With the attack of September 11, the calculus of events in the Middle East has been sharply altered, but the fundamentals remain the same. Even the Gulf war—which in response to provocation of a different nature produced, a decade ago, the extraordinary cooperation of the world’s greater and lesser powers, the largest single military operation in history, and a brilliant and unambiguous tactical victory—did not change them.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein still rules; in Israel, the second intifada has been more ferocious than the first; in regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, American policy has consisted not of deliberate inaction, which might have forced both the Arab states and the Palestinians toward accommodation of Israel, but of frenetic activism, the major operational component of which has been implied or actual pressure on Israel to accommodate the Arabs. And, despite protestations to the contrary, terrorism has been tolerated, and therefore encouraged.
The price of this flaccid toleration of terrorism has been its appearance on American soil and its escalation beyond the proportions of a Pearl Harbor. As we continue to sift through the ruins, it is clear that a war on terrorism must of necessity endure longer than the Gulf war; but it is not clear that the United States will summon the power or resolution it devoted to fighting Saddam Hussein (even if it then forfeited the end game), and of which America is always capable if rightly led and inspired.
Seriously to pursue and obliterate the terrorist networks, to punish and deter the distant states that harbor them, and to liquidate in those states the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and their infrastructure that are the real and present danger to this country will require of Americans the sacrifice of wealth, habit, custom, and lives. Though the war against terrorism may develop according to its own logic, and acquire the doggedness for which America is noted, it may not—especially if the terrorists knowingly quiet themselves so as to empower the forces of inertia and of the Left to break the resolution, official and non-official, that America has managed thus far.
Even should it suffer a more catastrophic blow before it begins to move as it can, the United States will survive. Its sinews of power still are intact and when mobilized are without question irresistible. Israel, however, has no such margin. And therefore it must be prepared, in the context of its alliance with the United States, to think differently and operate independently.
Independence is necessitated not only by the difference in scale between the two countries. Already in the early days after September 11, it was evident that, in the difficult task ahead, the United States had chosen a course in which success would depend in part on the recruitment of Middle Eastern regimes threatened by Islamism—a thing quite delicate that, from the American perspective, has meant demanding of Israel the same kind of self-abnegation America asked of it, and received, during the Gulf war, and the same kind of self-abnegation America asked of it, and received, after Oslo. To the extent that Israel cannot afford to abnegate itself, it must be self-reliant, and it must, of course, be self-reliant in any case.
For a short time, Israel may in some respects enjoy more freedom of action, and it will undoubtedly receive more military support from the United States, although much will be expected of it in return. But just as the spectacular and simultaneous fall of the Soviet Union and American victory in the Gulf war did not alter Israel’s security situation except for the worse, so the apparently new world after September 11 will not alleviate Israel’s problems. Even as the threat to Israel recedes temporarily to the background, it remains; indeed, its recession may make for more danger if it becomes the cause of neglect.
If the current intifada drags on, and in anticipation of the next, it is important to keep in mind that throughout what used to be called the civilized but is now merely the developed world, polite intellectual society has customarily displayed for the Palestinian “resistance” a greater deferential admiration even than it once reserved for the aggressive powers of Communism. As in the cold war, not weakness of mind but a want of courage has allowed the Left to equate consistently unequal moral propositions; to surrender to the relentless pressure of the primitive, the delusional, and the aggrieved; and thus to mix its lot, sometimes coyly, sometimes not, with terrorists, Islamists, and other self-declared enemies of Western civilization.
Is it necessary to state that this admiration is misplaced? As admirable as sacrificial struggle may be in the abstract, it is not admirable to push with every ounce of one’s being for a violent revolution and then call this “resistance.” It is not admirable to initiate and sustain insurrection so as to present oneself as its victim. It is not admirable to encourage children to give their lives to the television cameras for the sake of embarrassing an enemy that does not in any way want to shoot them but finds them deliberately and provocatively placed among riflemen spewing deadly fire. It is not admirable to make war in a fashion so primitive that one cannot grasp the elemental distinction between armed combatants and women and children, infants even, whom one deliberately targets and over whose death one rejoices. It is not admirable to revel in the blood of one’s enemies, as in the Palestinian murders of the lost Israeli reservists in Ramallah last year, and to drink it, literally, as in the case of Black September’s 1971 assassination of the Jordanian prime minister in Cairo. Nor is it admirable to do such things in the name of a historical claim that affords no right or justification whatsoever to one’s opponent and admits no fault whatsoever of one’s own.
The judgment of history should be straightforward: the almost ten-year-old Oslo misadventure was born of misconception, delusion, conformity, and cowardice. But not even the most startling and obvious evidence may be enough to revise the common wisdom. And if the common wisdom holds, the Palestinians will have reason to continue their policy.
What is their policy? It is, like the boa constrictor, to apply continual pressure, always tightening when the prey thrashes. It is to gain broad sympathy in the hope that the West will abandon Israel and the Arabs will unite against it, stimulated by outrages Israel wishes to avoid and the Palestinians to provoke. Thus, quite apart from the events of September 11, the destiny of Israel has been passing through the hands of the peacemakers into the hands of the war fighters. And although many people recoil from such a fact to the point of denying it, it is a fact nonetheless, and in the words of Winston Churchill, a statesman far greater than any who have touched of late upon the question of Palestine, facts are better than dreams.
Contrary to the wisdom of the safe and chattering classes, Israel does not enjoy an assured military advantage, which is why Yasir Arafat may yet hope that before his death he can provoke the cataclysm that will exploit and prove this. In October of 1973, what stood between the rapidly advancing Egyptian army in the Sinai and an Israel that had yet to mobilize was not so much Egyptian hesitancy or fear of overextension as the existence of Israel’s young nuclear deterrent. Since then, four Islamic states have attempted to acquire nuclear weapons, one has succeeded, and another may have; American arms have swelled Arab arsenals; Israel’s strategic depth has been reduced from what it once was to almost nothing; its martial ethos has been drastically diminished; and the millions of Palestinians living within Israel’s lines of defense have become intimate with the country of their enemy, have organized themselves, acquired weapons, and established an army. Whereas all this is not insuperable, and countervailing factors exist in Israel’s favor, the threat is mortal nonetheless. And only by confronting it rather than by chasing the illusion that Arab enmity has in any way been assuaged will Israel find its salvation.
If Israel is to survive, it must prepare more assiduously than it has yet done for four types of warfare: political war on the world stage, civil war, conventional war, and a war of weapons of mass destruction. As much as it should try to avoid fighting without benefit of patronage or allies, it must be ready, in extremis, to do so. And despite its long exhaustion it has to prepare its defenses with the gravity of a people who once more in modern memory are facing the prospect of destruction.
Political warfare first: the Barak years were few but seemed like a millennium, as the failings of previous governments were compressed into spasmodic tropisms of surrender. In view of the upshot—the latest intifada and the world’s response—Israel will have to recalibrate its approach to international politics. In particular, it must be willing to give up even American support rather than put itself in an untenable position. That is simply because a truly untenable position offers no second chance. Given American pragmatism, Israel’s honest and necessary refusal to place itself in jeopardy for the sake of genuine American interests will sometimes be worth the risk, and, for the sake of merely wishful diplomatic initiatives, will always be.
Just as Israel need not give way to Utopian diplomacy, it also need not forever lose the war of opinion. Everything the Palestinians do, every action, statement, initiative, and act of terrorism, is an assertion of their fundamental argument of the Palestine question. The root of their power is that they live and breathe the elemental. Israel shirks from this as if its own arguments were weak or its survival assured, neither of which is true. It must learn once again to stand its ground and return argument for argument, not only because it unashamedly claims justice but because its survival is directly at stake. It must state with clarity not only that its right to existence is indisputable but that the Palestinians and their Arab allies have never been willing to compromise, that they have been consistently absolutist, have made war after war, embrace violence as their policy and express pride in their atrocities, have created more Jewish refugees than the Palestinian refugees whom they have created in large part as well, and speak one way among themselves and another way to the world.
Next, civil warfare: Israel’s ill-advised incorporation of the Palestinians into its national life has already brought about a de-facto civil war, one that has the potential to intensify in conjunction with an attack from without. Rare is the nation at war that must fight simultaneously on and within its frontiers, as Israel is obliged to do even when at “peace.” In support of an external attack, Palestinians organized in Spetsnaz-like units could bring mass terror to Israel’s cities, block its mobilization, box in its badly concentrated nuclear forces simply by obstructing the roads necessary to their deployment, and attack air bases, arsenals, and military targets crucial to command and control.
That Israel acquiesced in arming the Palestinians is beyond understanding. But it can counter the Palestinian army in its midst if it creates fortified blocking and surveillance points along the “green line” dividing pre- and post-June 1967 Israel, as well as a mechanized infantry reserve cracked into fittingly small and highly mobile formations, and a corps of new special-forces units. It will have to arm, organize, and train able-bodied civilians along the lines of English home defense during World War II. As difficult and costly as urban warfare may be, the advantage lies with the defender, and it is an advantage that can be multiplied many times over by sensible and meticulous preparation.
In this intifada as in the previous one in the late 1980’s, the greatest asset of Palestinian forces has been Israeli reluctance to fire upon unarmed crowds. A real war will assuredly liberate among Israelis the combative energy many Palestinians believe has been lost, but there is no question that Palestinian forces active in the initial stages of an attack will degrade Israel’s powers of conventional war. That is all the more reason for Israel not to take them for granted.
Which brings us to the third type of warfare. Without doubt, the hope of Arab planners is to leverage their combined assets with the support of Palestinian raids to throw Israel sufficiently off-balance to wear it down in armored and aerial campaigns. After the peace accords with Egypt in 1978, the 120 miles of strategic depth that Israel had acquired in the Sinai ceased to exist. The defensive lines of the West Bank have also been breached as a Palestinian army has arisen within them in slow motion during the years of illusion.
Israel has not been neglectful of conventional war-fighting, and its skills in aerial combat, for example, provide a great advantage over the forces potentially arrayed against it. But were the Arabs to coalesce in a military alliance as they have done three times in the last half-century, and were they to display unexpected competence and imagination, as they did in 1973, it would be of no little moment that they can field roughly 2,000 combat aircraft, of which 600 are first-line and largely American, against Israel’s roughly 800, of which 400 are firstline. This would be especially dangerous if the surge of fighters were supported by surface-to-air missiles and radar-directed guns as they were in 1973, and if an initial attack on Israeli bases and command and control, by irregulars or surface-to-surface missiles, had degraded Israel’s qualitative advantages and its absolute numbers alike.
In answer to conventional-force imbalances and surprises, Israel will have to enhance its military capacity and enrich its formations with, for example, an additional 200 first-line fighters and more attack helicopters, artillery, and infantry stand-off weapons. Diversion of more GDP to defense could substantially augment Israel’s powers—and because of its situation, every power in Israel’s possession needs augmentation to the point of overkill. In the decade 1970-1980, Israel devoted an average of 29.5 percent of GDP to defense. Now, with a real per-capita GDP several times higher, and therefore commensurately greater discretion in expenditures, it devotes only 9 percent. This is imprudent and without justification. Although diligent preparation is not merely a matter of money, it is mainly a matter of money. Apart from the direct effect, the more unambiguously Israel can overshadow would-be assailants in conventional war, the less likely they will be to exploit opportunities to attack it.
As relevant to Israel’s security as are international politics, the new Palestinian army, and conventional forces, they are not nearly as important as weapons of mass destruction. Israel’s small size, high population density, and urban character make it exceedingly vulnerable to such weapons, and it is neither a coincidence nor in reaction to Israel’s own nuclear capacity that Libya, Iraq, and possibly Iran have nuclear-weapons programs; that in varying degree Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Iran possess chemical and/or biological weapons; and that North Korea successfully tested ballistic missiles financed by Iran, which may have at least two former Soviet tactical nuclear warheads suitable for attachment to the missiles of which it has been the sugar daddy. Though the various production timetables are uncertain, “Islamic” bombs exist already in Pakistan, which, despite the recent infusion of American support, is not that many steps away from a fundamentalist up-welling that could Talibanize its government.
One need not be versed in the arcana of nuclear effects, blast damage, and chemical/biological wind plumes—one need merely look at the map—to see that a nuclear-armed enemy willing to weather Israeli retaliation could either destroy the country right off or combine a lesser attack with other actions to break its resistance. Nuclear deterrence depends upon rational actors. The murderous potentates and semi-psychotic visionaries with whom the Middle East is amply stocked are not always interested in rational calculation. Like Hitler, the Mahdi, or the Boxers, they tend to believe in destiny or divine protection, and their role in history has always been to jump off the cliff inexplicably. As Hitler might have said, and Saddam Hussein might say today, “This is what I do.”
What can Israel do? It can embark, first of all, upon a more intensive civil-defense program, on the model of Switzerland and Sweden: that it has not done so already is reprehensible. This means appropriate shelters, immunizations, stockpiling of antidotes, provision of protective clothing and air filtration, etc., as if for a siege.
Then there is missile defense, which is the equivalent for Israel of David’s five smooth stones. As everything may ride on a few seconds of combat, one can only hope that Israel has exceeded itself in the development of this last line of protection. And the line that stands just before it demands not only the exact intelligence necessary for Israel to preempt the use of weapons of mass destruction, but the will to do so.
Lately there has been a dearth of preventive attacks against the region’s facilities for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, perhaps because of American pressure or because, in the years that Bill Clinton ate, Israel forgot that facts are better than dreams. Is it not obvious that now is the time, when American and Israeli interests with regard to weapons of mass destruction plainly coincide, for Israel to destroy the laboratories, reactors, processing plants, and depots whence untold terror might arise? Precisely this kind of creative destruction should be America’s first imperative, and Israel’s as well. It should be Russia’s, England’s, and France’s, too, and that of every civilized nation.
In forging a broad coalition to pursue its war against terrorism, the United States may be turned from this imperative, not only because it may be too daunting for mere politicians to contemplate but because it will obviously be rather difficult to enlist the aid of the Arab world in destroying the weapons that are abuilding throughout the Arab world. But if, for the sake of forging a coalition that does not want to be forged, the United States abandons the destruction of weapons that must be destroyed, perhaps Israel can help to shore up its courage. Such a thing seems perilous, and it is, but hardly more perilous than its alternative.