Israel: Lion or Lamb?

A military analyst looks at reality and perception for Israel.

As military analyst Yaakov Katz wrote recently in The Jerusalem Post, “Something has changed in Israel.” Once, it was renowned for daring military operations like the 1972 capture of five Syrian intelligence officers, the 1976 raid on the hijacked aircraft at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, and even as recently as 2007, the airstrike on a Syrian nuclear reactor. Today – following the Gilad Schalit swap last month for more than 1,000 convicted Palestinian terrorists – it is perceived by many as a country that caves to the arrogant demands of its enemies.

With Iran on the verge of acquiring the nuclear capability it needs to, as Ahmadinejad is fond of saying, “wipe Israel from the map,” many wonder if Israel is considering a possible preemptive military strike. But is Israel the country it once was? These days it seems it can barely push back against the Obama administration’s pressure to negotiate with Hamas and return to indefensible borders. Does an Israel that seemingly surrendered to the demands of terrorists have what it takes to neutralize the looming threat of a nuclear-weaponized Iran?

Yaakov Katz is the military correspondent and defense analyst for The Jerusalem Post and the Israel correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly, the international military magazine. Katz led the _Post_’s coverage of the recent IDF wars and operations, including the Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah in 2006 and Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip in 2009. He served in the IDF Armored Corps and lectures widely in the U.S. and Israel on military affairs. His first book, Israel vs. Iran: The Shadow War was a 2011 national bestseller in Israel and will be published in the U.S. next March.

Earlier this month at Temple Ner Maarav in Encino, California, Katz spoke on the recent, world-changing upheavals in the Middle East, particularly how the so-called Arab Spring is quickly degenerating into an Islamic Winter. He discussed how dramatic developments like the Schalit exchange are impacting Israel, its national security, and its future.

For Katz, one word characterizes the so-called Arab Spring: uncertainty. Will the Muslim Brotherhood make Egypt an Islamic state? When will Syria’s Assad be deposed, and when he does, into whose hands will his extensive arsenal of ballistic missiles and chemical weapons fall? Will the Iranian regime itself succumb to revolution? Such questions are at the core of the Israeli Defense Force’s challenge: how to prepare for the various elements of uncertainty arising in the wake of the Arab Spring/Islamic Winter.

The big winner and beneficiary of the Middle Eastern turmoil referred to blithely by the mainstream media as the Arab Spring is Iran. With Arabic regimes toppling left and right, Iran remains standing strong, and a looming threat to Israel, which it openly promises to obliterate. The window of opportunity for an Israeli military strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities is closing rapidly. Katz says such a military option is unlikely to be chosen soon, but Israeli President Shimon Peres said recently that

The possibility of a military attack against Iran is now closer to being applied than the application of a diplomatic option.

Where Iran is concerned, Katz pointed out, there are two clocks ticking: the nuclear clock and the revolution clock. Both are ticking down, but which will run out of time first?

When Katz ended his presentation to take questions, the recent Shalit swap was in the forefront of the audience’s collective mind; many wanted to know, quite simply, why? Why did Israel release over a thousand terrorists to gain Shalit’s release? Katz deplored the message that it sends – that terrorism and abductions are successful strategies – and said it’s time for Israel to establish a definitive policy about responses to such kidnappings, which are now sure to escalate. As to why, Katz reiterated what he suggested in his article cited above, about timing being the principal reason for the negotiation. Israel had to make the deal for Shalit before upcoming elections in Egypt bring to power an even more anti-Israel government: “By reaching a deal now, Netanyahu clears his desk and is able to focus on Israel’s true strategic predicaments.”

An audience member asked if Israel could put forward a tougher image by adopting the death penalty for convicted terrorists. But Katz noted that studies show, unsurprisingly, that capital punishment is no deterrent to Palestinian suicide bombers. As the terrorists often remind us, they love death more than we love life. The Palestinians, by the way, are definitely not partners in the peace process, Katz noted. They have one goal only: to delegitimize and isolate Israel until the Palestinians get everything they want.

Responding to a question about dealing with the threat of Syria, Katz explained that Israel would naturally like to see the antagonistic Assad regime fall, but throughout history, power vacuums in the Middle East are never filled by moderate elements. And so it could go with Syria, where a regime change could lead to a situation as in Egypt, where the Islamists are positioning themselves for control. So there is a debate within the Israeli defense establishment as to whether the Syrian devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

“The coming year will be critical for Israel,” says Katz. In 1948 David Ben-Gurion pondered the question, “How will Israel survive amid its many enemies?” That same question is relevant today, and in partial answer, Katz claims that there is one characteristic the Israelis can be particularly proud of: resilience. Resilience is what enabled Israel to defeat its enemies in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, the Palestinian Intifadas, the wars in Lebanon. “That same resilience,” Katz is confident, “will continue to ensure the greatest miracle of modern times” – Israel’s existence and future.

But will it? Is resilience enough? As Steven Plaut puts it, the endless war in the Middle East will only end when Israel pursues “peace through victory,” “when Israel returns to its determination to end the terror through military victory and force of arms.”

Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.