Military might is not enough for Israel

The mind boggles at the naivety of the BDS crowd who tried – unsuccessfully – to disrupt the Pharrell Williams concert organised by Woolworths at the Cape’s Grandwest Casino on Monday. BDS rattles on about Israeli ‘genocide’ of the Palestinians, while millions of Syrians next door have either been killed by fellow Muslims and Arabs, or are fleeing their homes and becoming refugees pleading for other countries to give them sanctuary. BDS refuses to relate to the catastrophic nature of the region in which Israel lives.

But we should not be too smug about their illusions regarding Middle East reality. We suffer from our own illusions, as no less a person than Israeli President Reuven Rivlin pointed out last week at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, during a ceremony marking 42 years since the Yom Kippur War.

Referring to the attitude of Israelis prior to the war, he pointedly warned against being seduced by a false sense of security based on Israel’s military might. Military might may hold its enemies at bay for a time, but without creative and bold steps to achieve genuine peace, the Israeli bubble of stability will eventually puncture.

On October 6, 1973, the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched a surprise attack on Israel as the Jewish state marked Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement observed with a full-day fast. Reserve soldiers were summoned urgently from their synagogues to join their units at the front lines. The IDF was ultimately victorious in repelling the Arab armies after initial major setbacks, but over 2,500 Israeli soldiers were killed and hundreds taken captive.

A public outcry ensued against the government and army for failing to predict the attack, for their complacency in believing Israel’s much-vaunted military strength was a sufficient deterrent and guarantee of its security. IDF chief of staff David Elazar resigned after a commission of inquiry recommended his dismissal; Prime Minister Golda Meir and her cabinet – including defense minister Moshe Dayan – also resigned.

That war, said Rivlin, was still an “open wound”. He urged the Israeli public to learn the lesson, and to be bold in questioning its leaders about what they are doing creatively to ensure Israel’s long-term security and stability.

It is essential for Israel to be militarily strong, or it would be wiped out in a moment by its enemies. But it has to be careful not to fall into the trap that occurred prior to the Yom Kippur war – the belief that military might is enough to bring security. More creative initiatives are desperately needed for genuine peace.

Developments in the region are frightening. Not just the flood of Syrian refugees – the numbers are staggering – but in the past couple of weeks also the growing buildup of Russian forces in Syria, sent there by Russian President Vladimir Putin to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. The United States, which believes Assad should step down and allow a different leadership to try to end the carnage in Syria, is deeply concerned about Russia’s true intentions in the region. The sheer complexity of exactly who is fighting who, and what is at stake, is enormous. Analysts agree that the Syrian state itself is unlikely to survive. What will come in the wake of its disintegration is unknown.

In the meantime, Israel sits right next door as a militarily strong island of stability. But it has its own internal explosion waiting to happen – the 3 million Palestinians who live under Israeli military occupation. Sadly, many Jews and Israelis today have virtually given up on the possibility of achieving peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world. The mayhem in the region provides, for some, an excuse to give up trying to resolve that question. They have reconciled themselves to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and the increasing improbability that the two state solution will ever be implemented.

Said Rivlin: “On that Yom Kippur [in 1973], we were addicted to the illusion of stability that was imagined in the status quo of being the regional superpower… Israel in 2015 must not become addicted to that same false stability; it must dare and initiate. Even under conditions of uncertainty we must shape the diplomatic and strategic horizon with our own hands. Israeli society must be critical of its leadership, to bravely ask questions.”

Are we asking enough questions of Israel’s leaders? When the Palestinian question explodes – as it will one day – will we accuse them of complacency, of living under the illusion that our military might could forever hold them in check?

(First published in SA Jewish Report, September 25, 2015)

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