Michael Oren

Israel’s security bank is in perilous overdraft

The country faces a potential conflict on a scale unseen since 1973 and, with zero diplomatic capital, it might have to go it alone
A soldier awaits the visit of US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey to an Iron Dome rocket defense shield battery near the coastal city of Ashkelon, Oct. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
A soldier awaits the visit of US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey to an Iron Dome rocket defense shield battery near the coastal city of Ashkelon, Oct. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Israel’s streets are on fire. Opposition to the government’s plan to overhaul the Supreme Court and strip it of the right to judicial review – the pillar of almost all democracies – has paralyzed the country. In the face of such upheaval, it’s difficult to see beyond the immediate crisis to the long-range danger looming ahead. That is the scenario in which Israel will have to go to war without the logistical or diplomatic backing – the resupply of vital munitions, the casting of vetoes in the UN – of its allies.

Israel’s ability to obtain such support works much like a bank. To be solvent, it must contain deposits. Only then, can customers take out cash when they need it and draw on their credit. Israel’s security similarly must have deposits – the diplomatic capital derived from proof that the Jewish State truly seeks stability and peace – that it can liquidate during conflicts. The larger the deposits the more Israel can purchase the time and space necessary to defend itself.

That rule, diplomatic deposits equal military maneuverability, was repeatedly demonstrated throughout our history. For the most part, Israel heeded the rule, but on other occasions ignored it. The results were invariably traumatic.

Israel’s security bank opened in 1948. The fact that Zionist leaders accepted, and Arab rulers rejected, the UN’s Partition plan establishing sovereign Jewish and Arab states, gave the nascent Israeli forces the diplomatic capital to win the War of Independence. By proving to the world that it had made a serious effort for peace, Israel succeeded in expanding its borders well beyond those designated by the UN and to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees, all without significant international protest.

By contrast, Israel’s opposition to secret American peace plans prior to 1956, codenamed Alpha and Gamma, meant that Israel launched its Sinai Campaign against Egypt with little diplomatic capital. Though the IDF swiftly won the war, the UN, together with the United States, denounced it unequivocally. Under threat of sanctions, Israel withdrew from its newly-conquered lands in Sinai, Gaza, and the Straits of Tiran.

Those same territories, and the tensions surrounding them, helped trigger the 1967 Six-Day War. Despite massive public and military pressure to sanction a preemptive strike against surrounding Arab armies, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol waited three agonizing weeks. “We must prove to the world that we exhausted all possible diplomatic options,” he insisted. Only when these efforts failed, did Eshkol act. Though the IDF struck first and vanquished not only Egypt, but Syria and Jordan as well, nearly quadrupling the areas under Israel’s control, the international community remained largely passive. By showing restraint, Eshkol had made a major deposit in the country’s security bank. Israel’s armed forces freely drew on that account for six transformative days.

But then Israel forgot Eshkol’s lesson on banking. By rejecting the peace initiatives of both the Johnson and Nixon administrations, Israel earned the ire of US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. On October 5, 1973, as Egyptian and Syrian forces prepared to launch an all-out attack on Israel, Kissinger warned Prime Minister Golda Meir not to strike them preemptively. “If Israel struck first, then the United States would feel no moral obligation to help,” he repeatedly informed her. “Israel would be alone.” Intimidated, Meir failed to act. The Yom Kippur War claimed the lives of more than 2,650 Israelis.

Unlike Meir, Menachem Begin internalized the banking lesson. By signing the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt and agreeing to evacuate the entire Sinai Peninsula, he gained the diplomatic capital needed to order the destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and, the following year, the invasion of Lebanon. Though the Reagan Administration criticized both actions, its response, especially compared to Eisenhower’s in 1956, was muted. The Camp David Accords represented a major deposit on which the IDF could once again effectively draw.

So, the examples multiplied. By offering peace to the Palestinians in 2000 and 2001, and then holding fire for a year during the murderous Second Intifada, Israel gained implicit US backing for Operation Defensive Shield, the reoccupation of Palestinian cities in Judea and Samaria, in 2002. The 2005 Disengagement from Gaza, for all its pain and controversy, constituted a deposit that helped “finance” Israel’s war with Hezbollah the following year. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s peace overtures to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 gave the IDF the diplomatic credit to fight Hamas in Gaza in 2008-9.

Thereafter, though, our deposits began drying up. Unconvinced of Israel’s sincerity in seeking peace, the Obama administration gave Israel scant support during Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in 2012 and fiercely criticized Israel’s conduct of the 2014 Operation Protective Edge. For the first time, the White House refused Israel’s request for the resupply of vital air-to-ground missiles. Tellingly, while the 2006, 2008, and 2014 campaigns each lasted for several weeks, the most recent clash with Hamas, in 2021, raged for a mere nine days before Washington demanded a ceasefire. Though publicly supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself, President Joseph Biden knew well that Israel’s security bank stood empty.

Since then, and especially under its new government, Israel has been operating in the red. Support for unrestricted settlement-building in Judea and Samaria, ministerial backing for settler violence and the destruction of a Palestinian village, the denial of the existence of a Palestinian people and even the legitimacy of Jordan – all have drained our bank of deposits. The threat to Israel’s democracy, the foundation of Israel’s alliance with the United States, places us deep in overdraft.

This credit crisis comes at an especially dangerous time. With Palestinian terror escalating during the Ramadan month and, far more hazardously, Iran rushing toward nuclear military capabilities, Israel may well have to act. The outcome could be a conflict on a scale unseen since 1973, yet Israel will have to fight it with less than zero diplomatic capital. The outcome could prove traumatic in the extreme.

No matter how bitterly divided Israelis are over the proposed reforms, the need to uphold our security, to protect our children, must always unite us. We must replenish our diplomatic bank, extend our credit, and be able to draw from our account. Our decision-makers must once again abide by this rule or else face ruinous consequences. They must save now, diplomatically, or strategically we will all pay the price.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Hebrew in Yisrael Hayom.

About the Author
Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Knesset Member, and Deputy Minister for Diplomacy, is the founder of the Israel Advocacy Group and the Substack, Clarity.
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