Israel’s security trap

Israel’s combative military posture, evident both in a tense border skirmish with Lebanon and in its wider strategic plans, is a recipe for permanent insecurity.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
5 August 2010

The flurry of speculation that followed reports of a possible assassination attempt on 4 August 2010 against Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is an indication of the febrile atmosphere surrounding the region. The fierce clash on the Israel-Lebanon border the day before - a thirty-minute firefight that left three Lebanese soldiers, a journalst and an Israeli officer dead - even more illustrates the potential for sudden, unexpected incidents to spark a dangerous conflagration.

The border skirmish was of particular concern in Israel in that it seemed to confirm that the Lebanese army’s posture was becoming more hostile. Since Israel’s war with Hizbollah in July-August 2006, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) could depend on Lebanon’s official armed forces being both reasonably pacific towards them and suspicious of the Hizbollah movement. That situation appears now to have changed, at least among units on the ground (see Anshel Pfeffer, “An end to calm on Israel-Lebanon border?”, Ha’aretz, 4 August 2010).

This factor will have the probable consequence of making the IDF, in the event of another war between Israel and Hizbollah, as less prepared than before to refrain from heavy attacks on the Lebanese military.

An absolute security

But an even more significant event of this edgy week is the missile-attacks on Israel from both Gaza (against the Israeli city of Ashkelon, on 30 July) and from Egyptian territory in Sinai (against the Israeli port of Eilat, on 2 August); in the latter case, the salvo also hit Jordan’s resort of Aqaba, killing a civilian and injuring three others.

These rocket-firings had a macabre timeliness in the sense that they were launched at a moment when Israel is preparing to deploy its new Iron Dome anti-missile system designed to intercept short-range missiles and mortars (see Alon Ben-David, “Iron Umbrella”, Aviation Week, 26 July 2010). The missile’s initial operational capability is scheduled for November 2010; the first two batteries will protect an area of around 150 square kilometres, though it will take several years to build the twenty batteries needed to secure the entire territory to be defended. The close Israeli relationship with the United States is revealed in the fact that Washington is expected to contribute $205 million in 2010 alone for another eight or nine batteries.

These are just the initial stage of a complex set of defences that are intended to protect Israel from a multiple missile-assault, including future systems that could be fired from Iran. The next stage, David’s Sling - intended to handle the threat from longer-range missiles - will get underway in 2012. This role is currently performed by a much older US system, a development of the Patriot missile that was used in January 1991 against Iraqi Scud missiles.

The missile-defence projects, designed to defend Israel against attacks from any quarter, are in turn part of the overall policy of massive conventional deterrence and retaliatory capacity. Israel’s calculation is rooted in what ostensibly seems to be a contradictory idea: that the country can be “impregnable in its insecurity” - where it can respond to permanent dangers with effective anti-missile and anti-aircraft systems, backed by an army that can go on the offensive against encircling threats and a navy and air force that can strike with overwhelming power against more distant opponents.

This combination of resources mean (the strategic thinking goes) no state will dare attack Israel; and that sub-state actors - even if armed with short-range missiles - will be too aware of how Israel can respond to offer a genuine challenge. The larger assumption informing the analysis is that Israel can never make peace with its neighbours; it must therefore be utterly sure of its deterrent capabilities into the indefinite future.

Israeli military strategists have a more immediate motivation to seek the deployment of Iron Dome as soon as possible. They are acutely conscious of the risk that (for example) an unguided and inaccurate rocket from Gaza or Lebanon will hit an Israeli school or hospital, killing many people. The resulting outpouring of anger would require a very forceful military response by any Israeli government that wanted to stay in power, leading to a “war by accident” with unpredictable outcomes.

An unavoidable danger

The guarantee of an infallible mechanism of protection is always out of reach: both Iron Dome and David’s Sling might be countered by an opponent firing a barrage of missiles to overwhelm the defences (see Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, “The Hizbollah project: last war, next war”, 13 August 2009). But Israel is committed to the notion that forceful deterrence is the only choice it can make.

Such an attitude was strongly expressed in the widespread discussion  in Israel of an Oxford Research Group (ORG) report on the consequences of an Israeli military strike on Iran (see “Israel vs Iran: fallout of a war”, 15 July 2010).

The report - Military Action Against Iran: Impact and Effects (15 July 2010) - argues that a war to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions will “lead to sustained conflict and regional instability”, and that it is “unlikely to prevent the eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran and might even encourage it.” Thus, “military action against Iran should be ruled out as a means of responding to its possible nuclear ambitions.”

A very common reaction to the ORG analysis in Israel was to ask: “what is the alternative - do we just wait for the Iranians to get nuclear weapons?”; then to answer by saying: “What we have to do is pre-empt them, by means of air strikes if necessary.” It proved very difficult for most Israelis even to acknowledge one of the principle conclusions of the report: that an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would most likely make the Iranians determined to develop nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. The idea that a military attack on Iran intended to prevent Tehran’s nuclear-weapons development could in reality accelerate their development - that, most Israelis were unable to consider. 

This goes to the heart of the problem: namely, Israel has developed over the sixty-two years of its existence into a state that is defined by conflict and the risk of war, and has learned no other way but to maintain security through overwhelming military power. It is an outlook made possible because it can depend on a superpower’s unstinting support; it is also a recipe for permanent insecurity masquerading as armed peace (see “After Gaza: Israel’s last chance”, 17 January 2010).

A minority in Israel recognises this and advocates a different path involving negotiation and compromise; but it is very much on the margins of public debate. So dominant and powerful is the prevailing security mindset in Israel is that only pressure from external forces - in the United States , especially - could in principle induce a change of outlook. In practice, that does not seem likely - even with Barack Obama in the White House (see “America and Israel: a historic choice”, 22 March 2010).

A situation of this kind is potentially dangerous at any time; it is even more so in a period of multiple tensions across “greater west Asia” - involving Iran, Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. The chances of Israel waging another war in the coming months are in the balance. But a war will not release Israel from entrapment in a military doctrine that cannot deliver security, a predicament that its closest ally too is unable or unwilling to help resolve.

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