Above the Fray: A false sense of invincibility

Ten years ago, the West Bank was calm, Israel was enjoying a sense of confidence. The breakdown of talks and the second intifada revealed that this was an illusion. It would be tragic if history were to repeat itself.

By
October 15, 2010 16:19
Alon Ben-Meir

Alon Ben-Meir. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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The military and economic prowess currently enjoyed by Israelis has led to a false sense of invincibility and a belief that the status quo is sustainable. While the economy is robust and public confidence in the IDF remains high, the national aspiration for a safe, secure and prosperous homeland for the Jews has yet to be achieved.

Achieving this goal is inextricably linked to the establishment of a lasting two-state solution, relinquishing other occupied Arab land while abandoning the perilous notion held by many that their country can maintain this false sense of invincibility. Perhaps this attitude explains the Netanyahu government’s unwillingness to extend the settlement freeze for a mere two more months, because the public has become complacent and does not care if the negotiations break down completely.

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Israelis are currently enjoying life in a mirage. To drive on the country’s state-of-the-art highways and walk along the Tel Aviv beachfront with carefree people enjoying the sand and sun is to witness this illusion in action. With a strong economy and violence significantly reduced, Israelis today have a chilling sense of security. They continue to feel victimized and isolated by the international community, yet feel assured in their ability to defend the state against enemy attacks.

Meanwhile, they have begun to lose compassion and empathy for those who are suffering so that they may enjoy this false sense of security.

I REMEMBER recently having breakfast in one of Tel Aviv’s beachfront hotels with a colleague who said to me in the midst of our heated discussion about the peace process: “Alon, you keep talking about the need for peace and ending the occupation, why should we do that? Look at what we have created, look at the array of food and splendor; we live in a de facto peace and enormous prosperity – why should we give anything back?”

In a poll last March, only 8 percent of Israelis cited a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians as the country’s most urgent problem. With an alarming shortsightedness, they have come to believe that the status quo can be preserved indefinitely. But can this really last? This mirage could be undermined in a single day by a few deadly attacks. Protecting Israel against such a potential catastrophe requires diligent and concerted efforts to end the conflict, while the whole world is urging an equitable solution.

The country’s perceived invincibility stems from its military power, economic prosperity and technological might. Its military is among the strongest and most expertly trained and experienced in the world, with defense spending per capita consistently among the highest.



Even as Israel was criticized by the international community for using disproportionate force in wars in Lebanon and Gaza (and in the flotilla affair), the public has remained fully supportive and confident in the use of the IDF’s military power.

Meanwhile, despite a sluggish global economy, the country is experiencing rapid economic growth. In the second quarter of this year, its economy grew 4.7%, the fastest pace in two years. Consumer confidence is high, with spending increasing nearly 9% in that same period. Meanwhile, it has rebounded from the global financial crisis due to the strength of its global exports, which constitute nearly half of its gross domestic product.

Finally, its technological might and entrepreneurial spirit are unmatched. Today, it enjoys more start-ups per capita than any country in the world, and has more companies listed on the Nasdaq exchange than all European nations combined. Its reputation as a leader in the hi-tech sector has led many to call it the “Silicon Valley of the Middle East.”

Are all of these achievements sustainable without peace? The short answer is no. Without a viable peace process, the Palestinians will have nothing to lose, while Israel has everything to lose. This is a formula for disaster which must be upended before the dream of invincibility devolves into a nightmare.

TEN YEARS ago, the situation was quite similar. The West Bank was calm and economic growth in the area considerable. Israel was enjoying advances in its economy and a general sense of confidence that despite the failed Oslo process, the status quo could be sustained. The complete breakdown of peace talks and the violent second intifada revealed that this was indeed an illusion. It would be tragic if history were to repeat itself.

Winning wars has become expensive, both in dollars and diplomacy. Defense spending has exponentially grown to more than NIS 50 billion this year. But the country cannot spend enough to overcome the international scrutiny and isolation it will receive as a result of “winning” another war. If there is no progress in peace talks, it could become only a question of time as to when a new violent eruption will occur that could make the second intifada pale in comparison.

Even if the Palestinian Authority seeks to prevent such an escalation, its security forces may not be able to control a widespread popular uprising, which could be fueled by extremists. The strengthened weapons capabilities of Hamas and Hizbullah are well documented, and each have thousands of rockets capable of reaching Ashkelon and Tel Aviv. Israel could win another war – even one that would occur on all fronts – but at what cost in lives and property and to the prospects for achieving long-term peace and security?

In fact, if the current peacemaking efforts cannot be salvaged, and the situation dangerously devolves, the costs would be shattering. As Israel refrains from a settlement freeze that would keep peace talks afloat, the international community is of the consensus that its inaction demonstrates that it does not want peace.

In addition to the increased isolation in the international community, the Arab states could abandon their peace initiative, giving Islamic extremists the opportunity and justification to undermine Israel in any way they can.

Meanwhile, the delegitimization campaign is likely to intensify and gain support. While for the time being the US is likely to remain at Israel’s side, it is unlikely that it can fend off its growing isolation in the face of little evidence that it is willing to continue peace efforts, and in doing so help the US to advance its goals in the region. Economic growth may indeed suffer as one country after another seeks to distance itself from a country that is viewed not only as an obstacle to peace, but one that undermines their strategic interests in the Middle East. Israel could become a liability even to the US, which would have the direst consequences imaginable.

Opponents argue that the status quo is indeed sustainable and that peace efforts are useless. They argue that no matter what Israel does, the Palestinians will never deliver peace with security and the international community – especially the Arab states – will criticize and isolate it.

They argue that the withdrawal from Lebanon and Gaza, and the subsequent rocket attacks and wars, prove that the concept of land-for-peace is no longer valid. In short, they now argue that “we made a land of milk and honey” – as my friend said – “why should we give it away when we have means to sustain it?”

This is a fallacy. Genuine peace, security and prosperity can only come with an agreement negotiated between the parties in good faith, with the assistance and support of the US, Arab states and the international community. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is in a unique position to lead efforts to achieve this goal, but he must show the determination and political will for it to succeed.

Israel is therefore facing a pivotal crossroad – continue dreaming that it can maintain the mirage of invincibility and potentially lead itself to a national nightmare, or make its dream a reality by pursuing a twostate solution and doing so from a position of strength.
 As the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, famously once said, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Netanyahu is capable of steering the country in either direction. To move toward peace, he must now follow Herzl’s dream of a Jewish state living in peace and harmony with its neighbors.

The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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