Know Comment: Political instability equals strategic danger

Israel’s strategic situation doesn’t tolerate inertia.

A SOLDIER walks next to a tank on the Golan (photo credit: REUTERS)
A SOLDIER walks next to a tank on the Golan
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel’s current political stalemate is debilitating in so many ways. Government decision-making in matters of economy and infrastructure has essentially been frozen since last December, for example.
However, the most serious hit Israel is taking is to its reputation on the global playing field. Friend and foe alike are beginning to wonder whether Israel has solid and far-sighted leadership capable of confidently asserting its diplomatic and defense priorities.
When friends like US President Donald Trump are frustrated by Israel’s political instability and lose patience, it’s bad enough. When foes like Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qasem Soleimani mock Israel’s military and diplomatic gumption, it’s dangerous.
In other words, the political paralysis is diminishing the perception of Israeli prowess; it is weakening Israel’s deterrence posture; and it is threatening Israel’s security.
Understand: The main reason that Israel has been able to avoid significant, full-scale war over the past decade – despite the many security threats thrown at it by the crumbling Arab Middle East and the marching-marauding Iranians – has been the assessment in global capitals that Israel is skillfully and defiantly led by a strong leader.
Whether they liked or detested Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, allies and adversaries knew that they faced formidable and determined Israeli leadership. Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Jordanian King Abdullah, Turkish wannabe-sultan Tayyip Erdogan and Palestinian and Iranian leaders, too – knew of Israel’s strictly-set-out security redlines and resolute diplomatic principles.
They knew that Israel was led by someone who knew how to maneuver creatively on the global playing field to build for it new alliances, and who didn’t flinch from confrontation when truly necessary. At the very least, this bought Israel grudging respect and considerable strategic flexibility. I am certain that it has prevented catastrophic total war, too. It has allowed Israel to conduct forceful “war between wars” against Iranian and Shi’ite militias in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq with relative impunity; again, without this erupting into a comprehensive war.
In fact, important actors around the world have come to accept Netanyahu’s central strategic platform: the assertion that the main game in the region is no longer Israel versus the Palestinians or Israel versus the Arabs. Instead, the main basis for defense and diplomatic activity in the Middle East is an unofficial alliance between Israel and most of the Arabs (together with Western powers), against the Iranians and the jihadists. It’s the forces of stability and moderation against the forces of violent and radical Islamic revolution.
But this stance – what amounts to Israel’s deterrence posture – requires constant care. Deterrence needs to be compellingly and consistently maintained or it loses its cogency. Like any agricultural field, it needs regular plowing, seeding and especially weeding if it is going to yield harvest.
Israel will be hard pressed to maintain this deterrent posture if the political stalemate lingers for too much longer.
No one knows whether the talk of national-unity government in Israel will bear fruit; whether the generals of Blue and White can form an alternative government and run it with precision and persuasion; whether Israel will suffer another draining election campaign; or whether Netanyahu will end up in court.
The point is that Israel’s strategic situation doesn’t brook inertia. It won’t tolerate lassitude. Israel simply can’t afford an endless leadership limbo.
PROLONGED POLITICAL uncertainty poses two different dangers: That Israel’s enemies will be tempted to take advantage of its infirmity, and that Israel will be unable to take advantage of emerging grand diplomatic opportunities.
It’s obvious that security tensions are bubbling very close to the surface, both against Hamas in Gaza and Iranian forces in Lebanon and Syria. It is likely that the IDF will soon need to “mow the grass” in these areas to degrade enemy capabilities and rebuild the long-term deterrence equation. The hot situation in the Persian Gulf could erupt into regional war too, and Israel may be implicated. This reality requires stable government and probably a national-unity government.
Consider this, too: A new Israeli government that does not include Netanyahu in some way may be forced to fight several fierce wars to re-prove Israel’s mettle.
Equally concerning is that Israel risks missing great strategic opportunities that are likely embedded in the Trump Middle East peace plan. The Trump team already has intimated that it recognizes the inalienable right of Jews to live in Judea and Samaria as a matter of historical truth, international law and basic acknowledgment of reality.
Moreover, the Trump team clearly understands Israel’s need to prevent runaway Palestinian statehood: the emergence of a radical state that prolongs and exacerbates conflict with Israel instead of ending it. As such, the US plan seems likely to dial back from the “international consensus” whereby Israel is expected to broker fully-fledged Palestinian states in the West Bank and Gaza.
And then, when the plan inevitably flounders on the shoals of Palestinian rejectionism, it is very possible that the US could support Israel’s long-term sovereign needs in the broad Jerusalem envelope, Jordan Valley and settlement blocs.
Note that when Netanyahu promised just before last month’s election to unilaterally annex the Jordan Valley, US officials said that the idea doesn’t necessarily contradict the Trump plan or prevent peace. There is an astounding shift in US policy being hinted at here, and Israel must not flub the opportunity to capitalize on this. Again, this requires a stable Israeli government and probably a national-unity government.
In summation, Israel’s global standing is suffering, its security posture is wobbling, and diplomatic gains are being forfeited by internal political gridlock. How sad – and dangerous.
The author is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, His personal site is