The occupation therefore continues, with the Palestinians holding the initiative. Unrest begins when they want it to begin and takes the form they want it to have within the limits of their resources. The Israelis are in a responsive mode. They can’t eradicate the Palestinian threat. Extensive combat in Gaza, for example, has both political consequences and military limits. Occupying Gaza is easy; pacifying Gaza is not.
Israel’s Military and Domestic Political Challenges
The crisis the Israelis face is that their levers of power, the open and covert relationships they had, and their military force are not up to the task of effectively shaping their immediate environment. They have lost the strategic initiative, and the type of power they possess will not prove decisive in dealing with their strategic issues. They no longer are operating at the extremes of power, but in a complex sphere not amenable to military solutions.
Israel’s strong suit is conventional military force. It can’t fully understand or control the forces at work on its borders, but it can understand the Iranian nuclear threat. This leads it to focus on the sort of conventional conflict it excels at, or at least used to excel at. The 2006 war with Hezbollah was quite conventional, but Israel was not prepared for an infantry war. The Israelis instead chose to deal with Lebanon via an air campaign, but that failed to achieve their political ends.
The Israelis want to redefine the game to something they can win, which is why their attention is drawn to the Iranian nuclear program. Of all their options in the region, a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities apparently plays to their strengths. Two things make such a move attractive. The first is that eliminating Iran’s nuclear capability is desirable for Israel. The nuclear threat is so devastating that no matter how realistic the threat is, removing it is desirable.
Second, it would allow Israel to demonstrate the relevance of its power in the region. It has been a while since Israel has had a significant, large-scale military victory. The 1980s invasion of Lebanon didn’t end well; the 2006 war was a stalemate; and while Israel may have achieved its military goals in the 2008 invasion of Gaza, that conflict was a political setback. Israel is still taken seriously in the regional psychology, but the sense of inevitability Israel enjoyed after 1967 is tattered. A victory on the order of destroying Iranian weapons would reinforce Israel’s relevance.
It is, of course, not clear that the Israelis intend to launch such an attack. And it is not clear that such an attack would succeed. It is also not clear that the Iranian counter at the Strait of Hormuz wouldn’t leave Israel in a difficult political situation, and above all it is not clear that Egyptian and Syrian factions would even be impressed by the attacks enough to change their behavior.
Israel also has a domestic problem, a crisis of confidence. Many military and intelligence leaders oppose an attack on Iran. Part of their opposition is rooted in calculation. Part of it is rooted in a series of less-than-successful military operations that have shaken their confidence in the military option. They are afraid both of failure and of the irrelevance of the attack on the strategic issues confronting Israel.
Political inertia can be seen among Israeli policymakers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to form a coalition with the centrist Kadima Party, but that fell apart over the parochial Israeli issue of whether [ultra-]Orthodox Jews should be drafted. Rather than rising to the level of a strategic dialogue, the secularist constituency of Kadima confronted the religious constituencies of the Likud coalition and failed to create a government able to devise a platform for decisive action.
This is Israel’s crisis. It is not a sudden, life-threatening problem but instead is the product of unraveling regional strategies, a lack of confidence earned through failure and a political system incapable of unity on any particular course. Israel, a small country that always has used military force as its ultimate weapon, now faces a situation where the only possible use of military force — against Iran — is not only risky, it is not clearly linked to any of the main issues Israel faces other than the nuclear issue. …