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Opinion
 
EYE ON THE WORLD

Winning every battle but losing the war

Israel's military superiority has become its Achilles heel, causing the Jewish state to lose the public opinion war.

Published on Aug 14, 2014 10:28 AM
 
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

When Israel comes under attack, all its leaders draw together, and their first instinct is to reach for the gun.

So, even a moderate politician like Mrs Tzipi Livni, who as leader of the opposition frequently argued for a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, said recently that the "fanatical movements" which Israel is currently battling "need treatment, and not of the psychological variety".

That's precisely what Israel has done in Gaza: it has pummelled the impoverished Palestinian land strip, using all the sophisticated weapons it can muster.

And the result was predictable: As in all of Israel's previous wars, Palestinian casualties were numerous, the international community was shocked but did nothing, ceasefires were negotiated and then promptly broken.

Israel prevailed but, as everyone knew all along, every military victory is only a prelude to another war at a future date.

Israel's long-term interests

YET, the strategic landscape around Israel is changing in subtle but profound ways, and most of these changes work against the long-term interests of the Jewish state.

The first major disruptive development is, surprisingly enough, on the battlefield, the one area where Israeli supremacy is never in doubt.

Since its establishment in the late 1940s, Israel has always fought with superior technology, excellent military training and huge innovative skills.

That's the only way it survived as a tiny state in a hostile environment.

And, contrary to predictions from a previous generation of doomsayers, the technological gap between Israel and its neighbours not only remained big, but widened.

It is partly because Arab governments failed to improve the educational standards of their own citizens, but it is also because today's technologies - electronics and vast digital information-processing capacities, all increasingly miniaturised - inherently favour both Israeli advantages and the military requirements of a small state.

Asymmetric arms race

BUT while the conventional arms race was invariably won by Israel every single time and on every single weapon platform, it is now increasingly clear that the result is an asymmetric arms race in which Israel's enemies cannot win, but nevertheless can wear the Jewish state down.

A decade ago, suicide bombers were the means to hit at an Israel which otherwise was impregnable. When Israel responded by building fortified walls around its borders, effectively stopping the infiltration of these suicide bombers, its enemies switched to missile attacks against population centres.

Israel succeeded in thwarting those as well, only to discover in the current Gaza confrontation a new deadly threat: a maze of tunnels dug deep under its borders, allowing Hamas fighters a chance to hit directly at civilian settlements.

Israel's ingenuity in responding to each challenge should not be doubted.

The Iron Dome missile defence system has astounded military experts with an interception rate of over 90 per cent.

And the Israeli Cabinet has now established a special task force to deal with the tunnels; a few years from now, expect innovations such as deep-earth sensors, porous water beds which flood newly dug tunnels, super-sensitive acoustic systems to detect underground drilling and new remote-controlled robots which can be sent down tunnels to place explosives for their destruction.

But Israel's enemies have moved to the next stage in their own arms race: unmanned aerial vehicles or drones which will be no match for those developed by Israel but will increasingly be produced in industrial quantities and sent over Israeli airspace, as well as cyber warfare operations to disrupt Internet and e-commerce infrastructure.

A perennial stage of siege

NONE of these measures can defeat Israel. But all contribute to a state of siege which increasingly afflicts Israeli society.

Ordinary Israelis enjoy a higher standard of living than all their neighbours, and live longer than inhabitants of most other Western countries.

But they don't enjoy a good quality of life, as they stagger from one air-raid siren to another, glued to a radio or a TV set for the latest instalment of "breaking news" from the battlefield.

During the current Gaza fighting, the fear in Israel was not only about how many of its soldiers would be killed, but also over how many could be captured alive by Hamas, something which would have sent the entire country into a frenzy.

This is both a superbly well-protected population and an emotionally high-strung one, a nation which seems in permanent need of tranquillisers.

One of the key reasons given by Israelis who quit their country is that they wish to escape from their barracks-room daily existence. That problem will only get worse in the years to come.

And, paradoxically, the fact that Israelis are so well-protected only erodes Israel's global image even further.

One of the biggest accusations against Israel during the current fighting has been that it used force "disproportionately", by killing far more Palestinians.

It does not matter that Israel points out - correctly, as it happens - that the concept of proportionality in warfare is not only about numbers of casualties.

Nor does it matter that Israel is held up to higher standards of warfare than anyone else.

Few have protested about the massacres in Syria where civilian casualties are at least one hundred times higher than currently in Gaza, and nobody has enquired whether the present US air strikes in Iraq distinguish between civilians and combatants. The image of Israel as a bully is universal, unique and irreversible.

And, regardless of logic, the unequal fight between Israel and the Palestinians has galvanised Muslims worldwide, who increasingly see it as an example of wider historical injustices.

Not much else unites French citizens of Algerian descent with children of Pakistani immigrants in London or Moroccan migrants in the Netherlands, apart from outrage against Israel for what it does in the Middle East.

As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult and politically expensive for countries to support Israel. And that is the case even in the US, where a recent opinion poll conducted by Gallup indicated that only a quarter of Americans aged 18 to 29 sympathised with Israel, compared to 55 per cent of older US voters.

The idea that Israel is a liability for the US is commonplace in everwider American intellectual circles. The recent unusually bitter public spat between US and Israeli leaders may become the norm in years to come.

To make matters worse, the steady erosion in Israel's international standing is coupled with a marked erosion in the overall strategic situation in the Middle East, where the fate of the region is no longer decided by governments, but by non-governmental militias such as Hamas, Hizbollah in Lebanon or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Since its establishment and until the beginning of this century, Israel has been involved in five wars, and only one of them was against a non-state actor. Since 2006, however, Israelis have fought another four wars, and all of them against non-state militias such as Hamas or Hizbollah.

Non-state actors

DEALING with states is both easier and predictable, as nations balance liabilities and advantages before they decide to go to war; that's why no Arab country has attacked Israel since 1973.

But militias don't operate according to this logic, and often go on the offensive when they are weak, calculating that they have nothing further to lose. That's essentially what happened to Hamas in Gaza over the past month.

Non-state actors are also difficult to deter, since their calculations are different from those of governments. And it is impossible for a country to reach binding agreements with militias: that, partly, is Israel's problem with Hamas, but it is also the problem of many Arab governments in dealing with Gaza.

The only way out of this morass is for Israel to encourage a process of Palestinian state-building, and one which reconnects Gaza to the West Bank, which is both more developed and more stable. Yet nothing of the kind appears to be happening.

"We will face a new Israel after this operation... nationalistic, religious in many ways, brainwashed, militaristic," predicted one of Israel's top commentators Gideon Levy.

He received no constructive response from Israel's political class. But he got plenty of accusations that he is a traitor.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com