Since 1967 the amount of territory under Israeli control has shrunk significantly. At the same time, the threats to the security of Israelis have increased. Terrorism waxes and wanes, but never goes away. Although there are “peace treaties” (actually long-term cease-fire agreements) with Egypt and Jordan, the enmity of the Palestinian Arabs has only deepened. Hamas continues to threaten the inhabitants of southern Israel with rockets, mortar shells, attempts at infiltration, incendiary balloons, and recently machine-gun fire. Israel’s control of Judea, Samaria, and the Jordan Valley, which are essential to the defense of the state, has weakened over time: areas A and B are no-go zones for Jews, and Arab construction in Area C is proliferating. Even within pre-1967 Israel, parts of the Galilee and the Negev are slipping from Israeli control. There are new existential threats that are on the verge of becoming actual: the Iranian nuclear project, and the deployment of precision-guided rockets and drones in the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas.
Not that there aren’t any bright spots. Some examples are the Abraham Accords, which prove that true Jewish-Arab cooperation for a common goal is not impossible, and even more encouraging, that it can take the form of a “warm peace” that is more than merely a cease-fire. But overall the victories of 1967 have failed to translate into a “new Middle East,” in the words of Shimon Peres.
One of the reasons is that there is an ideological conflict based in the essential precepts of Islam that can’t be papered over. This will remain a problem for the foreseeable future and there is little that we, in Israel, can do about it. But given that, there is a pragmatic approach that calls for maintaining the respect of our neighbors, even if it is not accompanied by affection.
Israel has the technological and economic ingredients that will command the respect (and fear and deterrence) that we need to become a regional power – indeed, the preeminent regional power. But in order to make this happen there is a fundamental strategic change that we must make. We need to stop playing defense and go over to offense.
The defensive posture is deeply ingrained in our political and military culture, even when public statements indicate the contrary. Even the 1967 war, when our tactical approach was to take the offensive, was fought in reaction to imminent threats from Egypt and Syria. Since then, almost every military campaign and all of our diplomatic activity has been reactive rather than proactive. Indeed our diplomacy, which even adopted the pernicious idea of “land for peace” for a time (I hope this time is ended), has been worse than reactive – it’s been submissive.
Consider the tactics that we have adopted in response to the various threats from our enemies: rather than respond aggressively to rocket attacks in order to create deterrence, we chose to bat the rockets away with Iron Dome and accept the economic damage that is done by the disproportionate cost (Hamas rockets may cost a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, while the projectiles used by Iron Dome cost $40,000 each and are usually fired in pairs). Retaliation for incendiary balloons is carefully tuned so that nobody is hurt. We try to use minimal force to repel human wave attacks at our Gaza border, and to put down violent riots in Judea and Samaria. We limit expansion of Jewish communities in the territories, while only minimally enforcing building codes against European-funded Arab construction in Area C, and failing to remove illegal Bedouin settlements.
Anti-Israel media makes much of deviations from the do-no-harm rules, but they are exceptions and in opposition to overall policy. Indeed, one of the primary goals of the anti-Israel “scholarship” in left-dominated universities is to try to show that the broad strategy of Israel, both historically and contemporaneously, is to hurt and oppress Arabs. In order to do this, they ignore important context, exaggerate, and even invent “facts.”
So why does Israel fail to “play offense?” Why do we always pass the ball to our enemies and encourage them to try to score again? Why is the most important consideration of the security forces in any situation to avoid wider conflict, to “not heat things up?”
It’s tempting to say that there is some inherent weakness in the Jewish psyche, perhaps learned in our millennia in diaspora, that prevents us from acting aggressively. But that is not so: during the pre-state period and the War of Independence we did take the initiative, militarily and diplomatically. What changed?
I think the problem is that today there is no agreement in Israel over the appropriate long-term objectives that we are striving to obtain. Up until 1948, the goal which the great majority of Jews in the Yishuv supported was the establishment of a sovereign state, even if there was disagreement about the precise nature of that state. Because there was a common goal, there was no hesitancy in embracing the strategies and sacrifices needed to attain it.
Today there is a Jewish state and the disagreements about its nature divide us. Our compromise government perfectly reflects our division. The Nation-State law that tries to explicate what it is to be a “Jewish” state, is controversial. And the opposition to the law is not just composed of Arabs; there are Jews that are embarrassed by the idea of a Jewish state and would prefer a “state of its citizens.”
The nations that have set for themselves ambitious goals – whether we consider them just, moral, beneficial or the opposite – are the ones that pursue aggressive, proactive polices. Iran and Russia come to mind. Where such objectives don’t exist, as often happens in politically divided democratic countries like the USA and the UK, policies are inconsistent and weak. In Israel, this takes the form of the government acting according to the least common denominator of public opinion, which is “keep us safe.”
Unfortunately for Israelis, the defense-only policy is not even effective at keeping the population safe. By allowing the enemy to take the initiative, it permits the development of future existential threats. A continuation of this policy will lead to the further contraction of the Jewish state, until only the People’s Democratic Republic of North Tel Aviv will remain – and it will be a binational state surrounded by Arab states.
But the options are not only expansive empire-building as practiced by Russia and Iran, or the directionless drift into which we have fallen. There is another alternative. That is to return to the goal of some of the earliest Zionists: the Jewish settlement of all of Eretz Yisrael, and the establishment of Jewish sovereignty throughout the land, from the river to the sea, in keeping with the natural geostrategic boundaries of the land (this doesn’t go without saying: it’s easy to forget that as recently as 2007, an Israeli Prime Minister (Olmert) offered to return the Golan Heights to Syria).
This is an objective that the people of Israel would fight for, and one that would enable us to replace the defense-only strategy with a proactive, aggressive one that would guarantee our continued existence.