities. His books are always filled with tables and lists, comparative assessments and graphs. He is a master of the quantifiable. But war is not always quantifiable, and mere "bean-counting" can be misleading, particularly in the Arab-Israeli military balance, where the numerical approach has always favored the Arabs. Cordesman recognizes this, of course, and devotes Chapter 4 to "The Impact of Qualitative Factors and the `Revolution in Military Affairs'." He offers a table providing a qualitative ranking of various front-line states based on Western military assessments that is quite different from the quantitative tables in the previous chapter.

While Cordesman acknowledges and addresses this distinction, its importance means that any assessment of likely conflict scenarios depends heavily on qualitative factors: political judgments, psychological factors, assessments of risk and assessments of likely international reaction.

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