Oversimplifying the Complexity of Israel's Security and Its Settlements

In order to get to his point, that the real threat to Israel’s survival is the Jews who live over the Green Line and not the Arabs ‏(and Persians‏) from around the region, Goodman must first defuse a number of military menaces Jerusalem likes to bandy about as actual physical threats to Israel’s survival.

The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival
by Hirsh Goodman. Public Affairs, 288 pages, $27

On October 5, 1973, just hours before the start of Yom Kippur, Gen. Eli Zeira, the head of Israeli Military Intelligence, sat down to speak with Defense Minister Moshe Dayan about the “low probability” of war with Egypt and Syria. Though MI had been receiving reports for weeks on unusual troop movements on both fronts, Zeira assured Dayan that, “All are low probability and the lowest of all is a crossing of the canal,” according to Abraham Rabinovich’s history of the war. “As long as they don’t have the feeling they can achieve a reasonable situation in the air, they won’t go to war, certainly not all-out war.”

Forty-eight hours later, Dayan would be found sitting on the side of the road looking toward the beleaguered Golan Heights from Almagor, weeping about the imminent destruction of the “Third Temple” − the State of Israel.

A Women in Black demonstration in Jerusalem, 2007.
Daniel Bar-On / Jini

I thought of the close juxtaposition of those two events while reading Hirsh Goodman’s excellently written − if flawed in its conclusions − book “The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival.”

The “anatomy” part of the title fits well, for above all else, the book is a surprisingly up-to-date survey and analysis of the state of the State of Israel and the region around it. The problem is the second part of the name, for to call into question Israel’s survivability is to assume it is under threat of destruction, a situation Goodman admits is unique to the Jewish state. And as anybody who reads this paper or has any inkling of modern liberal discourse on Israel knows, the factor that will undo Israel is − say it with me now − the settlements.

In 1973, Israel was caught off guard because Zeira and others in the defense and intelligence community were committed to the idea that after the punishment Israel’s neighbors took in 1967, the Arabs would not go to war again until certain conditions were met, and they felt good and ready. This assessment colored reports leaders were given and ultimately led to Israel being blindsided − despite all the warning signs − on two fronts during the Yom Kippur War.

It is a different concept that colors Goodman’s book, but one no less ingrained, namely that as long as Israel keeps its hold on the West Bank and the Golan Heights, its survival will be imperiled. Relinquish the territories, Goodman says, and the belligerent neighbors and delegitimizers will disappear like so much bad blood into the ether. “Instead of isolation, Israel will enjoy the support of the rational world,” Goodman writes. “With the Israeli-Palestinian question out of the way, the Middle East could focus its wealth and energy on development. It would also allow Israel to share experiences of its own survival, many appropriate and applicable to the region’s problems.”

Ah, if only it were so simple. I think it is safe to say that for a real chance at real peace, a good majority of Israel’s settlers, hardliners aside, would happily pack up and leave, and would even help pull their neighbors with them. And I say this as somebody who lives on the “wrong” side of the Green Line.

Goodman is strange brew of optimist and pragmatist, and the pragmatist in him readily admits that Israel may not be able to make peace with all − or even any − of the Palestinians. In that case, he advocates, for the sake of Israel’s moral standing, a unilateral withdrawal from all territory captured in 1967, including in Jerusalem. He also admits that there is the chance that a West Bank devoid of an Israeli security presence would turn into a Gaza-style launch pad for terror, in which case Israel would have to reinvade, giving it a black eye at home and in the international arena that would make the controversy surrounding Operation Cast Lead look like a social spat. Israel’s survival as a homeland for Jews, as a democracy and as a moral state, he insists, is worth the risk.

But what about the risk that the end result will be no Israel at all − moral, democratic, Jewish or otherwise? What Goodman does not address is the nightmare scenario of what happens when Israel pulls back onto its side of the Green Line but the delegitimization campaigns and physical attacks continue. Without the settlements as a target, critics may very well focus on the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, or on the other settlers − those who live on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, in Lydda and Majdal ‏(better known today as Lod and Ashkelon‏), or in Goodman’s own Ramat Aviv office, built over the ruins on Sheikh Munis. From a purely postcolonial worldview, these claims are no less legitimate than those against Jewish settlers in Alon Shvut or Itamar, and are liable to reach the same fever pitch as the demonization now aimed at the settlements. And when that happens, Israel’s very existence truly will be under attack. Today the world is coming for the settlers, but tomorrow they may decide any Israeli occupation of historical Palestine is untenable, at least without a Palestinian right of return, creating a de-facto one-state solution. What results may still be Israel in name, but will fall far short of Theodor Herzl’s vision of a Jewish homeland.

It’s unfortunate then that Goodman seems to torpedo a perfectly fine analysis with a trite and simplified central theme: that it is the settlements that will lead to the end of Israel as we know it. The territories, he says, represent a drain on Israeli society, financial, moral and otherwise, and by relinquishing them, Israel will have a much greater chance of freeing itself from a state of constant enmity with its neighbors and the world at large. “The Iranians, the Syrians, Hezbollah, and Hamas, all armed with missiles with the accuracy and the range to wreak havoc among the skyscrapers of Israel’s cities, are not going to make peace with Israel in a hurry ... Business and quiet normalization, however, are another thing if and only if the Palestinian issue is off the table,” he writes.

Leg to stand on

Goodman certainly is knowledgeable about his subject matter. Coming to Israel from South Africa in 1965, he spent a number of years as defense correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, founded The Jerusalem Report magazine, and today is a senior fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

He has a familiarity and intimacy with Israel’s strategic situation that few English-language writers possess. And his theory does have a leg to stand on. Israel’s delegitimizers overwhelmingly cite the settlement enterprise as the first among the country’s many ills.

What is of concern, though, is Goodman’s reliance on the idea that settlements are the issue, even the only issue. The settlements are important, and must be dealt with. But to say all the threats will just go away when the occupation does is a scary idea indeed.

In order to get to his point, that the real threat to Israel’s survival is the Jews who live over the Green Line and not the Arabs ‏(and Persians‏) from around the region, Goodman must first defuse a number of military menaces Jerusalem likes to bandy about as actual physical threats to Israel’s survival. In doing so, he unintentionally comes across sounding like a voice from 1968, that magical time after the stunning victory of the Six-Day War and before the humbling of Yom Kippur 1973. The largest dragon to slay is Iran, which he says lacks the capability to penetrate Israel’s missile defenses as well as the nerve to fire weapons of mass destruction, which, if off by a few degrees, could end up hitting Gaza, Jordan or the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Syria and Lebanon, he argues, even if not mollified by an Israeli retreat from the Golan, are no match for Israel’s technological advances.

Goodman draws a lesson from the Israel Air Force’s domination of the skies during the Second Lebanon War. Unless Syria has upgraded from its antiquated SAM-6 anti-aircraft batteries, which he says it has not, it will be no match for Israel’s planes and bombs. Goodman says Hezbollah has had no motivation for attacking since Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon − though the same could have been said before Hezbollah killed three Israeli soldiers and seized two in the July 2006 cross-border raid that sparked the Second Lebanon War. In any case, should another attack come from the north, “Israel’s survival will be tested but not threatened,” Goodman writes. “The country may be badly mauled, but it will survive and its neighbors will pay a price they will long remember.” Of course, Israel’s enemies were also supposed to remember the lessons of ‘67.

With Israel’s military enemies safely left frothing at the gates without a key, the real threat to the country’s survival must come from within, Goodman argues − namely viv-a-vis the Palestinians, and with them the worldwide delegitimization campaign they have so expertly shepherded into mainstream discourse. Neutralize them, he promises, and you neutralize the world. And never has the time been riper, both because of Israel’s international standing and work done by previous parties in negotiations. Even the most intractable issue of how to divide Jerusalem is easy to resolve, because previous negotiators have drawn maps, Goodman says. It all seems so simple and so close when in the black-and-white print of Goodman’s book.

But look beyond the optimistic doves and you will see two peoples that are not prepared for peace, so why risk destruction if not for real lasting peace? Israelis who would meet the Palestinians’ demands are still in the minority, as are Palestinians who would give in to what the Israelis want. Perhaps the best we can hope for, in exchange for the trauma of moving 300,000 people, decreased access to Jewish heritage sites, and the risk that our finally final borders will turn into Abba Eban’s “Auschwitz borders,” is a never-ending cold war with our neighbors-to-be. Will it make us a more morally sound people and remove the albatross from around our neck? Possibly. But more assured of survival? Slim chance.

Joshua Davidovich is news editor of the new website The Times of Israel. He was formerly an editor at Haaretz English Edition.