May, 25 2001
by Neill Lochery
The Middle East is standing on the brink of the sixth major Arab-Israeli war in just over 50 years. While international attention has focused on the plight of the Palestinians, much less thought has been given to Israel, which once more may face a battle for its survival. Weekend comments by Shimon Peres, the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, to the effect that Israel faces its biggest threat since its establishment in 1948 went largely unreported in the international media. They reflect, however, the increasing concern in Jerusalem that the Arabs have politically outmanoeuvred Israel -- and that Israelis may not be ready to make the kind of personal sacrifices necessary for the Jewish state to emerge victorious from any future war.
Among Arab scholars, there is an almost palpable sense of excitement that this is the time to strike; that for the first time the regional and international dynamics favour the Arabs. They argue that the peace process, which they trace back to the Oslo Accords of 1993, has weakened Israel's spirit. In 2001, Israel is more divided than ever over the question of its relations with the Arabs. Many on the left ask why they should fight for the West Bank and Gaza when everyone knows the majority of these lands will eventually be handed over to the Palestinians? The same argument, the left argues, applies to the disputed Golan Heights, which previous Israeli governments have promised to return to Syria in exchange for peace.
On a deeper level, the Arabs have noted the effect of the global economy on Israel. The Zionist ideology of the founding fathers has largely disappeared. Collectivism and self-sacrifice has been replaced by individualism. Though Israel has made tremendous gains from its integration into the world economy -- the jewel in the crown being its high-tech sector -- this has been done at a price. During the 90s, believing peace was just around the corner, Israel in effect attempted to normalize its state and economy too soon. As a result, the country is not ready for war. Draft dodging is at an all-time high. Those who do their annual reserve duty in the army complain that they are discriminated against in the job market. Multinational companies do not take kindly to employees disappearing each year for a 60-day tour of duty in the West Bank.
It is, however, among Israel's youth that the Arabs have noted the major changes. In any war it is this group that is asked to make the greatest sacrifice. Today, Israeli youth spend more time watching MTV and shopping for new clothes than they do discussing the political situation. Many refuse to serve in the Territories. An increasing number with rich parents are going abroad to attend university in North America or Europe. The perception in the Arab world is that this generation will not be willing to die for lands outside of Israel proper.
The Arabs have also noted increasing tension between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. What has always been a difficult relationship has deteriorated in recent years. Many liberal Jewish leaders -- mainly in Europe -- are more openly questioning if the price for the maintenance of a Jewish state is worth paying.
In the past 50 years, there have been two strands to Arab thinking about Israel. First, the Arabs must seek to destroy the Jewish state -- either in one bloody battle or with a piece-by-piece strategy. Or second, that Israel will sow the seeds of its own destruction due to its increasing internal divisions. Today, the strategy of the Arabs marries both of these strands of thought together.
The coming war, as a result, will not mirror previous Arab-Israeli wars. There will be no massive offensive followed by counter-attacks. It is possible the war has already started. The low intensity conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis may continue to simmer for months before we move to the next level -- volunteers from other Arab armies joining the Palestinians -- followed by regular Arab armies. During this period, the Arabs will monitor developments in Israeli society closely. If they see deepening internal divisions and a lack of will to fight, a war that was initially fought over the Palestinians may yet become a battle over the very existence of the state of Israel.
There is much indifference in the international community to Israel's continued survival. This is nothing new, but what is more worrying is the increasing complacency in Israeli society and among elements of the Jewish Diaspora that Israel can win with ease the coming battle with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world.
The last time Israel was in such a mood, it was rudely awakened on the afternoon of Oct. 6, 1973, by the invading Egyptian and Syrian forces. It is time for Israel and the international community to heed Mr. Peres' warning and wake up before it's too late.
Dr. Neill Lochery is director of the graduate program in Israeli Studies at University College London.
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