Netanyahu and Israel’s (in)security

How do Israeli leaders see the future? With less confidence than you might think.   

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
7 September 2018
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of Israel Defense Forces, 7 May, 2018

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of Israel Defense Forces, 7 May, 2018. JINI/Press Association. All rights reserved.

The previous column in this series looked at the Israeli government’s concern that the pro-Palestinian leader of Britain's Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, might win a general election and become prime minister. Israel's worry here contrasts with an otherwise more favourable international environment, notably the strong support from Trump and Pence's White House (see "Netanyahu’s Corbyn problem", 31 August 2018).

Also in the United States, pro-Israel voices buoyed by Christian Zionist enthusiasm are working hard to counter the Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions campaign. Their current priority is to have the BDS's activity declared illegal. Joseph Levine, a professor affiliated to Jewish Voice for Peace, writes:

“Opposition to B.D.S. is widespread and strong. Alarmingly, in the United States, support for the movement is in the process of being outlawed. As of now, 24 states have enacted legislation that in some way allows the state to punish those who openly engage in or advocate B.D.S., and similar legislation is pending in 12 more states. At the federal level, a bill called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act would criminalize adherence to any boycott of Israel called for by an international agency (like the United Nations). The bill has garnered 57 Senate co-sponsors and 290 House co-sponsors, and may very well come up for a vote soon" (see "Is Boycotting Israel 'Hate'?", New York Times, 4 September 2018).  

In this context, it is again useful to deploy the notion of Israel being “impregnable in its insecurity”. The current power balance, with Trump in the White House and the anti-BDS campaign in full flow, suggests that Israel is very much at the “impregnable” end of the spectrum. External support for the state, though, is only part of the assessment. The domestic evolution of Israeli security thinking over several decades is also intimately linked to the country's internal changes. Behind the combative facade, Israel's prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu must be aware of the challenges faced by the state.

An arc of change

It is particularly helpful to compare the present-day experience with Israeli public opinion in the early 1980s, over thirty-five years ago. In early 1982, as now, the government was led by Likud, with Menachem Begin as prime minister and the ebullient, uncompromising Ariel Sharon as defence minister. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was in practice exiled to Lebanon, with its headquarters in West Beirut. But it had paramilitaries close to the Israeli border whose perceived threat was underscored by their ability to launch short-range Katyusha rockets into Galilee, northern Israel.

In London on 3 June 1982, an attempt was made to assassinate Shlomo Argov, Israel's ambassador to the United Kingdom. Three days later, as international condemnation was gathering, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) launched a military campaign – Operation Peace for Galilee – which reportedly was intended to clear PLO forces from areas in southern Lebanon close to the border with Israel. In fact, and very much at Sharon’s behest, this turned out to be the start of a huge operation to defeat the PLO. The assault extended right up to Beirut, where Israeli forces' siege of the western part of the city through July-August resulted in well over 10,000 civilians being killed.

An agreement eventually led PLO forces to withdraw. But in the aftermath of the conflict, Christian Phalange militias (with active IDF assistance) invaded two Palestinian refugee camps in West Beirut – Sabra and Shatila – where they killed many hundreds, and possibly thousands, of their inhabitants. 

The human impact of this event was not dissimilar to the impact on Gaza in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge, when 1,400-plus civilians were killed (see "Why Israel lost", 5 August 2014). But events in the wake of the Sabra and Shatila massacre are also relevant today. There was a huge public outcry in Israel, whose main target was Ariel Sharon, culminating in a rally of some  400,000 people in Tel Aviv's City Square to demand a government inquiry. (The equivalent number in the UK, adjusting for population size, would be about 5 million). Menachem Begin reluctantly acceded to the demand. The Kahan commission's report in 1983 held Sharon personally responsible in failing to prevent the bloodshed, and led eventually to his sacking as defence minister (though he remained in the cabinet with two lesser portfolios).

I was working in Jerusalem at the time and went to witness the rally. Walking across Tel Aviv, I noticed one striking feature: the side streets around City Square were full of parked minibuses and coaches prominently displaying the local origins of the protesters, the majority of them being from kibbutzim and moshav (cooperatives) from right across Israel. In these circumstances, and at that time, these represented a powerful force in Israeli civil society. Many of them were social rather than religious Zionists who were angered at what was being done in their name.

Three and a half decades on, there is still a significant thread of liberal thinking in the country as well as a small but persistent peace movement. But the likelihood of a repeat of that City Square gathering today is remote.

An obvious factor in this change is that Israel has grown in military power and confidence over the past couple of decades, helped by the much closer security relationship with the United States. The impact of 9/11 and the George W Bush effect greatly cosolidated this, especially after the more difficult Bill Clinton years, and the Iraq war further reinforced it. When the campaign against Iraqi insurgents reached a crisis point in late 2003, the United States army even turned to the IDF for advice and equipment, a move that expanded on cooperation under way that autumn, when senior US military commanders had flown to Israel to work with their IDF counterparts (see "After Saddam, no respite", 19 December 2003).

Two later example of such cooperation are worth mentioning:

* The long-range X-band air-defence radar on Mount Keren in the Negev desert, a central part of Israel’s air- and missile-defence network, which is run by around a hundred US personnel,

* The town of Baladia, a purpose-built mock Arab town built for the IDF by the US army corps of engineers in the Negev in the mid-2000s, and used by both states for military training in urban counterinsurgency (see "A tale of two towns", 21 June 2007).

These and many joint weapons programmes have continued. A further factor in Israel's greater confidence is its long-term reliance on its significant nuclear-weapon arsenal as a final guarantee of its security. Most strategists would normally see this solely as a deterrent, but it is worth recalling that as early as 1967, Israel appears to have been ready to fire a crude nuclear weapon should the six-day war, which Israel initiated, have gone wrong.

But if Israel's link with the US and nuclear-weapon stock boost the state's military capacity in the wider region, more immediate conflicts have worked to undermine its confidence. The war in Lebanon in 2006 did not go well, as IDF forces found their anti-Hizbollah offensive much more difficult than expected; while in Gaza in 2014, the IDF lost sixty-six soldiers, many of them from elite infantry groups. Below the surface, therefore, the sense of invincibility has become less certain. For political and military leaders, including Binyamin Netanyahu, the "insecurity" end of Israel's spectrum is very much present (see "Israel's security complex", 28 July 2011).

Moreover, there is the permanent background concern that the overall Palestinian population (in Israel plus the controlled territories, including Gaza) is near parity with the overall Jewish population and will grow to exceed it in coming years.

A slow evolution

Here intrude wider issues, which relate to the largely unrecognised demographic shift in the Jewish population of Israel. It is often forgotten that a remarkable consequence of the ending of the cold war and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact was that it became far easier for Jews in the former Soviet Union to emigrate. Many did, especially from Russia and Ukraine. The majority, the best part of a million people, went to Israel, taking with them their experiences of marginalisation and personal insecurity. A significant number was particularly receptive to joining the IDF.

This influx increased the country's Jewish population by around a fifth. Israel's security culture and posture became more hawkish and rigorous as a consequence, this in turn leading to more liberal Israeli Jews leaving the country. There is more to add to what is no more than a summary of a complex situation, which includes the small but significant number of orthodox Jews in Israel who do not even accept that it should be established as a Jewish state.

In sum, Israel's internal as well as external dynamics are vital to the calculations of the state's political leadership. This may offer no easy solutions to one of the most intractable of world conflicts. But to those searching for a just and peaceful outcome, taking these dynamics into account should make their advocacy more realistic than might otherwise be the case.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData