Commentary Magazine

Is Israel Secure?

To the Editor:

Yuval Steinitz presents a valid scenario, but his analysis is absurd [“When the Palestinian Army Invades the Heart of Israel,” December 1999]. He is, after all, talking about the recruitment by the Palestinians of 4,000 men for what is essentially a suicide mission. Whatever damage these guerillas might cause, almost none of them would get out of Israel alive. That is a significant recruitment problem.

Though an attack by such units would certainly add to the problems of mobilizing Israel’s reserve forces, it would hardly be “decisive.” Assuming 200 teams of Palestinian commandos, if half of them reached their targets and half of those actually succeeded in doing damage, just 50 locations within Israel would be harmed. Moreover, with its economic prosperity and a Jewish population now reaching more than five million, Israel could easily increase the size of its standing army so as to be less reliant on reserves. This is particularly true if a small part of this larger army were used for the relatively inexpensive task of enhancing the defense of key bases.

But the weakest point of Mr. Steinitz’s analysis is his complete omission of a deterrence factor. By participating in massive sabotage in concert with a general Arab attack, the Palestinians would face the strong likelihood of a second expulsion, since recent analyses have found Israel’s military advantage over the Arab states to be greater than ever. After its likely victory, Israel, having made concessions for peace, would have the moral right to transfer Palestinians en masse from the West Bank. Surely the Palestinians understand this.

Jack Halpern
New York City



To the Editor:

Two things may protect Israel from the military danger that Yuval Steinitz describes. First, the Palestinians have not yet shown themselves capable of carrying out such a demanding attack. They are getting better, however, and it is not advisable to rely on the weaknesses of your enemy.

Second, if the Palestinians tried such a attack and it failed, it is possible that in the heat of battle, Israel might push most of the Arab population of Judea and Samaria to the other side of the Jordan. Israel would thereby annex the remainder of mandatory Palestine. But the overwhelming majority of Israelis have already demonstrated that they would rather give up a major share of the land to which they have historic and legal claims than move more than a million Arabs out of the way. And so, even in the aftermath of a bitter battle—in which Palestinians had invaded Israel, killed thousands of Israeli civilians, and severely threatened Israel’s survival—it is unlikely that Israel would respond by moving Palestinians out of the area conquered in the 1967 war.

Of course, the Palestinians may not have such a high estimate of Israeli patience. They may well think that if they tried the kind of attack Mr. Steinitz describes and failed, Israel would act toward them as they themselves would act toward Israel. In other words, they might be deterred by the possibility of losing their position in Judea and Samaria.

Still, such deterrence is a thin reed on which to rest Israel’s security.

Max Singer
Jerusalem, Israel



To the Editor:

Israel’s military vulnerability is even more serious than what is outlined by Yuval Steinitz. As he notes, Israel’s alarming position is a result of the Munich-like Oslo accords that the country’s leaders have been carrying out unilaterally. Prime Minister Ehud Barak ridicules the idea of reciprocity as “Bibi-speak,” and wants Israel to be separated from its Palestinian neighbors only by an elaborate system of easily penetrated fences. If his vision of “peace” is realized, Israel will become a defenseless and waterless coastal enclave—little more than a well-armed ghetto.

The next war will begin the minute the Arabs think they can win. Hostilities will likely be initiated by Yasir Arafat and immediately joined by Israel’s Arab neighbors, including Egypt, which the Clinton administration has armed to the teeth with the latest American weapons. The Jerusalem Post and Jane’s World Armies report that Egypt will soon receive over 10,000 rounds of 120-millimeter depleted-uranium ammunition for its 555 American M1 Abrams tanks. These shells can punch through the armor of any Israeli tank. The administration has also agreed to sell Egypt 200 more M1 Abrams tanks and the most advanced fighter planes and naval vessels in the U.S. arsenal. Egypt will be armed with defensive and offensive weapons systems that even Israel does not have—all paid for by the U.S.

Egypt has also recently conducted practice crossings of the Suez Canal, constructed bridgeheads on the canal’s east bank, and transferred units of four army divisions to the Sinai. When Israeli intelligence officers complain about these serious violations of the Camp David accords, the Clinton administration, and their own government, tell them to stop making the Egyptians angry and increasing tensions in the region.

Thanks largely to Bill Clinton, the technological edge Israeli forces once enjoyed is now gone. Even more ominously, Israel’s military and political leaders have ruled out a preemptive strike in the next war because they fear that America and “the world” would blame Israel for starting the conflict.

George E. Rubin
New York City



To the Editor:

Yuval Steinitz ably paints a stark picture of the dangers Israel has courted by surrendering its crucial defenses since the Oslo accords. Mr. Steinitz quotes Shimon Peres who (apparently in a previous incarnation) warned that Israel’s narrow “waist” would be vulnerable “to a collapse by a well—organized surprise attack.” It should be remembered just how incredibly narrow that “waist” is.

Not very far east of the coastal town of Herzliya is the large Samaritan Arab town of Qalkilya, one of the centers in which, Mr. Steinitz notes, Arafat has large concentrations of heavily armed “police.” On May 31, 1967, the Cairo daily Al Akhbar observed that “Jordanian artillery, coordinated with the forces of Egypt and Syria, is in a position to cut Israel in two at Qalkilya, where Israeli territory between the Green Line and the Mediterranean Sea is only twelve kilometers wide.” That amounts to seven-and-a-half miles, and a slow car takes ten minutes to drive it. With good reason did Al Akhbar gloat that “Israel could yet find herself in the vise of a nutcracker.”

Jordan was eliminated as a military threat during the first few days of the 1967 war. At present, relations with its Hashemite ruling family are coolly correct. The “vise of a nutcracker” is now wielded by Arafat and his PLO police army in Samaria to the east and Gaza to the west, with eager allies in other Arab countries waiting in the wings.

No other country in world history has voluntarily given away vital areas of its own territory to neighboring enemies sworn to destroy it, and thus abandoned its strategic defenses. But that, with the encouragement of American presidents from Carter to Clinton, is the tragic path Israel has chosen in the twenty years since 1979.

David L. Hurwitz
New York City



To the Editor:

Yuval Steinitz’s analysis of the dangerous situation in which Israel now finds itself is clear, timely, and, in my view, incontrovertible. In considering the question of the Golan Heights, however, which he puts in its true strategic context, we should take into account political as well as military realities.

The negotiations that are being forced upon Israel by the White House and the State Department are not negotiations between Israel and Syria. They are negotiations between Israel, as represented by its elected government, and Hafez al-Assad, as represented by himself. Assad is answerable to no one—certainly not to the Syrian people, whom he has never consulted in any matter whatsoever—and has never wavered in his desire for a “Greater Syria” under his own control. It may suit him, from time to time, to decorate one of his vassals with the quaint title of “foreign minister” and mount a pretense of diplomacy. But such diplomacy is war by other means. In such a context there is only one question concerning the Golan Heights that makes the slightest sense—namely, is Israel defensible without them? It seems to me that the answer is no.

Roger Scruton
Brinkworth, Wiltshire,



Yuval Steinitz writes:

Jack Halpern is right to say that my COMMENTARY article omitted a discussion of the “deterrence factor,” and that it treated only the Palestinians’ abilities and not their intentions. The fuller Hebrew version of the article, which appeared in the November 1998 issue of Nativ, included an entire section on deterrence—with a detailed warning against relying on supposed Palestinian fears of a possible Israeli retaliation. Here let me mention three brief points.

First, Palestinian thinking will assuredly be influenced not only by considerations of what Israel may or may not do but also by pressures, and implicit threats of retaliation, from Arab states (Egypt, for instance) should the Palestinians fail to do their part at a time of full military confrontation. It is hard to say which side’s “deterrence” would be the more effective.

Second, I do not share Mr. Halpern’s confidence in the “strong likelihood of a second [!] expulsion” in the event of an Israeli victory. Whether Israel itself would feel it has the “moral right” to take such a drastic action is highly doubtful, even leaving aside the inevitable international reaction.

Third, Israel has, in fact, relied on deterrence—or what might be called the-Arabs-wouldn’t-dare scenario—quite often in the past, only to find itself severely burned. Thus, prior to the 1973 war Israel believed that its vaunted ability to destroy the entire Egyptian infrastructure from the air would deter Egypt from the folly of a full-scale armed confrontation. Again, after the 1993 Oslo accords, Israelis comforted themselves with the thought that the Palestinians, aware as they had to be of the likely Israeli response, would never permit terrorist acts against the Jewish state or its civilians. In both these cases—more could be cited—such expectations proved completely groundless.

Since I agree with much of what Max Singer has to say (and he echoes my thoughts on deterrence), let me confine my remarks to his first point, concerning current Palestinian abilities. In the opinion of Israeli experts who read the Hebrew version of my article, including high-ranking officials in the Defense Ministry, Palestinian forces as presently constituted have clearly possessed the capacity to carry out such an attack for three years now, and they are only getting better. Of course, my article deals with a worst-case scenario, but worst-case does not mean inconceivable. In order to minimize the chances of such a scenario’s unfolding, it would be incumbent on Israel to change extensively both the way it thinks about its security in general and the way it evaluates particular risks.

This brings me to George E. Rubin. As it happens, although I am in the opposition in Israel I dissent from his sharp criticism of Ehud Barak on the question of separation. In the impossible situation created by Oslo, an agreement that would bring about a separation between Israel and the Palestinians strikes me, for military and geopolitical reasons that I need not go into here, as the lesser of two evils—so long as the borders, especially in West Samaria, are “closed,” and the hill country contiguous with the coastal plain, the Tel Aviv area, and the Jerusalem corridor remains in Israel’s hands.

As for Egypt, its military condition is indeed a matter of deep concern, and it does also look as if the U.S is helping that country prepare to confront Israel. And now the prospect looms of the same thing happening if a peace agreement is reached with Syria. In that event, not only will Israel lose its northern shield—the Golan Heights—but Syria, rearmed with modern weapons thanks to American economic and military aid, will in short order pose a much more effective threat than it does today (also against Turkey, a member of NATO). The thought that in a few years’ time Israel may be facing M1 Abrams tanks and F-16 fighters in the north in addition to, or in combination with, a formidable Egyptian military and Palestinian guerrillas leaves me sleepless.

David L. Hurwitz and Roger Scruton offer still more arguments, both strategic and political, that strengthen my comments about the consequences of the Oslo accords. I thank both of them, as well as my other correspondents, and I hope that the discussion begun in the pages of COMMENTARY will help bring about a greater public awareness of Israel’s essential security needs and sensitivities.


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