Oct 20th 2010

Israel’s False Sense of Invincibility

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

The military and economic prowess currently enjoyed by Israel has led to a false sense of invincibility and a belief that the status quo between Israelis and Palestinians is sustainable-yet it is not. While Israel's economy is robust and public confidence in its military remains high, Israel's national aspiration for a safe, secure and prosperous homeland for the Jews has yet to be achieved. Obtaining this goal is inextricably linked to the establishment of a lasting two-state solution; relinquishing occupied Arab land while abandoning the perilous notion held by many Israelis that their country can maintain this false sense of invincibility. Perhaps this attitude explains the Netanyahu government's unwillingness to extend the settlement freeze for a mere two more months, because the Israeli public has become complacent and does not care if the negotiations break down completely.

Israelis are currently enjoying life in a mirage. To drive through Israel's state-of-the-art highways and to walk along the Tel Aviv beachfront with carefree Israelis enjoying the sand and sun along the Mediterranean is to witness this illusion in action. With a strong economy and violence significantly reduced, Israelis today have a chilling sense of security. On the one hand they continue to feel victimized and isolated by the international community, yet on the other hand feel assured in their ability to defend the state against enemy attacks. Meanwhile, Israelis have begun to lose compassion and empathy for those who are suffering so that they may enjoy this false sense of security.

I remember recently having a breakfast in one of Tel Aviv's beach-front hotels with a colleague who said to me in the midst of our heated discussion about the peace process: "Alon, you keep talking about the need for peace and ending the occupation, why should we do that? Look at what we have created, look at the array of food and splendor; we live in a de-facto peace and enormous prosperity-why should we give anything back?" Against this backdrop, in a poll last March only 8 percent of Israeli cited a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians as Israel's most urgent problem. With an alarming short-sightedness, Israelis have come to believe that the status quo can be preserved indefinitely. But can this really last? This mirage could be undermined in a single day by a few deadly attacks. Protecting Israel against such a potential catastrophe requires diligent and concerted efforts to end the conflict with the Palestinians, while the whole world is urging for an equitable solution.

Israel's perceived invincibility stems from its military power, economic prosperity and technological might. Israel's military is among the strongest-and most expertly trained and experienced-in the world, with defense spending per capita consistently among the highest in the world. Even as Israel was criticized by the international community for using disproportionate force in wars in Lebanon and Gaza (and in the flotilla affair), the Israeli public has remained fully supportive and confident in the use of the IDF's military power. Meanwhile, despite a sluggish global economy, Israel is experiencing rapid economic growth. In the second quarter of 2010, Israel's economy grew 4.7 percent, the fastest pace in two years. Consumer confidence is high, with spending increasing nearly 9 percent in that same period. Meanwhile, Israel has rebounded from the global financial crises due to the strength of its global exports, which constitute nearly half of Israel's gross domestic product. Finally, Israel's technological might and entrepreneurial spirit are unmatched. Today, Israel enjoys more start-ups per capita than any country in the world, and has more companies listed on the NASDAQ exchange than all European nations combined. Its reputation as a leader in the high-tech sector has led many to call Israel the "Silicon Valley of the Middle East."

Are all of these achievements sustainable without peace with the Palestinians? The short answer is no. Without a viable peace process, the Palestinians will have nothing to lose, while Israel has everything to lose. This is a formula for disaster which must be upended before Israel's dream of invincibility devolves into a nightmare. Ten years ago, the situation was quite similar to what we are seeing today. The West Bank was calm and economic growth in the area considerable. Israel was enjoying advances in its economy and a general sense of confidence that despite the failed Oslo process, the status quo could be sustained. The complete breakdown of peace talks and the Palestinians' violent second intifada revealed that this was indeed an illusion. It would be tragic if history were to repeat itself.

Winning wars has become expensive for Israel, both in dollars and diplomacy. Israel's defense spending has exponentially grown to over 50 billion NIS in 2010. But Israel cannot spend enough to overcome the international scrutiny and isolation it will receive as a result of "winning" another war. If there is no progress in peace talks, it could become only a question of time as to when a new violent eruption will occur that could make the second intifada pale in comparison. Even if the Palestinian Authority seeks to prevent such an escalation, its security forces may not be able to control a widespread popular uprising, which could be fueled by extremists. The strengthened weapons capabilities of Hamas and Hezbollah are well documented-each have thousands of rockets capable of reaching Ashkelon and Tel Aviv. Israel could win another war-even one that would occur on all fronts-but at what cost in lives and property and to the prospects for achieving long-term peace and security?

If the current peacemaking efforts cannot be salvaged, and the situation dangerously devolves, the costs to Israel would be shattering. As Israel refrains from a settlement freeze that would keep peace talks afloat, the international community is of the consensus that Israel's inaction demonstrates that it does not want peace. In addition to the increased isolation of Israel in the international community, the Arab states could abandon their Peace Initiative, giving Islamic extremists the opportunity and justification to undermine Israel in any way they can. Meanwhile, the campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel is likely to intensify and gain greater support. While for the time being the United States is likely to remain at Israel's side, it is unlikely that it can fend off Israel's growing isolation in the face of little evidence that Israel is willing to continue peace efforts, and in doing so help the United States to advance its own goals in the region. Israel's economic growth may indeed suffer as one country after another seeks to distance itself from a country that is viewed not only as an obstacle to peace, but one that undermines their strategic interests in the Middle East. Israel could become a liability even to the United States, which would have the direst consequences imaginable.

Opponents argue that the status quo is indeed sustainable and that peace efforts are useless. They argue that no matter what Israel does, the Palestinians will never deliver peace with security, and that the international community-especially the Arab states-will criticize and isolate it. They argue that the withdrawal from Lebanon and Gaza, and the subsequent rocket attacks and wars that followed, prove that the concept of land-for-peace is no longer valid. In short, they now argue, "we made a land of milk and honey"-as my friend said-"why should we give it away when we have means to sustain it?" This is a fallacy. Genuine peace, security and prosperity can only come with a negotiated agreement established between the parties in good faith, with the assistance and support of the United States, Arab states and the international community. Prime Minister Netanyahu is in a unique position to lead efforts to achieve this goal, but today he must show the determination and political will for it to succeed.

Israel is therefore facing a pivotal cross-road-continue dreaming that Israel can maintain the mirage of invincibility and potentially lead itself to a national nightmare, or make Israel's dream a reality by pursuing a two-state solution and do so from a position of strength. As the father of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, famously once said, "If you will it, it is no dream." Prime Minister Netanyahu is capable of steering Israel in either direction. To move toward peace, he must now follow Herzl's dream of a Jewish state living in peace and harmony with its neighbors.

*A version of this article was originally published by the Jerusalem Post on October 15th, and can be accessed at http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=191354

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