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July 14, 2006

Existential Israel

I really try not to quote this much, but Publius wrote one of those posts where I wanted to excerpt the first graf, then couldn't leave out the next, and wouldn't think of depriving you of the third, and so on, and now there are five:

Generally speaking, I think people (like me) who came of age post-Cold War see the Israel-Palestine dispute in a fundamentally different way than older people. For instance, I’ve never known any of the Middle Eastern countries surrounding Israel to be anything but jokes, militarily speaking. For that reason, they’ve never scared me. Even today, no one has even the slightest fear that these countries might begin mobilizing troops for a real war. Just rockets and proxies because Israel is so overwhelmingly superior to all of them — combined.

But that’s not the way older people seem to view this dispute. During the Cold War, these countries were legitimate threats to all, and particularly to Israel. After all, Syria had Soviet backing. Egypt seemed like it was at least a military equivalent to Israel. And the countries combined posed a truly existential threat to Israel. Even the PLO, I hear, was once taken seriously as a military threat. But then they all got their asses kicked and the Soviet Union collapsed. And now they’re all jokes.

Unfortunately, though, I think part of Israel's problem is the lingering perception that these countries aren’t jokes, but existential threats. Now, in a sense, they are (which I’ll explain in a minute). But they are not currently existential threats in the conventional military sense. And given their robust diversified economies and education rates (even among the part of the population not forced to wear beekeeper outfits all day), I doubt they’re going to be a threat anytime soon in this conventional military sense.

I’m far from an expert, but it seems to me that the failure to grasp the current non-threat from these countries is at the heart of Israel’s failing strategy. And it also explains the precise nature of the disproportionality of Israel's response. When Israel responds to a kidnapped soldier and a few rocket attacks (that have no military significance in a macro-sense) by a mass bombing of Beirut’s infrastructure or a Gaza civilian power plant, that’s a disproportionate response — not merely because of the difference in magnitude of the bombings, but because of the difference in the nature of the attacks. Israel is responding as if it’s 1967 all over again and as if armies are massing on the borders. In other words, it's fighting with conventional military means as if there is an existential military threat.

But the conventional military threat of the Cold War era is no longer the threat to Israel’s existence — at least not for the time being. The true threat is a demographic one. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out the implications of the relevant population growth of Jewish and non-Jewish populations (both inside and outside Israel). Maybe in 25 years, maybe in 100 years, but at some point Israel is going to have to come to terms with its neighbors. Otherwise, it loses this game in the end.

There is, amazingly, more, so folks should take a look. I'll say, too, that this roughly tracks with my perceptions of the situation, which tend to register at a much lower urgency level than folks with a couple decades on me. I worry about the region's powder keg qualities, but not Israel's actual survival. That said, I also long ago extracted myself from the conflict, believing it far too polarized and intractable to effect positively. I used to justify that by saying nothing could be done until Sharon and Arafat were no longer leading their countries -- which was partially true, although I meant nothing could be done in the direction of peace, and it turns out their presences were really staving off war.

Update: As some point out, a nuclear Iran really would pose an existential threat to Israel. This post is about the mindset of folks who grew up during a period when Israel was the unquestionably dominant power in the region, not whether anyone can actually harm their survival.

July 14, 2006 | Permalink


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I thought the advent of the Kadima party and the withdrawal from Gaza indicated that Israel was finally on the right directional track, with some disagreement on my part with at least two aspects of the Olmert west bank proposal (1) the unilateral nature of the plan; (2) the refusal to face reality on truly withdrawing to something close to the 1967 lines. A different approach to those two items could have resulted in some sort of acceptable accomodation by both parties, Israel and the larger arabic world.

And then there is Jerusalem. The word 'intractable' must have been invented for this issue. Why it isn't clear to everyone that a portion of Jerusalem must be internationalized in the search for peace. But maybe peace isn't really the goal anymore.

It turns out that Olmert is insecure, and his coalition isn't of one mind, so Israel now pursues a maximizing strategy that leads nowhere. The lack of proportionality of their recent responses is just a inevitable outcome of the strategy.

And then we have the US: Condi cautioning against overreach and Bush egging Israel on. The US has (at least) two foreign policies now, and I'm not sure who's in control. Five wasted years with the US contributing nothing of substance. (Same with N. Korea)

I also find both Israel's and the US's readiness to blame Iran for every incident and tactic of the arabic entities surrounding Israel to be a redo of the path leading to the Iraq war.

Maybe the end-times folk really in control this time. They seem to be pulling the strings on both sides of this conflict, Israel and the Islamic middle east.

Are we going to stumble into a true mideast conflagation? Sure looks that way at times - including recently.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 14, 2006 11:13:01 AM

There was always a conflicting sense of doom and confidence in Israel vis-a-vis its neighbors, with accounts of meetings between Israeli officials and others veering from one extreme to the other. When Moshe Dayan was chief of staff in the '50s, apparently he described the existential threat facing Israel in some meetings while almost simultaneously expressing the belief that they would win any war that actually started within a few days. To some extent, both of those things really were true, although the combination was always a bit odd.

On the point about the other countries around Israel being military jokes, an experience that still hangs very heavily over everyone in Israel was the Yom Kippur War. After destroying the combined armies of their neighbors in six days, Israelis were inclined to believe that any other subsequent war would be over just as quickly, but they had a very rude surprise awaiting them in October of '73. The lasting effect for most Israelis was, again, pretty bi-polar: on the one hand, they realized that they had to be open to peace-making even with leaders whom they were not inclined to trust (hence the peace with Egypt and Sadat), but on the other hand, they had to be ready to mobilize massive and overwhelming force against even the slightest threats. That split personality "lessons learned" phenomenon from '73 is sort of similar to what's happening now, as the historic uprooting of settlements has been combined with an out-of-proportion response to a military attack.

Posted by: Haggai | Jul 14, 2006 11:17:59 AM

C'mon. This is so tedious. Hezbollah has 13,000 missiles in southern Lebanon. You can kill a lot of Jews with 13,000 missiles.

But that's not the point.

This is a confrontation with Iran. Iran wants to be perceived as the leader of the Muslim world -- that has been a central goal of the Islamic Republic since 1979. The only way to do that is to set the agenda in the confrontation with Israel. Since 1948, Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- the dominant Sunni Arab powers -- have done that. Iran is forcing this confrontation to assert its prominance. That is why Saudi Arabia went out of its way to denounce Hezbollah, and quite pointedly did not denounce Israel.

This is really a proxy confrontation between Iran, Syria, Hamas (the idiots who started the soldier-kidnapping thing, and an avowed ally of Iran) and Hezbollah (Tehran's sock puppet), on the one hand, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf States on the other. Israel is doing their dirty work at the moment, but you can bet that Sunni Arab elites all over the Middle East are cheering them on.

And, in case it isn't obvious, Iran does represent an existential threat to Israel. Or will, if the West can't come up with a credible plan for changing the game.

Posted by: TigerHawk | Jul 14, 2006 11:27:15 AM

TigerHawk get it almost right. He is correct in stating that Iran wishes to be the dominiant power in the Middle East and they are working through Damascus and Hezbolla to show the world how powerful they are. His mistake is not recognizing that this is a proxy war between the Western powers and Iran. The timing of this move also serves to distract the G8 from continuing to pressure Iran on the nuclear issue and buys them time. It serves them in two ways.

Posted by: Fred Jones. | Jul 14, 2006 11:45:03 AM

So you're only supposed to fight if the other side has a chance of winning? Or is it that you should pre-emptively surrender given that you'll be outnumbered even in your own country within a hundred years and, why wait?

Posted by: slickdpdx | Jul 14, 2006 11:49:21 AM

Fred, I agree that the West wants Israel to destroy Hezbollah's military capability -- that would be a huge bonus, if it does not lead to a wider fight. But your penultimate sentence -- "The timing of this move also serves to distract the G8 from continuing to pressure Iran on the nuclear issue and buys them time" -- is puzzling to me. How does delay in the confrontation over Iran's nuclear weapons help the West? I would have argued it the other way -- that Iran got Hez to start this fight to hijack the agenda of the G8 meeting -- except that I think the operation was long in the planning, and probably had more to do with Hamas' requirements in the Gaza intifada.

Posted by: TigerHawk | Jul 14, 2006 12:00:39 PM


can you say "proportional response"? Don't answer. I can tell you can't.



ps: I am sick of the middle east, Israel, Oil, the end times and all this other apocalyptical shit. I am not a nostalgic kind of guy, but I do miss Clinton. At least all we had to think about then was a bj in the WH.

Posted by: akaison | Jul 14, 2006 12:01:16 PM

akaison: What is the argument for "proportional response" (other than the round of applause you'll receive from the akaison's of the world)?

Posted by: slickdpdx | Jul 14, 2006 12:07:50 PM

There was speculation a couple of days ago that the wingnut contingent would try to make the current troubles an Iran issue. Then lo and behold the dittoheads obliged.

Posted by: sprocket | Jul 14, 2006 12:26:56 PM


let me clear up a misconception you have. I don't give a fuck about Israel or the Middle East except to the extent we have to be over there. I don't have a side here b/c frankly I long ago ceased to care about the "my dead babies first" arguments made by both sides. I care about the US interests.

The argument for proportional response is that a regional conflicts requires the US to have to do more to straighten up Israel's mess. Israel's interest is not the US interest. I know for some of you- this is a big shocker. But for those of us who think US first- not Israel first- our own concern is a stabilized region. That's not going to happen by starting a second war in the region.

To put it another way, the response by Bush of going into Afghanistan after we were attacked by the Taliban/Al Qaida running out of that country was a proportional response, the attack and subsequent war on Iraq in which we are now entangled in a larger war was a disproportionate response.

Frankly, you remind me of this girl who used to work next to me who was from Israel. Nice girl,b ut a little nuts on the subject. She couldn't see the difference between the Palestenians, Iraqis, Afghanis, irani etc either. For her the war in Iraq was about protecting Israel. I had to remind her that she was an American- not an Israel. Maybe i need to do the same with you.

Posted by: akaison | Jul 14, 2006 12:41:19 PM

1. The U.S. response in Afghanistan was very disproportionate! You'd have a better argument if you said the attack in Iraq lacked sufficient connection to the provocation compared to the attack in Afghanistan.
2. The Publius post, admired by Ezra, is about Israel's interests and my response was about that same subject.
3. I don't think the argument for proportional responses is really that they are in U.S. interests, because then you'd also be for disproportionate responses when they serve U.S. interests. I assume (perhaps I'm mistaken) that you believe that a proportionate response is, to some degree, morally required not that it is required when it suits U.S. interests.

Posted by: slickdpdx | Jul 14, 2006 1:00:13 PM

"Frankly, you remind me of this girl who used to work next to me who was from Israel. ... I had to remind her that she was an American- not an Israeli."


Posted by: Petey | Jul 14, 2006 1:23:47 PM

Slick, at it's most simple, the best argument for proportionality is to consider the reverse. Something along the lines of "if all you have is a hammer..."

That's not to say that there are no merits to disproportionate response, but to my largely untrained eye, the nature of the disproportionality is the problem here. Ok, Israel presumably blew up some legitimate targets. They also blew up Joe the Lebanese postman, several times over. And worse, that is exactly the response Hamas/Hibollah/Iran (tigerhawk has a very good point in that regard) want - long term, they win if the conflict keeps going (and before you go Shelby Steele on me, I think Israel's own history in Lebanon gives the lie to the notion that if Israel was just to be really tough and vicious this one time, it would all be over.) Israel unwittingly aids the continuation of a war they cannot win conventionally, especially as there more brutal efforts seem to have Hydra-like effects on the ranks of their enemies.

Of course the problem is, what other options do they have? Sharon could have gotten away with a much less aggresive response than can Ohlmert because he's Ariel Sharon, he's been there, done that, and Netanyahu can't call him a wuss. Unluckily, that's out. Doing nothing seems incorrect both from a strategic and especially ethical/moral standpoint. In normal times, Israel's best hope was to find some way to continue to wear the white hat, and the grownups would eventually step in. Unfortunately, there aren't really any grownups on offer - we're tied down military and discredited morally, Russia is of at least two minds and China could care less as long the oil keeps flowing. So more than at any time in recent memory, Israel is on its own - so an overly aggressive response is understandable. It's just not wise.

What a clusterf***.

Posted by: Pooh | Jul 14, 2006 1:46:00 PM

Pooh: I agree to the extent that a response could be (and shouldn't be) wildly disproportinate. However, efficacy should be the first standard for judging a response. As a secondary consideration, an efficacious response should not be wildly disproportionate or counterproductive. Currently, the Israeli response doesn't look so disproportionate or counterproductive.
I'm not a big fan of the hornets nest theory (Don't rattle the nest, then they'll really be angry!) since it assumes the hornets won't sting or that they will be made more (not less) powerful by an efficacious response, but I know a lot of people would disagree.

Posted by: slickdpdx | Jul 14, 2006 1:54:04 PM

perhaps I need to make it short: destablization is why proportional response matters.

Posted by: akaison | Jul 14, 2006 2:02:39 PM

Currently, the Israeli response doesn't look so disproportionate or counterproductive.

Really? I understand you're point on the hornets nest, but I just don't see what the current Iraeli response achieves. Its like arguing for the death penalty strictly on revenge/justice grounds without regard to its actual effects, positive or negative, on society. I gotta side with akaison here.

Posted by: Adrock | Jul 14, 2006 2:19:11 PM

It is remarkable about the level of minute details we know about this conflict, say, as compared to the whole of the continent of Africa. Well, maybe by 2020 we'll have a Hotel Darfur to teach us all.

Posted by: norbizness | Jul 14, 2006 2:36:25 PM

It's amazing how Americans fall into the exact same trap Middle Easterners are accused of:

Something isn't going right, ergo there must be an American/British conspiracy.

Something isn't going right, ergo there must be a Syrian/Iranian conspiracy.

And for the record, no this isn't a struggle for Shi'i/Sunni supremacy. That's going on next door in Iraq.

Really, do we need to come up with exotic reasons for why Hezbollah or radical Palestinian factions should want to kidnap Israeli soldiers?

Incidentally, targeting civilians, for whatever reasons, is a war crime.

But heck, if it's 'efficacious' to use your tax dollars to pay for the murder of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, be my guest. Easy to see why Iraq turned out so badly...

In the meantime, the only thing that will force Israel to cease its policy of collective punishment is pressure by a real power. The US has abdicated that responsibility. Perhaps a nuclear Iran might have a chance...

Posted by: faux facsimile | Jul 14, 2006 3:30:35 PM

akaison: Fair enough. Stability has some value. But its not much of an end in itself.

Posted by: slickdpdx | Jul 14, 2006 4:36:42 PM

slickdpdx: Stability has some value. But its not much of an end in itself.

Oh, so we shouldn't have had Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) in the cold war with the Soviets?

If was only of 'some value' in preventing a nuclear-cleared planet?

Would you prefer all out war between Israel and its Islamic neighbors, lasting for generations?

Stability may not be the only goal, but when in a gunpowder plant, not lighting matches makes a whole lot of sense.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 14, 2006 4:56:41 PM

Its amusing to watch people, many of whom probably argued not too long ago that the U.S. immorally pursued stability at the price of cozying up to dictators around the world, tell us how important stability is now.

Posted by: slickdpdx | Jul 14, 2006 5:01:44 PM

To be fair, I suppose you can oppose needless military intervention without advocating for stability. But stability was the argument that was raised above.

Posted by: slickdpdx | Jul 14, 2006 5:31:05 PM


it's not an end and of itself- but (and not to be crass) you better have a better reason than the lives of three soldiers to play brinmanship with a region already on edge with another unnecessary war and the threat of a rising nuclear power.

Posted by: akaison | Jul 14, 2006 5:32:10 PM

I find it rather funny that anyone in the US criticizes Israel for using disproportionate force in response to a couple kidnappings and a few rockets. Americans are the champions when it comes to overreacting to any perceived or real threat. And all sides are guilty here. Start with the one percent doctrine, and recall that the population strongly supported invading Iraq based on what would have most likely been a minor and containable threat *even if* suspicions of Iraqi WMD proved true. We spend billions on ballistic missile defense based on a virtually infinitesimal threat. And there are the folks on the other side. Columbine -- an isolated if horrific event -- demands massive regulation of arms in this country. No oil drilling in ANWR or off the coast because there's just this *possibility* of environmental damage.

Is Israel responding disproportionately? Maybe, although I find that highly arguable. But if so, so what? There's plenty of company over here!

Posted by: MR | Jul 14, 2006 6:30:42 PM


I see- so the argument is that a regional war is justified because America does things wrong too? Interesting theory. I suppose if America jumps off a bridge Israel should feel justified in doing the same. Interesting logic. As I have said of both sides in the debate in the middle east- rational thought and logic goes out the door in favor of stupidity. this is why I don't want us over there.

Posted by: akaison | Jul 14, 2006 8:34:12 PM

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