An ongoing tragedy of Israel is that so small a country (with no more than seven million citizens) must remain a major military power in order to survive. It pays a high price to do so, with most Israeli men spending three years of their youth as regular conscripts and then one month of each year until the age of 50 in active reserve units and subject to unlimited emergency call-up.
Anti-Israel critics like to minimize Israel’s urgent security needs by referring to it, rather abstractly and without real analysis, as the fourth greatest military power in the world. I’m guessing that the three countries thought of as more powerful are the United States, China and Russia. Does this mean that Britain, France and Germany (to name but the most obvious) are less powerful than Israel? Each have eight to ten times the population, comparable technological knowhow, greater economic capacity, as large or larger standing armed forces and with great military traditions that go back centuries.
And what about the two Koreas – with the South possessing about 700,000 and the North one million or more men, armed to the teeth? Or what of India, a vast country, also with about a million men under arms, veterans of as many wars and struggles against guerrillas/terrorists as Israel? Even Taiwan, the Nationalist Republic of China, has more than twice Israel’s population, is technologically advanced and has standing and well-equipped armed forces that are larger than Israel’s. And what of Japan? Getting closer to Israel’s neighborhood, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran each have larger military establishments than Israel.
Both Israel and its critics need to see Israel for what it is – a small country, forced into an unnatural situation of being the region’s most potent military power. The Jewish people have tried it the other way, with the defacto passivism of living as a defenseless minority. The Israeli habit of perhaps over-relying upon force is a reaction to those long centuries of oppression and humiliation.
Yet at bottom, Israel has limited military capacities. It must attempt innovative means – including diplomacy and international assistance – to augment its odds for security. This may involve, at times, swallowing instances of hurt pride, or even injustice – a lesson the Arab world would also do well to learn – in the interest of avoiding mutual escalations of violence.
It should not surprise us that a guerrilla enemy, fighting on its own soil and glorifying the “martyrdom” of its men, along with the civilians among whom they are embedded, has placed Israel in a strategic quagmire in Lebanon, for a second time. The Romans confronted an equally determined foe in the Jewish people of 2,000 years ago, who were equipped with some of the same advantages. But Rome had the will and capacity of the world’s greatest empire – immune from the pressures of a well-informed public and democratic opposition, and facing no simultaneous strategic threat elsewhere – to systematically crush the heroic Judean rebellions in the first and second centuries. As a small country, modern Israel almost certainly lacks the capability to do something similar to the Hezbollah.
It was the path of Yohanon Ben-Zakai, convincing the Romans to allow him to set up his yeshiva, that saved the Jewish people at that time. I’m not arguing pacifism versus self-defense, but as Kenny Rogers’ “Gambler” advises: “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run…..”
Still, the Western world seems to have gone too far in a pacifist direction. The enhanced UN international force is beginning to look stillborn – with France effectively wimping out and both Lebanon and the UN still uncommitted to a real effort to curtail Hezbollah as an armed threat.