Events in Israel over the past week have a “back to the future” vibe. Terrorism from over the Egyptian border, renewed rocket attacks from Gaza, threats of violence from the Palestinian Authority and Hezbollah, continuing violence in Syria and shock waves in Jordan all are reminders that ultimate responsibility for the security of the citizens of Israel has to be in the hands of the Israeli government, and that defensible borders trump negotiated settlements.
Chaos around Israel – including along the long-quiescent Israel-Egypt border – and death and destruction inside, mean that Israel has returned to the days that nothing can be taken for granted, including Arab partners and American support.
Security in the Sinai, even before the overthrow of the Mubarak government, had been deteriorating in the face of Iranian and al Qaeda-supplied weapons. Bedouin tribes were smuggling weapons to Gaza (and Lebanon) and illegal immigrants to Israel. Their loyalty was never to Cairo, it has always been to money and tribe. That is coupled now with a government in Egypt that has to pander to the lowest common denominator of street sentiment for the legitimacy that otherwise eludes it. Egypt’s demand for an Israeli apology for ending a terrorist rampage by people in Egyptian military uniforms is a sign of just how tentative the ruling junta is. The fact that the U.S. government seconded the demand is a sign of just how unmoored the American government is.
Gaza, in an odd lapse of Hamas attention or control, has seen the rise of Islamic groups not commanded by it. Although Israel is within its rights to consider Hamas responsible for the now-deadly rockets fired from territory within its domain, the fact is that Gaza is increasingly less controlled and, if possible, more radical. The ability of Israel to demand accountability decreases and the requirement for retaliation to restore deterrence increases accordingly. The willingness of the United States to continue aid to Gaza under the circumstances – or without appreciating the circumstances – is another sign of the American disconnect with political/military facts on the ground.
Encouraged, perhaps, by President Obama’s formulation of an independent Palestine with a border contiguous with Jordan – upsetting Jordan as much as Israel – Abu Mazen has not only been engaging in international diplomacy but also stirring up the West Bank population with visions of a third intifada. The second intifada caused anguish for both sides, but caused economic, social and political dislocation for the Palestinians far beyond any benefit achieved by sympathy from uninvolved Third World countries. The distinct lack of enthusiasm in the populace for violence and protest is the only evident sign of political maturity in the Arab arena. Let’s hope it holds.
Israel has lived every day of the Third Jewish Commonwealth under the threat of those who wish and work to destroy it. The technological brilliance (but limited coverage) of Iron Dome, the seemingly endless capacity of the IDF to learn the lessons of the last conflict and the extraordinary determination of the civilian population to create and maintain a liberal democracy under extreme duress (this summer’s popular, peaceful, broad-based and thoughtful protest movement under the not-completely-unsympathetic eye of the government puts the Arab Spring to shame) reminds us that Israel is not only part of the democratic West but that it is the first line of attack by those for whom consensual government, liberalism and freedom are not on the agenda.
Under the circumstances, defensible borders – not negotiated settlements with despotic and perhaps temporary Arab governments – loom large as the best guarantee of Israel’s security in a convulsive and difficult region.
JINSA is the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.