In terms of conventional warfare that Israel experienced in the first 30 or 40 years of its existence — that threat has gone away, although Israel has to be prepared just in case,” according to Middle East expert Barak Mendelsohn.
Speaking on Oct. 16 at Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor, Mendelsohn said that although Israel faces a declining threat from traditional forces, there is an emerging danger from small groups of radicals.
Mendelsohn, an associate professor of political science and the coordinator of the Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies program at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and as a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, explained that since the Arab Spring, the nations surrounding Israel have been more focused on their domestic squabbles than Israel.
“Israel’s neighbors only became weaker with the Arab uprising, not stronger,” he said.
But dealing with non-state foes brings a host of problems.
“They are not aiming to capture territories and establish their own control and authority,” Mendelsohn said. “They are trying to cause harm, to lead a state to make concessions because [the state] can’t handle the cost and pain from those attacks.”
When a group that is not affiliated with another country commits a terrorist act in Israel, the government’s response is complicated by the difficulty in defining a legitimate target. Should it attack the country the group is operating from? The organization responsible? The civilian population among whom the perpetrators often hide? And whatever the response, Mendelsohn said, “the likelihood that you will be able to stop the violence is not very high.”
Moreover international law demands a proportional response, which poses additional questions regarding Israel’s retaliation.
“A state relying on military forces doesn’t know how to make a nuanced response,” he said. “If you think a response is proportional, you need to convince the world.” Should these efforts fail, “you may have some success but you are weakening the democratic foundations of your country.”
The role religion plays in the conflict should not be understated. There’s no compromise in religious wars and they tend to be long and brutal. “Actors think their existence, not just their physical existence, but their belief system, is under threat,” Mendelsohn said.
Israel is also closely monitoring a power shift along its northern border, as Russia and Iran appear to be calling the shots in Syria. As a result, Israel doesn’t have as much freedom to operate over Syrian air space as it once did, he said, because “Russia can harm the Israeli air force.” The Russian involvement creates a different dilemma, as Iran hopes to establish a foothold in the Golan Heights, and Israel is depending on potential agreements with Russia and the United States to keep Iranian forces from Israel’s borders.
The U.S. has no interest in the continuing conflict in Syria. “The U.S. effectively handed Syria to the Russian-Iranian alliance,” Mendelsohn said.
In addition, with the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Europe, the U.S. no longer has the clout to restrain Europe when it launches anti-Israel initiatives. “Europe is free to have its own foreign policy, and that will not be to the liking of the Israeli government.”
Hezbollah is stronger than ever, Mendelsohn said, “in terms of experience and weapon systems.” And “Iran is a closer threat, directly and indirectly, and can strike Israel from many locations.”
At the same time, Israel “has a much freer hand than ever to use arms,” he said, because “the international community does not really care what Israel is doing.” However, according to Mendelsohn, Israel has proven it does not want to bring down Hamas, because every time it has had a chance, it has chosen to retain the status quo. “Hamas can guarantee order more than if you have different kinds of jihadi organizations running around Gaza,” he said.
Israel is adjusting to the new threats and developing alternative methods to fight sub-state enemies, including antimissile systems. But because Hamas can fire 500 rockets at once, and the anti-rocket missiles are expensive, “there is no way you can provide sufficient protection,” he said.
To further combat the new reality, Mendelsohn said Israel has enhanced its intelligence gathering and electronic surveillance, and reduced the time it takes for that intelligence to reach air and ground forces. It also has very strong second-strike capabilities, with precise ballistic and cruise missiles.
Mendelsohn said that the Israeli government “has effectively abandoned the peace process,” although he said that “the other side are hardly great partners.” That, in his opinion, is a mistake.
“The belief that they can keep the status quo is very damaging because there will be a point when you find you are wrong and the status quo is not sustainable,” he said, “and you missed the time when you had the leverage to make an agreement.”
And with a two-state solution no longer viable, he said, Israel is facing a serious identity crisis: “It cannot be a democracy and control the Palestinians at the same time.”
As for the immediate future, Mendelsohn said he’s concerned that, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struggling to save himself from corruption charges, Israel could stumble into — or even initiate — a conflict in the “combustible” north. Now that Iran is entrenched in Syria, if violence breaks out between Israel and Hezbollah, it could “lead to serious destruction in Israel, to Lebanon, to more in Syria, and get all the way to Iran,” Mendelsohn said. “This would start a whole regional mess.”