Israel’s navy is growing. The reasons abound as to why this is happening, but what we should consider is the impact this will have on Israel’s projection of power beyond its immediate borders. The hallmark of a superpower in our day is commanding aircraft carriers and mastering a three-dimensional (sea-land-air) outlook for waging war. But war is not the only reason to maintain a strong navy, nor does a country need an aircraft carrier to necessarily have a competent naval force. The potential to increase Israel’s hard and soft power is immense here, and it has implications for the foreign policy of the Jewish state and the next stage of Zionism.
The more overlooked element of aquatic power relates to military strength. Before the Ottomans, empires centered in Syria and Egypt didn’t build large navies, being terrorized by crusader flotillas from Europe. The Mamluks of Egypt even abandoned cities along the coast because they couldn’t defend them. The Turks changed all that, but still couldn’t match the Europeans’ naval punch. Despite the modernity’s air forces, the sea remains vital to military and economic strategy. Iran is besieged by the United States because it has no ability in the Persian Gulf to challenge aircraft carriers. For Israelis, the challenge is a strong Turkish navy and the smuggling of weapons and constant threats from Hezbollah.
Turkey has shot off the Israeli bow before: a warning shot to yield on drilling where Turkey wants hegemony on natural gas. Turkey’s huddled close to Israel’s rivals to intimidate the Jewish state in other political and economic arenas, forcing Israel’s hand. Jerusalem is assembling the most formidable submarine force in the Middle East and is considering buying destroyers to defend the aforementioned offshore gas deposits. Besides the obvious advantage putting submarines in the naval arena against Iran, expanding the navy will extend Israel’s reach to Cypriot and Greek ports and put mobile monitoring stations off the coasts of Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. With the most the optimal location, Israel becomes an important partner to European and Asian shipping protecting from pirate attacks off the African coast.
So what does this potential strength mean for Israel abroad? What does it mean internally? The potential for military expansion has been on the country’s mind for a long time, but the implications of extending its reach far beyond the Middle East have never been this viable. It should bring up some essential questions for the Jewish state, like how far can and should Israel go in exercising its might abroad? The possibilities are endless, but expanded naval resources could put Israeli sailors along the coast of hotspots in eastern or northern Africa, even Pakistan. Just as much as it could affect the strategy of Israel’s military planners, it might position the well equipped Israeli navy to be a first responder to a regional crisis or even deploy peacekeepers: consider Haiti. It might give the Jewish state more capability to affect events on the ground in places like South Sudan, preventing crises that otherwise result in more refugees fleeing to the borders of Israel.
And it is on points like the last one where Zionism faces its question. Was the goal always to become a powerful country or was it to live in isolation? Even a secular Zionist can relate to the idea Jerusalem can be a source for inspiration throughout the world, as in the immortal words of Isaiah: “From Zion the Law will come forth and the word of God from Jerusalem.” Having the means to project strength means being able to influence international policy on intervening in conflicts as well as the direction of law and government around the world. The navy is just my conduit here to reach a much broader question: is the next logical step for Zionism to become a global leader?
Countries can be global leaders in military power as well as cultural power. That dichotomy, which I alluded to earlier, is one between “hard” and “soft” power. Military capabilities, financial strength, cultural influences and religious thought all can define a country, creating “military superpowers,” “cultural superpowers” or “technological superpowers.” “Power” status can indeed be extended even to smaller countries, whereas academics debate the definitions of “middle powers” like Turkey, Brazil or Japan; or who constitutes a “regional power,” a term Israel certainly has earned.
Israel hasn’t developed soft power. The language the country has spoken has mostly been one of military capability. Even the extended military experience of the modern State of Israel has prepared it to lead the way on renewing the international conventions on war to deal with asymmetric warfare and prisoners. While I’m hardly the expert on paying back debt and accumulating credit, Israel would do well to find itself in a position to lend or grant to the nations of the world in order to develop modern economies and infrastructure, emulating a global outlook and charitable national identity. But of course this is my vision of a foreign policy aimed at making Israel look better by actually being better. The diplomatic benefit to helping underdeveloped economies should go without saying. The national confidence and satisfaction in being a beacon for humanitarian causes should also resonate with people who maintain a string of ideals that includes Zionism. Integrating Zionism with these values on the global scale really does embody the religious aspirations of Zionist Judaism, and even the intended goals of secular Zionism that seeks to make peace with Israel’s neighbors on a global scale. Indeed, this is Tikkun Olam with teeth.
So the navy is an opportunity. It’s not just a sword but also a plowshare. There are still a plethora of battles to be fought or other navies to intimidate in order to protect Israel’s economic and strategic interests. However, the potential for the country and its Zionist dream, as seen through the potential for Israel’s smallest military branch, is tremendous.