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Shuki Friedman
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The dangerous fantasy of independence from the US

Frustrating as it may be, Israel's defense sector can't fill in the supply gaps opened by months of high-intensity warfare
An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from southern Israel towards the Gaza Strip, in a position near the Israel-Gaza border on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023. (AP/Leo Correa)
An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from southern Israel towards the Gaza Strip, in a position near the Israel-Gaza border on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023. (AP/Leo Correa)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Saturday that Israel will spend “huge investments” to produce more of its own arms, “in order to ensure our security independence and our freedom to act.” Netanyahu was evidently responding to the infuriating assertion heard during this war that Israel must act in keeping with what’s known as an “economy of arms.” The notion that Israel must limit its use of munitions on the battlefield due to potential supply shortfalls clearly puts our soldiers in greater jeopardy and impedes IDF achievements.

One might think that this need to economise on arms should spur Israel to extricate itself from the bondage of foreign dependence and exist as the proverbial “nation that dwells alone.” This would be a dangerous mistake. Israel is a small country with very limited resources. It depends on the military and political support of the United States and other countries for its survival. Frustrating? Yes. But it’s better to accept reality and survive than to embrace deadly illusions and perish.

Israel has been engaged in intensive combat for more than three and a half months. In the initial weeks of battle, air and ground weapons were deployed on an enormous scale. For example, according to a Washington Post investigation, an astonishingly high number of bombs – 29,000 – were dropped on the Gaza Strip in the first two months of the conflict.

The full extent of the use of mortar and tank shells is not known but is clearly massive. And this does not include the bombing carried out in Lebanon by the IDF air and ground forces throughout this entire period, which amounts to a significant quantity of weaponry. Add to this the massive use of Iron Dome interceptors and other resources that are running short.

As widely reported in the media throughout these long months, the high-intensity war has resulted in a shortage of munitions, necessitating the “economy of arms.” That is, the scope of available weaponry is impacting the course of the war. To replenish its inventory, Israel requires substantial aid from the United States and other countries.

This situation – fighting in what is ostensibly the least perilous arena against our weakest enemy – has reportedly led to a munitions shortfall and to careful rationing of their use. It is both exasperating and dangerous. It creates even greater dependence on the largesse of America and other countries, which cannot be taken for granted. But more seriously, this dependence on the United States comes with strings attached regarding Israel’s prosecution of the war, the scope of humanitarian aid to be transferred to Gaza, and its freedom of action in other spheres.

Many Israelis have questioned why the country was not prepared ahead of time with a sufficient quantity of arms and the capacity to produce them domestically. They believe our highly touted defense industry could easily fill these gaps and provide us with breathing space and unfettered freedom of action. But this is an illusion.

First, the quantity of munitions Israel stores in its bunkers in case of war has weighty economic consequences. This inventory needs to be refreshed periodically and places a heavy burden on the defense budget.

But it is much more important to understand that the Israeli economy and our defense industries, excellent as they are, do not operate as an autarkic system that can satisfy all its needs to produce the necessary variety of weaponry. The manufacture of every precision bomb, interceptor, or tank shell requires many raw materials and components, some of which are not produced in Israel. And, even if a certain type of weaponry can be produced entirely of Israeli components, we will still be dependent on imports for the manufacture of other armaments. Therefore, even if production lines were set up in-country tomorrow, it would not obviate our dependence on other countries, especially the United States.

In another region of the world two huge countries, Russia and Ukraine, are embroiled in their own war. Ukraine, despite its considerable natural resources, depends on weapons from the West for its survival. Even Russia, with its flourishing arms industry, cannot produce all of its war needs alone. How much more, then, is this the case for Israel, a tiny country with extremely limited natural resources.

In the current imbroglio, Israel is categorically dependent on the United States and other countries, not only for political backing but also to be able to continue the fighting. Regardless of how much we succeed in producing here, we will always be dependent on foreign imports as well. There is no escaping the need for close cooperation with Washington and other allies, which comes at a price both to our freedom of action and to our conduct during the conflict.

With all due respect for our technological capabilities and what has become one of the world’s foremost arms industries, the idea that we would be able, given the military challenges we are facing, to produce everything we require for war is an absurd and dangerous fantasy.

About the Author
Dr. Shuki Friedman is the vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer of law at the Peres Academic Center. His book, 'Being a Nation-State in the Twenty-First Century: Between State and “Synagogue” in Modern Israel' was recently published by Academic Studies Press.