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Israel lives with three realities: geographic, demographic and cultural.
Geographically, it is at a permanent disadvantage, lacking strategic depth. It does enjoy
the advantage of interior lines -- the ability to move forces rapidly from one front to
another. Demographically, it is on the whole outnumbered, although it can achieve local
superiority in numbers by choosing the time and place of war. Its greatest advantage is
cultural. It has a far greater mastery of the technology and culture of war than its
Two of the realities cannot be changed. Nothing can be done about geography or demography. Culture can be changed. It is not inherently the case that Israel will have a technological or operational advantage over its neighbors. The great inherent fear of Israel is that the Arabs will equal or surpass Israeli prowess culturally and therefore militarily. If that were to happen, then all three realities would turn against Israel and Israel might well be at risk.
That is why the capture of Israeli troops, first one in the south, then two in the north, has galvanized Israel. The kidnappings represent a level of Arab tactical prowess that previously was the Israeli domain. They also represent a level of tactical slackness on the Israeli side that was previously the Arab domain. These events hardly represent a fundamental shift in the balance of power. Nevertheless, for a country that depends on its cultural superiority, any tremor in this variable reverberates dramatically. Hamas and Hezbollah have struck the core Israeli nerve. Israel cannot ignore it.
Embedded in Israel's demographic problem is this: Israel has national security requirements that outstrip its manpower base. It can field a sufficient army, but its industrial base cannot supply all of the weapons needed to fight high-intensity conflicts. This means it is always dependent on an outside source for its industrial base and must align its policies with that source. At first this was the Soviets, then France and finally the United States. Israel broke with the Soviets and France when their political demands became too intense. It was after 1967 that it entered into a patron-client relationship with the United States. This relationship is its strength and its weakness. It gives the Israelis the systems they need for national security, but since U.S. and Israeli interests diverge, the relationship constrains Israel's range of action.
During the Cold War, the United States relied on Israel for a critical geopolitical function. The fundamental U.S. interest was Turkey, which controlled the Bosporus and kept the Soviet fleet under control in the Mediterranean. The emergence of Soviet influence in Syria and Iraq -- which was not driven by U.S. support for Israel since the United States did not provide all that much support compared to France -- threatened Turkey with attack from two directions, north and south. Turkey could not survive this. Israel drew Syrian attention away from Turkey by threatening Damascus and drawing forces and Soviet equipment away from the Turkish frontier. Israel helped secure Turkey and turned a Soviet investment into a dry hole.
Once Egypt signed a treaty with Israel and Sinai became a buffer zone, Israel became safe from a full peripheral war -- everyone attacking at the same time. Jordan was not going to launch an attack and Syria by itself could not strike. The danger to Israel became Palestinian operations inside of Israel and the occupied territories and the threat posed from Lebanon by the Syrian-sponsored group Hezbollah.
In 1982, Israel responded to this threat by invading Lebanon. It moved as far north as Beirut and the mountains east and northeast of it. Israel did not invade Beirut proper, since Israeli forces do not like urban warfare as it imposes too high a rate of attrition. But what the Israelis found was low-rate attrition. Throughout their occupation of Lebanon, they were constantly experiencing guerrilla attacks, particularly from Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has two patrons: Syria and Iran. The Syrians have used Hezbollah to pursue their political and business interests in Lebanon. Iran has used Hezbollah for business and ideological reasons. Business interests were the overlapping element. In the interest of business, it became important to Hezbollah, Syria and Iran that an accommodation be reached with Israel. Israel wanted to withdraw from Lebanon in order to end the constant low-level combat and losses.
Israel withdrew in 1988, having reached quiet understandings with Syria that Damascus would take responsibility for Hezbollah, in return for which Israel would not object to Syrian domination of Lebanon. Iran, deep in its war with Iraq, was not in a position to object if it had wanted to. Israel returned to its borders in the north, maintaining a security presence in the south of Lebanon that lasted for several years.
As Lebanon blossomed and Syria's hold on it loosened, Iran also began to increase its regional influence. Its hold on some elements of Hezbollah strengthened, and in recent months, Hezbollah -- aligning itself with Iranian Shiite ideology -- has become more aggressive. Iranian weapons were provided to Hezbollah, and tensions grew along the frontier. This culminated in the capture of two soldiers in the north and the current crisis.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact of the soldier kidnappings on the Israeli psyche. First, while the Israeli military is extremely highly trained, Israel is also a country with mass conscription. Having a soldier kidnapped by Arabs hits every family in the country. The older generation is shocked and outraged that members of the younger generation have been captured and worried that they allowed themselves to be captured;
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Thursday, July 13, 2006