Many Israeli politicians have built their careers upon the fear that Israel faces the threat of imminent destruction. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stoked Israelis’ existential dread for decades, first whipping up crowds in opposition to the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, and then, as head of state, galvanizing domestic support for his aggressive bombing campaigns in Syria and crackdowns in the occupied Palestinian territories. During the campaign leading up to this month’s elections, Netanyahu exploited these fears by referencing how his opponent, former military chief of staff Benny Gantz, allegedly supported the Iran nuclear deal. By contrast, the Israeli prime minister could cite Trump’s exit from the nuclear deal as vindication for his alarmism about Iran’s nuclear program and as evidence of how Netanyahu had kept Israel safe and strong.
Of course, Netanyahu is far from the only Zionist today who exploits Jewish Holocaust trauma in service of his political agenda. Fellow travelers in Netanyahu’s recently dissolved right-wing coalition employ these fear-mongering tactics as well. For example, in an interview with the Forward late last year, former Education Minister Naftali Bennett used the word “annihilate” in reference to the Jewish state five times. Indeed, zooming out and looking back in time, we can observe that this perennial anxiety about a coming “second Holocaust” has lingered near the heart of the Zionist consciousness since the founding of the Jewish state itself.
While we should never deny the fact of this trauma, honest analysts also have a responsibility to check these fears against material reality. The truth is, Israel today faces no threats to its basic security. This is not to deny the occasional stabbings, car rammings and the rudimentary rocket fire from Gaza that endangers some Israelis, but no one can seriously argue that either these lone-wolf attackers, or Hamas and Islamic jihad, represent truly existential threats to the state of Israel. Such a claim is too absurd to merit serious discussion. By contrast, the status of regional threats to Israel does require some explanation, especially considering the predominance of the second Holocaust narrative.
Assessing the Regional Balance of Forces
First, we should note that Israel has longstanding formal peace treaties with two of its neighbors: Egypt and Jordan. The peace with Egypt goes back 40 years and has endured several changes of government in both Egypt and Israel. While Jordan and Israel did not sign a formal treaty until 1994, the two sides arguably began laying the groundwork for rapprochement before the establishment of the Jewish state, when former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir secretly colluded with former Jordanian King Abdullah bin al-Hussein to partition Palestine between the kingdom and the nascent Jewish state.
Analysts sometimes call the peace between Israel and these countries “a cold peace,” especially in reference to Egypt and Israel. To the contrary, the record shows a quite cozy relationship among the countries’ political and military establishments. For instance, we know that the three countries share intelligence and occasionally coordinate attacks against non-state terrorist organizations, as Egypt and Israel did last year when confronting ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula. As historian Avi Shlaim has written about at length, Israel and Jordan have a long history of cordial diplomatic relations, including frequent meetings between Israeli government ministers and the Jordanian king.
At the turn of the 21st century, Iraq and Syria constituted Israel’s two most serious adversaries of any of the Arab states. Then, in 2003, the United States and the United Kingdom invaded and occupied Iraq, decimating the country. In the course of the assault, the U.S. ousted former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and disbanded the Iraqi armed forces, thus eliminating Iraq as an effective military actor in the region. The Iraqi state remains in disarray, with no independent capacity to launch major assaults on any other country.
After years of civil war and foreign intervention, Syria, too, has largely been laid waste — by the United States, but also by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, his ally Russia, and others. The Assad government is still standing, but just barely. If it were not for Iranian and especially Russian support, the Syrian regime would have collapsed in the midst of the uprising.
Though Assad’s military is still intact, it has proven ineffectual at repelling Israeli attacks. Israeli war planes have regularly penetrated Syrian airspace over the past few years, blowing up weapons convoys, targeting Iranian military installations, conducting aerial assassination strikes, and destroying Assad’s anti-aircraft defense system. The Syrian military did manage to down one Israeli fighter jet in 2018, but this successful retaliation represents the exception rather than the rule: For the most part, Israel has operated freely in the skies over its northeastern neighbor. Far from amounting to a credible existential menace to Israel, today Syria under Assad constitutes a weak and vulnerable victim of Israel’s aggression.
In Lebanon, we find some marginal threats to Israel, namely from Hezbollah. Like its Syrian counterpart, the regular Lebanese military has demonstrated that it cannot stand up to Israeli attacks. According to United Nations monitors, Israel violates Lebanese airspace on an almost daily basis without consequence. In one instance, Israeli warplanes buzzed so close to the ground in southern Lebanon that the resounding sonic boom shattered the glass in civilians’ homes, causing a general panic. Lebanon was powerless to respond.
To be sure, Hezbollah is not Hamas: It possesses actual missiles that could inflict major damage inside Israel. Still, Hezbollah is no match for the Israeli armed forces. Even with its Iranian backing, Hezbollah apparently only has a few dozen high-precision rockets. An all-out war would likely entail Hezbollah killing scores of Israeli civilians, unlike the fighting between Israel and Gaza where the Israeli civilian death toll rarely exceeds the single digits. (The vast majority of the fatalities would be Lebanese, of course.) So, while it would be a bloody conflict for both sides, even another hot conflict would not be one in which Israel’s existence would be in jeopardy — not even close.
Further, for the reasons noted above, Hezbollah has little incentive to start a war with Israel. If Hezbollah did significantly escalate hostilities, as it did inadvertently in 2006, Israel would again indiscriminately bomb densely populated areas and kill many Lebanese civilians, laying waste to large swaths of Lebanese territory, including Hezbollah’s military infrastructure. Hezbollah, which also participates in civil politics, recently made some gains in the Lebanese parliament, and recklessly putting Lebanese civilians at risk by initiating a sustained battle with Israel would probably hurt the organization’s domestic popularity.
Moreover, the recent discovery of Hezbollah tunnels beneath the Israeli-Lebanese border constitute a violation of Israel’s sovereignty, but they hardly amount to an existential threat. Israeli ambassador Danny Danon sounded the alarm during his speech to the United Nations Security Council in December, announcing that Hezbollah fighters could march “two-by-two” through these tunnels. To date, Hezbollah is not known to have actually conducted a raid through these passages, while Israeli fighter jets fly over Lebanon regularly.
Lastly, there is Iran. Overall, Iran’s armed forces are no match for Israel’s military and they pale in comparison to the mightiest military in the Middle East: The United States. Whereas Iran has no nuclear weapons, it is widely acknowledge that Israel does possess nuclear weapons, in addition to a chemical weapons stockpile. Even if Iran obtained its own nuclear weapons — a prospect Donald Trump encouraged this past year when he pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal — the world knows that Israel has second-strike capacity via its nuclear submarines, giving it sufficient deterrent force.
Considering the combined strength of the United States and Israel, not to mention other official and unofficial regional allies (e.g., Saudi Arabia), Iran would have to be suicidal to launch a major attack against any one of these countries any time soon. Hence, we can see some of the reason why former President Obama’s Department of Defense (DOD) regularly published reports concluding that Iran was not on an offensive footing. These reports instead found that “Iran’s military strategy is designed to defend against external or ‘hard’ threats from the United States and Israel” (emphasis added). As the DOD’s 2014 annual report stated, Iran’s military doctrine is “designed to deter an attack, survive an initial strike, retaliate against an aggressor, and force a diplomatic solution….” Hardly the image of a great menace.
Given the actual current status of the regional balance of forces, why do Zionists, including both Israeli politicians and advocates in the United States, continue to promote this image of an eternally imperiled Israel? For Netanyahu, this fear-mongering rhetoric helps keep him and a right-wing coalition in power. Netanyahu has convinced a large cross-section of the Israeli public that he is “Mr. Security” — the only leader who can protect Israel from the Palestinians, Hezbollah, Iran and all the rest. If he and the other right-wing politicians stopped constantly reminding the citizenry that a “second Holocaust” was nigh, Israelis might recognize that they actually live in a period of unprecedented safety and security, and this awareness could motivate the public to shift their support to liberal and left-wing political parties, like Meretz, that favor detente with the Palestinians and supposed enemy states.
In recent years, we have been witnessing an increasingly aggressive and militaristic Jewish state — a kind of “fortress Israel” that sees violence and repression as the principal instruments of statecraft. Indeed, like so many other modern nation-states, Israel was built with militarism at its core. However, whereas early Zionist leaders like Ze’ev Jabotinsky saw the pursuit of supreme military prowess as a means toward ultimate peace with “the Arabs,” today’s leading Zionists appear wholly uninterested in peace and reconciliation.
Israel has, by now, achieved a commanding position of strength in the region, but is not translating that raw power into sustainable diplomatic gains. Lacking a robust, long-term vision for Israel’s future, Netanyahu resorts to volcanic escalations in response to occasional small-scale attacks from the outside. He thrives off of this status quo where he can repeatedly “save” Israelis from a low-scale, immediate danger without addressing underlying issues. However, the dependence on brute force in perpetuity, without the pursuit of diplomacy (e.g., supporting Palestinian national self-determination) encourages Israel’s enemies to respond to it in kind, ratcheting up tensions further and further.
If Israel continues down this road, it could very well self-fulfill the nightmare prophecy — not in 2019, not in the next five years, but eventually. On the other hand, if Israel forgoes endless fighting in favor of conversation, magnanimity and concession, then the project of collective Jewish liberation in the area of historic Palestine (Eretz Yisrael) has a chance at longevity.