In the years following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, even though the Israelis had just decisively defeated their enemies, the country’s founding fathers were rather pessimistic about their future. They were deeply concerned that the Arab states would eventually build a combined military force that could overwhelm Israel. Israel’s losses in the war had been very heavy; some 6,000 men and women out of a total population of about 650,000 had been killed in the hostilities.
Today, it is no longer the unified power of the Arab states about which Israel has to worry. Israel is presently troubled by the fallout, ironically, of Arab state weakness and disarray, not Arab might. This reality is one that presents Israel some genuine opportunities. But it also presents real risks, risks to which Israel’s traditional security doctrines are not well positioned to respond.
Israel’s independence war had been of the “few against the many,” as Israel’s small population faced more than 30 million Arabs in the neighboring states, including Iraq which also participated in the war. But in the battlefield, as the war progressed, Israeli forces established a numerical advantage over the invading Arab forces. By the time the war had ended, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had about 100,000 men, considerably more than the 60,000 or so that the Arab states had mustered to fight in Palestine.
But Israel could not simultaneously sustain such a level of total mobilization and maintain an army of that size over time while also developing a modern and stable economy and absorbing millions of new immigrants from the world over. The neighboring Arab states, however, would not make peace, and they promised a “second round” that would finally eliminate Israel. Israel had to develop a security doctrine accordingly.
That doctrine was based on maintaining a relatively small standing army heavily reliant on total mobilization of the reserves only in time of war. Israel invested great effort in the development of a very effective intelligence capability that could provide the essential early warning of impending attack to enable timely mobilization. Israel could not afford to be attacked first and have to fight its wars on its own very small and densely populated territory.
This, in turn, dictated preemption and the immediate transfer of battle to the enemy’s territory. As total mobilization had potentially paralyzing economic effect, war had to be brief, and it had to culminate in the decisive defeat of the enemy.
This was a tall order, and the leadership of the 1950s was never quite sure that Israel could manage all of the above on its own. The Arab states had much larger populations; though Israel’s population had trebled and reached two million by 1960, the neighboring states and Iraq by then had over 40 million. The major Arab states were propagating a militant form of pan-Arabism, modernizing, and building large Soviet supplied military machines, and it was becoming increasingly difficult for Israel to keep up with the Arabs in the arms race.
In September 1955, Egypt signed an arms agreement with the Soviet Union (the so-called “Czech” arms deal), thus arousing the worst of Israel’s fears. The Israelis assumed that it was only a question of time before this weaponry would be unleashed against them. It therefore decided to preempt, but uncertain of its own capabilities, Israel elected to collaborate with Britain and France in the 1956 Suez War against Egypt. The French and the British had reasons of their own to attack Egypt, related to Egypt’s recent nationalization of the Suez Canal, whereas Israel was in the fray for its own reasons, seeking the destruction of Egypt’s newly acquired arsenal.
Israel defeated the Egyptians in four days of fighting in the Sinai Peninsula and thereby achieved its immediate objectives. But Prime Minister David Ben Gurion did not rest assured. Thanks to the Soviet Union, Egypt was soon rearmed and Israel’s basic problem of maintaining the conventional balance of power remained unchanged. Ben Gurion, therefore, decided to forge ahead in the late 1950s with the development of Israel’s nuclear option.
The Six Day War of June 1967 was an historical watershed in the annals of the Arab-Israeli conflict and in the history of the Middle East. The crushing defeat of the Arabs proved that Israel’s great fear of potential Arab military had been exaggerated. The Arab states had failed to modernize successfully. Their militaries were no match for the IDF and its great advantages in the use of modern air power and armored maneuver in the open battlefield. Israel occupied large swathes of Arab territory and felt more secure than ever. The resulting Israeli euphoria in victory morphed into an arrogant mindset. Israeli leaders assumed that the Arabs would not dare to attack, and if they did, Israel would give them short shrift, even without resorting to preemption.
In October 1973, Israel was woefully caught by surprise when Egypt and Syria launched a joint attack. Israel suffered heavy losses in the first few days and appeared to be facing possible defeat. But within a week or so of heavy fighting and resupplied by the US, the Israelis were back on their feet. By the time the war ended after 17 days of fighting, Israeli forces had turned the tables and were well on their way to Cairo and Damascus. The Egyptians were quick to come to the conclusion that if Israel could not be beaten even in the best of circumstances, it was time to finally come to terms with the Jewish State and make peace. The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was signed in 1979, and has lasted through all the vicissitudes of Middle Eastern politics ever since, for 37 years.
This marked the beginning of the obsolescence of the original Israeli security doctrine. The Arab states had no realistic military option against Israel without Egypt, and Israel has not fought any wars with any of them for 42 years (though it has fought on the territory of Lebanon).
The last 40 years have also been years of accelerated Arab state decline. Rapid population growth coupled with poor economic performance has driven numerous Arab states into deep crisis. Instead of becoming progressively more powerful, as Israel’s founding fathers had assumed, the Arab states actually became steadily weaker. The explosion of the so-called “Arab Spring” was a representation of the total despair of the Arab younger generation that waited in hopeless anticipation for rewarding employment, minimal prosperity, and liberalization and democratic reforms.
In their misery, many sought the comfort of the warm embrace of tradition. Islamic politics, sectarianism and tribalism became ever more attractive to the masses. Radical Islamic politics tended to exacerbate sectarian differences between Sunnis and Shi’is and the numerous minority sects who all sought the protection of their respective communal identities. The unsavory combination of population growth, economic lethargy, and sectarian or tribal dissension are producing numerous failed or failing Arab states. Some states, like Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are on the verge of disintegration. Sudan has formally split into two states. And Palestine, which has yet to come into being, is already divided in two.
Ironically, this Arab state failure, in its own way, is also quite threatening to Israel. The decline of the Arab states has led to two other disturbing trends. The first is the emergence of non-Arab Iran as a dangerous regional hegemon. The second is the proliferation of non-state actors such as Hizballah, Hamas, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and their ilk. The Iranian nuclear threat seems to be on the backburner for the near future following the agreement of July 2015 between Iran and the P5+1. But non-state actors, especially Hizballah and Hamas, pose serious immediate problems for Israel. These are not the existential threats of the more distant past, yet they are persistent ongoing irritants that one cannot simply defeat. And these players tend to resort to a form of warfare which is very difficult for Israel to deal with effectively.
Hamas and Hizballah have no qualms about using the protective shield of their own civilian populations to attack Israel’s home front. Such tactics make Israeli retaliation highly problematic, exposing Israel to the political and diplomatic ramifications of international condemnation, when it unavoidably causes civilian casualties to put an end to rocket attacks against its own population. Israel’s losses are its own, but Palestinian or Lebanese civilian losses cost Israel politically even more. In these circumstances, Israel cannot fully exploit its operational advantages in the use of air power and armored maneuver. There are, therefore, no rapid and decisive victories (no “Six Day” wars) in this kind of sub-conventional warfare.
Israel has consequently sought to create state-like rules of engagement and deterrence with players such as Hamas and Hizballah. Israel informally recognizes Hamas as the ruling authority of Gaza and charges it with full responsibility for all that takes place there, threatening Hamas on occasion that it might not remain in power at the end of the next round of hostilities, if and when it occurs (whether that is an attainable objective is debatable). Similarly, in regard to Hizballah, Israel has made it clear in no uncertain terms that since Hizballah shares in the government of Lebanon, a future round of warfare with Hizballah will also be a war against the state of Lebanon and its infrastructure. A future war will not be waged solely against Hizballah, implying that a very heavy price will be exacted from the state of Lebanon for Hizballah’s actions.
In the new regional reality, as some Arab states sink ever-deeper into crisis and disarray, and as the Sunni Arabs struggle with Shi’ite Iran’s hegemonic design, Israel has acquired genuine Arab allies who make common cause to contain Iranian influence. The days when Israel was alone against all the rest in the Arab world, as it had been in its early years, are over. Israel has lasting and stable peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and a fledgling informal relationship with countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It is also building up relationships with the non-Arab states of the region. It has just signed a new agreement for reconciliation with Turkey and earlier in the year, Israel came to agreements for strategic cooperation with Greece and Cyprus.
The fallout of Arab weakness and disarray has its pros and cons for Israel, its risks as well as its opportunities. It is no doubt a lot better than having to contend with the existential challenges of Arab state power of an era long gone. Yet the current equation has its problems too, and these give Israel plenty to worry about. But equally, the new reality also increases Israel’s room for regional diplomatic and political maneuver, providing space for new ideas and political opportunities. This is especially relevant to the Palestinian question. Israel’s relative power advantage enables it to take greater risks in order to find ways out of the present impasse. The status quo of occupation is leading Israel down the slippery slope of a one-state reality, which is of greater danger to Israel, as the nation state of the Jewish people, than it is for the Palestinians. Israel has an interest in the revival of the two-state dynamic, which is more conducive to long term Israeli interests. Israel’s power advantage and its firm ties with some important Arab players could provide the diplomatic envelope for such an Israeli initiative to resume negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, or even for Israeli unilateral measures (especially in reference to the curtailment of the settlement enterprise) to further the two-state idea, even if negotiations prove to be a hopeless exercise.