We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. – Winston Churchill, in first speech to the House of Commons as prime minister, May 13, 1940
A military defeat of Israel would mean the physical extinction of a large part of its population and the political elimination of the Jewish state… Nor does this reflect a historical trauma…To lose a single war is to lose everything…
– Yigal Allon, then foreign minister, in Foreign Affairs, October 1976
This is not an article for those of weak stomach. It is not for those who wish to be reassured that, in the end, things will be “okay.” It offers no glimmer of optimism, nor any comforting prospect of some happy ending.
Indeed, if the Jews are to preserve their political sovereignty, all it bodes for the foreseeable future is one of Churchillian “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
A perfect storm brewing
A perfect storm is brewing for Israel. On virtually every front, ominous clouds are gathering, and should the menacing maelstroms they portend hit together, it is far from certain that the Jewish state will survive the destructiveness of their combined impact.
Since I began writing this Into the Fray series in mid- 2011, I have warned repeatedly of the perils of the government’s policy of counterproductive compromises and concessions. I cautioned that this “cavalcade of capitulation” will elicit nothing from our adversaries other than demands for more – and more far-reaching – concessions, as indeed it has.
In my column of December 2, 2011, I wrote: “By adopting a policy of continually trying to avoid confrontations in which it can prevail, Israel may eventually find itself forced to engage in a confrontation in which it cannot.”
Precisely such a perilous predicament is now beginning to develop before our eyes.
Across every border Israel shares with its Arab neighbors, within its own borders, and far removed from them, a formidable range of threats – from damaging economic sanctions and international isolation, through murderous terrorist attacks, jihadi insurgency and domestic insurrection, to the specter of weapons of mass destruction and a nuclear Iran – is coalescing with disturbing speed into a multi-faceted menace that jeopardizes the survival of the Jewish nation-state to a degree arguably unprecedented since its inception.
Misreading the battlefield
Successive governments have consistently misread the battlefield, and misled by the seductive deception of political correctness, they have embraced misguided policy principles, wildly at odds with the dictates of political realities.
To understand this rather harsh condemnation, it is first necessary to realize that, in principle, there exist two archetypal and antithetical contexts of conflict – in the first of which a policy of compromise and concession may well be appropriate, and another, in which such a course is disastrously inappropriate.
In the first of such contexts, one’s adversary interprets any concession as a genuine conciliatory initiative, and feels obliged to respond with a counter-concession. In this context, the process will move toward some amicable resolution of the conflict by a series of concessions and counter-concessions.
In the alternate conflictual context, however, one’s adversary does not interpret concessionary initiatives as conciliatory gestures, made in good faith, but as an indication of vulnerability and weakness, made under duress, portending defeat.
Such initiatives will not elicit any reciprocal conciliatory gesture, but rather demands for further concessions.
If one concedes to the demands, instead of enjoying a convergent process that leads toward peaceable resolution of differences, a divergent process will lead either to capitulation or to large-scale violence. In other words, once one side realizes that its adversary is acting in bad faith and can only be restrained by force; or the other side realizes it has extracted all the concessions it can by non-coercive means – meaning that further gains could only be won by force – problems worsen for the party seeking bilateral satisfaction.
‘… if you will not fight when victory is sure’
If one happens to be in a situation that approximates the second context, but adopts a policy suited for the first, disaster is inevitable.
Sadly, for more than two decades, this is precisely what Israeli governments – with varying degrees of myopic zeal and/or reluctant resignation – have done. Unless robust and resolute remedial measures are undertaken without delay, such disaster is inevitable.
There can be little doubt that the Arab-Israeli conflict resembles the second context far more closely than the first. After all, every gut-wrenching concession Israel has made since the early 1990s has failed to produce any conciliatory response from its Arab adversaries. All it finds is greater intransigence and more obdurate insistence on further appeasement.
Because of excessive restraint and inadequate resolve, Israel is inexorably descending into an abysmal position, depicted with forceful eloquence by Winston Churchill, in the sober caveat he articulated in the first volume of his epic series on World War II, aptly titled The Gathering Storm.
He warned: “If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.”
‘… physical extinction and political elimination…’
Although many will wish to deny it, this is the situation that could well emerge for the Jews of Israel if the policy of ruinous restraint continues. If they forfeit national sovereignty, now under unprecedented international assault, while they may not become “slaves,” Israelis could well be relegated to infidel dhimmi status in their own homeland.
Israel’s past military and economic successes have been so stunning that they have obscured the true precariousness of Jewish political independence in the region.
For those who have been lulled into a false sense of complacency by highly visible signs of strength and vigor – such as mushrooming high-rises and modernistic freeways – the somber assessment of the inherent asymmetry of the conflict and the fragility of Jewish national existence made by Yigal Allon in the prestigious publication Foreign Affairs should be a salutary reminder.
Considered by many the epitome of moderate statesmanship, Allon cautioned: “… a military defeat of Israel would mean the physical extinction of a large part of its population and the political elimination of the Jewish state. … the Arab states can permit themselves a series of military defeats while Israel cannot afford to lose a single war. Nor does this reflect a [finite, hence bearable] historical trauma in any sense.
To lose a single war is to lose everything….”
Ruinous results of restraint & retreat
The bitter fruits of Israeli restraint, retreat and reticence abound in every direction and on every front.
In some cases they are close to full ripeness, in others, to less so – so far. In some cases disaster is close at hand, in others it has been avoided – or rather, delayed – more by propitious good fortune than by prudent good judgment.
In the north, the IDF’s unilateral flight, ordered by Ehud Barak in 2000, delivered South Lebanon – and abandoned Israel’s mainly Christian allies – to Hezbollah, which transformed it into a formidable arsenal of rockets that rained death and destruction on millions of Israelis for five long weeks this summer. The hesitant mismanagement of the 2006 Second Lebanese war by Ehud Olmert’s government allowed the outnumbered and out-gunned Hezbollah to claim – not implausibly – strategic victory over (or at least, non-defeat by) the IDF.
The abysmal UN Security Council Resolution 1701, ushered in by the hopelessly inept Tzipi Livni, then-foreign minister, allowed the region to become an even more menacing arsenal, bristling with tens of thousands of even more deadly missiles – and attack tunnels reportedly being excavated under the border.
It was only by the grace of God – or good fortune, depending on one’s proclivities – that, during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza earlier this year, Hezbollah was preoccupied with the civil war in Syria. Consequently, it could not open up a second front and bring the full weight of this arsenal (and those tunnels) to bear on Israel, which could have overwhelmed the protective capacity of the Iron Dome defense system.
Concessions more dangerous than ever
It would be foolhardy indeed to assume that this fortuitous circumstance is likely to reoccur in any future engagement. In fact, only 10 days after the end of Protective Edge, the IDF announced that it was “making plans and training” for “a very violent war” against Hezbollah, which, according to informed sources, had “now accumulated three years of battlefield experience, greater military capabilities and considerable confidence.”
Slightly to the east, the breathtaking barbarity of the Syrian civil war rages on, bringing the daunting prospect of a common border with Islamic State and/or al-Qaida affiliates, and underscoring how imbecilic it would have been to relinquish the Golan to the murderous Assad regime, in the forlorn hope of trading land-for-peace.
Along Israel’s eastern border, with the ascendancy of Islamist elements in Jordan, the Hashemite monarchy is looking increasingly wobbly. This tenuous situation is exacerbated by the hordes of refugees (reportedly over 600,000) fleeing the brutality in Syria, presumably infiltrated by Islamist agitators, who are placing unbearable strains on Jordan’s social and economic resources, and undermining the stability of the regime. With the possibility of the monarchy being replaced by radical Muslim elements, or even remaining as a puppet regime controlled by them, the notion of territorial concessions in Judea-Samaria, which adjoins the kingdom to the West, becomes even more dangerously delusional than before.
Vast stretch of Islamist-controlled land
Even if some flimsy deal were struck with the largely irrelevant and unrepresentative Mahmoud Abbas, the responsible assumption must be that he would be replaced, post haste, by more extremist forces such as Hamas (as per the Gaza precedent) – or worse.
Israel would be faced with the perilous prospect of a vast, unbroken stretch of Islamist-controlled territory, from the eastern approaches of Greater Tel Aviv to Jordan’s current border with Iraq, and beyond – into areas under the iron rule of Islamic State.
In Sinai as well, the outlook is bleak, with the peninsula falling under the sway of jihadist elements which the Egyptian army is finding increasingly difficult to curb.
One of the most dangerous militant groups active in Sinai, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, recently pledged allegiance to Islamic State, a link likely to afford it more money, weapons and recruits to fight the government in Cairo.
All this savagery will inevitably press on Israel’s long southern border stretching from Gaza to the Red Sea. If rocket attacks on Eilat continue, tourism to the city will cease and it will lose its principal source of income, without which its very existence is in grave doubt.
On the cusp of carnage?
As daunting as the preceding catalogue of dangers is, it is hardly an exhaustive list of the perils facing the Jewish state today. Not a word has been mentioned about the possibility of a third intifada on the part of the Palestinians in Judea-Samaria or a renewed conflagration in Gaza. Perhaps the gravest threat of all is the prospect of insurrection and revolt by the Arab citizens of Israel – if they sense weakness and vacillation on the part of the Jews.
This threat will materialize unless the Arabs are convinced the Jews will not brook any challenge – from within Israel’s borders or from without – to their national sovereignty and political independence.
After years of counterproductive concessions and compromise, it is unlikely that the situation is still retrievable by consensual means, and remedial measures will require coercive action on a wide scale.
What is called for today is not a repetition of reticent restraint, but the demonstration of ruthless resolve.
Unless the Jews convey the unequivocal message that any such challenge to their sovereignty will be met with overwhelming lethal force, they will increasingly be the victims of such force at the hands of their Arab adversaries.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.