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National Security And Threat Misperception

Alon Ben-Meir - February 27, 2013

Brief synopsis: The most puzzling aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be that after 65 years of violence, enmity and suffering, it remains unresolved when coexistence is inevitable and a two-state solution remains the only viable option. Although there are many contentious issues that must be specifically addressed, directly impacting every dispute is the broader psychological dimension of the conflict, making it increasingly intractable. To mitigate the hostility, we must first look into the elements that inform the psychological dimension and discover the means to alleviate it, as doing so is the prerequisite to finding a solution.

Israel’s historical experiences, coupled with decades of violent confrontations with Arab states and the Palestinians, have created a major psychological barrier that places Israel’s legitimate national security concerns at the front and center of its domestic and foreign policy. Regardless of how exaggerated Israel’s sense of vulnerability may seem to its detractors, the Palestinians cannot afford to dismiss Israel’s concerns which are deeply embedded in the psyche of every Israeli. That said, no military might or even the expropriation of the entire West Bank will guarantee Israel’s national security, short of comprehensive peace.

What was once Israel’s legitimate national security concerns have now become a tool by which to oppress the Palestinians, expropriate their land and prevent them from establishing a Palestinian state. In fact, Israel’s fixation on “security” and the harsh measures it employs, presumably to achieve an impregnable national security condition, is making the Palestinians increasingly vulnerable. As Henry Kissinger observed in his book, A World Restored: “Absolute security for one power means absolute insecurity for all others.”

The relative quiet that has prevailed in the past few years only obscures the gathering storm that will hit Israeli shores with devastating velocity. Israel’s continued intoxication with seizing Palestinian territories is akin to an addict who keeps injecting himself with a deadly substance to make him feel euphoric, never mind that it is only temporary and could end with his demise.

Unfortunately, those Israelis supporting the notion of a “Greater Israel” satisfy their lust for more Palestinian land under the guise of enhancing Israel’s national security. Yet the Israelis’ national and personal security cannot be ensured by expropriating more land to establish so-called “defensible borders.” After all, the distance between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea hardly exceeds 42 kilometers. In the age of rockets and precision missile technology, territorial depths can no longer guarantee Israel’s security. This was glaringly demonstrated during Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012 when Hamas was able to rain hundreds of rockets on Israel, some of which reached Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

National security is becoming an obsession in Israel, a kind of idée fixe – as Joseph Conrad observed, “A man haunted by a fixed idea is insane.” For sure, there is a certain madness involved in Israel’s compulsive pursuit of absolute security, evident in a number of ways that have produced the precise opposite effect. Israel’s national security now serves as the means of justifying every conceivable abuse that one people can inflict upon another, including the confiscation of Palestinian land, the destruction of homes and property, torture, and targeted killings, which so often lead to the death of innocents as well. Yaakov Peri, former head of the Shin Bet was quoted in an AP interview, February 2012, “Just force, just battle, just deception, won’t bring peace between the nations.”

The expansion of settlements in the name of national security is another manifestation of Israel’s utter disregard for the Palestinians’ aspiration to establish their state on the same land, making the settlement enterprise a security liability rather than an asset. The construction of ever more fences and walls, which will soon surround the entire country, are the physical manifestation and the most ready symbol of the madness – Israel is effectively building a prison for itself. What we are witnessing, in other words, is the formation of a garrison state, as Israel becomes progressively more isolated, politically and physically, from its neighbors and the international community.

Israeli officials are quite explicit about the way they give no thought or consideration to what lies ahead for the country ten or twenty years down the line. In an interview with the New York Times on December 26, Naftali Bennett, the leader of the newly formed party HaBayit Hayehudi, posed to himself a rhetorical question: “What do we do in the long term? I do not know.” This is a guy who seeks to expropriate Area C, which represents 60 percent of the entire landmass of the West Bank and who aspires to become prime minister. I am certain that Prime Minister Netanyahu does not know either what havoc is in store for Israel 15-20 years down the line. Imagine, Israel’s future and perhaps the future of world Jewry rests in the hand of reckless leaders who have no strategy, no vision or even a clue about Israel’s fate should they continue to pursue the policy of territorial expansion.

In her book On Violence, Hannah Arendt makes a fundamental point which Israelis and militant-minded Palestinians would do well to remind themselves of. She writes, “Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What never can grow out of it is power.” Far from being the same, violence and power are antithetical, precisely in the sense that violence diminishes the power of those who employ it, necessitating the use of more violence in the effort to maintain control. This is what we see happening in the case of Israel, inasmuch as it must continue to use the machinery of violence, by other means, as a way of maintaining control over the territories.

Israel’s ultimate national security requirements rest only on a comprehensive peace constructed on multiple security measures over which every politically non-biased Israeli defense and security expert agrees upon. During a conference in Tel Aviv in December 2012, Gabi Ashkenazi, the former Chief of Staff of the Israeli army, reconfirmed the sentiments of many of his colleagues when he said: “Israel must recognize the limits of its power and cooperate with forces that support Israeli interests.” This was aptly expressed by another top Israeli military commander, Shaul Arieli, who said, “We believe that peace will provide better security than anything else.” Otherwise, all security measures, however coercive, elaborate and sophisticated, cannot guarantee Israel’s national security.

A Comprehensive Peace
Every effort must first focus on achieving a negotiated peace agreement to accommodate Israel’s legitimate national security concerns and respect the Palestinians’ right to live freely on a contiguous land mass in an independent state alongside Israel. To ensure and further enhance their mutual security, any peace agreement must be based on certain provisions, mechanisms, logistics, and a timeline designed to ensure compliance based on reciprocity. This would allow for mutual mitigation of biases and selective perceptions over each other’s intentions and willingness to deliver and foster trust, which is sine qua non to a lasting peace.

To prevent a repeat of the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which was precipitous, unilateral and ended up with Hamas’ taking over and using Gaza as a launching ground for rockets, the pullout from the West Bank must entail a number of critical measures including: full logistical coordination with the PA, tight security arrangements, a phased withdrawal, an established timeframe between each phase, and specific reciprocal measures by the Palestinians. It can be argued that had then-Prime Minister Sharon followed such a framework, the result would have been entirely different today.

Israel’s security is inextricably linked to its ability to forge people-to-people relations that can mitigate the psychological security hang-ups between the two sides. Imagine the effect of allowing tens of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis visiting each other, sharing stories and experiences and intermingling in restaurants and places of entertainment. Nothing can change the perception about each other more than these casual encounters, the result of which were shocking for those few on both sides who have had this experience. It is time to change the image of an Israeli in the eyes of a Palestinian youth from a soldier with a gun to a normal and friendly face.

The development of trade and commercial ties between the two sides is fundamental to fostering a mutually vested interest in beneficial relationships that reveal and enhance the humanity of both sides and allow them to resolve any arising problem peacefully. The psychological effect of peaceful conflict resolution becomes central to the development of non-violent culture. This requirement, more than anything else, provides a point of departure that affects all other aspects of co-existence.

Preserving Credible Deterrence
Since there is lingering distrust between the two sides, Israel will insist on a credible military deterrence that will dissuade current and future enemies from threatening it, lest they do so at their own peril. For Israelis, the “Never Again” mindset (in reference to the Holocaust) is not a slogan; they are bent on doing whatever necessary to prevent history from repeating itself.

In this regard, Israel and the United States can ensure that no single state or a combination of states is able to overwhelm Israel militarily by maintaining a qualitative military edge along with America’s continued guarantee of Israel’s security. Psychologically, these security measures provide Israel the comfort it needs and reduces the urge to go on the offensive when provoked, but do so only as a last resort.

Maintaining Full Security Cooperation
By virtue of the Israelis’ and the Palestinians’ past experiences, full security cooperation between the two sides remains a prerequisite. Progress made between Israel and the PA demonstrates that effective security cooperation is possible, even in an atmosphere of tension. The success of this cooperation was made possible by the PA’s commitment to peace as well as Israel’s willingness to fully collaborate by easing Palestinian mobility, coordinating with their internal security and improving intelligence cooperation.

Borders and National Security
Every American administration since President Carter has supported the idea that the 1967 borders provide the baseline for negotiations, to which every Israeli government since then has concurred. Even if Israel were to draw its own final borders, the contours of these borders would not enhance Israel’s national security. The annexation of more lands two or three kilometers deep into the West Bank will make little difference from a security perspective.

Those who promote the notion of a “Greater Israel” under the guise of national security seek to surround the Palestinians from the east, west, north and south, isolating them completely and denying them contiguity. This would doubtless be rejected by the Palestinians, denying Israel even a semblance of peace as the Palestinians are psychologically, emotionally and physically committed to rid themselves of the occupation.

An International Peacekeeping Force
Israel’s demand to keep residual forces along the Jordan River to prevent the smuggling of weapons and the infiltration of terrorists from the Jordan Valley is not likely to be accepted by the Palestinians as they would view that as a continuation of occupation, only in a different form. Instead, an international peacekeeping force (perhaps with symbolic Israeli and Palestinian participation) will have to be stationed there. The force should be assembled from specific countries that recognize Israel and have a vested interest in maintaining peace, including Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and EU nations like Britain, France, and Germany, operating under the command of the United States. Such a robust force should be empowered by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to act to maintain calm and prevent the smuggling of weapons and the infiltration of terrorists. This force cannot be removed without an explicit UNSC resolution, where the US enjoys veto power.

A Demilitarized Palestinian State
The newly-established Palestinian state should be demilitarized, with its security assured by the US. Regardless of their military prowess, the Palestinians will never be in a position to challenge Israel militarily and no country, including Israel, would threaten a Palestinian state at peace with its neighbors. There are several countries that do not have any military forces including Costa Rica, Andorra, and Liechtenstein, who continue to live in peace for as long as the eye can see.

The idea here is that the lesser Israel’s national security concerns are the greater political and territorial concessions it will make. Instead of wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on military hardware, future Palestinian governments should respond to the yearning of the people by investing in economic development, education, health care, infrastructure, and democratic institutions that will enable them to take pride in their achievements.

A Regional Security Umbrella
Once a peace agreement is achieved and all security measures are in place, the United States could offer a security umbrella along the lines of what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed in June of 2009, under which all nations in the region who are at peace with Israel (and with each other) could belong. Such a regional security umbrella would also deter outside adversaries such as Iran and prevent it from intimidating or threatening any state in the area.

Reviving the Arab Peace Initiative
In the context of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, Israel should accept the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which was proposed in 2002 and reintroduced in 2007, and agree to convene with representatives of the Arab League to discuss its merits. This would open the door for negotiating a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement, beginning normal relations with the Arab states and by extension with all Muslim states. Those who claim that this would be the wrong time for Israel to make such a move given the Middle East’s sweeping turmoil are wrong! This is precisely the right time, when diffusing the conflict with the Palestinians becomes even more urgent. Israel does not need a fire in its back yard or a fifth column at a time when it must focus on the Iranian threat and the potential disintegration of Syria – both of which will have major regional repercussions that will directly affect Israel’s national security.

In this regard, the revival of the API cannot be over emphasized. As the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan stated in June 2011 at Tel Aviv University, “We must adopt the Saudi Initiative, we have no other way, and not because the Palestinians are my top priority but because I am concerned about Israel’s wellbeing and I want to do what I can to ensure Israel’s existence.” The revival of the Arab Peace Initiative would strengthen US and Israeli relations with the Arab world while advancing their shared regional strategic interests. True, not every Arab state in the region will jump on the peace bandwagon, but the Arab countries who wield significant influence, especially in the Gulf and North Africa, will be the most eager to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel – that in and of itself will be a game changer.

The real threat to Israel’s national security from militant Islamic groups is not misperceived; it can be quantified and dealt with effectively as Israel has demonstrated time and again. To manufacture a threat, however, and try to remedy it with extra-territoriality is undermining not only Israel’s security but its very future. The time has come for the Israelis to be awakened to this harsh reality.

This is fifth in a series of six articles; see links for the first, second, third, and fourth.

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