Israel at 70: Strong enough to chart a new national course

At 70, Israel can be proud of its many accomplishments and take a deep national breath.

AIRPLANES FLY over Israel for Independence Day. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AIRPLANES FLY over Israel for Independence Day.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As Israel prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary, it has become a stable and prosperous state, a vibrant if discordant democracy, the “startup nation” and a cultural center. Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding premier, famously stated that if its Jewish population ever reached five million, a then unimaginable number, Israel’s existence would be assured. It now numbers 6.5 million.
Israel’s national security strategy has been a dramatic success and it was has become a fundamentally secure state, never stronger. The Arab states are in crisis and the primary threat they pose today stems from their weakness, not strength. Israel has succeeded in containing the terrorist threat, ever present and tragic, at a level its society can tolerate. Iran’s nuclear program remains a grave danger, but Israel’s strategic capabilities provide a sufficient response. Israel can no longer be destroyed.
Israel has diplomatic relations with more countries than ever before, including extensive military ties. A shared fear of Iran has led to an historic opening with the Sunni states. Israel no longer faces a hostile superpower and has good relations with Russia. Israel’s “special relationship” with the United States is truly extraordinary.
Israel’s strength provides its leaders with an unprecedented window of opportunity to make some of the critical decisions it faces from a position of strength. Indeed, Israel is strong enough today to adopt a national security strategy of “strategic patience,” based on greater diplomacy, restraint, defense and deterrence.
To be sure, Israel still faces severe threats. Iran is the most sophisticated and dangerous adversary Israel has ever faced and is pursuing a calculated long-term strategy of “attrition until destruction.” Iran’s nuclear aspirations have been postponed, not eliminated, and its growing presence in Syria may lead to direct conflict.
Israel is increasingly encountering the limits of military force, indeed, there are no good military solutions to the primary challenges it faces. Israel has been fighting Palestinian national aspirations for a century, but cannot defeat them militarily. Iran’s nuclear program can be postponed militarily, but not eliminated. Military action can forestall the evolving Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis, but not Iran’s pursuit of regional dominance.
A more diplomatic approach means positioning Israel as the side constantly pursuing peace. A “two state” solution, negotiated if possible, but implemented unilaterally if not, should be Israel’s foremost national objective. It would eliminate the demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, the only existential threat it now faces, and would also dramatically improve Israel’s international standing, enable the Sunni states to establish open relations, and cement the long-term future of the relationship with the US.
Diplomacy is key to containing Iran. Preserving and leveraging the 2015 nuclear deal, as the basis for building international support for a follow-on agreement, designed to ensure that Iran can never go nuclear, even after the deal expires, should be the primary focus.
Diplomacy is also the most effective means of addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program. The missiles cannot be eliminated militarily.
Israel has repeatedly struck Iranian weapons shipments to Hezbollah via Syria, but such limited military action only goes so far. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s frequent meetings with Putin attest to the importance of this diplomatic channel. Russia only partly takes Israel’s interests into account, but is the dominant player in Syria and there are no better means of keeping Iran and Hezbollah away from the Golan Heights and limiting their presence in Syria.
A diplomatic approach means leveraging progress with the Palestinians to maximize the opening with the Sunni states. It means concerted efforts to improve ties with states of particular importance to Israel, Germany and India to mention just two, greater sensitivity to the concerns of Diaspora Jews, the bedrock of support for Israel abroad, and greater use of Israeli “soft power.”
A more diplomatic and defense-based approach means that when Israel does have to act militarily, it should adopt clear diplomatic objectives and seek prior agreement with the US both on the objectives and on the diplomatic mechanism for terminating the operation once achieved. Some will balk at disclosing military objectives to a foreign power, but Israel almost always ends up doing so anyway, after the fighting breaks out. A wiser move is to do so in advance.
Above all, a diplomatic approach means ensuring the long-term vitality of the “special relationship” with the US, particularly when tectonic changes in American demography are already having an adverse effect.
Israel must seek to align its policies with those of the US at virtually all times, even when painful, such as the decisions to refrain from preempting the imminent surprise attack in 1973, or from attacking Iran’s nuclear program. No country likes to be so dependent on another, but the price of the extraordinary relationship with the US has been a significant loss of Israel’s independence and it must learn to live within these bounds.
The most effective means of cementing the relationship for the long term, as part of a defense and deterrence-based Israeli national security strategy, would be a formal defense treaty. A defense treaty would also strengthen the Israeli public’s sense of security, thereby diminishing security-based objections to a withdrawal from the West Bank and promoting the prospects for peace.
To overcome objections on both sides, the treaty should be limited to existential threats; it is not needed for lesser ones. It might also be tied, subject to the strategic and economic exigencies, to a multi-year phaseout of American military aid to Israel at the end of the current 10-year assistance package, in 2028, which will mark approximately 50 years since the beginning of the “special relationship.” Israel initiated a 10-year phaseout of economic assistance in the 1990s.
Restraint is difficult when rockets rain on one civilians population.
Imagine if Queens constantly fired rockets at Manhattan. Israel has long demonstrated remarkable restraint in the face of these ongoing provocations, but in its unique circumstances, even greater restraint is appropriate. Repeated rounds with Hezbollah and Hamas have eroded Israel’s international legitimacy and military capabilities, for only limited gains of time.
Until an effective offensive response to these and other threats exists, the primary emphasis must be on defense, including construction of a national rocket shield designed to neutralize the Hezbollah threat, much as Israel essentially succeeded in neutralizing Hamas’s rockets during the 2014 war. Hezbollah’s mammoth arsenal, over 100,000 rockets, is infinitely larger and the price of such a shield is in the billions, but Israel can afford it, especially with ongoing American co-financing.
Finally, Israel’s national security interests today dictate a greater domestic focus. The burgeoning ultra-Orthodox population, which is both untenable economically and a challenge to Israeli democracy, Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, poverty and income gaps, all require greater attention. Israel’s strength provides it with the opportunity to now do so.
At 70, Israel can be proud of its many accomplishments and take a deep national breath. It is here to stay and can adopt policies appropriate to the established, secure and prosperous state it has become. On to the next 70.
The author, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and the author of Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change, Oxford Press, 2018.