At Large

David vs. Goliaths Galore

Can a small country defeat threats of superpower level -- without itself being a superpower?

By 9.7.11

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Can a small country defeat threats of superpower level -- without itself being a superpower?

The answer to that question may well decide Israel's future. One encounters among Israelis quiet confidence that the immense challenges Israel faces will not overwhelm the Jewish state. Begin, though, with the many dangers. The Arab Spring has sprung, and is too far along to be returned to the status quo ante of January 2011: the long winter of dictatorial rule over submissive masses. Its direction is country-specific, as were the revolutions of 1848. But like those revolutions against stagnant absolute monarchies, they are destined for an unlovely ending. In the 1848 cases, the re-establishment of monarchical rule allowed tottering empires to endure another two-thirds of a century. Then came the Great War, unleashing upon the world the twin terrors of Nazi and Communist totalitarianisms that gave the "Bloody Century" its infamous name, and now the third terror that darkens the 21st century in its infancy, that of Islamism in its various malignant forms.

That Israel is in the geographic midst of these upheavals forces its leaders and people to think without illusions -- or, at least, with far fewer than common in other Western countries. Save for the ideological Left, no one in Israel who is seriously sentient about world affairs thinks the "peace process" anything but moribund. There will be no peace with the Palestinians now, or anytime soon. The furies unleashed by Islamism's many forms make compromise acceptance of the Jewish state a fantasy.

Israel itself has myriad vulnerabilities. Three of them are: geography, topography, and demography. Israel's geography is vertical. slender, and cinched at the waist. A unitary Palestinian state uniting Gaza with the West Bank would cleave Israel in two. Topography is no cheerier: Israel is flat, bounded by the Gulf of Aqaba in the south, which leads to the Red Sea; by Lebanon and Syria to the north, the former a hostile Hezbollah-dominated state and the latter a hostile secularist tyranny, albeit one in peril of toppling; and sandwiched between mountains to the east and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. Demography is equally daunting: much of Israel's population is concentrated in its middle, which includes not only Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, but other consequential cities. Its 7.5 million people include three major groups: Non-Orthodox Jews, Israeli Arabs, and the Orthodox. Most of the heavy lifting is done by the non-Orthodox Jews, while the Orthodox are supported as they study and pray. The Arabs, some 20 percent of the population, are simmering with resentment at discrimination and disproportionate poverty, but at least to date Sharia law is a minimal irritant, unlike the grave threat it poses in Europe. The three groups have equal one-third shares of Israel's current first-graders.

The country's water supply is precarious. One-third of Israel's water comes from the Golan Heights region in the northeast, captured in two stages from Syria, in the 1967 and 1973 wars (not all of it--Syria retained some territory). Israel annexed its share of the Golan in 1981. Water had been the focal points of Israel from the start. With 20 inches of annual rainfall spread across 28 days of annual rain, Israel husbands its water carefully. It flows down from the mountains of the Golan and supplies the Jordan River; 75 percent of Israel's water is recycled, with the next ranking recycler Spain with 22 percent. Few people know that the early 1960s "Water War" was over what amounts to Israel's lifeline. The first attack carried out by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was on the National Water Carrier on New Year's Day 1965--more than two years before Israel took the West Bank after the 1967 war. The PLO's goal was to "liberate" Israel itself from Jewish control. All credible evidence shows that Palestinians by overwhelming majorities, and all their leaders, pursue that goal today, undiminished.

Add now to this dolorous picture three other factors. First, the growing threat of nuclear weapons that a nuclearizing Iran will likely acquire will tilt the regional balance towards Iran; it will ignite a regional nuclear arms race, with Saudi Arabia and others spending petrodollars to buy bombs from Pakistan, North Korea, or any other willing seller. Worse still, a small salvo of nuclear warheads landing inside Israel would devastate the country, beyond plausible recovery. The United States could survive, albeit gravely wounded, the loss of New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago better than Israel could deal with the loss of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. Small countries cannot survive multi-bomb nuclear attacks. Second, the Internet is a hotbed of anti-Israel propaganda, much of it jihadist and viciously anti-Semitic; the demonization of Israel fosters the literal delegitimation of the Jewish state. And third is a weak American President, sympathetic to Muslims -- Barack Obama has called the muezzin call to prayers the "most beautiful sound" in the world -- and harsh towards the Jewish state, preferring to "lead from behind." This means that at least until noon on January 20, 2013, Israel will have to watch its diplomatic back as to its number one ally. Cooperation between military and intelligence entities is close and convivial, but frosty diplomacy tilting towards the Palestinians has put Israel on the defensive. A second Obama term would be disastrous for Israel -- and for America as well.

So Israel has a rough row to hoe in a rough neighborhood. The Furies will not subside anytime soon, and dangers will increase before, if ever, they recede.

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About the Author

John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and London Center for Policy Research, author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb, and founder of the issues blog Letter From the Capitol.