Israel’s Last Chance

The United States has given Israel $51.3 billion in military grants since 1949, most of it after 1974 – more than any other country in the post-1945 era. Israel has also received $11.2 billion in loans for military equipment, plus $31 billion in economic grants, not to mention loan guarantees or joint military projects. But major conditions on these military grants have meant that 74 percent of it has remained in the U.S. to purchase American arms. Since it creates jobs and profits in many districts, Congress is more than ready to respond to the cajoling of the Israel lobby. This vast sum has both enabled and forced Israel to prepare to fight an American-style war. But the US since 1950 has failed to win any of its big wars.

In early 2005 the new chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force, Dan Halutz, embarked on the most extensive reorganization in the history of IDF. Halutz is an Air Force general and enamored with the doctrines that justify the ultra-modern equipment the Americans showered upon the Israelis. Attack helicopters, unmanned aircraft, advanced long-range intelligence and communications, and the like were at the top of his agenda. His was merely a variation of Donald Rumsfeld’s “shock and awe” concepts.

The 34-day war in Lebanon, starting July 12 last year, was a disastrous turning point for Israel. Until the Eliyahu Winograd Commission, which Olmert set up in September 2006, delivers its interim report in late April – which will cover the first five days of the war only – and resolves these matters, we will not know precisely the orders sent to specific units or the timing of all of the actors, but there is already a consensus on far more important fundamentals. But the Israelis did not lose the war because of orders given or not given to various officers. It was a war of choice, and it was planned as an air war with very limited ground incursions in the expectation that Israeli casualties would be very low. Major General Herzl Sapir at the end of February said that “the war began at our initiative and we did not take advantage of the benefits granted to the initiator.” Planning for the war began November 2005 but reached high gear by the following March before the expected kidnapping of two IDF soldiers – the nominal excuse for the war. There is no controversy over the fact that it was a digitized, networked war, the first in Israel’s experience, and conformed to Halutz’ – and American – theories of how war is fought in this high-tech era. The US fought identical wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – and is in the process of losing both.

What were the Israeli objectives? – war aims, if you will. While the Winograd Commission report may clarify this question, at the very least a number of goals are known already. Halutz wanted to “shock and awe” the Hezbollah and their allies with Israeli power – all within a few days. There were lesser aims, such as moving the Hezbollah rockets well away from the borders or even getting its two kidnapped soldiers returned, but at the very least Halutz wanted to make a critical point.

Instead, he revealed Israel’s vulnerability based, in large part, on the fact the enemy was far better prepared, motivated, and equipped. It was the end of a crucial myth, the harbinger of yet more bloody, but equal, armed conflicts or a balance of power conducive to negotiations. Olmert and his generals very likely expected to have a great victory within five days, thereby increasing his popularity with the hawkish Jewish population that is a growing majority of the voters, to reverse his abysmally low poll ratings, thereby saving his political career – he received three percent popularity in a TV poll in early March.

There are many reasons the Israelis lost the war in Lebanon, but there is general agreement within Israel that the war ended in disaster and the deterrent value of the once unbeatable, super-armed IDF gravely diminished in the entire Arab world for the first time since 1947. But the Israelis were defeated for many of the same reasons that have caused the Americans to lose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and in Vietnam as well. Both their doctrine and equipment were ill suited for the realities they confronted. There was no centralized command structure to destroy but small groups, lightly armed, mobile, and decentralized, able to harass and ultimately prevail. The Hezbollah also had highly effective Russian anti-tank missiles, and the IDF admits that “several dozen” tanks were put out of commission, if not destroyed, including the Merkava Mark IV, which Israel claims in the best protected tank in the world – and which it seeks to export. They also fired around 4,000 rockets at Israeli population centers and the IDF could not stop this demoralizing harassment. Hezbollah bunkers and arsenals were largely immune to air attacks, which caused the Israelis to “stretch the target envelope” to attack densely populated areas, with over 1,000 civilian dead. “Israel lost the war in the first three days,” an American military expert concluded, expressing a consensus shared by many US Air Force analysts. “If you have that kind of surprise and you have that kind of firepower you had better win. Otherwise, you’re in for the long haul.”

The problem, though, was not merely a new Arab prowess, though changes in their morale and fighting organizations should not be minimized. Halutz’ drastic reorganization of the IDF since early 2005, one that was supposed to attain the promises of all its American-supplied equipment, “caused,” in General Sapir’s words, “a terrible distortion.” The IDF was an organizational mess, demoralized as never before, and on January 17, 2007 Halutz resigned, the first head of the IDF to voluntarily step down because of his leadership in war. Had he not resigned he would have been fired. His successor quickly annulled his reorganization of the IDF, which is now sorely disorganized. The American way of warfare had failed.

The Next War

The Lebanon War is only a harbinger of Israeli defeats to come. For the first time there is a rough equivalence in military power.

Technology everywhere is now moving far faster than the diplomatic and political resources or will to control its inevitable consequences. Hezbollah has far better and more rockets – over 10,000 short-range rockets is one figure given – than it had a few years ago, and Israel’s military intelligence believes it has more firepower than it had last spring, before it was attacked. Israel has failed to convince Russia not to sell or give their highly effective anti-tank missiles to nations or movements in the region. They fear that even Hamas will acquire them. Syria is procuring “thousands” of advanced anti-tank missiles from Russia, which can be fired from five kilometers away, as well as far better rockets that can hit Israeli cities.

If the challenges of producing a realistic concept of the world that confronts the mounting dangers and limits of military technology seriously are not resolved soon there is nothing more than wars to look forward to. The IDF intelligence branch does not think a war with Syria is likely in 2007; other Israeli military commentators think that any war with Syria would produce, at best, a bloody standoff – just like the war in Lebanon last summer. Israel has about 3,700 tanks and they are all now highly vulnerable. Its ultra-modern air arm, most of which the US has provided, only kills people but it cannot attain victory.

The New Israel – A ‘Normal’ Nation

In the past, wars produced victories and more territory for the Jews; now they will only produce disasters for everybody. The Lebanon War proved that.

Zionism was a concoction of Viennese coffee houses, Tolstoy’s idealization of labor, early ecological sentiment in the form of the wanderfogel that influenced Zionism but various fascistic movements as well, militarism, and varieties of socialism for parts of it, including bolshevism. Jews sought to go to Palestine not only because of the Holocaust but also the changes in American immigration laws in the first half of the 1920s. Without the vast sums the Diaspora provided, Zionism would never have come to fruition. Every nation has its distinctive personality reflecting its traditions, pretensions, and history’s caprices, and in this regard Israel is no different. It exists but it is becoming increasingly dangerous to world peace – and to itself.

Zionism always had a military ethos, imposed only in part by Arab hostility, and from the inception of Zionism’s history its political and military leaders were one and the same. Generals were heroes and they did well in politics. The logic of force merged with an essentially Western, colonialist bias. Its founders were Europeans, and it was an outpost of European culture until the globalization of values and products made these cultural distinctions increasingly irrelevant. It always has been a militarist society, proud of its fighters. And notwithstanding the Cold War and the increasing flow of arms from the US, which, merged with its élan, meant it won all its post-1947 wars until last summer, it still retains a strong element of hysteria about the world it faced. And it is often messianic – especially its politicians – because messianism is very much influential among a growing portion of the religious and traditional population.

Israel has ceased being “Zionist” in the original sense of that ideology. For the sake of ceremony it retains Zionism as a label, just as many actual or aspiring nations have various myths which justify their claims to a national identity. But it is a long way from the original premises, in large part because its war with its neighbors – especially the Arabs who live in its midst or nearby – made its military ethos dominant over everything else.

Israel today is well on its way to becoming a failed state. Were it not for the fact that this outpost of fewer than five million Jews is a critical factor of war and peace in a much larger and vital region it would not be important or at all unusual. But it is terribly confused and has a very mixed identity; the US has since the late 1960s protected it. World peace now depends on this place, its idiosyncrasies, personality, and growing contradictions.

Israel is a profoundly divided society and its politicians are venal cynics. Many nations – and surely the Palestinian leaders until Hamas, by default, took over – are no different. As Shlomo Ben-Ami, the former foreign minister, describes it, on one side there are economically disadvantaged Oriental Jews, Russian nationalists who were motivated above all by a desire to leave the USSR (an appreciable minority is not Jewish), and Orthodox Jews of every sort united only by their intense dislike of “assimilationists”; on the other hand we have secular Jews, some leftists and modernizers, more skilled and of East European parentage who were once crucial in the formation of Zionism. There are an increasing number of “Jerusalem-Jews,” as Ben-Ami calls them, motivated to come primarily by economic incentives, and they are bringing the Right to power more and more often. They fear the Arabs who live in Israel. “Tel Aviv” Jews are assimilating to a global, modernizing culture, more akin to the “normal” existence the early Zionists preached, and they are also the emigrants out because they have high skills. Israel now has as many people leaving as immigrate to it, and North America alone is home to up to a million of them.

Some indications of these trends range from the banal to the tragic. There are all varieties of punks, gays, everything. As for the ultra-Orthodox, some have placed “curses” on those who advocate disengaging from any settlements in the West Bank or Gaza; they will be punished by heaven. One of four ultra-Orthodox Jews believes this is precisely why Sharon was struck with a coma. Martin van Creveld, professor of military history at the Hebrew University and friend of many IDF leaders, whose fame was made studying the role of morale in armies, thinks the morale of the conscripts in the IDF is “almost to the vanishing point; in some cases crybabies have taken the place of soldiers.” “Feminism” in the armed forces has intensified the rot, but “social developments” have destroyed much of the army – as have officers “who stayed behind their computers” last summer.

Never before has Israel been wracked by so many demoralizing scandals. The president of Israel just resigned because of rape charges against him, Prime Minister Olmert is being investigated by the comptroller’s office on four charges of corruption, the new chief of police was once accused of accepting bribes and fraud and his appointment has created an uproar, and other sordid cases too numerous to cite. Israel is “stewing in its own rot,” a Haaretz writer concluded; the police, retired judge Vardi Zeiler commented after heading a committee to investigate the state’s operation, were like Sicily and the state was on its way to becoming a mafia-style regime.

In this anarchy wars are motivated for political reasons but now they are lost because the society is disintegrating and – again to quote a Haaretz writer – the government “lacks both direction and a conscience.” Worse yet, its leaders are incredibly stupid and Olmert can only be compared to Bush in political intelligence. There is a consensus among Israeli strategists that the Iraq War was a disaster for Israel, a geopolitical gift to Iran that will leave Israel in ever-greater danger long after the Americans go home. “Israel has nothing to gain from a continued American presence in Iraq,” the director of the Institute for National Security Studies of Tel Aviv University stated last January. The US ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein from Iraq and created an overwhelming Iranian strategic domination. Its campaign for democracy has brought Hamas to power in Palestine. “It’s a total misreading of reality,” one Israeli expert is quoted when discussing America’s role in the region. American policies have failed and Israel has given a carte blanche to a strategy that leaves it more isolated than ever.

Notwithstanding this consensus, on March 12th Olmert told the American Israel Public Affairs annual conference by video link “Those who are concerned for Israel’s security…should recognize the need for American success in Iraq and responsible exit.” “Any outcome that will not help America’s strength…would…undercut America’s ability to deal effectively with the threat posed by the Iranian regime….” His foreign minister was even stronger. “Stay the hell out of it,” a Haaretz writer concluded. No group is more antiwar than American Jews, Congress – in its own inept way – is trying to bring the war to an end, his own strategists think the Iraq War was a disaster – and Olmert endorses Bush’s folly.

The Syrian Option

It is in this context that the peace of the region will or will not evolve. Olmert will do what is best for his political position domestically, and retaining power will be his priority – no less than his predecessors and most politicians everywhere. It is not at all promising. But for technical, social, and morale reasons Israel will not win another war. At every level, it has become far weaker. It can inflict frightful damage on its enemies but it cannot change the fundamental balance of all forces that lead to victory.

Making peace with Syria would be a crucial first step for Israel, and although the Palestinian problem would remain it would nonetheless vastly improve Israel’s security – and disprove the Bush’s Administration’s contention until very recently that negotiations with Syria or Iran on any Middle East question involves conceding to evil. The Israeli press reported in great detail the secret 2004-05 Israel-Syria negotiations, which were very advanced and involved major Syrian concessions – especially on water and Syrian neutrality in a host of political controversies with the Palestinians and Iranians. It also reported that Washington followed these talks closely and that it – especially Cheney’s office – opposed bringing them to a successful conclusion. At the end of January many important members of Israel’s foreign policy establishment publicly urged reopening these talks.

Olmert dismissed Syria’s gestures categorically after they became public. “Don’t even think about it” was Secretary of State Rice’s view of a treaty when she saw Israeli officials in mid-February. But though Mossad supports the obdurate Rice-Olmert view, military intelligence argues that Syria’s offers are sincere and serious. Moreover, intelligence’s head warned that Syria is growing stronger and peace was very much to Israel’s interest. He was supported by most of the Foreign and Defense ministries, including Minister of Defense Amir Peretz. Olmert demanded, and got, their acquiescence.

A treaty could be finalized with Syria within four to six months, Alon Liel, former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry who negotiated with the Syrians, reported the Washington Times on March 7. Liel was asked to come to the US embassy in Tel Aviv about this time and tell the entire political staff of his talks. The reports in Haaretz, which included the draft treaty, were by then quite definitive. Then the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, invited Ibrahim Suleiman, Syria’s representative to the talks, to speak to the foreign affairs and defense committees. Such invitations are very rare, not least because Syria and Israel are legally in a state of war. But if the Syrians and Israelis go to war again, the normally hawkish Martin van Creveld concluded at this time, Israel “could wreak much destruction, but it could not force a decision.” In three or four years the Syrians would be ready for a protracted war that would prove too much for Israel. After running through his bizarre alternatives, and the state of the IDF’s morale, van Creveld concluded that reaching a peace with Syria was very much to Israel’s interests – and that even the Americans were coming to the position that talking to Syria and Iran (as the Baker-Hamilton panel had recommended last December) was rational.

Syria has been attempting desperately to improve its relations with Washington, if only to forestall some mad act on the US’ part. When Israel attacked Lebanon last July, Elliott Abrams, in charge of the Middle East at the National Security Council, along with other neocons in Washington, urged it to expand the war to Syria. At the end of February Syria renewed its appeal to the US to discuss any and all Middle East issues with it in “a serious and profound dialogue.” For over two years it has made similar attempts; Baker knew all about these. Talking to alleged adversaries is perhaps the most fundamental point of difference between Cheney, his neocon alliance, and Rice, and it covers North Korea, Iran, and many other places. The debate is less the nature and goals of American foreign policy but how to conduct it – by the application of material power and even the threat of war versus more traditional means, such as diplomacy.

In the past several weeks, taking her cue from the Republican Establishment in the Iraq Study Group last December, Rice has been winning points in this debate but her successes are fragile. Cheney is a powerful, determined and cunning man who knows how to succeed all too well with the president.

America’s overwhelming problem is Iraq and, above all, Iran, and apparently the Bush Administration has now decided that Syria can help it in the region. Ellen Sauerbrey, an Assistant Secretary of State, was in Damascus on March 12, nominally to discuss refugees but she heard from the Syrians “that all the questions are linked in the Arab region and that a comprehensive dialogue is needed on all these questions.” Syria has also mobilized the European Union, which now favors a return of the Golan Heights to it. On March 13 the US ambassador to Israel publicly stated a bald lie that the Americans had never “expressed an opinion on what Israel should or should not do with regard to Syria.”

It is now entirely in the hands of the Olmert government whether to negotiate with Syria.

Israel has ignored Washington on at least four very important issues, starting with the Sinai campaign in 1956, and acted in its own self-interest. The Americans were Olmert’s alibi but he can use them no more. There are other crucial issues, such as the Saudi plan for the resolution of the Palestine question, and never has Israel had a greater need for peace than at the present. Instead, like the US, its head of state may be the worst in its history, motivated by short-term political advantage and a consummate desire to retain power.

But the Syrian option is there for the taking. If there is war then the brain drain out will accelerate and migration in will fall; demography will take over. Israel will then become the only place in the world a Jew is in danger precisely because he or she is a Jew. If this opportunity is lost there will eventually be a mutually destructive war that no one will win – the Lebanon War proved that Israel must now confront the fact that its neighbors are becoming its military equals and US aid cannot save it.

Indeed, America’s free gifts enabled Israel to begin a war last July with illusions identical to those that also caused the Bush Administration to embark on its Iraq folly.

Author: Gabriel Kolko

Gabriel Kolko, a historian, is the author of The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World and The Anatomy of War.