Will Israel go to war in 2011?

A war between Israel and its neighbors could be triggered by an Israeli miscalculation. Recent statements by Israeli Generals, warning of an upcoming conflict – the worst yet, according to them – may act as a self-fulfilling prophecy

Foreign observers of the Middle East have lately begun to sound the alarm about the possibility of a large scale war breaking out between Israel and its neighbors. Le Monde, for example, warns:

This deadlock [in peace negotiations] is forcing the Israeli army to draw up plans for further wars based on the “security concept” – that anyone who refuses to accept Israel’s rule in the region is a “terrorist” to be eliminated. No other country, not even the US, has such a comprehensive security concept, which means that Israel is permanently at war. Who will the Israeli army attack next?

The Economist makes a similar argument (my emphasis):

Sadly, there is reason to believe that unless remedial action is taken, 2011 might see the most destructive … war [between Israel and its neighbors] for many years… any number of miscalculations could ignite a conflagration.

Unfortunately, considering statements made over the past year by several Israeli Generals, such a miscalculation seems all too likely.

A cable that was recently transferred from Wikileaks to the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, summarizes a meeting between outgoing Israeli Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, and an American congressman. The meeting was held on November 15th, 2009, over a year ago (ten months after the end of the Gaza War). In the meeting, Ashkenazi told his host that Israel is on “a collision course” with both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. It is therefore preparing for a large scale war.

Just three months ago, the outgoing Chief of Military intelligence, Major General Amos Yadlin, darkly warned about the deceptiveness of the “unprecedented” quiet enjoyed by Israel on all fronts (the last year has seen no significant attacks from either the West Bank, or Gaza, or Lebanon). Yadlin predicts that the “next military conflict” will happen on multiple fronts and may incur more fatalities than previous rounds.

A few days later, he was echoed by the new head of Israel’s Southern Command, which stated that the next conflict with Hamas is not possible, or even likely: no, it is nothing short of “inevitable”. The outgoing head of the Command, and incoming Chief of Staff, Major General Yoav Galant, was in all probability the “Israeli security official” who was quoted by Yedioth, on October 22nd, arguing that Hamas will accelerate its preparations for another round of conflict with Israel, following their success in smuggling large amounts of cash from Iran to the Gaza strip.

This is a familiar, yet chilling, pattern. When all is quiet, our enemies are using the lull to rearm themselves for the next round. When negotiations proceed, their upcoming failure is billed as the cause for an imminent conflict. When negotiations stall, the impasse will surely end in war.  All the rivers run to the sea of war, yet the sea is never full.

The past has taught us to listen to estimates and analysis emanating from Israel’s security apparatus. Not because these assessments are usually correct. On the contrary, Israeli intelligence agencies have won a hard-earned reputation for gross incompetence and egregious errors. They excel in locating a target and destroying it, less so in anything that requires a higher level of understanding and sensitivity.

Yet it is precisely those errors that make their opinion so important. Due to Israel’s position as the dominant regional power, both its perceptions and its misperceptions can have a substantial impact. But it is the latter that may have particularly disastrous consequences, by creating a new reality, often acting as self-fulfilling prophecies.

I have seen this dynamic unfold from up close, both from within and from outside the system, in the series of conflicts in which Israel has engaged over the past decade (though this tendency can be traced in almost all of Israel’s wars).

Before the outbreak of the Second Intifada, in September 2000, the IDF had been preparing for conflict with the Palestinians for several years. All the systems were ready to go into a full-scale war, and did so at the first sign of trouble.

The 2006 Lebanon war may have been triggered by the kidnapping (and killing) of three IDF soldiers by Hezbollah. But it was the feeling among decision-makers that the organization was a bomb waiting to explode that turned a minor (if outrageous and inexcusable) incident into a bloody conflict that left hundreds dead, thousands injured, and tens of thousands without homes.

Finally, the latest war, in Gaza in 2009, was justified by Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, which were and are a serious and indefensible war crime. But the escalation was surely fueled by the IDF’s view that Hamas was eventually going to go to war with Israel; and by the conclusion drawn from this assessment – that it must toppled at all cost, even if this would entail breaking Gazans’ spirit through a cruel siege that devastated their economy.

Let us hope that history is not repeating itself.