Israel's Six Strategic Errors

In one of Jean de la Fontaine’s 17th century fables, a frog envies an ox. Consumed with the urge to make itself as big as the ox, the frog puffs itself up, ever bigger and bigger, until it finally explodes. Israel’s behaviour towards its neighbours in the Middle East is not so very different from that of the over-ambitious frog. If it fails to correct its policies, it must surely risk suffering the same fate.
With this parable in mind, it is possible to identify six strategic blunders which Israel has made in recent decades, and which have become all the more blatant -- and dangerous to itself -- under the far-right government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.
The first of these errors, from which several of the others spring, is Israel’s adamant refusal to allow the emergence of a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip. Any expression of Palestinian nationalism is vigorously stamped on -- even the harmless commemoration of the nakba, the Palestinians’ catastrophic defeat and dispersal in 1948. To an independent observer, Israel’s rejection of the national aspirations of the captive Palestinians -- or the reduction of these aspirations to a security problem, to be dealt with by unremitting harshness -- would seem to be an extraordinary example of political insanity.
Seen from the outside, it looks blindingly obvious that a small and prosperous Palestinian state living in Israel’s shadow would be an enormous asset for the Jewish state, assuring its long-term security by opening the door to peace and to its full acceptance in the region.
How then to explain Israel’s frantic efforts to prevent any advance towards Palestinian statehood? Some Israelis may fear that any acknowledgment of Palestinian national claims could undermine the legitimacy of Israel’s own national project -- built as it was on the ruin of Arab Palestine. A more down-to-earth explanation is simply Israel’s land hunger. The relentless expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land, with the evident intention of creating a Greater Israel, is Israel’s second strategic error, since it risks putting an end once and for all to any possibility of a two-state solution.
Years ago, James Baker, US Secretary of State from 1989 to 1992 in George H. W. Bush’s administration, urged Israel to abandon the “unrealisable dream” of a Greater Israel. But his words went unheeded. Netanyahu and his far-right colleagues are steadily proceeding with a ruthless land grab, brushing aside the admonitions of the whole world, including Israel’s indispensable American ally.
Many influential Jews, such as Professor Peter Beinart, author of The Crisis of Zionism, have understood the grave dangers of this expansionist policy. An article by Beinart in the International Herald Tribune of March 19 is entitled, “To save Israel, boycott the settlements.” It is time, he writes, for “a counteroffensive -- a campaign to fortify the [1967] boundary that keeps alive the hope of a Jewish democratic state alongside a Palestinian one.”
A third strategic error is Netanyahu’s febrile warmongering against Iran. He has repeatedly threatened to strike its nuclear facilities to avert what he claims is the danger of “another holocaust.” It is here that the moral of La Fontaine’s fable would seem to apply. Iran’s population is ten times that of Israel and its vast land area and natural resources dwarf those of the Jewish state. What is Netanyahu up to? Does he wish to endanger Israel’s future generations by turning the Islamic Republic into an “eternal enemy”?
By threatening war -- and seeking to blackmail the United States into joining in on Israel’s side -- Netanyahu seems determined to sabotage the talks which Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign affairs chief, is attempting to re-launch with Iran. If he succeeds, and if a regional war breaks out as a result, history will judge him very severely.
The truth is that Netanyahu is prepared to risk war -- with all its unpredictable consequences -- not to avert an alleged, but so far non-existent, ‘existential threat’, but rather to assure Israel’s continued military supremacy. He seems to fear that any advance in Iran’s nuclear capability might one day restrict Israel’s freedom to strike its neighbours at will. Instead of building Middle East peace on the foundations of a regional balance of power -- which would be eminently sensible -- he insists on dominating Israel’s neighbours by force, with military means provided by the United States. This permanently aggressive posture is Israel’s fourth strategic error.
Its fifth strategic error is, without doubt, its murderous attitude towards Gaza, as was evident in its recent assassination of Zuhair al-Qarsi, secretary-general of the Popular Resistance Committees, together with his companion, Mahmoud al-Hannani, a recently freed prisoner. Predictably, these targeted killings provoked rocket fire from Gaza. Israel then responded with air-raids, which killed 25 Palestinians and wounded close to a hundred, demonstrating yet again its total indifference to non-Jewish human life. Some observers even believe Israel callously killed al-Qarsi in order to test the efficacy of its Iron Dome anti-missile system.
What do Israel’s hardliners now propose to do about Gaza? Efraim Inbar and Max Singer of the Begin-Sadat Center (BESA) provide an answer, published in the Jerusalem Post on March 14. The following is their blood-chilling executive summary: Israel has to respond to the attacks from Gaza with a large-scale military operation. If no such action is taken, the attacks against Israel will surely increase. Gaza is small enough so that Israel can destroy most of the terrorist infrastructure and the leadership of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other organisations. The goal would be to restore deterrence and to signal Israel’s determination to battle the rising Islamist forces in the region. By acting now in Gaza, Israel will also greatly reduce the missile retaliation it would face if and when it strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities. Political conditions seem appropriate as Hamas is divided, most of the Arab world is busy with pressing domestic issues, and the US is in the middle of an election campaign.
The expression of such extreme views surely points to how far Israel has strayed from rational politics.
Geological surveys, confirmed by recent discoveries, suggest that the Eastern Mediterranean contains very large natural gas reserves, located off the coasts of Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus and Gaza. Once developed, they could transform the economies of these countries. Urgently required, therefore, are maritime demarcation agreements to establish how these riches are to be shared so that all can benefit -- but this, in turn, will require peace agreements.
Israel’s failure to understand that now is the time to make peace not war is its sixth, and possibly greatest, strategic blunder. Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2012 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global