One reason Americans are often wrong about Jews and Israel

In 2014, the media watchdog organization CAMERA put up a billboard on Times Square accusing the NY Times of “slanting the news.”

Nothing has changed; in fact, today the Times is listing so severely to port that I’m surprised to see it still afloat. I have picked a couple of articles, both by Times staffers, to prove my point.

One is a “News Analysis” article by Jonathan Weisman*, an editor in the Times’ Washington bureau, called “Anti-Semitism Is Rising. Why Aren’t American Jews Speaking Up?”

Weisman is rightly concerned. Jew-hatred is becoming increasingly popular and moving closer to the mainstream in the US. Extremists on both the Right and the Left are finding it easier to speak in ways that would have been taboo only a few years ago. Anti-Jewish hate crimes have increased sharply in recent years as well. So you would think Weisman would have plenty of material.

But in 1052 words, all he is able to talk about is the so-called “alt-right,” as exemplified by a couple of right-wing conspiracy theorists, Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec.

I am sure Weisman isn’t making up stories about the hate mail he is getting, and that much of it has anti-Jewish themes. But can you write about antisemitism without mentioning the Imams who have called for the murder of Jews from their pulpits? Can you write about it without mentioning the harassment of Jewish students on college campuses by members of organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine, some of whom openly express admiration for Hitler? Can you write about it without discussing the prevalence of Jew-hatred in the black community, and the “intersectional” embrace of Jew-hater Louis Farrakhan by the progressive movement?

Weisman and the Times couldn’t, or didn’t want to. Instead, he praises the discredited Southern Poverty Law Center (which, like him, is blind to left-wing and Muslim Jew-hatred) and attacks Jewish organizations for being – get ready – “focused on Israel!”

If the vinyl banners proclaiming “Remember Darfur” that once graced the front of many American synagogues could give way in a wave to “We Stand With Israel,” why can’t they now give way en masse to “We Stand Against Hate”?

I don’t see a lot of liberal synagogues standing with Israel these days, but that is another topic. Weisman closes with a suggestion for American Jews: they should “[embrace] Judaism as a vital part of America pluralism — and [find] the spiritual meaning in the religion,”  which seems to mean that they should replace Judaism with political progressivism, a trend that has been underway for some time among liberal American Jews.

* David Gerstman informs me that Weisman is also the genius responsible for the Times chart that highlighted in yellow those lawmakers who opposed the Iran deal who were Jewish.

***

Now let’s to turn to another Times staffer, the venerable Isabel Kershner, the Times’ Jerusalem correspondent. In a “news” article in the Middle East section of the paper, she tries to explain why “In Israel’s Poorer Periphery, Legal Woes Don’t Dent Netanyahu’s Appeal.” Recent polls are showing PM Netanyahu’s Likud surging ahead, despite his unpopularity in the trendy parts of Tel Aviv. So Kershner goes to the not-so-trendy Kiryat Malachi (city of angels) where the mostly mizrachi [Jews who immigrated to Israel from the Middle East and North Africa] population supports him. How can it be that they simply don’t care about the corruption investigations underway against “Bibi, as he is lovingly nicknamed?”

One explanation would be that people who remember, or whose parents remember, the treatment Jews received at the hands of the Muslims among whom they lived don’t trust the Israeli Left, which keeps trying to give away parts of the country to the Arabs in the name of “peace,” which the Arabs will never provide. In other words, it is a disagreement over policy, and Bibi (even those who do not love him call him “Bibi”) has managed to stand firm against pressure from the US and Europe to commit suicide. It also doesn’t hurt that he is taking a tough line against Iran, that on his watch the economy has boomed, that he has made some major diplomatic gains for the “isolated” Jewish state, and that he has kept us out of major wars.

The corruption investigations, the details of which have been leaked on a daily basis to the media, have a smell of contrivance about them. It may turn out that some of the accusations are at least in part true, but most supporters feel that these are small matters, no politician is perfect, and his overall performance on the most important issues has been excellent.

That would be the simple answer. It explains why Bibi is popular everywhere in Israel, except among the bitter left-wing politicians that used to run the state and their academic, cultural and media partners. The real mystery Kershner should explore is not why he has so much support in the periphery, but rather, why they hate him so much in North Tel Aviv.

But Kershner misses the obvious, and implies that the answer is to be found in identity politics, the historical grievance of the mizrachim against the Ashkenazi establishment, and perhaps in quaint North African religious beliefs. After describing her visit to the tomb of the Baba Sali (a mystical rabbi revered by the Moroccan Jewish community) and talking about amulets, she might as well have echoed Barack Obama’s 2008 remark that working-class voters “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them…”

But the words of her (very articulate, by the way) interviewees refute this implication:

Like Mr. Begin, Mr. Netanyahu is Ashkenazi, while the current leader of the center-left Labor Party, Avi Gabbay, is the child of Moroccan immigrants. But Netanyahu supporters deride Mr. Gabbay as a political novice and disregard his ethnic origins.

“We are not racists,” Mr. Ayyash [Yehuda Ayyash, 58, a greengrocer in the blue-collar town of Kiryat Malachi in southern Israel] said. “We are rightists.”

And the police investigations of Netanyahu?

“We are all Bibi,” said Erez Madar, 33, a hairdresser in Kiryat Malachi. “Let him have a cigar. He deserves an airplane.”

Indeed, most of us agree, which is why we keep voting for him.

***

Sometimes people ask me why liberal Americans are often so wrong about anything connected to Jews or Israel, despite the fact that they are seemingly obsessed with these subjects.

Maybe the answer is that so many of them read the NY Times.

Posted in American Jews, Israeli Politics, Israeli Society, Jew Hatred, Media | 1 Comment

Will Israel keep the draft?

The conflict over drafting Haredim has given birth to a coalition crisis that may yet bring about new elections. A good account of the political twists and turns can be found here, if you really want to know the details. But what about the whole question of the IDF, the draft and its place in Israeli society?

The situation of the Haredim is a highly visible part of the problem. In 1947 Ben-Gurion made a deal with the Agudat Yisrael party, which represented the more observant elements of Orthodox Judaism in the pre-state yishuv, which established a “status quo” for matters of religion and state. In return, party leaders agreed not to oppose the declaration of the state.

The agreement was very general and Ben-Gurion promised that details would be worked out in the constitution for the state that was supposed to be written in the next few months. Needless to say, no constitution was written, and the uneasy status quo developed informally over the years. In 1948, during the War of Independence, Ben-Gurion agreed to exempt some 400 exceptional yeshiva students from the draft, as long as Torah study was their sole occupation (the torah umanuto arrangement). As time passed – and as the religious parties often held the balance of power in coalition governments – the arrangement expanded, until tens of thousands of Haredi young men were exempted (61,000 in 2010, the latest figure I could find).

The Supreme Court found the current situation unconstitutional in 1998, and the legislative and judicial wrangling has continued until today. Recent attempts to draft Haredim against their will gave rise to massive, sometimes violent, demonstrations. The latest proposed draft law, a compromise that is supposed to end the current crisis, has been described as saying “Haredim will enlist in the IDF, unless they don’t feel like enlisting in the IDF.”

One can understand why secular and national-religious people who are asked to give up three years of their lives plus the possibility of a month of reserve duty every year until they are 40, object to the free ride given to the Haredim, many of whom are by no stretch of the imagination “scholars.” For their part, the Haredim claim that the accommodations made by the army for their religious lifestyle are insufficient, and they view the draft as antisemitic persecution.

Some Haredi men are choosing to be drafted, but they are few and their communities treat them badly. The solution, however, can’t be to try to coerce them by threats of jail time, because they will find other ways to escape from service and will certainly contribute nothing until they do.

Over the years, geopolitical and technological changes have resulted in a reduction of the period of regular service, a lowering of the age at which one is released from reserve duty, and a reduction in the amount of reserve duty. When I served in the 1980s, I was called for six weeks every year with no exception; two weeks of training and four weeks of duty. Today, most men and virtually all women are not called in any given year and the number of days they serve when they are called is smaller.

Especially during periods of mass immigration, army service has served to integrate new arrivals into Israeli language and culture, exposing young soldiers to elements of the population that they might not otherwise meet, and serving as an object lesson in the costs of defending the nation. Universal service guarantees a degree of military literacy which makes it possible for Israelis to understand security-related issues, and vote more intelligently on them. Compare this to the US, where many citizens don’t even know anyone who serves in the nation’s professional army. And in opposition to criticism that calls Israel a “militaristic” nation, the first-hand knowledge of war that most Israelis have make it the opposite, a profoundly peace-loving nation.

But there are some downsides to universal conscription, and as time goes by they are becoming more serious. Not every draftee belongs in the military or can be of use to it, and the IDF has to spend a great deal of time and money finding something useful for them to do, warehousing them, or getting rid of them. One can only imagine the difficulties of integrating tens of thousands of unhappy Haredim who can’t eat the kosher food provided by the army and who can’t interact with women as in secular or even non-Haredi Orthodox society, assuming that it were possible to draft them.

Because the number of recruits is so large compared with the needs of the IDF, the length of regular service has been reduced to 32 months for men and two years for women. This means that resources have to be expended on training of new recruits for jobs that they will only be qualified to do for a few months.

Many observers have said that Israel would be better off with a fully volunteer, professional army. The money that would be saved by reduced training of new recruits could be spent on better equipment and good pay for soldiers who would do their jobs for long enough that their expensive training would be justified. It’s argued that modern warfare requires more highly trained specialists and fewer “grunts” who can be given a rifle and pointed in the general direction of the enemy.

One objection to this is that Israel can’t afford a large enough standing army to protect it in the event of an emergency. In the past, virtually the entire able-bodied male population could be called up to fight. But if conscripts were replaced with a professional army, then there would no longer be a pool of trained reservists who – as happened in 1973 – could join their units at a moment’s notice, ready to fight.

On the other hand, with the reduction in training of reservists in recent years, the mass emergency call-up may already be a thing of the past. And perhaps those who believe that in present-day conditions it will not be needed are right.

Moshe Feiglin, a right-wing religious politician who is nevertheless a strong libertarian, makes this suggestion:

The solution is simple: Israel must stop funding tens of thousands of soldiers who are not really needed and do nothing but make more work and expense for the system. Everybody should be drafted for a brief training period of one or two months. The IDF will choose the cream of the crop, who will remain in the army of their own free will for a long period of time. Those soldiers will get the best training and will receive excellent salaries.

The universal training period will at least produce some familiarity with military life, terminology and capabilities, even if it will not produce a supply of “grunts” to be called up in an emergency.

Any changes in this area would have to be made very slowly and thoughtfully. Today, army service is connected with almost every aspect of everyday life in Israel. Unlike the US, students usually defer their studies until they finish their service, and therefore take them more seriously. Employers hire people that they knew during their service, or who served in particular units. Young people often meet their future spouse during their time in the army. The first thing someone asks about a man who wants to work for them or marry their daughter is “what did he do in the army?” (No, they do not ask that about women – yet).

Paradoxically, some of the best things in Israeli life come from the years of compulsory servitude dictated by universal conscription. But the IDF is already moving in the direction of professionalization. The combination of increasing population size and the evolution in the nature of warfare make it unavoidable. Perhaps the revolt of the Haredim will speed up the process.

Posted in Israeli Politics, Israeli Society, War | 1 Comment

Israel’s right of self-defense

When I was in elementary school, I was disciplined for hitting another pupil after he hit me. That I remember the details of the incident clearly 60-odd years later is an indication of how strongly I perceived the injustice of it. I believed my action was justified as necessary self-defense to stop an unprovoked attack. The school principal disagreed.

One of the most strongly felt principles in Western morality and jurisprudence is the right of self-defense. It is permissible in most places to kill an attacker when a person feels that his own life or that of a family member is threatened. A person is not required to allow himself to be harmed or killed, even if the action he is forced to take to protect himself would be otherwise immoral or illegal.

There are strong arguments that even convicts have a constitutional right to employ violence in self-defense in the pervasively violent environment of American prisons. Prisons are inherently violent and dangerous, and the authorities are not able to protect the prisoners’ rights given budgetary and other constraints. But incarceration does not include a requirement to commit suicide, which in many cases is what failing to defend oneself in prison means.

There is the well-known Talmudic dictum, “If a man comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first” (Sanhedrin 72:1). And even Islamic  shari’a recognizes a right of self-defense (although a non-Muslim may not be able to exercise it against a Muslim for other reasons).

The right of self-defense is also recognized internationally between states. The UN Charter (Ch. I, Art. 2.4) says that members “shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” But the last article (51) of Chapter VII, which defines how the UN itself may use force to stop aggression, includes this exception:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. [my emphasis]

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), in its 1996 Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Use or Threat of Nuclear Weapons, took note of “the fundamental right of every State to survival, and thus its right to resort to self-defence, in accordance with Article 51 of the Charter, when its survival is at stake.” The Court argued that in such a case, as long as they are used in concurrence with international humanitarian law (in particular, the principles of necessity and proportionality), even nuclear weapons could not be ruled illegal!

The right of individual self-defense derives from the most basic of human rights, the right to life. And as the UN Charter and ICJ opinion quoted above indicate, international law recognizes also a national right to life.

I believe that the Middle East, like an American prison, is an inherently violent and dangerous place, and that all states – even one unwelcome to its neighbors – have the right to defend themselves when attacked, using whatever means are necessary to do so. Even, when there is no other option, nuclear weapons.

A lot is packed into the words “when attacked.” For example, in 1973, Israel’s enemies crossed cease-fire lines and attacked Israeli positions, acts that unambiguously constituted an “attack.” In 1967, Egypt expelled UN peacekeepers from the Sinai, massed armored divisions on the Suez Canal, announced that they would “annihilate” the Jewish state and “slaughter” us (here is a recording of Radio Cairo threatening genocide in Hebrew), and closed the Strait of Tiran, which in itself was an act of war. Technically Israel fired the first shot on June 5, but from a practical and legal standpoint, Egypt and Syria were the aggressors.

The situation today is not as clear. Iran, operating through proxies, has built an offensive capability in southern Lebanon over the past decade, and now is doing the same in Syria. It has threatened us with genocide and financed terrorists of all stripes. But its buildup has been gradual and it has not yet taken actions equivalent to the expulsion of the UN peacekeepers from the Sinai or the blockade of the Strait of Tiran. At some point the line will be crossed, and Israel will need to take military action.

Unfortunately, the attitude of the international community – as expressed in UN resolutions, NGO reports, media content, and institutions like the ICJ – does not grant to Israel the same right of self-defense that every other nation is given.

Even when Israel has been  attacked, as by the massive flood of Hezbollah rockets in 2006, or the rocket barrages from Gaza in 2008, 2012 or 2014, the Islamic-European-NGO-media axis has defined Israel as the aggressor and even accused her of war crimes for her responses. These accusations, based on cooked numbers and reports coming directly from Hamas, Hezbollah, or other severely biased anti-Israel sources, were even echoed by US President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and other administration officials.

Israel’s efforts to reduce collateral damage in these campaigns were unprecedented, and the resultant protection of civilian life and property was far better than the US and its NATO partners have been able to achieve in various recent conflicts. But the war crimes accusations against us stuck nevertheless.

The ICJ, whose very careful and comprehensive opinion on the use of nuclear weapons was quoted above, also produced one in 2004 on the subject of Israel’s security barrier. In this highly politicized opinion, The Court reiterated all of the usual Arab and European talking points, calling the barrier illegal and declaring that Israel must dismantle it, pay compensation to all those “injured” by it, and so forth (fortunately, the Court does not have the power to force Israel to follow its advice).

Israel argued that the existence of the barrier and its location were intended to protect her population from armed attacks. But the Court simply rejected this without any investigation of the facts or attempt to rebut Israel’s claims of military necessity. It misinterpreted Article 51 of the UN Charter, saying that since Israel “controlled” the territories, she did not have a right to protect herself from armed attacks from them. And there were other significant deficiencies. Here is a small part of the criticism leveled against the decision by the one dissenting justice, Thomas Buergenthal (the only American on the Court):

All we have from the Court is a description of the harm the wall is causing and a discussion of various provisions of international humanitarian law and human rights instruments followed by the conclusion that this law has been violated.

Lacking is an examination of the facts that might show why the alleged defences of military exigencies, national security or public order are not applicable to the wall as a whole or to the individual segments of its route. The Court says that it “is not convinced” but it fails to demonstrate why it is not convinced, and that is why these conclusions are not convincing.

The shoddy, negligent reasoning and extreme political bias of this document – compare it to the nuclear weapons opinion discussed above –  is a striking testament to the obsessive treatment of Israel as a pariah state, denied the most basic right of any nation or person, a right that arguably must even be provided to prison inmates: the right of self-defense, and thereby of survival.

I’m indebted to Allen Hertz for many of the thoughts in this post.

Posted in The UN, War | 2 Comments

The poisonously ambiguous concept of “two states”

AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr created a stir Sunday when he called for “two states for two peoples: one Jewish with secure and defensible borders and one Palestinian with its own flag and its own future.”

Kohr deliberately echoed the words of Benjamin Netanyahu at Bar-Ilan University in 2009. Netanyahu said then,

In my vision of peace, in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect.  Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other. …

I have already stressed the first principle – recognition. Palestinians must clearly and unambiguously recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people.

The second principle is: demilitarization. The territory under Palestinian control must be demilitarized with ironclad security provisions for Israel. …

Regarding the remaining important issues that will be discussed as part of the final settlement, my positions are known: Israel needs defensible borders, and Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel with continued religious freedom for all faiths.

Bibi’s statement was a mistake. His enemies on the right pounced on him for giving up his historical opposition to a Palestinian state, while the Arabs and the Left derided him as insincere. He got nothing in return from Obama and lost whatever reputation he still had for principled opposition to concessions for the PLO. Most damaging to Israel was the fact that the Americans and the PLO “pocketed” his statement, making it almost impossible for him or any subsequent Israeli Prime Minister to walk it back. From then on, anyone could say “Israel officially supports a Palestinian state.”

The root of the problem is that the concept of “two states” is poisonously ambiguous. Everyone can understand it to mean something different, up to embracing diametrically opposite ideas.

Bibi’s Palestine would be a less-than sovereign autonomous entity, demilitarized, without control of airspace, borders, electronic communications or the Jordan Valley. It would not be allowed to import weapons or make military pacts with other nations. The PLO would be required to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people (which of course they would never, ever, do).

The Israeli center-left calls for “two states for two peoples,” a formula which, like Bibi’s, implies recognition. In this view, after an Israeli withdrawal from all or part of Judea and Samaria and the creation of an Arab state, “Palestine” would accept the Jewish people’s ownership of the remaining part of Israel as legitimate. There would be no further claims against Israel, and any solution for the descendants of Arab refugees would take place outside of the borders of Israel. This would not fly with the PLO either.

Finally, there is what Mahmoud Abbas means by “two-state solution:” a “Palestine” in which there will be no Jews, which will encompass all of Judea and Samaria (and theoretically, Gaza) with the exception of small land swaps, fully sovereign in every respect. Next to it will be an Israel that will be a “state of its citizens.” It cannot belong to the Jewish people, because in the view of the PLO there is no Jewish people, only a Jewish religion. This “Israel” will accept as many of the millions of Arab “refugees” who wish to “return” to it and grant them full rights. One can only speculate how long and in what condition of civil war this state would exist until it would be absorbed into “Palestine.”

Needless to say, these visions are incompatible. The dishonest J Street organization claims that Abbas accepted the idea of “two states for two peoples,” but in fact he has never added anything about two peoples to the phrase “two states.” Indeed, Abbas’ recent speech (incidentally, one of the most nonsensical orations ever) that J Street refers to as a “Palestinian peace  plan” implicitly but clearly calls for a right of return for the Arab “refugees” to Israel.

The best thing that could happen would be for everyone to stop talking about the “two-state solution,” a phrase which has devolved into meaninglessness.

In 2009, Bibi may have been forced to utter the formula by the Obama Administration. But what about AIPAC today? Apparently panicked by a recent poll showing diminishing support for Israel among Democrats, AIPAC is struggling to get them back. The same day that Kohr made his remarks, AIPAC’s president Mort Fridman made it explict:

To my friends in the Progressive community, I want you to know that we are partners in this project. The Progressive narrative for Israel is just as compelling and critical as the conservative one. [Yes, he said that! – vr]

But there are very real forces trying to pull you out of this hall and out of this movement and we cannot let that happen. We will not let that happen.

AIPAC hoped to fend off attacks from J Street and similar groups without weakening its support from pro-Israel elements, by employing the time honored method of political triangulation. By adopting some of the ideas of its opponents on the Left, it hopes to bring them into the fold, while its supporters on the Right will have nowhere else to go.

But this is a poor strategy because the progressives among the Democrats no longer accept AIPAC’s primary objective, which is support for Israel. It’s not that they think, as the Israeli Left does, that “ending the occupation” will be likely to lead to peace, or that their vision of Israel will be more democratic, or that another partition of the Land of Israel will prevent a demographic crisis. They have absorbed the narratives of the international Left and are simply anti-Israel. They are not coming back to AIPAC.

This is especially true of the Jews among them. At some point, the Jewish progressives replaced their connection to am yisrael with one to the oppressed peoples and gender-groups of the world, including of course the Palestinians.

The best thing for AIPAC to do now, in my opinion, is to become unapologetically pro-Israel. The progressives are gone anyway, and it might make the organization more effective.

Posted in 'Peace' Process, American Jews, Israel and Palestinian Arabs | 2 Comments

Notes on our next war

There is a feeling of calm before the storm here in Israel. Everyone thinks war is unavoidable, and most people understand, at least on an intellectual level, that this war is going to be one of the toughest in Israel’s history.

I’ll say at the outset that I’m convinced that we will survive this one too, and even achieve a measure of victory. But the cost will be very high in soldiers, civilians and property, and the price we will have to exact from our enemies will be even higher. As in the past, they have worked themselves into a frenzy, listening to their own propaganda. And as in the past, they will be sorry. But there’s no stopping them, particularly since the Iranian regime thinks it will be able to destroy us by proxy, without getting its own hands dirty.

Our government and military will do their best to deter the various actors. Don’t join in, and nothing will happen to you, they will say, as they said to King Hussein of Jordan in 1967. But our enemies’ lack of understanding of our capabilities, their misconceptions about the nature of the Jewish people in Israel, and their incandescent hatred for us will continue to dazzle them.

We are facing some 130,000 rockets in Lebanon which can hit almost all of Israel, and some of which can be accurately guided to their targets. There is also an unknown number of missiles in Syria, which can carry chemical weapons. And Iran herself has missiles that can strike Israel from her territory. There are battle-hardened Hezbollah fighters and Shiite militias in Lebanon and Syria, prepared to bring the war to our territory. And unlike the IDF, they will not spare civilians that they encounter.

Hamas has also built up its missile forces since the last war, and have hardened their launchers and buried them underground. There is a threat from ISIS in the northern Sinai. Once the war begins we can expect an upsurge in terrorism from Arabs in Judea and Samaria, and possibly even from terrorist cells based in the Triangle area. How many fronts does that make?

The IDF expects incursions in the North and has made plans for evacuation of areas threatened by fighting or heavy rocket barrages. Possibly there may also be evacuations in the area around Gaza.

The enemy’s first act will probably be massive rocket attacks from Lebanon, perhaps with precision-guided missiles aimed at military targets and sensitive infrastructure. Only some of the incoming rockets will be intercepted by our anti-missile systems, which can be overwhelmed by the sheer number of projectiles. I expect that there will be incursions by elite enemy forces at the same time, in order to create panic and jam the roads with people moving south. Thousands of rockets a day will be fired at first, until our forces can destroy the launchers and stockpiles.

The IAF and artillery will hit the launch areas in southern Lebanon, causing massive damage and probably great loss of life to civilians among whom the rocket launchers are placed. IDF ground troops will enter Lebanon to root out the launchers that can’t be destroyed from the air. Heavy fighting is expected in an area that is honeycombed with tunnels and bunkers. Casualties to both the home front and the IDF in this phase may be quite high.

I can’t estimate how long it will take for the rocket fire from Lebanon to be stopped, but in 2006 it continued for an entire month until a cease-fire was signed. The IDF says that it has learned its lessons from that war, but then so has Hezbollah. I think it is true that this time we have far better intelligence and will know how to hit more targets in less time. We may even succeed in decapitating Hezbollah by killing its top leadership early on. But it is impossible to predict what will happen in a four- or five- front war. There are credible estimates of thousands of civilian and military casualties on our side. The war will probably be the most painful of any of Israel’s previous wars (at least in the sheer number of casualties).

I think that the Israel of massive construction projects and burgeoning economy will suffer a severe setback from this war, because of the human and financial costs. The “golden age” that we are experiencing today will not continue, or at least will be suspended for some years. The worldwide hate machine will go into overdrive, holding us responsible for the deaths of thousands or even tens of thousands of human shields in Lebanon and Gaza. There will be demonstrations against Israel and Jews everywhere.

What can we do to reduce the impact of the war? It seems to me that there are several possible strategies:

One is to wait for the enemy to attack and then hit them as hard as possible. This has one main advantage – at least, its proponents claim that it does – which is that world opinion and the diplomatic climate would be more favorable, since we would not be viewed as the aggressor. Our enemies would have violated international law by attacking us, and theoretically a  negotiated settlement would favor us.

The main disadvantage of this strategy is that a huge amount of damage can be done before we respond. Especially if critical infrastructure is destroyed, our response could be delayed, and the difference could be measured in thousands of deaths. Since ground troops would be required to deal with incursions and hardened rocket launchers, we would be in a difficult spot until the reserves could be called up, especially if we have been attacked on multiple fronts.

But the truth is that our diplomatic isolation stems from other nations’ perceptions of their national interest and by their prejudices, and not on the true moral or legal nature of our actions. World opinion is manipulated by governments and media and is also not reality-based. Therefore I doubt that any such abstract advantages would justify the price we would pay for it. And the price would be high.

The second strategy is to preempt and attack first. Martin Sherman has done a good job in arguing for preemption:

Given the assumption that, bolstered by its patron’s pervasive physical presence, Hezbollah will in all likelihood, eventually, use the vast arsenal at its disposal, the inevitable question is: Will Israel allow its deadly adversary to choose the time, place and circumstances for a major attack against it? Indeed, more to the point, can Israel afford to allow Hezbollah such a choice?

Sherman goes on to show that Israel cannot, particularly because the small size of the country and her technological sophistication make her especially vulnerable to destruction of critical infrastructure, such as power plants, desalination facilities, refineries, natural gas platforms, and similar facilities. A preemptive strike might not be quite as effective as it was in 1967, but it would certainly reduce the damage that Israel would need to absorb. If done properly it might result in a quick end to the war. I’ve argued the same thing here and here.

Sherman argues correctly that the idea that Israel has been successful in deterring its enemies is wrong. Rather, our restraint has been exploited to allow our enemies to build up and harden their capabilities. The choice, says Sherman, is “between incapacitating the enemy while you can; or continuing to deter the enemy—until you can’t!”

A third strategy is to continue as we have been doing, preventing Iran from establishing bases in Syria and arming Hezbollah by means of limited strikes. But this is a delaying tactic that is only partially effective, and, Sherman notes, “it is liable to lead not only to the hardening of targets— for example by converting them from surface to underground sites—but to familiarizing the enemy with Israel’s methods and capabilities.”

There is always the question “what will the great powers do?” That means, of course, the US and Russia. The rest of the world will talk, but does not have the power to act (the Sunni Arabs will condemn us in public but smile in private). It is hard to predict what the Trump Administration will do, but it is certain that a Democratic administration would be worse, which argues for taking action sooner rather than later.

Will the Americans insist on prior knowledge of the operation? Can we take the risk of telling them? What will happen if we don’t?

As far as Russia is concerned, part of our plan will have to include guaranteeing Russia’s interests in the region. What this would mean in detail would have to be worked out, but I don’t think our interests and Russia’s have to contradict each other.

The problem is that time is not on our side. The longer we wait, the more expensive in lives and money the inevitable war becomes. The comforting argument that because of our strength our enemies will continue to be deterred falls apart with every new report that Iran has built this or that facility, or introduced this or that militia into Syria.

Sherman asks: do we want a triumph like 1967 or a trauma like 1973? I don’t know if we can achieve a victory as total as 1967, but only preemption will save us from an outcome that could be much worse than 1973.

Posted in War | 3 Comments