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Stop Worrying About Israel

The Jewish State ‘has never been in a better strategic position than where it is today’

Josef Joffe
January 06, 2016
Illustration: Tablet Magazine/Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine/Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine/Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine/Shutterstock

To kvetch is as Jewish as guilt-tripping, gefilte fish, and gloom. But the ne plus ultra of Jewish is angst—that sense of dread and foreboding that keeps whispering: “The universe is out to get you.”

Given the Jewish experience of the last 5776 years, this take reflects realism rather than paranoia. Start with the eviction from Eden and the Deluge, which left only Noah’s clan alive. Continue with the Pharaonic slavery and God’s vow in the Desert (Numbers 14) to strike the Children of Israel “with pestilence and disown them.” And so it goes: the Babylonian captivity, Haman, Masada, the destruction of two temples, the dispersal. It is an unending epic of persecution, expulsion and slaughter culminating in the Shoah.

In Fiddler on the Roof, Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye put the existential curse in a nutshell: “I know, I know,” he pleads with the Almighty, “we are Your chosen people. But once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” Without the gift of irony and gallows humor, Jews might not have made it to 5776, but there isn’t even a sub-atomic particle of this wondrous antidote in Ron Rosenbaum’s “Lamentation for the State of Israel,” published in these pages on Dec. 14, 2015. Here is the gist of his dirge:

I believe the State of Israel may not survive. That its days are numbered. I can hardly bear to say it. … But now the children of Holocaust victims and survivors and the children of those who came to Israel as refugees from pogroms in Islamic lands—now they too, face a future not merely bleak, but perhaps blank, empty, ended.

This time, the author believes, it is finito for good—“blank, empty, ended.” Or as the ancient Romans used to chant: “Hierosoluma est perdita”—Jerusalem is lost. It is still there while the Roman Empire is history—as are all the other empires in the Middle East that have routinely vanquished Israel. Also still there, and stronger than ever, is the State of Israel that barely escaped extinction at birth 67 years ago. Today, the former land of orange groves, swamps, and dunes is the Middle East’s little superpower.

So why, as Rosenbaum imagines, would Israel’s enemies do better now than in five wars since 1948, not counting a slew of lesser battles from Lebanon to Gaza? Why would 7 million Jews do worse today than those 600,000 who fought off five Arab armies in 1948-49? Rosenbaum marshals two arguments reflecting sheer angst, not analysis.

One data point is a declaration by Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei following the JCPA, the nuclear deal that is to keep the bomb out of Tehran’s hands for 15 or even 25 years. According to the ayatollah’s rant, Israel does not gain safety, but only a reprieve. When the agreement will have run its course, “the Zionist regime—with the grace of God—will no longer exist in the region.”

So, according to our doomsayer, it will be curtains for the Jewish state no later than 2040, a few years short of its 100th birthday. Nor is it just Iranian nukes that will undo Israel. “The second development that made me fear for the worst,” Rosenbaum continues his dirge, “was a recent poll that “reveals 80 percent of Israeli kids traumatized by terror-attack videos” making the rounds in the current “war of the knives.”

Actually, it wasn’t the kids, but their parents who reported the formers’ “traumas” to the pollsters, and parents are wont to dramatize whatever may ail their little darlings. Actually, these moms and dads might have done better by their offspring if they had fed them Grimm’s fairly tales, gruesome stuff where witches are burned alive and grannies are eaten by wolves.

It is not clear what such a survey, as hyped by The Algemeiner on Nov. 5 and loaded with suggestive language, is supposed to prove about Israel’s impending demise. Especially since Israel has prevailed in the two intifadas preceding the waves of stabbings Palestinians unleashed last fall. In the first one from 1987 to 1993, 160 Israelis were killed. In the second from 2000 to 2005, the toll soared to 1,010, overwhelmingly among civilians.

Did Israel bare its throat in surrender? Did its “traumatized” youth refuse to serve in the army? Did they and their parents abscond by the millions, like today’s Syrians and Iraqis fleeing to adjacent Muslim lands and to Europe?

Every survey this author knows proves the opposite: Terror does not pay; it invariably hardens a nation’s resolve. This is how America reacted after Sept. 11. This is how Israel responded to two intifadas with a death toll of 1,200. “Keep calm and carry on” is how the British behaved during the Blitz—the terror bombing of English cities by the Luftwaffe in 1940-41 that claimed about 40,000 civilian lives in eight months. Nor have the French caved to last year’s ISIS-inspired massacres in Paris.

But let’s not dwell on polls, nor on 35 years of murderous rhetoric routinely spewed forth by the Iranian regime since the Khomeinist revolution of 1979. Or for that matter, on the anti-Arab slogans of Israel’s extremist right. Let’s instead look at the realities. Let’s focus on what the Soviets loved to call the “correlation of forces”—the real stuff that includes not only bombs and bullets, but also Israel’s economy, demography, technology, and diplomacy.

Since Iran, Israel’s strongest foe, looms supreme in Rosenbaum’s lament, we should start with the Islamic Republic. What do Allah’s self-proclaimed servants observe when they look at the “Zionist usurper” they want to “wipe off the map”? Above all, they see a country credited with 80 to 200 nuclear weapons.

Such bare numbers don’t mean much by themselves. The magic word here is what strategists define as “second-strike capability.” It signals to a would-be aggressor that he cannot, repeat, cannot disarm his victim in a surprise attack. If he shoots first, he will die second. That is the essence of deterrence. It has kept the peace among the great powers for two generations.

Israel is not a great power, but in nuclear terms, it is America writ small. Like the United States, it possesses a second-strike arsenal. Like the United States, it boasts a “nuclear triad” that cannot be pre-empted in one fell strike. The threesome consists of attack aircraft (which are aloft when tensions rise), land-based Jericho intermediate-range missiles, and, best of all, four (soon to be five) missile-carrying submarines hiding somewhere in the ocean. These German-made, state-of-the art Dolphin U-boats are invulnerable to a first strike because they cannot be located, hence not targeted. France, by the way, has only four strategic subs of the Triomphant class.

At this point in the debate, the “yes, but” killer argument is invariably trundled onstage. Deterrence, the Cassandras claim, requires rational actors who will weigh the existential risks of going first. But not those crazed Iranians! It is worth recalling that we thought the same about the “Life is cheap” Soviets during the early stages of the Cold War.

Didn’t the heirs of Karl Marx see themselves as agents of History? To redeem mankind from Capitalist oppression, they would gladly sacrifice millions of their own. Substitute Allah for History. The pious revolutionaries of Tehran, like the Blues Brothers, are on “a mission from God.” To wipe the “Little Satan” off the planet in 25 years, as Khamenei has pledged, they would likewise pay with millions of incinerated citizens, especially since their end on earth would take them straight into martyr’s paradise.

So much for consigning entire nations to the asylum. Now do the ghastly arithmetic. With, say, 50 nukes, Israel can obliterate Iran not just as a country, but as a civilization—and still keep enough warheads in reserve to deter whoever else might want to wade in. Revolutionary Iran may well believe in executing Allah’s revealed will, but psychotics they are not. Nothing in its past behavior, malicious and grasping as it is, suggests that the Islamic regime will court Armageddon to destroy Israel—and to kill neighboring fellow Muslims in the cataclysm, to boot. “Yes, but” is angst-mongering, not cold-eyed strategic analysis honed in the reassuring experience of the past 65 years. The Iranians, like the Soviets yesterday, are as crazy as foxes.

So, what about the other Arabs and their eliminationist fantasies? Again, it helps to look at the military realities. Israel has beaten the Arabs over and over again. Now put its clout in perspective. The Jewish state has a standing army of 133,000; that’s more than twice the British total. It has 500 main battle tanks, twice the number of the Germans whose panzers once went to the gates of Moscow and Cairo. The Israel Air Force has some 440 first-line combat aircraft—more than Britain, France, or Germany. And it can mobilize 400,000 reserves, a number dwarfing the back-up forces of any NATO country.

Yes, but. The Arab League boasts a population of 365 million, as compared to a paltry 7 million Jews in Israel. A more interesting measuring rod is GDP. In terms of economic prowess, Israel puts $306 billion on the scales. All the four “confrontation states” together—Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria—come in at $400 billion (a conservative estimate because nobody knows Syria’s GDP after four years of war).

Suggesting a kind of balance, such aggregates do not bespeak economic strength. The population of this foursome is 15 times larger than Israel’s. So, let’s look at per-capita income as a measure of real muscle. A fourth-world economy in its infancy, Israel now boasts a per capita two rungs behind France’s and one above (!) Japan’s. Egypt’s is less than one-tenth of Israel’s income per person. So much for those “plucky Jews” who started out with citrus, potash, and bananas back in 1948 and now sell advanced weaponry to the United States, India, and China. While Israel generates $37,000 per man, woman, and child, the numbers for Egypt and Jordan are $3,400 and $5,400. Syria, a battlefield rather than an economy, no longer shows up in the tables of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Another useful comparison: Israel has seven great research universities; the Arab world has none. Nor has it attracted Google’s and Microsoft’s research divisions, as Israel has.

Now look at the strategic setting. When five Arab armies were marching on Tel Aviv, not even a mentally unhinged dreamer could have foreseen Israel’s miraculous position 67 years later. Jerusalem has peace treaties with Cairo and Amman. It has just opened a quasi-diplomatic representation in Abu Dhabi. More outlandish still, Israel now enjoys a silent alliance with Saudi-Arabia and the other Gulf states. The strategic landscape has changed beyond belief, with Israel as key beneficiary.

A “conventional war that ends in Israel’s defeat,” as Rosenbaum surmises? Who would fight it? Not Egypt that has its eyes on Hamas in Gaza and, farther afield, on Iran. Not Jordan, a security client of Israel ever since the IDF deterred Syria from invading in 1970. Syria? It is a failed state that will eventually break up into Kurdish, Alawite, and Sunni sub-states. The Palestinian Authority, which hasn’t dared to go into an election for ten years, owes its life to the IDF and Israel’s security services.

Hezbollah, ranging across the Levant, is man-for-man the best Arab force in the region. But then look at the tacit alliance between Israel and Russia, once among Jerusalem’s worst foes. Israel will not interfere with the Russian air campaign in Syria. In exchange it gets a free hand to bomb Hezbollah’s arms pipe line from Iran into Lebanon. In short, Israel has never been in a better strategic position than where it is today.

This is a time to kvell, not to kvetch—though there is a lot to bemoan, as always. Jerusalemites don’t walk their dogs at night any more, not if they live near Arab quarters. The politics are atrocious, but no more polarized than in the U.S. Congress. (There are just more parties in the game.) Those with longer memories will not remember the era of Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir as a heaven of Swiss-style consensus-building. Or bereft of corruption and profiteering by privileged vested interests like the labor unions.

Inequality is rising. The tie to Barack Obama’s America has been fraying while the European Union is playing with boycotts of Israeli goods and, as in Britain, Israeli academics. There won’t be peace with the Palestinians in this generation, not with the failing state that is the Palestinian Authority. Nor is Israel exactly pining for a two-state deal, not after 20 years of rightward drift. So the pessimists may well be the realists in the accursed lands of the Levant.

But sheer angst à la Rosenbaum? Israel’s strategic and economic superiority is the fitting antidote, as least for level-headed analysts. To boot, there are always miracles afoot in the Not-So-Promised Land. Jewish immigration to Israel reached a 15-year high in 2015, with around 30,000 new arrivals. They come from France where terror against Jewish institutions has become the New Normal. They hail from economic basket cases like Putin’s Russia and war-torn Ukraine. These folks apparently don’t believe that Israel is doomed. Israel’s Bureau of Statistics projects a population of 11 to 12 million for 2035.

“Traumatized,” as Rosenbaum claims, Israel is not. To the contrary, Israel ranks No. 11 in the World Happiness Report, ahead of Canada and the United States. In the world’s fertility ranking, Israel is No. 1 among all Western nations—with 3 births per woman of child-bearing age; the United States comes in at 1.9, and the Europeans at around 1.4. Just to keep the population constant requires 2.1. Fertility isn’t just a statistic. It reflects a nation’s trust in the future. With a rate way above replenishment, Israelis don’t seem to believe that their country is headed for a speedy demise, as foreseen by Rosenbaum.

He approvingly quotes the Jewish thinker Emil Fackenheim who invoked the “614th Commandment” (after the 613 traditional ones): “Thou shall give to Hitler no posthumous victories.” That victory is now “so close,” our soothsayer avers. As a trope of Jewish angst, “Hitler” is of course impossible to beat. As any psychiatrist will tell you, “don’t be afraid” is as productive as homeopathy. It is more reassuring to tally the economic and strategic trends that favor Israel more than at any time in its existence. They don’t corroborate Rosenbaum’s prediction that Israel’s “days are numbered.”

If you don’t trust the hard stuff, take a cue from Sholem Aleichem who quipped: “No matter how bad things get, you have to go on living, even if it kills you.” This is how Jews have survived for 5776 years.


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Josef Joffe, a fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution and former editor of Die Zeit, teaches international politics and security at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.