Jerusalem, Israel — After meeting with a representative from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), we drove through the West Bank on our way to a Syrian border crossing on the Golan Heights. The day before we had visited a village just outside the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and the next night we stayed on the Lebanese border, where a Hezbollah flag was visible to the naked eye. On the way to these locations, I came across the following and all-too-familiar New York Times headlines: “Israel Finding Itself Drawn Into Syria’s Turmoil” and “Iran Is Seen Advancing Nuclear Bid.”
Three short days in the life of an Israeli.
Israel — the only Western democracy in the Middle East — is surrounded by enemies and instability (a situation we cannot fully relate to, as I wrote
about last week). From Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and a related slow-motion power struggle in the West Bank, there is almost no overstating the border threats and volatility facing Israel. To make matters more complicated, Islamic upheavals in Syria and Egypt have thrown longtime stable borders into strategic uncertainty. The famous adage of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak remains as true today as it was in 2006: Israel is “a villa in a jungle.”
I heard another metaphor on this trip: Israel is a “knife in the heart” of the Islamic world. (Look at a regional map — it even looks like one.) A series of Israeli leaders have built shrewd strategic relationships with neighbors: peace with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, and quiet arrangements with others. Despite these efforts, angst, envy, and hatred toward an Israeli Jewish state remain dominant passions in the region — think the regimes in Iran and Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. What’s more, the United Nations continues to wage an international campaign to undermine Israeli and Jewish legitimacy.
Both images — a villa and a knife — are apt. Israel is a lone flourishing, liberal, and democratic state surrounded by radical or dictatorial regimes and groups that loathe Israel for the very fact of its existence (which is why most still do not recognize the state). This “villa” in the “heart” of a dangerous neighborhood makes the modern state of Israel an island of economic prosperity and political pluralism that requires perpetual defense. No time to rest when all your neighbors hate you for who and what you are.
It can be argued that there have been more perilous times for the security of Israel. After declaring independence in 1948, the nascent state was attacked the next day by Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Israeli battlefield victories in this war and in its subsequent wars in 1967 and 1973 convinced grudging surrounding countries that large-scale attacks or even targeted military strikes were futile. Israel’s continued military superiority means that conventional state-based attacks in the near future are unlikely.
But those victories did not usher in peace; to the contrary, where these countries left off, violent networks of Islamic extremists and nationalists picked up. In the north, the PLO was expelled from Lebanon in 1982 only to be replaced by Hezbollah, a terrorist group sponsored by both Syria and Iran. In the West Bank and Gaza, the PLO-Fatah and Hamas — another terrorist organization — mounted two uprisings (or “intifadas”) meant to kill as many Israeli soldiers and civilians as possible and expel the Jewish state.
Not only do Hezbollah and Hamas still exist today; they have also consolidated their geographic power in the wake of Israel’s unilateral withdrawals from southern Lebanon in 2000 and the Gaza Strip in 2005. Israeli forces may have contained direct attacks from both places, but tens of thousands of rockets remain pointed at the Israeli population. The threat is particularly great in the north, where Hezbollah seeks, and has received, sophisticated long-range rockets from its Syrian and Iranian benefactors.
The West Bank is less violent but more complicated. An Israeli troop presence, mature intelligence networks, and a border fence have largely eliminated terrorist attacks, but these measures also stoke Palestinian resentment. All the while, the status of Jewish settlements, heavily disputed territorial boundaries, and the future status of East Jerusalem remain as uncertain as ever. Ongoing unilateral and politically motivated Palestinian attempts to gain U.N. approval for statehood only complicate matters.
Despite their dedication and geographic proximity, these Palestinian “resistance” groups by themselves do not constitute an existential threat to Israel — not with conventional weapons, at any rate. Like their nation-state predecessors, they (privately) acknowledge they cannot defeat or dislodge their powerful neighbor. Yet their dogged ideological resistance explains why the right side of the Israeli political spectrum has made a comeback in the past decade.
This leaves the final, and most significant, threat to Israel: unconventional weapons — nuclear, chemical, or biological — in the hands of fanatical Islamists willing to use them. Israel has recognized this threat for quite some time and has acted to prevent the nuclearization of its more dangerous neighbors, destroying Iraq’s sole nuclear reactor in 1981 and a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. A desperate Assad regime in Syria today is trying to ship unconventional weapons to Hezbollah, and Israeli attacks on these arms shipments in recent months, risking an escalation Israel does not want, reflect the gravity of this development. It is existential: Other than the threat of a nuclear Iran (and I’ll have more to say on this tomorrow), Hezbollah is the most pressing danger. Israel simply cannot accept Hezbollah’s acquiring unconventional weapons from Syria, or from any other power.
— Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and an Army veteran of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.