A Need for Innovative Statecraft

It would be reckless to cut the defense budget for the purpose of electoral economics and simply to make people feel good.

A clear lesson to be learned from history - of biological species, of states, of organizations and of business corporations - is that lack of innovativeness in a substantively changing environment assures decline. Exceptions include environmental changes that operate on their own in favor of the non-innovating entity, or an entity that is so robust or isolated that changes in its environment do not have an impact on its fate. Neither of these, however, describe Israel. Therefore Israel's current statecraft inertia gives cause for a serious concern that we are entering a trajectory of decline that can become a slippery slope unless we begin to innovate to a degree that fits the changing conditions.

Another lesson of history to take into account is that states in revolutionary situations can generate very high levels of social energy. With all the differences, it is enough to recall what happened to countries that underrated the strength of revolutionary France, or to the United States when it invaded revolutionary Cuba, to invalidate the assumption that the Arab states in transition have necessarily entered a period of weakness.

It is impossible to predict which regimes will emerge in the Arab states undergoing transformations. What is clear is that "the street" will become more influential and thus strengthen hostility toward Israel, though not irreversibly. Social energy levels are likely to be higher; problems at home may easily lead to a search for enemies abroad; and governmental behavior can easily become less prudent and more adventurous than before. All these will have very significant implications for Israel, such as erosion of its deterrence and the possibility of it becoming more of a target of aggressive initiatives, however "irrational."

Also to be taken into account, inter alia, is a trend toward further decline in the influence of the United States and the West in general on the Middle East, and on the world as a whole - particularly if the West finds itself in a deep, long-lasting and recurring economic crisis.

This assessment as a whole leads to two main conclusions regarding the radical innovativeness required from Israeli statecraft, which seem to be contradictory but in fact reinforce one another: The government has to present a serious regional peace initiative, and at the same time to develop a partly new security policy, including very aggressive alternatives for use, if essential.

The need for a new national security strategy does not need explanation, and there is no doubt that the defense establishment is working on it. But this has an implication that must be acknowledged loudly, despite the fact that it is politically inconvenient: It is essential to increase the defense budget. Additional resources have to be allocated for an updated security policy, including both innovative defensive and attack modalities, subject to strict cost-benefit-risk considerations. Cuts in the defense budget do not stand the test of new realities.

This means that the possibility of increasing welfare spending is very limited -- especially because Israel's economy is likely to be hurt if the global economic crisis continues. There is no doubt that our government needs to provide more assistance to the truly needy and to act to reduce the much-too-high income disparities. But it would be reckless to cut the defense budget for the purpose of electoral economics and to make people feel good.

The situation is more complex with respect to the necessity of an Israeli Middle-Eastern peace initiative, including one that involves the Palestinians. Many will claim once again that "the timing is not right," "it stands no chance," and "it will be seen as a sign of weakness and thus invite aggression." But it is necessary to understand that revolutions produce not only dangers, but also provide opportunities, by loosening up rigidities and undermining what was "obvious" in the past.

To mention a small but significant example: The recent steps taken by the Arab League against Syria are unprecedented and would have been regarded as impossible a year ago.

One should not ignore the possibility that the revolutions in the Arab world, deconstructing as they do much of what was "obvious" not long ago, could also open a door of opportunity to an Israeli peace initiative, if it is serious, credible and comprehensive.

The overall conclusion is clear: Mental rigidity, "more of the same," such as dithering about the possibility of negotiations with the Palestinians, and populist cuts in the defense budget, are the opposite of the creative innovativeness required in light of the regional turmoil, with all the dangers - and opportunities - it poses to Israel.

A critical question is whether the assessments of the situation considered by top-level Israeli politicians lead to a comprehensive view in terms of challenge and response, and national rise and decline, with the necessary conclusions. If not, there is reason to worry that we, with our own hands, could bring about a decline, until we make the necessary innovations, and after learning costly lessons.

Prof. Yehezkel Dror is the author, most recently, of "Israeli Statecraft: National Security Challenges and Responses" (Routledge ).