Israel, the US and the world: a conflict of perceptions

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
23 July 2002

Since the start of the latest Palestinian intifada nearly two years ago, Israel’s armed forces have been heavily committed to actions in towns and cities of the West Bank, while maintaining control of Gaza and taking a range of military actions in southern Lebanon. Reservists have had to be called up several times and the current deployments involve the virtual re-occupation of the West Bank.

Until last week, the garrisoning of these urban areas was expected to be short-lived, but the recent suicide bombings and shootings have strengthened the determination of the Sharon government to continue with its hard-line security measures. There is, as yet, no evidence of any recognition that these measures are actually adding to Israel’s insecurity, and the appointment of General Ya’alon as the new Chief of General Staff confirms the current hard-line stance.

Although almost all the emphasis is on military operations in the territories directly controlled by Israel, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have a much wider concern, much of it relating to regional antagonists such as Syria, Iraq and Iran. As such, the IDF are constantly seeking new and upgraded equipment to meet new perceived threats. Instead, it is found that an increasing part of the defence budget is going on operational costs at the expense of research, development and the production of new weapons.

Even so, Israel is maintaining a very high defence budget, is receiving substantial aid from the United States, and is involved in a range of new military developments. An examination of these gives us some idea of the Israeli military view of the Middle East, and of the manner in which the IDF and Israeli defence industries are so intertwined with their US counterparts.

The logic of proliferation

Israeli military thinking commonly envisages Israel as being surrounded by three ‘rings’ of potentially or actually hostile countries. The first ring includes Syria, Egypt and Jordan. Although the latter two are not currently considered hostile, Israel has been at war with them in the past and the military still treat them with some circumspection. Beyond them lies the second ring, including Iraq and Libya, with the third ring currently involving Iran.

From the Israeli point of view, there is little substantial threat from conventional armed forces, either crossing borders or staging air attacks, as Israel believes it can cope with these. What is of much greater concern is the proliferation of missiles and the fear that they might be equipped with chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons.

Israel itself has by far the strongest such forces in the region, including well over one hundred nuclear weapons that can either be dropped as free-fall bombs by strike aircraft or can be carried as warheads on the Jericho II ballistic missile. Israel may well also have chemical and biological weapons.

Even so, it does not see these as representing a threat to other states in the region, and does not accept in any way that its possession of such weapons is a stimulus to other states to develop their own weapons of mass destruction. These are not seen as deterrents, whereas Israel considers that its own forces are just that.

In a sense, this is a part of a common problem of ‘mirror-imaging’, what international security analysts term the security dilemma – make yourself strong and your opponent does the same, so you make yourself stronger.

In Israel’s case there is a further reason, in that the trauma of Iraq’s Scud missile attacks on Israel during the 1991 Gulf War have had an enduring impact. That the major population centres of Israel could be attacked, albeit by crude Scud missiles, had a lasting effect on Israeli military thinking. It has led to repeated examples of worst-case scenarios in their forward planning.

Even so, here again, the issue is seen solely from an Israeli perspective. There is no recognition that other states see Israel as aggressive, with its repeated actions in Lebanon, past attacks against targets as far away as Tunisia and Iraq, and assassinations and other actions across the world.

The US commonly exaggerates its predictions on issues such as missile proliferation, just as it tended to overplay the strength of the Soviet military during the cold war. Currently, Israel takes this much further even than the US. It contends, for example, that Iran’s new Shahab II missile, with a range of 1,300 km, has completed its early tests, that up to two dozen have already been deployed and that it will go into a production run of up to 150 missiles. Furthermore, it believes Iran will have its first nuclear weapon within three years, whereas the US view is more like five years.

The Israeli view is that Syria is upgrading its Scud missiles with a new version that can reach the whole of Israel from launchers in remote parts of north-east Syria that are difficult to attack. There is even a view that Libya is developing a missile that may be a version of the North Korean No Dong missile, and may have up to 100 of these within eight years.

Israel feels insecure

This security mentality is rarely recognised outside Israel, except in Washington, and the prevailing view is of an Israel that is concerned only with its problems in the territories it directly controls. The latter may dominate the public mood in Israel, and is largely why Sharon maintains support for remarkably hard-line policies that most analysts outside Israel see as self-defeating – ‘watering the seeds of terror’ as it has been called.

But it has to be remembered that while outside perceptions may see a remarkably strong Israel rigorously controlling the Palestinians, the Israeli military see themselves surrounded by opposing states. These, however weak, are seen to be developing weapons that can reach Israel, and they therefore require military responses that may well involve pre-emption.

In part, these responses involve a range of new ground-based early-warning radar systems, airborne early warning AWAC planes, and anti-ballistic missiles. The US is intimately involved in most of these programmes; Israel currently fields improved US Patriot missile batteries and has developed its own Arrow ballistic missile defence system with close US industrial involvement. Israel’s new AWAC plane is the US General Dynamics Gulfstream V, with six on order, as well as three more to be modified as intelligence-gathering and targeting aircraft.

Israel is also determined to have the means to attack states that may be able to deploy missiles carrying weapons of mass destruction, and also to pre-empt such developments by attacking production facilities, much as it did in 1981 when it bombed Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor.

One recent decision that relates to this was the order for 100 new F-16I aircraft. These are developed and built in the US specifically to meet Israeli Air Force requirements for long-range strike aircraft that can accompany the larger F-15I planes that are already deployed.

The US and Israel: a lengthy intimacy

An indication of the close connections with the US has been shown by the cooperation involved in the interception of the Karine A earlier this year. This was the merchant ship that was boarded by Israeli forces en route from Iran, with a cargo that included 50 tons of arms that Israel believed were destined for Palestinian forces.

The Karine A was originally tracked from the Persian Gulf across the North Arabian Sea by US Navy P-3 maritime reconnaissance aircraft. Although the Israelis initially lost contact with the ship when it called into the Yemeni port of Hudaydah, they re-acquired it as it entered the Red Sea, using an experimental spy plane based on a Boeing 737 airframe. This uses equipment that will be mounted in the Gulfstream V aircraft mentioned above.

Thus, in the Karine A case, US-acquired equipment and close US military cooperation was directly involved in the whole process, an aspect of the relationship that extends across many areas of military activity.

This cooperation with Israel stretches back to the 1950s. After its establishment in 1948, Israel was not initially allied to the US in any substantial way, at least not at the level of governmental aid. With the rise of Arab nationalism in the 1950s, and the intrusion of the cold war into the region, this was to change. While links with France and other countries were maintained, it was the US that increasingly saw Israel as the bulwark of its security posture in the region.

This situation was to last throughout the rest of the cold war, and there was concern that the end of the Soviet threat would lead to Israel’s importance to Washington being downgraded. To an extent this happened during the 1990s, but the attacks of 11 September and the subsequent war on terror have resulted in a return to the close relationship of previous years.

Perhaps the clearest example of the closeness of this relationship is the recent Israeli request for more than 2,000 anti-armour missiles worth $80 million. Sale of these Raytheon TOW 2A anti-armour missiles was approved by the Bush administration in late June, following an Israeli request for urgent action.

According to the IDF, the missiles are for use ‘against armour, combat vehicles and other manoeuvrable elements’, but, as Jane’s Defence Weekly reported last week, the IDF has actually been using the missiles repeatedly in air and ground attacks against Palestinian targets, such as buildings.

Some indication of the intensity of recent IDF operations in the West Bank is given by an IDF statement that more weapons and munitions have been used in the past three months than in the last decade in all its operations, including those in Lebanon.

Same reality, different outlooks

The US once again sees Israel as its crucial ally in the region – no longer (as during the cold war) an assistant in the war on communism, but rather a key part of the war on terror, with Palestinian militants seen as one part of the wider threat.

In the region as a whole, Israel is now viewed as a small but extraordinarily strong country determined to use any means to maintain its security, including wholesale repression of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Furthermore, it is seen as locked into US policies, equipped by US arms companies and working closely with the US military.

Israel, on the other hand, sees itself as a country threatened by terror groups bent on its destruction. This view is shared to a very large extent in Washington. Furthermore, Israel’s sense of encirclement by rogue states and hostile groups fuels its perceived requirement for highly potent offensive forces. These perceptions, of threat and of the necessary capacities needed to handle it, feed readily into the more radical paramilitary organisations in the region, especially al-Qaida.

What is important to appreciate is that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians may be deeply counterproductive and ultimately disastrous for its own security, but it is part of an absolute determination to maintain control. Moreover, and this is what outside analysts tend to forget, it is part of a wider outlook that regards this remarkably powerful yet small country as isolated and at risk.

Outside Israel, the country may be seen as aggressive, militarily superior, and with the world’s sole superpower behind it. In Israel itself, in contrast, the ‘David versus Goliath’ image persists. This conflict of perceptions, in which the country’s close relationship with the United States plays a key role, is one of the core reasons why Israelis find it so difficult to achieve a more realistic view of their country’s situation.

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