Israel's Best Defense

Developments in Egypt and Jordan, combined with stasis in the peace process, have a direct effect on the Palestinian public, which can be stretched like a coiled spring that erupts into violence when released.

"He's slaughtering us, he cut our prices 30 percent," complained Dudu Rahmani of Afula, as he pointed at Israel's official fence maker. Brig. Gen. Eran Ophir, 54, who heads up the joint Defense Ministry-Israel Defense Forces security fence project, is one of the most effective public servants in the country. Ophir, who was involved in the Israeli withdrawals from south Lebanon and the Gaza Strip and the construction of security fences in all sectors, appointed himself general contractor of "Hourglass," the fence being built along the Egyptian border, and eliminated all the intermediary stages between the customer - the military establishment - and the subcontractors.

Excavation contractor Rahmani and dozens of his competitors had looked forward to earning a bundle from the urgent need to close the holes in the borders between Israel and its neighbors. Instead, they must settle for infinitesimal profits. The sweet memories of old-timers in the earthmoving business from the happy, profligate time of building the Bar-Lev Line, during the War of Attrition, dissipate in the dust trails along Route 12, on the outskirts of Eilat. The Histadrut labor federation is out of the picture here - everything is nonunion and outsourced. Long ago, in the days of the second chief of staff, Yigael Yadin, the IDF had its own laundries and bakeries. Later on the army engaged outside businesses at competitive rates, saving itself the expense of pension and rehabilitation costs for their employees, but only recently has the IDF become frugal in this area.

"Fence" is a misleading word here. Another term is needed for the system of two or three fences of different kinds and tunnels, dugouts, observation and warning systems, patrols, intelligence, rapid-response forces (to address a border attack of one or two minutes' duration, followed by a retreat into the desert and a fast getaway to safe houses in Gaza ), and command-and-control capabilities to carry out an immediate pursuit, for example in order to extract an abductee before they are taken away.

Israel would be a very different place - much less war-scarred - had it protected itself from border infiltrators in the 1950s, or the '60s at the latest. On October 7, 1972, Lt. Gen. (ret. ) Yadin, who became an occasional adviser to the General Staff during the Yom Kippur War (and who, scandalously, was not barred from appointment to the Agranat Commission that investigated its failings ), supported the rash proposal of division commander Ariel Sharon to go on the offensive at Suez before the enemy's advance was blocked completely. "It is important to remember the IDF doctrine," Yadin declared. "The best defense is a good offense." Israel's political and military failures in that war were the result of neglecting defense.

Israel circa 2012 has not absorbed the implications of the shocks rocking Egypt and Syria and the subterranean erosion of Jordan - the trend of disintegration of central governments in sometimes-artificial Arab nation-states, in the face of the rise of tribal, religious and regional forces. Signed political treaties and cooperative military relationships with neighboring states are insufficient when popular actions threaten to inundate the borders, whether as a civilian substitute for the deployment of tanks and missiles, or together with it. Sometimes they constitute organized spontaneity, as in the convoy of buses that brought thousands of demonstrators from Amman, half an hour away, to the Jordan bridges on Nakba Day. Jordanian security forces kept them from approaching the Israeli border terminal that day. But what would happen if pressure from the opposition were to undermine the status of the Hashemite regime to the point of overthrowing it or, regrettably, to chilling its policy toward Israel?

Developments in Egypt and Jordan, combined with stasis in the peace process, have a direct effect on the Palestinian public, which can be stretched like a coiled spring that erupts into violence when released. The current calm, the fear of undermining the economic situation in the territories, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' directive to the PA security forces to cooperate with the IDF and the Shin Bet security service - all of these have an effect, but because they are context-dependent and thus ephemeral, they are also misleading.

A random week of touring Hebron with brigade commander Col. Guy Hazut, the Jordan Valley with deputy brigade commander Col. Itzik Bar and the 80th Division - which controls nearly a third of the state's territory, in the Negev and the Arava Desert - with Brig. Gen. Nadav Padan and Ophir, is enough to realize that the IDF deploys its finest officers in the most sensitive sectors. The tours also underscored the fragility of the security situation, with no illusion of there being a decisive and decided authority on the other side, an Israeli attack on which would achieve a submissive quiet. The best offense is a peace initiative; the best defense is a good defense.