The discovery and destruction this month of the Hamas tunnel from the Gaza Strip into Israel, the largest and most complex engineering project of the tunnel venture, reinforced the sense that a solution has been found to what was until recently described as the main strategic threat to Israel from the Strip.
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The fact that this demolition was preceded by three similar operations, Hamas’ measured response to the systematic destruction of its most important weapon and the promises that the tunnel threat will disappear within a year only heightened the feeling that we are on the right path. The statement to Arab media outlets by the coordinator of government activities in the territories that “Israeli genius and the Jewish brain have found a solution to the terror tunnels” gave Israelis the good feeling that we are indeed “all that.”
The combination of military achievements in Gaza with the routine damage to Iranian and Hezbollah military assets in Syria, also to little real response, makes us feel our security situation has never been better. Add to this the most supportive U.S. administration in Israeli history, the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ words of desperation and frustration, and there’s cause for celebration. In September 2016 Haaretz then-analyst Ari Shavit wrote that our security situation was never better, and since then it’s only improved.
But this optimistic feeling ignores an important element. Hezbollah’s enormous rocket stores pose an unprecedented threat to Israel. Defense officials judge that in the first days of the next confrontation with Hezbollah, 3,000 to 4,000 rockets will be fired into Israel, some of them highly precise and with high payloads.
If the threat is realized, there be hundreds or thousands of casualties and significant damage to infrastructure: airports, seaports, power stations, desalination plants, transportation hubs and the like. Hezbollah’s missiles are capable of hitting not only has enough rockets to hit not only the Kirya military center in Tel Aviv but also the upscale neighborhoods around it. The military response to the threat is only partial, and it cannot prevent most of the damage.
In other words, our security situation has never been worse. In 1948, when Egyptian planes bombed Tel Aviv, killing dozens, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion believed the public would stand it. It’s hard to imagine today’s spoiled, hedonist Tel Avivians withstanding a much heavier assault. In 1948 we knew why we were fighting; today the issues are much less clear. It could spark Israel’s worst crisis ever, surpassing even the one following the Yom Kippur War.
This situation is not divinely ordained. The secret of Zionism’s success for most of its history was its ability to solve challenges that seemed intractable. The problem is that today’s Israel is focusing on solving a challenge that has no military solution. Not even additional missile interception methods can prevent massive destruction deep inside Israeli territory.
Similarly technological solutions to the tunnel threat do not solve the challenge posed by the presence of two million Gazans who are driven to further despair with each demolished tunnel. Every additional bombing in Syria or destruction of a tunnel in Gaza increases the pressure to retaliate on the other side, to a point where it might explode. Without Hezbollah’s ballistic capabilities such an explosion may not have been so terrible, but given their presence the consequences could be unimaginably difficult.
The solution to the growing dangers has long been on our doorstep, but our leaders will not even consider it. On December 13 the president of Iran, the state behind the ballistic threat to Israel, signed a document stating “we support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the borders of 4 June 1967 borders, with Al-Quds Ash-Sharif as its capital. We support peace based on a two-state solution. The borders of Jerusalem will be determined in negotiations. ... we support, as a strategic choice, the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which was adopted in 2005 by an extraordinary Islamic summit conference.”
President Hassan Rohani signed this document at a session of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul. Apart from one analysis by Akiva Eldar on the Al-Monitor website, there was no reference in the Israeli media to this change in Iran’s position. Iran had never before expressed support for the Arab Peace Initiative. This pivot is a game-changer, and also a reflection of slogans heard in the recent wave of demonstrations in Iran, calling on the state’s leaders to spend less on Hezbollah, Syria and the Gaza Strip and more on domestic needs.
Again, in the absence of the stick wielded by Hezbollah it wouldn’t be so terrible for Israel to ignore the new Iranian carrot, but the existence of this stick makes ignoring the Arab Peace Initiative irresponsible.
On the eve of the Yom Kippur War we believed our situation had never been so good. This is what we believe now. We know how it ended then. This time it may end up much worse.
Uri Bar-Joseph is a professor in the international relations department of the University of Haifa.