Savir's Corner: National security or national disaster?

While Israel today is one of the strongest military powers in the world, we must say that Israel has a serious objective security predicament.

IDF soldiers resting 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF soldiers resting 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Security considerations have been used often by Israeli leaders throughout our existence as the ultimate justification for a policy decision or indecision.
Our “security syndrome” stems for objective and subjective considerations – our history as the Jewish people, wherein we withstood every possible onslaught on our very existence and identity – from the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, to the Spanish, the tzars, the Nazis and the Arab nations. This is the backdrop to our national ethos – “never again” and “we can only trust ourselves.”
Yet this ethos is not a national security concept or strategy.
While Israel today is one of the strongest military powers in the world, and also taking into consideration the psychological effects of our history, we can and must say that Israel has a real and serious objective security predicament. We live in a volatile region, as a small Jewish minority within a vast Muslim and Arab population, who see in the fulfillment of the Zionist dream the usurpation of Palestinian land, and the occupation of that people.
This was the background, accordingly, to our narrative of the six wars we had to fight, and won. This is also the predicament that leads to our need to create the conditions that will deter any Arab or Muslim appetite to harm us.
Among the conditions, our defense deterrence must be included, as well as our need to lead towards a political accommodation with our neighbors, principally the Palestinians, and to a new structure of regional security, in full coordination with our prime strategic ally, the United States.
First, we need to comprehend that when it comes to security and wars, we live in a transformed world; if in the past the side with the larger army, more resources and territory, would have the upper hand, establishing empires and colonies, then today in the age of self-determination on one side and terrorism and ballistic (potentially nuclear) warfare on the other, the traditional balance of power and deterrence no longer stands. In the new world, poor countries and societies may be more dangerous. They have less to lose, and can often develop fundamentalist and extreme ideologies and beliefs, as well as develop the capacity to inflict harm through terror or readily acquired missiles.
September 11 was a historic watershed. A few stoneage smitten fundamentalist terrorists, plotting in caves in Afghanistan, were able to inflict the greatest disaster to American security since Pearl Harbor. They did so by destroying the bastion and symbol of American Power, the Twin Towers, at the heart of the world’s financial center.
Osama bin Laden and his gang succeeded in dragging the United States into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Americans barely succeed in creating a semblance of stability.
In this world, it is not the balance of power that matters most, but the balance of motivations and coalitions.
We have therefore to comprehend that while maintaining a military and technological edge, which we are doing, we must also affect and change the Arab and Muslim motivation to harm Israel. The Arab nations, with the exception of radical fundamentalists, have given up on their dream to annihilate us, due to our strength and our position among the nations. Whether we like it or not, Arab motivation towards Israel is primarily related to their view of the Palestinian issue. Over three million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation is something their Arab brethren simply will not accept.
Therefore we should define our national security predicament in the following manner: Israel is surrounded by about 400 million Muslims and Arabs, 21 Arab states and two strong Muslim countries, Turkey and Iran, the later also possessing strongholds in the close to home Lebanon and Gaza. So far we have succeeded to alter positions of the Arab world, through war and diplomacy, through our peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and our agreements with the Palestinians.
Also, the Arab world is militarily weakened, and is going through an important transformation ignited by a young generation seeking greater freedoms, having toppled four dictators thus far. In the shifting sands of the Arab world we can identify three vectors of power – the armies, mostly pro-Western; the young generation, seeking empowerment; and the Islamist movements of the Muslim Brotherhood and their peers, who probably disdain Israel, but no-less so, the fundamentalist Shi’ite Iran.
Given these changes in the entire international system on the one hand, and in the Arab world on the other, we must define our national security interests and policies.
First and foremost we must appear strong, according to modern considerations of power – a strong economy; a high technological level; full respect of democracy and human rights; a high level of education; a strong, and strongly motivated, army; and a prominent place among the nations. Then, we have to affect the Arab world that surrounds us, which primarily means engaging in a viable peace process with the Palestinians, according to a two-state solution. This entails giving up on the notion of a “Greater Land of Israel” and its material-territorial expression, the settlements, but securing our security interests in any future agreement, and maintaining our Jewish and democratic character. As to the Islamic periphery, chiefly Iran, we must comprehend the long-term limitations of our military capacity (and as we have witnessed, also the short-term limitations, vis-avis the small Gaza Strip), and therefore join and encourage an American-led coalition that through diplomacy, economic sanctions and a military strike as a last resort, must prevent Iran from turning into a nuclear power.
In this respect, our relations with the United States, the world’s superpower, are of prime importance. We have to consolidate with Washington both a viable regional peace process and a potent anti-Iranian coalition, as well as our strategic qualitative edge. So far, the Netanyahu government is doing the exact opposite. It turns the Arab world against us by deliberately minimizing the importance of the Palestinian issue; and is in danger of turning the world against us, by threatening a unilateral strike against Iran.
In this manner, we are not serving our national security, but are in danger of bringing national disaster on ourselves. Yet, it is not too late.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.