In Defense of Defense

One of the foremost criticisms of Netanyahu is that he has not advanced his own foreign policy initiative. An alternative reading of the situation is that defensive strategy is the best option for Israel.

Prof. Shmuel Sandler

One of the foremost criticisms of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's statecraft is that he has refrained from advancing a dynamic foreign policy or what is often called a peace “initiative.” In general, the critique runs as follows: Netanyahu's main concern is political survival, which implies keeping his coalition intact and nothing beyond. In order to accomplish this goal he has avoided taking any initiative in “peace diplomacy” that could extract Israel from its isolation on the international scene.

In this view, Netanyahu’s acceptance of the two-state solution in his June 2009 BESA Center/Bar-Ilan University
Any purported Israeli diplomatic “initiative” holds more pitfalls than promise.
speech and his declared desire for direct peace talks with the Palestinians -- are to be considered half-hearted reactions to demands from Washington. Netanyahu's opponents aver that, while he may be successful in maintaining his political survival, Netanyahu is compromising Israel's national interest.

Is this an accurate evaluation of the situation?

An alternative reading of the situation is that given the current international scene, a protective or defensive diplomatic strategy is more rational for reasons of statecraft, not (only) for domestic political reasons. A careful  reading of the past twenty years of ‘peace diplomacy’ and its dismal results supports the assertion that any purported Israeli diplomatic “initiative” holds more pitfalls than promise. The reason for this is simple: It is now the norm that an “initiative” is synonymous with Israeli territorial concessions; dangerous concessions.

Defense is the Best Offense

The advantage of defense over offense under certain circumstances is well known in sports as well as in military strategy. Usually, it is recommended to the weaker side in a competition or a battle. Additionally, often it makes sense to the side for whom the status quo is working to adopt defense over offense.

The main argument for undertaking an initiative is that time is not working on Israel's side and hence it cannot afford to be passive. Whether Israel is in this situation is unclear and debatable. Without making a determination on this question, the argument advanced in this article for a defensive foreign policy is based on past diplomatic experiences and the evident shortcomings of any possible initiative currently being suggested to Israel by friends and foes alike.

A review of recent diplomatic history bears out the argument in support of a protective, rather than an active, strategy for Israel.

The first diplomatic test case to be considered is the Oslo process, where Israeli leaders initiated a major diplomatic move and yet ended up weaker than Israel had been at the outset of the process.

In many respects, Israel had been at the peak of its power in 1992. The first Intifada was winding down without any accomplishments for the Palestinians. The Eastern Front (composed of Jordan, Syria and Iraq, and which had been a major threat for Israel) collapsed following the defeat of Saddam Hussein's army in the 1991 Desert Storm operation. Even more important was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 which eliminated the main strategic
Israel had been at the peak of its power in 1992--before Oslo.
superpower supporting the Arab cause. In its wake came the largest and most productive wave of immigration to Israel. The more than one million immigrants from Russia not only favorably tilted the demographic balance of the Jewish State, but also enhanced its economic and military power beyond any anticipated level. And then came the Oslo initiative. Israel is still recovering from its damaging results today.
The prime minister associated with the pre-Oslo years was the “passive” Yitzhak Shamir who prevented an Israeli response to the Iraqi Scuds that fell on Israel.  Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin known as an “active” leader (to use James Barber’s passive/active typology) embraced the Oslo negotiations initiated by Yossi Beilin and associates. Who would dare and argue that Israel's geo-strategic position in the post Oslo era comes close to that which we enjoyed prior to 1993?

Another recent example of political activism is the withdrawal from Lebanon in the spring of 2000. Prime Minister Ehud Barak (under pressure of what came to be known as the “Four Mothers” movement) hastily pulled out from Lebanon, betraying Israel's Christian South Lebanese allies. By doing so, Israel damaged its credibility.  By any comparison, Israel's geostrategic situation in the 1990s was superior to the current one in which 40,000 missiles threaten every site in Israel. The casualties suffered in the Second Lebanon War combined with the potential ones resulting from the next military confrontation will likely vastly exceed those we would have suffered over the years had we stayed in Lebanon and negotiated for a levelheaded withdrawal.

The third example of activism is the Gaza disengagement in 2004, in which Ariel Sharon (under constant pressure primarily from home to "do something") initiated a unilateral withdrawal. The Israeli withdrawal resulted in the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas and its becoming one large military base from which to bombard the Israeli south on a daily basis. The end result was Israel had to undertake a military operation that cost Israel (and Gaza) dozens of casualties, and brought it international opprobrium.

In addition to the above cases one must add the two cases which did not translate into actual territorial withdrawals but definitely belong to the category of failed diplomatic activism. The first was the 2000 Camp David talks where Ehud Barak offered far reaching concessions to the Palestinians. Arafat's refusal to accept these proposals was followed by the second intifada in which Israel suffered over a thousand casualties. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says that that during his administration PA President Abu Mazen rejected even deeper Israeli concessions. In short, the history of Israeli peace initiatives is not very promising and sometimes even damaging.

What are the current options for Israel under Netanyahu?

Let’s begin with consideration of the situation in Israel’s north. The rationale for a peace settlement with Syria is its detachment from alliance with the "Axis of Evil." But an equally possible outcome could be that an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights will strengthen Syria and with it the emerging Ankara-Damascus-Beirut-Tehran axis. The abandonment of the Sudetenland by Czechoslovakia in 1938 resulted in the weakening of the latter.  This axis has recently received also a boost from Moscow following Russian President Medvedev’s visits to Damascus and Ankara. The first casualty of Syria's ascendance as a result of its alliance with Iran will be Lebanon. The withdrawal from "fortress Golan Heights" could be followed by an "anschluss" with Lebanon. The Druze leader Kamal Junbalat has already seen the writing on the wall and he recently flew to Damascus to appease Bashar Assad.

Similarly, a withdrawal of Israeli presence from the West Bank might result in a takeover by Hamas, even via a democratic election.  An Israel surrounded by a Hizballah controlled Lebanon in the North, an Iranian-influenced Syria in the northwest, a Hamas-controlled Palestinian state in the east, and a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in the south provides little room for the start of a peace process; a peace that implies yet more Israeli territorial withdrawals.

Another recent voice for change and a strategic initiative is the pressure on Israel to join the NPT. Should Israel be forced to change it traditional nuclear ambiguous approach -- the road is clear:  Israel's "exit from the closet" would result in a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, rather than emergence of a nuclear-free zone. Iran would have every justification to develop its nuclear option. A nuclear Iran would force several Arab states into developing their own nuclear weapon capacities. Again, in this sphere too, an “initiative” would likely have opposite results to those anticipated by proponents of the initiative.

So what should the Netanyahu administration do?

A defensive strategy has thus far allowed Netanyahu to enjoy domestic political stability. His opposition dismisses this as mere survival.  Yet Netanyahu has learned some lessons from his previous term as prime minister between 1996-1999; one of which is that stability is necessary for good governance. Obviously, Netanyahu’s political stability is upsetting to the Israeli left, which expected a repetition of the "tumbling from crisis to crisis" that characterized Netanyahu’s first administration. Hence Netanyahu should ignore such critics who deride his stable government as a do-nothing government. Those who criticize his strategy are not exactly his "best friends."

A "bunker" or “defensive” diplomatic strategy has its rationale; it relies on opponents making mistakes (which, in turn, would allow Israel to ease any diplomatic siege). It would be up for Netanyahu to know and identify that moment and take advantage of it.

To be sure, the historical analysis developed above is not all-inclusive; it ignores the positive diplomatic initiative of the late 1970s: what might be called the Begin-Sadat entrepreneurship partnership. However, it seems that today Netanyahu has no partner equal to the task. The purpose of the current “proximity talks,” then, is to evaluate whether Prime Minister Fayad or President Abbas are of Sadat size and caliber. A similar test could be applied to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Should these talks fail, conflict management may be the only rational strategy for the long-term.

From BESA Center Perspectives Papers No. 107, May 24, 2010
BESA Perspectives is published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.