Academic journal article Harvard International Review

In Search of Security: Defending Israel into the Next Century

Academic journal article Harvard International Review

In Search of Security: Defending Israel into the Next Century

Article excerpt

ITZCHAK MORDECHAI is Defense Minister of the State of Israel.

A look back at Israel's 50 years of independence and sovereignty reveals both extraordinary accomplishments and still-daunting challenges. History knows no instance comparable to the political renaissance embodied in the State of Israel. Indeed, the saga of an ancient nation repatriated to its homeland after two millennia of exile, so soon after mankind's most heinous genocide, is a tale that deserves more comprehensive narration than this format allows. Of particular relevance, of course, is the story of how a young nation proceeded from guarding its fledgling independence to building a world-renowened defense force.

Mine are brush strokes of a former soldier who, throughout his adult life, practiced his belief that in the particular case of Israel, preserving physical security was a mission that superseded everything else; who also believed that existence, when jeopardized, must inevitably take precedence over the quality of that existence. In view of the Jewish people's painful history of persecution, the paramount importance placed on the need to guarantee security should not be difficult to comprehend. However, a true grasp of Israel's unique experience in nation-building amidst continued security challenges cannot be confined to narrow, solely military expressions of the issue. Therefore, it the following pages I shall attempt to treat the subject in a broader perspective.

Israel's Defense Capabilities

Five decades of independent existence today witness an Israel that is strong, prosperous, self-confident, and ready to marshal its defensive and intellectual resources to craft a stable regional environment. The reasons for Israel's achievements lie in the travail, perseverance, and spirit of its individual citizens. But taken together, Israel's strength can be said to be based on the following parameters.

First and foremost, Israel draws on the determination of Israelis to continue to live and succeed as a free people in the land of their forefathers. The still searing lessons of the Holocaust, and the memory of Arab attempts to bar, delegitimize, and weaken Israel's hold in the Jewish land have served rather to strengthen a sense of justice, stubbornness, and ingenuity in a people hitherto scattered across the globe. Indeed, an unintended bonus of the opposition to Israel's existence was that it hastened the formation of an esprit de corps and a sense of nationhood amongst its people.

Second, the existence of a democratic, pluralistic, and free society helps to make Israel strong by fostering creativity and entrepreneurship and by encouraging a sense of belonging and personal freedom. It is also a society that suddenly and painfully realized the danger that rogue elements, coming from within its own ranks, could inflict on its social fabric and its elected leadership.

Third, Israel has great political and military prowess. The nation enjoys an overwhelming image of deterrence, strong US backing, an advanced research and development community, and indigenous defense industries. It possesses force multipliers in the critical areas of intelligence, air power, and command and control. The country also boasts high quality civilian and military leadership, a long record of solidarity and consensus regarding external threats, a proven and consistent record of victory in wars, and an acknowledgment of its military superiority by regional parties.

Fourth, Israel benefits from its economic and technological robustness. Its economy is stronger than the combined economies of all adjoining states, which means that the average income of each of Israel's citizens surpasses that of any of its immediate neighbors. Israel's economy is growing fast. It is capital- and brain-intensive, concentrating increasingly in modern, high tech sectors. True, Israel's economy is still in need of further adjustments and structural changes. It is also dependent on US economic and security assistance, without which it would not have been able to register such impressive economic growth. Yet there is no denying that Israel is moving on the right track to becoming a first-rate economy.

Fifth, the nation derives strength from its rich human infrastructure. Unable ever to correct the growing discrepancy, in sheer numbers, between its rivals and itself, Israel sought to make up in quality what it lacked in demography. It has thus been able to develop a superb higher education system and to gather into its fold a large number of educated newcomers from the former Soviet Union. The level of its human capital--measured by common criteria such as the abundance of computers, the number of scientific publications, or the proportion of the population of workers employed as skilled laborers, engineers, and physicians--tops that of any other country in the region. At the root of it all are resourceful people who support a vibrant society, expanding economy, and, as already mentioned, an advanced industrial and scientific infrastructure. Needless to say, all these factors are critical pillars in Israel's overall strength and resilience.

Sixth, Israel's security is enhanced by a positive international context. Israel's character as a democratic state made her part of the Western camp of nations. The collapse of the Eastern bloc spelled triumph to those who staked their destiny, values, and security on the West. It also spelled defeat for the side that relied on the backing of the Soviet superpower. While others had to make painful adjustments to the new international realities, Israel's choice had been vindicated, and it was able to improve its relations also with its erstwhile detractors in the former Eastern bloc.

Finally, Israel enjoys an improved regional environment. Israel has won recognition from an increasing number of Arab states and has expanded the circle of peace and coexistence with new Arab partners. It has concluded formal peace agreements with Egypt, formerly its main enemy, and with Jordan, with which it shares its longest border. Israel has entered into an ongoing, serious process of negotiations with the Palestinians and has already concluded a series of ground-breaking agreements with them. It has developed close security ties with Turkey, a friendly Muslim country with great strategic importance in the Middle East. Israel also benefits from a general Arab perception of a permanent US commitment to its security and of widespread recognition of the legitimacy of its security concerns. Moreover, many other countries in the Middle East share Israel's assessment of the nature and the danger of radical political Islam. The international limitations imposed on such radical countries as Iraq and Libya, so long as they remain in effect, also contribute to the security of Israel.

Asymmetries Confronting Israel

Along with these favorable trends, Israel has faced structural asymmetries that are expected to pose continued security challenges in the future. These include the following factors.

Israel is small in size. It is lacking in natural resources, including water, and must rely on external sources for the supply of its energy needs.

Though at peace with its southern and eastern neighbors, Israel is still geographically isolated. It lacks a strategic hinterland, and its dependence on reserve forces has encouraged and could conceivably prompt further surprise attacks against it.

Israel's population and infrastructure are concentrated in a dense strip along the coast. This vulnerability is exacerbated by the Israeli public's low tolerance to casualties, including in its armed forces.

Israel faces a large collective of Muslim nations still loath to recognize the legitimacy of an independent Jewish state in their midst. Some, like Iran and Libya, openly advocate the use of force as a means to eliminate Israel altogether.

Furthermore, Israel's is a transparent society whose inquisitive press, open institutions, and garrulous public readily expose Israel's weaknesses to the mostly opaque and authoritarian regimes surrounding it. Moreover, unlike many of its opponents, Israel is expected to exhibit enlightened norms of behavior even when confronted with patently life-menacing situations.

While Israel threatens no country in the Middle East and has even offered formal reassurances of its nonaggressive intentions, some countries in the region view Israel's defensive capabilities as a threat to their security and interests. Their response to this perceived threat has further complicated Israel's security dilemma.

Israel's standing may also be affected by extra-regional economic considerations. For example, dependence on Middle Eastern oil still plays a detrimental role in shaping certain countries' policies that affect Israel. Lastly, the prolonged nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict has generated fatigue and frustration among countries whose engagement could otherwise have alleviated the all too prevalent sense of crisis in the region.

Potential Regional Threats

Given the conflicting trends described above, a cautious assessment of future security challenges likely to prevail in the Middle East cannot rule out the development of new or renewed perils for Israel. Admittedly, being a part of the politico-military equation in the region, Israel will continue to play a pivotal role in molding its Mideastern environment. Nonetheless, Israeli policy planners cannot discount the possibility that pernicious trends may develop regardless of Israel's action or inaction. There is nothing deterministic about the way the future may unfold. Indeed, the pursuit and benefits of peace may yet turn out to be the defining elements in the shaping of a more rational and calmer Middle Eastern landscape. Still, a long-term prognosis ought to prepare also for a number of less optimistic scenarios.

For example, the Arabs could initiate a conventional war, aimed mainly at achieving by force what they could not or did not want to gain at the negotiating table, or at creating conditions for a new political process favoring Arab demands. Unintended deterioration in the political climate or Arab miscalculations might eventuate a similar outcome.

Also, Arab countries and Iran are likely to make concerted efforts to compensate for their own weaknesses and to exploit Israeli vulnerabilities. The trend is already apparent today. The emphasis and resources devoted to the purchase of advanced weaponry, especially long-range delivery systems, is the most conspicuous manifestation of this trend.

Even more disturbing are attempts by Israel's adversaries to develop non-conventional capabilities. Chemical weapons have been used by a number of Middle Eastern countries and in at least one case--the Iran-Iraq War--were a strategically decisive factor in bringing a regional conflict to a halt. Biological weapons programs too already exist in several major regional states, and there is also evidence to the effect that some of Israel's sworn enemies are actively pursuing the nuclear path. Disconcertingly and somewhat ironically, adherence to international agreements banning weapons of mass destruction has been perceived by some local states to provide them with a semblance of respectability that facilitates, rather than hinders, their non-conventional programs. At any rate, the combination of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons with long-range delivery systems, or the acquisition by determined terrorists of any of these lethal weapons, could present Israel with a most potent--indeed possibly even an existential threat.

Also plausible is the development of low-intensity conflict, which might range from guerrilla warfare in Lebanon and terrorist actions to the deliberate use of small-scale bloody confrontations to advance political demands. Paradoxically, progress in the peace process could increase, rather than diminish, the motivation of Iranian-supported groups, such as Hamas and Hizbullah, to undermine by force any new prospect of peace. Particularly important in this respect would be the policy adopted and actions taken by the Palestinian Authority to suppress any manifestation of terrorism. Experience shows that wavering on this critical issue is certain to jeopardize movement in the peace process and to put at risk achievements already registered in it.

Radical regimes in the region also pose a danger to Israel. Here we speak not only of direct threats of terrorist groups inspired and assisted by Iran or other countries, but also of indirect threats, aimed at undermining stability of Western-oriented Arab regimes seeking accommodation with Israel.

Furthermore, Israel's security in the Middle East may be affected by internal developments in neighboring states. Many Arab leaders are today in their late 60s and will eventually step down even if health reasons do not force them to do so sooner. In some--not all--Arab countries, the lack of orderly succession procedures could turn the imperative of succession into a destabilizing struggle. More importantly, new authoritarian rulers may not feel bound by their predecessors' policies and thus may elect not to abide by commitments made to Israel by previous governments. Reverses in internal political circumstances may thus make peace reversible as well.

Military-Civilian Relations

The changing peculiarities of Israel's security situation and the changes in external factors affecting it have been accompanied by societal transformations that have added new dimensions to Israel's dilemmas. From the early days of its foundation, Israel's Defense Forces have been a genuine citizens' army, relying on critical reserves to field its full strength in times of need. Conse-quently, changes in societal norms have been quick to infiltrate and influence military conventions. Permissive civilian habits can clash with the needs of military order and discipline. Yet adapting to the exigencies of change can have also a beneficial side. It can rejuvenate military thinking and practices, and, in the particular case of Israel, can tone down the possibly abrasive impact on the armed forces of the political friction besetting the Israeli body politic.

From its inception, conscription in Israel served broader national goals. In a "melting pot" society, it has been an essential leveler, an important vehicle of socialization and integration. In an age in which Israeli citizens are justifiably becoming more attentive to their rights, military service underscores, with no less compelling justice, their duties. Men and women, natives and immigrants, farmers and city dwellers, rich and poor have been expected to devote a mandatory, three-year period (for males; the length of service is shorter for women) to the defense of their country.

Nevertheless, measured against the norms held at the time of Israel's War of Independence, the civilian-military relationship has experienced important shifts. While the exact weight of these shifts is hard to measure, their impact on Israel's security practices and expectations cannot be overlooked. In this context, a number of changes deserve attention.

Fundamentally, the traditional focus on the good of the collective has been increasingly balanced by a heightened awareness and more vigorous pursuit of individual rights.

Moreover, there has been a precipitous rise in societal involvement, sometimes even interference, in matters of security. Today, the courts, the legislature, parents, politicians, and above all, the media keep a vigilant eye on affairs hitherto considered to be off-limits to civilian scrutiny.

Other shifts in military-civilian relations center around the peace process. The security aspects and dilemmas of any political agreement negotiated or even contemplated between Israel and an Arab partner have inevitably drawn Israel's security forces into a domestic debate that has split the nation apart. The results of this sometimes uneasy state of affairs have all too often been problematic. Though working under the directives of the elected leadership, and despite conscious efforts to remain impartial, the military could not escape charges that it leaned toward one side or the other of the political map. Nevertheless, so far the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been relatively successful in disengaging itself from the internal political debate in Israel. To a large extent, the military has remained one of the more unquestionable and recognized symbols of Israel's national consensus.

Finally, in small segments of the Israeli society, fatigue and frustration from the seemingly intractable nature of the dispute with the Arbas have eroded motivation to serve in the army. At the same time, this same circumstance has served to strengthen the sense of mission among others.

The end result of these changes was to make the management of Israel's security a more complex and delicate business. Competing social and political demands today compel defense planners to devise new methods to maintain adequate security with relatively smaller budgetary allocations. Closer public monitoring directs them to act more cautiously in deciding on and executing certain defense programs. Also, the nature of the domestic debate and of the conflict with the Palestinians often force Israeli decision-makers to be more circumspect in the use of force in ambiguous situations. Even so, I am confident that when confronted with clearly perceived threats, all Israelis--regular soldiers and uniformed civilians alike--will shed their differences and single-mindedly rally to the defense of their country.

Future Defense Considerations

A forward-looking view of Israeli security assets and needs suggests that any future development will have to give due account to the security parameters outlined below.

First, Israel's search for peace with its Middle Eastern rivals will continue to reflect its understanding that peace has been and will remain an extremely important means of guaranteeing Israel's security. All other alternatives have been recognized by every Israeli government to be temporary, unstable, and more costly.

Second, stable security arrangements must accommodate the legitimate concerns of all parties. At the same time, the potentially brittle nature of regional politics will oblige Israel to adopt a prudent defense policy even under conditions of broader peace agreements.

Third, a comprehensive, regionwide state of peace is bound to change the importance of territories. However, even when that happy moment ultimately arrives, Israeli geography and the distribution patterns of its population will demand that its security be contingent also upon territories retained under its own control.

Fourth, to defend the peace and to deter violations, Israel will need to maintain a state of the art security infrastructure. Still certain to be permanently outnumbered in size of population, standing army, and territory, Israel will need to invest considerably in securing a qualitative military advantage capable of deterring and dealing with any likely coalition of peace-breakers. It is here that the old Latin dictum becomes relevant: "si vis pacem, para bellum" ("if you seek peace, prepare for war"). Maintaining a military edge is likely to encounter increasing opposition from regional players and foreign arms purveyors. Therefore, for a long time still, the economic and political price of peace could prove to be almost as taxing as the price of preparing for war. However, one can safely assume that most Israelis will understand that the price of protecting peace in the Middle East, however high, is worth-while, especially when weighing the alternative.

Finally, practical arms control arrangements, already shown to work in agreements with some Arab countries, could provide important support for any future peace agreement. However, for them to endure what would be required is a culture of compliance, transparency, and verification that ensures that agreed-upon deployment and arms control measures are indeed respected by all. The case of Iraq serves us all as a constant reminder of how far we still need to go in order to inculcate these norms in the Middle East.

What Lies Ahead

A nation's evolution may be said to pass through three phases: vision and resurgence, independence, and maturity and tranquillity. Many Israelis believe that having realized the old Jewish dream and prayer of return and independence, they may be excused if they act as though, after 50 full years of existence, Israel has at long last reached the third stage.

My conclusion is more reserved. Though I am sure we are moving toward the third stage, I believe we are still struggling to stabilize our second stage of independence. In the previous pages, I referred to factors likely to influence and define the course and pace necessary to reach the final goal of peace, tranquillity, and security in the region. These factors include the nature of our relations with the Palestinians and Syria, as well, of course, as with Egypt and Jordan; the quality of our relations with the United States; the danger of terrorism; long-range threats; and the stability of peace-seeking regimes around us. The mosaic of a secure peace cannot be complete as long as any of these pieces is missing.

To maintain security, even in a time of a comprehensive Middle Eastern peace--let alone a scenario of partial peace in the region--Israel will need to do everything within its power to pursue peace, reserve the use of its force to an absolutely necessary minimum, and insist on preserving critical components in its overall security posture.

These components start with the fostering of an undiminished strategic deterrent image needed to ward off existential threats, pass through the cultivation of an indigenous defense industry infrastructure, and end up in an attempt to uphold qualitative advantages in key areas. These include early warning systems, intelligence, air force, anti-missile and chemical and biological weapons defense, and advanced standoff weaponry. The precondition for all of this will continue to be a solid, close partnership with the United States.

Giving free rein to my imagination on Israel's security 50 years hence, I visualize an Israel that is at peace with its former adversaries, in a region ruled by democratically-elected, accountable governments, whose security is also anchored in regional arrangements. I visualize an Israel that is free to choose how to conduct its affairs, unencumbered by a heavy burden of terrorism, fear, and casualties. I foresee a country that is able to divert, to civilian use, the expertise now dedicated to military research and development; whose security budget, measured against its national product, equals that of any normal non-warring nation; a country that continues to share values, interests, and a special bond with the United States.

I see an Israeli government and its defense minister supervising smaller armed forces composed of regular and reserve troops devoting to military service only a fraction of the time they spend in it today. I see an IDF conducting joint exercises with Arab armies and engaged in noncombat peace-keeping operations in extra-regional trouble spots. In short, I envision an Israel whose existence is considered by all who live in the Middle East as not only tolerable, but indispensable to the security and prosperity of the whole region.

I believe that the patience and strength of the State of Israel and its willingness to come even to painful terms with its neighbors in order to reach peace could one day turn this vision into reality.

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