Israel policy myth #1: security is our first concern

Although Israel does face some significant security threats, it is very hard to explain the priorities and decisions of its leadership by the need to address these threats. This is the first part in a series about the top ten myths regarding Israeli policy.

Even some critics of Israeli policy regarding the Palestinians and Arab states would concede that it is motivated by security concerns. Indeed, these policies are often attacked for being excessively focused on security, at the expense of the country’s values and long term interests. Security is the most frequent justification articulated by Israeli leaders in defense of their policies, although its prominence has receded in recent years, as threats such as Palestinian terrorism or the Iranian nuclear programs have become less salient.

Israel does face some significant and real security threats, although their magnitude and probability is often exaggerated. However, it is very hard to explain the priorities and decisions of its leadership by the need to address these threats.

Exhibit one is the ongoing neglect of issues relating to civil defense, emergency preparedness and other measures to protect civilians from harm in case they are attacked. This neglect, despite frequent warnings and exposés, is not congruent with an obsessive focus on security. In several cases (such as the Gaza and Lebanon wars), Israeli governments have been willing to spend billions on a war, putting lives on both sides at great risk, in the name of protecting their people from attack. But the same governments also refused to spend millions on measures that would protect exposed areas from the very attacks the war was meant to end.

Israel’s West Bank policy conveys a similar impression. Few Israelis, let alone outsiders, understand just how much of the country’s military resources are spent on maintaining and defending the settlements (with a non-trivial portion going to cover settler obstructionism of these efforts). In the first decade after the occupation began in 1967, Israel argued that the settlements serve security needs, but this claim has been marginalized since the country’s own High Court of Justice shot it down in the late 1970s.

Israeli policy is not randomly chosen, of course, and it is not motivated by mere malice or spite either (although a climate of anger and hatred can make some policies more extreme). There are a multitude of factors that trump security in shaping Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians and Arab states.

Israel’s security establishment is an enormously powerful institution, and ironically, its prominence would be substantially diminished if the country had a narrower focus on security. When Israel was at its most vulnerable position, in 1950-1966, it had the lowest ratio of defense spending per GDP in its history. The Prime Minister and senior cabinet members all came from civilian background; whereas of the 44 years since 1967, a third were spent under the leadership of former generals, which also headed the defense ministry for all but seven of those years.

Expansion and occupation consume far more resources, national attention and prestige than a strictly defensive posture, holding just as much land as is needed for security purposes. Of course, Israeli generals are not cynical liars. They truly believe that they are acting in the country’s best interests. But institutional incentives and inertia often induce them to adopt the position which is most convenient for them.

On a deeper level, improving security would also harm the interests of various other Israeli elites. I have elaborated on this elsewhere: as security improves, pressures for redistribution between Jews and 1967 Palestinians (i.e. an end to the occupation) rise. But redistribution cannot really be stopped along the green line, or contained between Jews and Palestinians. If begun, it will reshape the current hierarchy, and those on top certainly don’t want that. Again, these elites are not acting as cynical manipulators. They are just very naturally inclined to endorse those beliefs and attitudes that do not threaten their standing.

What about the vocal minority of Israelis that advocate expansion and national greatness for ideological and religious reasons, even at the expense of security? What is their role in dragging the country towards a dangerous course? Is the leadership willing to compromise security in order to appease them? My position on this issue is clear, and I will get to back to it later, when I discuss myth #6: “The government is afraid of the settlers and incapable of standing up to them.”

But we have a long way to go until then. The next myth I plan to discuss, in a postt that will come up this Thursday, is myth #2: “Separation between Jews and Palestinians is not based on a racist ideology.”

Read more in this series:

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Introducing: Top ten myths about Israeli policy
Israel policy myth #2: Separation between Jews and Arabs is not racist