The Arab Spring Forces Israel to Change its Security Strategy

September 03, 2011                         Arik Segal

The recent cycle of violence in southern Israel marked a few important precedents in Israeli security policy. First, the Southern Israeli border with Egypt is no longer safe as it has been in the past 30 years. Second, the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt should not be taken for granted. Third and most important was the decision of Israeli cabinet not to forcefully respond to rocket attacks coming from Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said that: “Israel will not respond to the attacks from Gaza with a large-scale operation”. The Israeli government realized that the new environment created by the Arab Spring has limited the Israeli use of power as means to achieve security- thus the strategy of deterrence has become less effective. Israel should seek a new strategy of engagement with the Arab world that will secure it in the long term.

The use of deterrence as a tool in Israeli defense policy is rooted in the origins of the Jewish state and its first Prime Minister – David Ben-Gurion. Following the Arab refusal to accept the UN’s partition plan and the consequent 1948 war, Ben-Gurion acknowledged that the Arab nations will never accept the existence of the Jewish state among them, thus Israel will have to fight a serious of wars in which it will have achieve a fast and decisive victory by overwhelming force. His reasoning was that In the post World War 2 era, military conflicts were won by sheer numbers and since the Arab-Israeli population ration was 200-1, therefore, Ben-Gurion thought that it was imperative for Israel to develop a strong military deterrence capability.

To perform and maintain a strong deterrence capability, the Israeli military must follow these principles: retaliate with overwhelming force when Israel is attacked, maintain advanced defensive weaponry and keep a qualitative military advantage over the Arab armies.
Eventually, Ben-Gurion concluded, the Arab nations will come to grasp that it is impossible to win Israel by force and they will come to terms with a Jewish state in the heart of the Middle East. This paradigm was the basis for the development of the Israeli Security Perception that persists until present day – more than 60 years since the country was established.

Up until the beginning of the 80′s, Ben-Gurion’s deterrence strategy proved to be successful. The Israeli military managed to achieve decisive victories in the wars it fought, the Mossad and Israeli elite unites performed James Bond style operations all over the world and the Israeli military maintained its qualitative advantage over the Arab armies. Unofficial reports mentioned that Israel acquired nuclear capability which gives its deterrent capability another dimension. Finally, the peace agreement signed with Egypt in 1979 could be interpreted as Israel’s deterrence biggest achievement.

In the last three decades deterrence strategy became less efficient due to several reasons. First, the changing nature of global military conflicts makes it harder achieve and observe deterrence. Most military conflicts occur between a state and a non-state actor – the modern battlefield takes place in urban or rural staging areas and armies fight in guerilla style warfare. In this kind of warfare it is much more difficult for an organized, sophisticated military to achieve a clear, decisive victory. Moreover, fighting in urban populated areas entails an almost certain loss of civilian lives which undermines the benefits from engaging in a military operation. Finally, most groups which Israel is fighting against today embrace the “martyr” principle. As a result, it is much harder to threaten one with death when one is willing to die for his cause, especially when there will be many others to replace him after his death.

Second, Israel has yet to develop an efficient defensive deterrent weapons system that will answer the main threat it is facing today- hundreds and thousands rocket and missiles aimed at Israeli civilian centers from the Gaza strip and Southern Lebanon. The new “Iron Dome” system offers only a partial solution against the above threat. It is enough for one rocket to penetrate throw this system to kill many civilians and make it obsolete.

Third, the legitimacy under which Israeli deterrence strategy has been acting upon has changed since the early stages of the Jewish state. When Israel faced an existential threat from its neighbors who sought to push the Jewish people into the Mediterranean, it was easier for Israel to act with overwhelming force under the justification of self defense.  Nowadays, many interpret any use of force by Israel as directed against Palestinians who seek self determination and thus see it as unjustified –even when it is not the case. Therefore, Israel is largely criticized internationally and recently few congress members objected selling sophisticated weapons that is used by Israeli Special Forces.

The geo-political changes of the Arab Spring hit the final blow to the effectiveness of Israeli deterrence strategy. In a stable Middle Eastern environment, it was easy to recognize that Assad feared Israeli military might and has not engaged in an armed conflict despite Israeli attacks on Syrian soil. It was also easy to know that Mubarak’s Egypt would support Israeli operations in Gaza and Abdullah’s Jordan will not intervene if Israel decides to engage in a large operation in the West Bank. However the Middle East is far away from being stable and predictable. Israel now deals with more than the Arab rulers who feared Israeli military strength that might push them from their thrown, but with the Arab peoples who’s hatred towards Israel may pushes their new rulers to be more aggressive towards Israel – as witnessed in Egypt. Moreover, new alliances among new Arab governments might be formed and restrict Israeli military response – as in the case of Egypt-Hamas. It should come as no surprise that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah praised his old Egyptian nemesis following its uproar towards Israel in the aftermath of the border incident.

The skirmish on the Egyptian-Israeli border made it clear – Israel cannot rely only on deterrence as a strategy to achieve security. This is not to say that Israel should give up on its military since it still faces severe security problems. However it should not rely solemnly on deterrence as means to achieve security. In addition it should develop an engagement strategy with Arab countries that will grant it security in the long term.  Such engagement could follow the lines of the Israeli Peace Initiative which seeks to promote a regional peace agreement in the Middle East. Israel has a lot to offer in terms of political and economic cooperation- especially in times when Arab nations need.

When a right wing government publicly admits that it chooses not to use its full military power  when Israeli sovereignty was violated, it proves that a change of strategy is no longer a question of political orientation. In the new Middle East deterrence as the only strategy to secure Israel is becoming less and less effective. It is time for Israeli decision makers to fulfill the second part of Ben-Gurion’s vision- to make peace with its neighbors.

( / 03.09.2011)

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