Kenneth Jacobson

Misperceptions of Israeli Vulnerability

As the conflict between Israel and Hamas deepens, there is much commentary and concerns about the possibility that the war could expand to Hezbollah, Syria, the West Bank or even Iran. Whenever there is conflict in the Middle East, the rhetoric heats up, but one should not always assume it will lead to action.

There is, however, a new element in the equation which should be very worrying. While we have rightly been focusing on the barbarism of October 7, the biggest takeaway for many in the Middle East may well be a new sense of Israeli vulnerability.

Over the years, haters of Israel, who engage in all forms of misinformation, have created an image of Israel being an oppressor, a violator of human rights, a nation that should be isolated and boycotted. At the same time, and this has been critical, with all the hate came a recognition that Israel was a powerful force in the region, had remarkable intelligence and military capabilities and was a state not to be toyed with.

Now, if indeed there is a belief that the dynamic has fundamentally changed, that the Hamas attack exposed Israel to be a paper tiger, that could lead to the most dangerous decisions and acts by various players in the region.

It has almost been a cliche over the decades to say that many in the Arab world, if they had the opportunity, would gladly destroy the Jewish state. But because Israel was so strong militarily and economically, not only was that not a realistic option, it also left them with the idea that — considering the limited options – maybe they ought to think about making peace with Israel.

Of course, Iran continued to talk about its certainty that Israel would disappear from the map of the region and while they never truly backed that up with action, the very fact that they were developing a nuclear weapon gave them some credibility. Now, the Iranian foreign minister said after October 7 that “Israel’s time is up.” These kinds of comments are not new for Iran but may well have a certain resonance in the region that they never had before.

Here we have to get into the arena of perceptions and reality. Undoubtedly, many terrible lapses took place in Israeli intelligence. Its slow military response and the divisions that had ripped apart Israeli society for months all made possible the events of October 7.

To conclude from all this, however, that Israel is now a weakened and vulnerable society is to ignore the reality of the nation. It was amazing how quickly the public came together to create a sense of unity after months of disunity. This was reflected in the massive and enthusiastic response of reservists to a call up, to the numbers of Israelis giving blood and volunteering in all kinds of ways to bolster the atmosphere after the massacre of Simchat Torah.

All of which points to Israelis not only having the emotional intelligence and determination to defend the nation but the capability as well. The military remains the preeminent one in the region, with the most sophisticated weaponry and training. When one hears government representatives or military leaders expressing the view that Hamas will regret what it did or that Hezbollah should not repeat its mistake of 2006, that is not mere idle boasting, but a reflection of Israeli military superiority on many levels which would come to bear in any conflict.

The glee of anti-Israel elements in the Middle East and elsewhere over the massacre of October 7 was not only about the murder of as many Jews as possible. It was also about a sense that the powerful Jewish state was now exposed as vulnerable. This view holds the greatest danger for the region and the world if it takes hold because it could lead to further reckless attacks on the Jewish state. Israel will prevail in such a situation but the pain and suffering will be immense.

This is why it is so important that Israel succeed in decimating Hamas to re-enforce the sense that Israel is a force to be reckoned with. And it is also why it is important for American and international diplomacy to rid the region of such misperceptions that would only lead to more bloodshed.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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