Is Israeli Policy Crazy?

The "Israeli model" has long been held up by hawks in the United States as the gold standard for dealing with adversarial nation-states, guerrillas, and terrorists. The storyline goes that Israel is a small country surrounded by aggressive enemies that use unfair measures (including terrorism) to try to wipe it off the face of the map. Therefore, the thinking in Israel is that to survive, the Israelis must use disproportionate tactics to show how tough they are to instill fear in their vicious enemies. This paradigm, practiced by Israel since its inception in 1948, has been tactically sound and strategically disastrous.

It is a myth that throughout its history Israel has been outgunned by the Arabs. During and since the war over its creation in 1948, the Israelis have always had superior military power, resources, and training compared to the Arab states. As a result, oftentimes, Israel has been able to successfully deliver overwhelming and disproportionate blows to its enemies. Despite this tactical strength, Israel’s enemies just seem to keep coming back and getting angrier. In other words, overwhelming tactical military victories don’t deal with the social and political causes of the intense hate that Israel engenders. Because these root causes remain, Israel will continue to need to take draconian measures to ensure its security – for example, conducting the current heavy military attacks on Gaza.

Israel doesn’t seem to get that superior power doesn’t buy security as long as the adversary’s grievance lingers. The enemy just gets more desperate and resorts to terrorism – either the suicide bombing of civilians or the firing of inaccurate rockets into Israeli towns from outside. Enlightened opinion in Israel should see the strategic idiocy in decades of living as a powerful armed camp and using a dominant military to either tactically defeat your enemies or quarantine them into giant pens – the West Bank and Gaza – and suppress them. If Israel would settle this 60-year state of war with its neighbors by giving up control over land that was taken by force from the Arabs in 1967, the Arabs and Israelis could grow rich together by conducting cross-border trade and investment and luring lucrative foreign investment from outside the region.

Of course, it is easy for observers outside the region to see how such a settlement of the Palestine problem could be reached on paper; it is much harder to overcome the decades of hatred to actually implement it. And Israel has no incentive to give up control over the land because it has overwhelming tactical military superiority and the support of a superpower. Yet Israel needs to put aside hatred of Arabs and solve the underlying grievance or violence will continue even if Israel launches a ground invasion of Gaza to take out Hamas.

Military attacks by Israel may cripple its enemies in a tactical military sense, but they only strengthen the Arab hatred and will for revenge. Ironically, Israel’s current onslaught on Gaza, coming before the Israeli elections, aims to demonstrate to the Arabs that Israel is still tough subsequent to its last military debacle against the group Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. In that campaign, the Israelis used Hezbollah’s rocket attack on northern Israel and the kidnapping and killing of a few Israeli soldiers as an excuse to pummel the entire country of Lebanon with air attacks and conduct a limited ground invasion. Hezbollah’s military capabilities were significantly reduced, but its stature and political strength were increased by doing better than expected against the vaunted Israeli military. In the Arab world, you don’t have to win, but just do better than expected.

This wasn’t the first time that Israeli military action had had a counterproductive effect. In 1982, the Israelis invaded Lebanon to wipe out PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) infrastructure in that country. The Israelis sent the PLO packing, but the continuing Arab grievance then took a more sinister form in the creation of the Islamist group Hezbollah. Hezbollah burnished its resistance credentials by eventually kicking Israel out of Lebanon in 2000.

After the disastrous wars on Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, in which Israel won militarily but ultimately lost politically, one would think Israel would have avoided yet another disastrous disproportionate military response in response to Hamas’s rocket attacks on southern Israel. But no such luck. If the definition of insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting a different result, Israel’s policy has to be deemed "crazy."

Even the best outcome for Israel is grim. If the Israeli military invades Gaza on the ground to wipe out Hamas and its military infrastructure and Egypt does not allow Hamas fighters to escape to its territory, the Arab grievance will likely merely morph into a more angry and virulent form after the almost certain eventual Israeli withdrawal. Alternatively, if Hamas is not completely wiped out – either because some fighters successfully melt back into Gaza’s population or because Israel merely threatens a ground invasion but doesn’t follow through – Hamas’s stature will grow in Gaza and the Arab world for successfully withstanding the Israeli goliath – as Hezbollah’s did after the Israeli onslaught against and withdrawal from Lebanon in 2006.

Instead of making peace with the Palestinians and Syrians by eliminating the underlying grievance and giving back their land, or at least answering minor provocations with limited tit-for-tat responses, Israel will likely continue flailing disproportionately against its enemies. This Israeli government policy will make the long-term security situation worse for the Israeli people – with the United States subsidizing and giving the green light to such irresponsible behavior. Same stuff, different year.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.