Israel Must Learn to Eat Soup with a Knife

By / 6.7.2010

I love Israel. From the golden light that falls across the stones of Jerusalem to the banh mi sandwiches made by Vietnamese refugees welcomed by an empathetic Prime Minister Begin, Israel has a beauty and history I hold dear. Keeping this state, and this liberal tradition, safe is why it is so important that Israel understand the depth – and the cause – of its failure last week.

Israel’s leaders lack a fundamental understanding of the threats of the 21st century, or the type of power it takes to quell them. And by misunderstanding, they are endangering their country’s very existence.

Power matters – particularly for a small state like Israel, with an array of real enemies. For many years, Israel has used two primary levers of power. Its immense military might gives it the power to physically destroy its enemies, from bombing Iraq’s nuclear reactor to routing the armies of attacking Arab states. Meanwhile, its friendship with the U.S. augments its armed prowess with the power of an alliance that provides crucial financial support and contains potential threats from countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

But in the 21st century, military power isn’t what it once was. Israel is rarely going to face “clean fights” against armies of clearly identified enemies marching across the desert. Instead, it is going to confront the messy realities of modern, non-state-based warfare. The Turkish organization that sponsored last week’s flotilla had ties to al-Qaeda. A number of individuals aboard were connected to Hamas and other violent organizations. But the boat was also full of peace activists, international diplomats and other well-intentioned individuals who served as (perhaps unwitting) human shields for these more nefarious groups. The smorgasbord of causes on that flotilla was not accidental: it is de rigueur among smart insurgent groups worldwide.

Insurgents know what Israel, apparently, does not. Using military means against unarmed opponents is not only wrong, it also strengthens the insurgents’ cause, inflames their supporters, motivates donors and garners great press.

A flotilla of cell-phone-carrying, Twitter- and Facebook-posting activists can ignite the 24-hour news cycle and get their version of events in front of world public opinion long before any country can muster its sclerotic bureaucratic organs. By the time the state responds, the narrative has already been set. Israel becomes the British fighting Gandhi, or the National Guard turning their hoses on Southern civil rights protesters. We know who won those battles.

Fine, many might snort. Israel may lose the weak-kneed support of the so-called “international community” but it is more important to stop real threats decisively. After all, Israel has had to put up with some international hand-wringing for its military actions in the past. But by bombing Iraq’s Osirik reactor, Syria’s blossoming nuclear reactor or the grounded Egyptian Air Force in 1967, it averted real threats that otherwise could have knocked it out of existence.

Force is still a useful, necessary deterrent against military threats from other countries. Threats from terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah and others that mix humanitarianism and populist appeals with violence are no less real, but as Israel learned in its ill-conceived 2006 war in Lebanon, force doesn’t work as well against them. As America’s own counterinsurgency manual states, insurgents met with force alone simply melt back into the population, their ranks augmented by new converts and their bank accounts brimming with funds from new supporters. The insurgents then live to fight long wars of attrition that sap their enemies physically, mentally and spiritually.

It is that last category that Israel must pay particular attention to, because it risks losing its other lever of power. As Peter Beinart pointed out in a much-quoted story in the New York Review of Books, young American Jews identify with Israel insofar as it lives up to its founding values. They want to support the state that took in the Vietnamese boat people, not the state that mines Palestinian olive groves. Fighting insurgent wars largely through force necessarily leads Israel to violate the spirit of its own humanitarian founding – and to alienate the supporters in America it needs for its survival.

Victory against insurgents requires a new perspective and new tools. As T.E. Lawrence explained, one must “learn to eat soup with a knife.” George W. Bush didn’t understand counterinsurgency, and his failure allowed the insurgent threat in Iraq and Afghanistan to grow and metastasize. Now, Israel’s leaders must master the signature threat of the 21st century. Its hammer worked well against the state-based threats it faced during the first 50 years of its existence. But Israel had better find other options in its toolkit if it is to quell the threats it faces today.

Photo credit: Lilachd’s Photostream