Israel's latest military confrontation against the Hamas highlights Israel's vulnerability and the dilemmas it encounters in shaping its national security policy.
Israeli foreign policy could be said to have veered since Israel's inception between two different objectives: aspiring Israel to be accepted as a normal sovereign entity comprising an integral part of international society, and wishing the same international society to accept it is exceptionally vulnerable, facing singular threats.
Faced by constant threats of extinction, Israel is the only country in the world the very legitimacy of which is being violently challenged.
Although Israel does not face at present a unified Arab world bent on its destruction, the challenges posed to its security and legitimacy are still considerably menacing.
In the south, the Islamic Hamas movement controls the Gaza Strip. In the north, Lebanon is under the de facto control of the Hizb’allah. Both Hamas and the Hizb’allah call for the destruction of the State of Israel. Both are armed with weapons that could potentially wreak havoc on Israeli civilian centers. The Hizb’allah, which is armed like few countries in the region, presents a particularly serious challenge to Israel.
In the east, Iran constitutes a strategic menace to Israel, enhanced by its nuclear policy. Its leadership is perceived by Israelis as being obsessed with the very existence of Israel; almost every means has been traditionally valid in their pursuit of a policy of delegitimizing Israel, including the denial of the Holocaust as a historical fact.
Syria, which is currently absorbed in internal strife, is a further threat to Israel as its leadership has traditionally adopted the most extreme positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict and supported the most radical Palestinian groups bent on Israel's destruction and the derailing of the peace process. Although the civil war has had positive side-effects for Israel, as its enemies are immersed in ever-growing violent clashes, the chaos that might ensue could spell particular trouble for Israel and pro-Western forces in the region that would have to deal with a fragmented, unstable, and hostile Syria.
There is no region in Israel, no citizen in the country, no matter how far to the south or to the north he or she lives, that is immune from the weaponry of its enemies.
The power to inflict harm on Israelis is enhanced by the apparent lack of any compunction by some of those willing to do so to aim their lethal weapons on civilians. It is not just the narrowness of its geography that places Israel's civilian population in danger, but also the menacing objectives of its enemies and their lack of moral restraint.
Thus, notwithstanding its military power and technological prowess, the perception that prevails among Israelis is that they are particularly vulnerable.
Certainly, the message that Israeli foreign policy has to convey is not simple. Israel has one of the most powerful armies in the world. Its intelligence services are among the most sophisticated, having achieved remarkable results both in the region and beyond it. Further, Israel is believed to possess nuclear military capacity, though it has never confirmed that.
Thanks in part to the deterrence achieved by Israel's security forces, and the firm attitude displayed by Israeli diplomacy on the core issues, Egypt, Jordan and the mainstream of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) have resolved to negotiate with Israel and reach either peace agreements (in the case of Egypt and Jordan) or interim accords (in the case of the PLO).
Yet, Israel is still vulnerable, very much so. A tiny country with no defensible borders, beset by terrorist attacks, faced by short and long range missiles aimed at its civilians, Israel is paradoxically both very powerful and very vulnerable. Without its singular power, Israel would not exist. Without its singular sense of vulnerability, Israel would not need to be that powerful.
Thus, Israel has to convey both a message of deterrence and a sense of vulnerability; it has to convince its international interlocutors that it aspires to achieve peace based on painful concessions without impairing its perceived deterrence; it has to be diplomatically flexible without appearing to be weak, as the adverse consequences of the latter might be considerably more significant than the positive effects of the first.
Even if Israel were to reach a final agreement with the Palestinian Authority, which seems rather unlikely at present, it would still remain the target of countries and armed groups the aim of which will be to seek its destruction in the long run, and thwart any regional peace attained and imperil any sense of security entertained by Israelis in the short run.
Thus, in Israel's case, opportunity comes accompanied by risk. In a sense, in shaping policy, Israel's policymakers are ever aware that any nuance entailing a diplomatic opportunity might be fraught with danger (The Oslo Accords, for instance), as any menace implying significant risk might constitute a spring-board for a diplomatic opportunity (The Yom Kippur War, for example).
Following the cold peace with Egypt and the lack of full normalization with Jordan, as well as the perceived failure of the Oslo Accords, the aspiration entertained by Israelis has changed. Prior to the peace agreement with Egypt, Israelis depicted peace as a scenario entailing full normalization; their aim now is more modest. They would settle for a secure life. Full normalization can follow suit -- or not.