The month of October marks the 34th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. Israelis of my generation still recall that war as a national and personal trauma. The sense of most Israelis at that time was that the state’s very existence hung in the balance.
Decades later, the risk of a coalition of Arab states attacking Israel seems remote. Still, a nation of respectable military and economic strength feels a sense of vulnerability. How can this paradox be explained?
New kinds of threats have replaced the older ones. The traditional concept of nation states has been weakened, especially in our region, alongside the emergence of non-state actors and their freedom from the moral and normative constraints placed upon actions by states. We face a new reality today, one for which certain legal instruments, adopted in previous eras, are inadequate.
Israel has always had to contend with a lack of strategic depth. The concentration of population, industry and key infrastructure in the center of the country has resulted in insufficient early warning, and hence the inability to absorb a conventional first strike, and the asymmetry between Israel and a group of potentially hostile neighbors. Today, however, new risks have emerged, some of which are not limited to the region—global terrorism, worldwide jihad and the proliferation of WMD.
In addition, a dramatic change in the nature of warfare has taken place. While past Middle East wars were characterized as total wars between states, recent conflicts are increasingly characterized as low-intensity conflicts, usually between a state and non-state actors or organizations. In such circumstances, a state like Israel cannot utilize conventional power in terms of weapons and methods of operation. Cases in point are the conflict in Lebanon in 2006 and the outbreak of hostilities in the West Bank and Gaza in 2000, which took place in populated areas, thus placing even more constraints on Israel Defense Forces operations.
Iran’s long-range missile development, coupled with the regime’s efforts to reach technological independence in developing weapons of mass destruction, contributes to an increased sense of insecurity, as do bellicose statements from Tehran which place the existence of Israel into question.
Terrorism, particularly indiscriminate suicide bombings and the shelling of Israeli cities and villages by Qassam rockets from Gaza, exacerbated the sense of personal vulnerability in Israel during the hostilities of 2000-2004. On the whole, the self-restraint of Israel’s response—military counter-terrorism measures and the erection of a security barrier—did not enjoy support among many Europeans, and Israel’s choices, even though effective, were often judged based on century-old legal foundations which are increasingly inadequate to deal with the current threats.
The use of proxies—Hezbollah as a proxy of Iran, Hamas as a proxy of both Syria and Iran—and the increasing number of unknown groups claiming credit for terror attacks create a problem of accountability, placing significant constraints on the ability of a state to respond effectively within the traditional concepts governing the conduct of war.
The increased indiscriminate use of rockets by Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, purposely targeting Israeli towns and villages (the southern town of Sderot, for example, which alone has suffered the consequences of 7,000 Qassam rockets launched from Gaza since the year 2000) create a challenge to the Israeli government. These rockets are purposely located and launched from densely populated Arab centers. Any legitimate military reaction in self-defense which resulted in civilian casualties would be met with disproportionate criticism in the international media and other European and Arab circles.
Once Israel can be assured that its right of existence amongst neighbors in the region will be recognized, once Israel can be confident of its right to self-defense against existential threats and mass terrorism, then the country can be more flexible regarding issues that still divide it from Arab and Palestinian neighbors. A vigorous worldwide struggle against terrorism and against those who give terrorism a safe haven, more up-to-date legal instruments enabling such a struggle, and an unequivocal message to Iran that its policies are intolerable to the international community—all of these would result in a greater sense of security in Israel and the greater likelihood of a stable, peaceful Middle East.
Ambassador Yaakov Levy is a veteran of the Israel Foreign Ministry. He has served in various positions—as Consul in New York, Counselor in Rome, Consul General in Boston and most recently as Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and as Diplomatic Advisor to the Speaker of the Knesset (Israel Parliament). He is currently Director of Policy Planning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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