The Real Threat to Israel’s National Security

by Alon Ben-Meir Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Contact: 05.03.2010

It is time for the Israeli government to be realistic with the changing political conditions in the Middle East. The national security paranoia that has defined its policy toward the Arab world is dated, and no longer helps Israel in dealing with its regional threats: in fact, this paranoia is serving only to obstruct what is left of a lagging peace process. The current conditions on theground are ripe for the establishment of a just and sustainable peace: The Arab League is endorsing renewed efforts by the United States to facilitate a peaceful two-state solution with normalization of relations with Israel through the Arab Peace Initiative, the Palestinian Authority's Salam Fayyad has begun implementing a non-violent plan to build successful state institutions in the West Bank, and the US and EU are both invested in a direct path toward a secure and viable two-state solution. These reasons, coupled with Israel's unquestioned military ability to defend itself in any future confrontation, make Israel's continued argument for national security less valid. Israel must sooner than later chose between either continued occupation, which is bound to explode time and again and paradoxically undermine Israel's national security interests for peace with security with the Arab states.

Whereas incessant Arab hostilities and violence from Palestinian militant groups has justified the occupation for many Israelis on the grounds of national security, the Arab states' position has dramatically changed in the past decade, a fact which is not reflected in current Israeli policy. Moreover, Israel has failed to demonstrate, especially since 2000, how the occupation has in any way enhanced its national security, when in fact it has promoted further enmity, instability and violence, not to mention the astronomical cost in treasure and blood. Despite the relative socio-economic and security improvements in the West Bank, recent low-level violent clashes between Israel and the Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Hebron are feared to constitute a forerunner of another major violent outbreak that could torpedo any prospect for a peaceful solution in the foreseeable future. For this reason, 43 years later, the international community recognizes no correlation between occupation and national security, and views Israel's continued occupation not only as a security liability for Israel but the single most serious impediment to peace and regional strife.

Immediately after the 1967 Six Day War, Israel offered to return the vast majority of the territories captured in exchange for peace but the answer from the Arab states was a resounding no: no peace, no recognition and no negotiations. While the Arab League has now come around to support in full a two-state solution, it is unrealistic to suggest that any Arab body will accept anything less than the land-for-peace deal that was offered more than four decades ago. In lieu of Arab rejection, almost immediately after the end of the war the Labor government decided to build settlements on the outskirts of Jerusalem to protect the city from all angles. In subsequent years, successive Israeli governments- especially those right-of-center-have propagated systematic entrenchment in the territories under the guise of national security, which has given rise to a powerful settlers' movement anchored in two extraordinary sentiments: reconstituting Jewish life in ancestral land (Judea and Samaria) at any cost and a movement based on socio-economic conditions and cheap cost of living. For these reasons, past and present Israeli governments have been hard pressed not to impede the growth of the settlements. But in recent years, these incentives counter the desire of the Israeli majority for peace and a Palestinian state, and the occupation has become nothing less than a liability. While many Israelis understand the repercussions of occupation, they are generally persuaded by the government rhetoric which uses the near daily Palestinian violent provocations as a proof for the need to sustain the occupation, rather than portraying the violence as a reaction to the occupation. After more than four decades and years of peace negotiations, one thing has become abundantly clear: the only remaining value to the occupation is that it can be used as a bargaining chip to secure a better peace deal with the Arab states, and subsequently with the rest of the Muslim world.

This is not to say that Israel doesn't have legitimate security concerns, which it faces daily. These national security concerns have been reinforced by decades of Arab enmity and violence that has exacted a heavy psychological toll on the Israelis. To protect its interests and sovereign rights, Israel has built over the past six decades one of the most powerful and sophisticated conventional military establishments in modern history that has and will continue to deter any Arab country or a combination of countries from attacking Israel. This military deterrence is further augmented by Israel's supposed nuclear deterrence, which will make it suicidal for any country, including Iran, to credibly threaten Israel as it maintains a second strike nuclear capability that could inflict unimaginable damage on any attacker. Surely this does not mean that extremist Arab groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad will stop harassing the Israelis, but none can pose existential danger to Israel. The growing global perception since the Gaza war though is that instead of using its military might to make the necessary territorial compromises to make peace, Israel maintains such a capability in order to preserve the occupation, as neither the Palestinians nor the Syrians will dare to challenge Israel militarily to regain their territory by force. How else can Israel explain its insistence on continuing the building and the expansion of settlements?

Israel is justified to argue that it has in fact taken several such risks in the past. It evacuated territories in the West Bank in the late 1990's, it withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 2000 and it unilaterally relinquished the Gaza strip in 2005. Hamas, Fatah and Hezbollah, on the other hand, instead of building bridges for peace have used the evacuated territories as a staging ground to attack Israel. As a result of the second Intifada which erupted in 2000, Israel retook most of the areas from which it had withdrawn in the West Bank, waged war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 and against Hamas in 2008-2009, inflicting large-scale damage and causing tremendous economic dislocation and hardship as well as loss of life. What happened subsequent to the Israeli retaliations on all three fronts, however, offers instructive lessons that many Israelis have all but ignored. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority has officially committed itself to a non-violent strategy (the Fayyad Plan) to realize the Palestinian national objective of building the infrastructure of a state living side-by-side with Israel in peace. And since the end of the hostilities in Lebanon and Gaza in 2006 and 2009 respectively, there has been hardly any violent provocation against Israel coming from either Hezbollah or Hamas.

The Israeli message to the Palestinians and to Hezbollah was loud and clear: Israel has and will continue to have the capacity to enter any of the evacuated territories at will and only a total and permanent cessation of hostilities will end future Israeli incursions. Moreover, not withstanding international condemnation, Israel's future retaliations will inflict ever increasing devastation and loss of lives as long as violent resistance continues. But if Israel wants to avoid future international condemnations, should it be compelled, once again, to retaliate violently, it must first end the occupation. The argument that Israel does not occupy Gaza is only a technicality as Israel has full and total control over Gaza from the sea, land and air and continues to occupy much of the West bank. If Israel does not ease the burden of occupation and daily humiliation, and commit itself to ending the occupation under a calm atmosphere, which is prevalent now, why would the Palestinians continue to adhere to a non-violent resistance? The Palestinians are duty bound to continue to resist the occupation and Israel will never be able to claim the high moral ground as long as the occupation persists.

Finally, it must be clear that under any circumstances, there will always be certain risks that Israel must take to secure peace. Any nation that seeks to attain absolute security, as Henry Kissinger once observed, renders its enemies absolutely insecure. Under such a scenario very little progress can be made as the Palestinians and the Syrians for that matter, will never relinquish land they feel is inherently theirs and will attempt to regain it by whatever means and however long it may take. Moreover, the Arab states are ready to coalesce around Israel to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat; Israel must capitalize on this changing intra-Arab dynamic and look to the north to forge peace with Syria as well.

I trust that Prime Minister Netanyahu believes in and seeks peace, but he cannot lead a coalition government along with Israel Beiteinu and Shas, two extremist parties that tie his hands behind his back and then place blame for the current paralysis. He has an obligation and historic opportunity to answer the national call and forge a new coalition government with Kadima and Labor along with Likud, representing the left, center and right of center--a government with a solid majority that can rise above party politics which the Israeli public is yearning for. It is time to put an end to the self-delusional policies in support of the occupation that will not only undermine the peace process but severely backfire against Israel's core national security interests.

Now that Israel has fought and finally won the Arab states' acceptance, it too must come around and face, in the words of Yehoshafat Harkabi (former head of Israel's military intelligence between 1955-1959) its fateful hour: Israel must choose between becoming a garrison state with fences and walls and gradually isolating itself from the international community, or make the bold decision to end the occupation and secure its destiny as a free, strong and prosperous nation.

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