The Geopolitics of Israel: Biblical and Modern (STARTFOR) 03/14/12)
UNITED JERUSALEM Articles-Index-Top
Editor´s Note: This is the first in a series of monographs on the
geopolitics of countries influential in world affairs.
The founding principle of geopolitics is that place -- geography --
plays a significant role in determining how nations will behave. If
that theory is true, then there ought to be a deep continuity in a
nation´s foreign policy. Israel is a laboratory for this theory,
since it has existed in three different manifestations in roughly the
same place, twice in antiquity and once in modernity. If geopolitics
is correct, then Israeli foreign policy, independent of policymakers,
technology or the identity of neighbors, ought to have important
common features. This is, therefore, a discussion of common
principles in Israeli foreign policy over nearly 3,000 years.
For convenience, we will use the term "Israel" to connote all of the
Hebrew and Jewish entities that have existed in the Levant since the
invasion of the region as chronicled in the Book of Joshua. As
always, geopolitics requires a consideration of three dimensions: the
internal geopolitics of Israel, the interaction of Israel and the
immediate neighbors who share borders with it, and Israel´s
interaction with what we will call great powers, beyond Israel´s
Israel has manifested itself three times in history. The first
manifestation began with the invasion led by Joshua and lasted
through its division into two kingdoms, the Babylonian conquest of
the Kingdom of Judah and the deportation to Babylon early in the
sixth century B.C. The second manifestation began when Israel was
recreated in 540 B.C. by the Persians, who had defeated the
Babylonians. The nature of this second manifestation changed in the
fourth century B.C., when Greece overran the Persian Empire and
Israel, and again in the first century B.C., when the Romans
conquered the region.
The second manifestation saw Israel as a small actor within the
framework of larger imperial powers, a situation that lasted until
the destruction of the Jewish vassal state by the Romans.
Israel´s third manifestation began in 1948, following (as in the
other cases) an ingathering of at least some of the Jews who had been
dispersed after conquests. Israel´s founding takes place in the
context of the decline and fall of the British Empire and must, at
least in part, be understood as part of British imperial history.
During its first 50 years, Israel plays a pivotal role in the
confrontation of the United States and the Soviet Union and, in some
senses, is hostage to the dynamics of these two countries. In other
words, like the first two manifestations of Israel, the third finds
Israel continually struggling among independence, internal tension
and imperial ambition.
Israeli Geography and Borderlands
At its height, under King David, Israel extended from the Sinai to
the Euphrates, encompassing Damascus. It occupied some, but
relatively little, of the coastal region, an area beginning at what
today is Haifa and running south to Jaffa, just north of today´s Tel
Aviv. The coastal area to the north was held by Phoenicia, the area
to the south by Philistines. It is essential to understand that
Israel´s size and shape shifted over time. For example, Judah under
the Hasmoneans did not include the Negev but did include the Golan.
The general locale of Israel is fixed. Its precise borders have never
Thus, it is perhaps better to begin with what never was part of
Israel. Israel never included the Sinai Peninsula. Along the coast,
it never stretched much farther north than the Litani River in
today´s Lebanon. Apart from David´s extreme extension (and fairly
tenuous control) to the north, Israel´s territory never stretched as
far as Damascus, although it frequently held the Golan Heights.
Israel extended many times to both sides of the Jordan but never deep
into the Jordanian Desert. It never extended southeast into the
Israel consists generally of three parts. First, it always has had
the northern hill region, stretching from the foothills of Mount
Hermon south to Jerusalem. Second, it always contains some of the
coastal plain from today´s Tel Aviv north to Haifa. Third, it
occupies area between Jerusalem and the Jordan River -- today´s West
Bank. At times, it controls all or part of the Negev, including the
coastal region between the Sinai to the Tel Aviv area. It may be
larger than this at various times in history, and sometimes smaller,
but it normally holds all or part of these three regions.
Israel is well-buffered in three directions. The Sinai Desert
protects it against the Egyptians. In general, the Sinai has held
little attraction for the Egyptians. The difficulty of deploying
forces in the eastern Sinai poses severe logistical problems for
them, particularly during a prolonged presence. Unless Egypt can
rapidly move through the Sinai north into the coastal plain, where it
can sustain its forces more readily, deploying in the Sinai is
difficult and unrewarding. Therefore, so long as Israel is not so
weak as to make an attack on the coastal plain a viable option, or
unless Egypt is motivated by an outside imperial power, Israel does
not face a threat from the southwest.
Israel is similarly protected from the southeast. The deserts
southeast of Eilat-Aqaba are virtually impassable. No large force
could approach from that direction, although smaller raiding parties
could. The tribes of the Arabian Peninsula lack the reach or the size
to pose a threat to Israel, unless massed and aligned with other
forces. Even then, the approach from the southeast is not one that
they are likely to take. The Negev is secure from that direction.
The eastern approaches are similarly secured by desert, which begins
about 20 to 30 miles east of the Jordan River. While indigenous
forces exist in the borderland east of the Jordan, they lack the
numbers to be able to penetrate decisively west of the Jordan.
Indeed, the normal model is that, so long as Israel controls Judea
and Samaria (the modern-day West Bank), then the East Bank of the
Jordan River is under the political and sometimes military domination
of Israel -- sometimes directly through settlement, sometimes
indirectly through political influence, or economic or security
Israel´s vulnerability is in the north. There is no natural buffer
between Phoenicia and its successor entities (today´s Lebanon) to the
direct north. The best defense line for Israel in the north is the
Litani River, but this is not an insurmountable boundary under any
circumstance. However, the area along the coast north of Israel does
not present a serious threat. The coastal area prospers through trade
in the Mediterranean basin. It is oriented toward the sea and to the
trade routes to the east, not to the south. If it does anything, this
area protects those trade routes and has no appetite for a conflict
that might disrupt trade. It stays out of Israel´s way, for the most
Moreover, as a commercial area, this region is generally wealthy, a
factor that increases predators around it and social conflict within.
It is an area prone to instability. Israel frequently tries to extend
its influence northward for commercial reasons, as one of the
predators, and this can entangle Israel in its regional politics. But
barring this self-induced problem, the threat to Israel from the
north is minimal, despite the absence of natural boundaries and the
large population. On occasion, there is spillover of conflicts from
the north, but not to a degree that might threaten regime survival in
The neighbor that is always a threat lies to the northeast. Syria --
or, more precisely, the area governed by Damascus at any time -- is
populous and frequently has no direct outlet to the sea. It is,
therefore, generally poor. The area to its north, Asia Minor, is
heavily mountainous. Syria cannot project power to the north except
with great difficulty, but powers in Asia Minor can move south.
Syria´s eastern flank is buffered by a desert that stretches to the
Euphrates. Therefore, when there is no threat from the north, Syria´s
interest -- after securing itself internally -- is to gain access to
the coast. Its primary channel is directly westward, toward the rich
cities of the northern Levantine coast, with which it trades heavily.
An alternative interest is southwestward, toward the southern
Levantine coast controlled by Israel.
As can be seen, Syria can be interested in Israel only selectively.
When it is interested, it has a serious battle problem. To attack
Israel, it would have to strike between Mount Hermon and the Sea of
Galilee, an area about 25 miles wide. The Syrians potentially can
attack south of the sea, but only if they are prepared to fight
through this region and then attack on extended supply lines. If an
attack is mounted along the main route, Syrian forces must descend
the Golan Heights and then fight through the hilly Galilee before
reaching the coastal plain -- sometimes with guerrillas holding out
in the Galilean hills. The Galilee is an area that is relatively easy
to defend and difficult to attack. Therefore, it is only once Syria
takes the Galilee, and can control its lines of supply against
guerrilla attack, that its real battle begins.
To reach the coast or move toward Jerusalem, Syria must fight through
a plain in front of a line of low hills. This is the decisive
battleground where massed Israeli forces, close to lines of supply,
can defend against dispersed Syrian forces on extended lines of
supply. It is no accident that Megiddo -- or Armageddon, as the plain
is sometimes referred to -- has apocalyptic meaning. This is the
point at which any move from Syria would be decided. But a Syrian
offensive would have a tough fight to reach Megiddo, and a tougher
one as it deploys on the plain.
On the surface, Israel lacks strategic depth, but this is true only
on the surface. It faces limited threats from southern neighbors. To
its east, it faces only a narrow strip of populated area east of the
Jordan. To the north, there is a maritime commercial entity. Syria
operating alone, forced through the narrow gap of the Mount Hermon-
Galilee line and operating on extended supply lines, can be dealt
There is a risk of simultaneous attacks from multiple directions.
Depending on the forces deployed and the degree of coordination
between them, this can pose a problem for Israel. However, even here
the Israelis have the tremendous advantage of fighting on interior
lines. Egypt and Syria, fighting on external lines (and widely
separated fronts), would have enormous difficulty transferring forces
from one front to another. Israel, on interior lines (fronts close to
each other with good transportation), would be able to move its
forces from front to front rapidly, allowing for sequential
engagement and thereby the defeat of enemies. Unless enemies are
carefully coordinated and initiate war simultaneously -- and deploy
substantially superior force on at least one front -- Israel can
initiate war at a time of its choosing or else move its forces
rapidly between fronts, negating much of the advantage of size that
the attackers might have.
There is another aspect to the problem of multifront war. Egypt
usually has minimal interests along the Levant, having its own coast
and an orientation to the south toward the headwaters of the Nile. On
the rare occasions when Egypt does move through the Sinai and attacks
to the north and northeast, it is in an expansionary mode. By the
time it consolidates and exploits the coastal plain, it would be
powerful enough to threaten Syria. From Syria´s point of view, the
only thing more dangerous than Israel is an Egypt in control of
Israel. Therefore, the probability of a coordinated north-south
strike at Israel is rare, is rarely coordinated and usually is not
designed to be a mortal blow. It is defeated by Israel´s strategic
advantage of interior lines.
Israeli Geography and the Convergence Zone
Therefore, it is not surprising that Israel´s first incarnation
lasted as long as it did -- some five centuries. What is interesting
and what must be considered is why Israel (now considered as the
northern kingdom) was defeated by the Assyrians and Judea, then
defeated by Babylon. To understand this, we need to consider the
broader geography of Israel´s location.
Israel is located on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, on
the Levant. As we have seen, when Israel is intact, it will tend to
be the dominant power in the Levant. Therefore, Israeli resources
must generally be dedicated for land warfare, leaving little over for
naval warfare. In general, although Israel had excellent harbors and
access to wood for shipbuilding, it never was a major Mediterranean
naval power. It never projected power into the sea. The area to the
north of Israel has always been a maritime power, but Israel, the
area south of Mount Hermon, was always forced to be a land power.
The Levant in general and Israel in particular has always been a
magnet for great powers. No Mediterranean empire could be fully
secure unless it controlled the Levant. Whether it was Rome or
Carthage, a Mediterranean empire that wanted to control both the
northern and southern littorals needed to anchor its eastern flank on
the Levant. For one thing, without the Levant, a Mediterranean power
would be entirely dependent on sea lanes for controlling the other
shore. Moving troops solely by sea creates transport limitations and
logistical problems. It also leaves imperial lines vulnerable to
interdiction -- sometimes merely from pirates, a problem that plagued
Rome´s sea transport. A land bridge, or a land bridge with minimal
water crossings that can be easily defended, is a vital supplement to
the sea for the movement of large numbers of troops. Once the
Hellespont is crossed, the coastal route through southern Turkey,
down the Levant and along the Mediterranean´s southern shore,
provides such an alternative.
There is an additional consideration. If a Mediterranean empire
leaves the Levant unoccupied, it opens the door to the possibility of
a great power originating to the east seizing the ports of the Levant
and challenging the Mediterranean power for maritime domination. In
short, control of the Levant binds a Mediterranean empire together
while denying a challenger from the east the opportunity to enter the
Mediterranean. Holding the Levant, and controlling Israel, is a
necessary preventive measure for a Mediterranean empire.
Israel is also important to any empire originating to the east of
Israel, either in the Tigris-Euphrates basin or in Persia. For
either, security could be assured only once it had an anchor on the
Levant. Macedonian expansion under Alexander demonstrated that a
power controlling Levantine and Turkish ports could support
aggressive operations far to the east, to the Hindu Kush and beyond.
While Turkish ports might have sufficed for offensive operations,
simply securing the Bosporus still left the southern flank exposed.
Therefore, by holding the Levant, an eastern power protected itself
against attacks from Mediterranean powers.
The Levant was also important to any empire originating to the north
or south of Israel. If Egypt decided to move beyond the Nile Basin
and North Africa eastward, it would move first through the Sinai and
then northward along the coastal plain, securing sea lanes to Egypt.
When Asia Minor powers such as the Ottoman Empire developed, there
was a natural tendency to move southward to control the eastern
Mediterranean. The Levant is the crossroads of continents, and Israel
lies in the path of many imperial ambitions.
Israel therefore occupies what might be called the convergence zone
of the Eastern Hemisphere. A European power trying to dominate the
Mediterranean or expand eastward, an eastern power trying to dominate
the space between the Hindu Kush and the Mediterranean, a North
African power moving toward the east, or a northern power moving
south -- all must converge on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean
and therefore on Israel. Of these, the European power and the eastern
power must be the most concerned with Israel. For either, there is no
choice but to secure it as an anchor.
Israel is geographically divided into three regions, which
traditionally have produced three different types of people. Its
coastal plain facilitates commerce, serving as the interface between
eastern trade routes and the sea. It is the home of merchants and
manufacturers, cosmopolitans -- not as cosmopolitan as Phoenicia or
Lebanon, but cosmopolitan for Israel. The northeast is hill country,
closest to the unruliness north of the Litani River and to the Syrian
threat. It breeds farmers and warriors. The area south of Jerusalem
is hard desert country, more conducive to herdsman and warriors than
anything else. Jerusalem is where these three regions are balanced
There are obviously deep differences built into Israel´s geography
and inhabitants, particularly between the herdsmen of the southern
deserts and the northern hill dwellers. The coastal dwellers, rich
but less warlike than the others, hold the balance or are the prize
to be pursued. In the division of the original kingdom between Israel
and Judea, we saw the alliance of the coast with the Galilee, while
Jerusalem was held by the desert dwellers. The consequence of the
division was that Israel in the north ultimately was conquered by
Assyrians from the northeast, while Babylon was able to swallow Judea.
Social divisions in Israel obviously do not have to follow
geographical lines. However, over time, these divisions must manifest
themselves. For example, the coastal plain is inherently more
cosmopolitan than the rest of the country. The interests of its
inhabitants lie more with trading partners in the Mediterranean and
the rest of the world than with their countrymen. Their standard of
living is higher, and their commitment to traditions is lower.
Therefore, there is an inherent tension between their immediate
interests and those of the Galileans, who live more precarious,
warlike lives. Countries can be divided over lesser issues -- and
when Israel is divided, it is vulnerable even to regional threats.
We say "even" because geography dictates that regional threats are
less menacing than might be expected. The fact that Israel would be
outnumbered demographically should all its neighbors turn on it is
less important than the fact that it has adequate buffers in most
directions, that the ability of neighbors to coordinate an attack is
minimal and that their appetite for such an attack is even less. The
single threat that Israel faces from the northeast can readily be
managed if the Israelis create a united front there. When Israel was
overrun by a Damascus-based power, it was deeply divided internally.
It is important to add one consideration to our discussion of
buffers, which is diplomacy. The main neighbors of Israel are
Egyptians, Syrians and those who live on the east bank of Jordan.
This last group is a negligible force demographically, and the
interests of the Syrians and Egyptians are widely divergent. Egypt´s
interests are to the south and west of its territory; the Sinai holds
no attraction. Syria is always threatened from multiple directions,
and alliance with Egypt adds little to its security. Therefore, under
the worst of circumstances, Egypt and Syria have difficulty
supporting each other. Under the best of circumstances, from Israel´s
point of view, it can reach a political accommodation with Egypt,
securing its southwestern frontier politically as well as by
geography, thus freeing Israel to concentrate on the northern threats
Israel and the Great Powers
The threat to Israel rarely comes from the region, except when the
Israelis are divided internally. The conquests of Israel occur when
powers not adjacent to it begin forming empires. Babylon, Persia,
Macedonia, Rome, Turkey and Britain all controlled Israel
politically, sometimes for worse and sometimes for better. Each
dominated it militarily, but none was a neighbor of Israel. This is a
consistent pattern. Israel can resist its neighbors; danger arises
when more distant powers begin playing imperial games. Empires can
bring force to bear that Israel cannot resist.
Israel therefore has this problem: It would be secure if it could
confine itself to protecting its interests from neighbors, but it
cannot confine itself because its geographic location invariably
draws larger, more distant powers toward Israel. Therefore, while
Israel´s military can focus only on immediate interests, its
diplomatic interests must look much further. Israel is constantly
entangled with global interests (as the globe is defined at any
point), seeking to deflect and align with broader global powers. When
it fails in this diplomacy, the consequences can be catastrophic.
Israel exists in three conditions. First, it can be a completely
independent state. This condition occurs when there are no major
imperial powers external to the region. We might call this the David
model. Second, it can live as part of an imperial system -- either as
a subordinate ally, as a moderately autonomous entity or as a
satrapy. In any case, it maintains its identity but loses room for
independent maneuvering in foreign policy and potentially in domestic
policy. We might call this the Persian model in its most beneficent
form. Finally, Israel can be completely crushed -- with mass
deportations and migrations, with a complete loss of autonomy and
minimal residual autonomy. We might call this the Babylonian model.
The Davidic model exists primarily when there is no external imperial
power needing control of the Levant that is in a position either to
send direct force or to support surrogates in the immediate region.
The Persian model exists when Israel aligns itself with the foreign
policy interests of such an imperial power, to its own benefit. The
Babylonian model exists when Israel miscalculates on the broader
balance of power and attempts to resist an emerging hegemon. When we
look at Israeli behavior over time, the periods when Israel does not
confront hegemonic powers outside the region are not rare, but are
far less common than when it is confronting them.
Given the period of the first iteration of Israel, it would be too
much to say that the Davidic model rarely comes into play, but
certainly since that time, variations of the Persian and Babylonian
models have dominated. The reason is geographic. Israel is normally
of interest to outside powers because of its strategic position.
While Israel can deal with local challenges effectively, it cannot
deal with broader challenges. It lacks the economic or military
weight to resist. Therefore, it is normally in the process of
managing broader threats or collapsing because of them.
The Geopolitics of Contemporary Israel
Let us then turn to the contemporary manifestation of Israel. Israel
was recreated because of the interaction between a regional great
power, the Ottoman Empire, and a global power, Great Britain. During
its expansionary phase, the Ottoman Empire sought to dominate the
eastern Mediterranean as well as both its northern and southern
coasts. One thrust went through the Balkans toward central Europe.
The other was toward Egypt. Inevitably, this required that the
Ottomans secure the Levant.
For the British, the focus on the eastern Mediterranean was as the
primary sea lane to India. As such, Gibraltar and the Suez were
crucial. The importance of the Suez was such that the presence of a
hostile, major naval force in the eastern Mediterranean represented a
direct threat to British interests. It followed that defeating the
Ottoman Empire during World War I and breaking its residual naval
power was critical. The British, as was shown at Gallipoli, lacked
the resources to break the Ottoman Empire by main force. They
resorted to a series of alliances with local forces to undermine the
Ottomans. One was an alliance with Bedouin tribes in the Arabian
Peninsula; others involved covert agreements with anti-Turkish, Arab
interests from the Levant to the Persian Gulf. A third, minor thrust
was aligning with Jewish interests globally, particularly those
interested in the refounding of Israel. Britain had little interest
in this goal, but saw such discussions as part of the process of
destabilizing the Ottomans.
The strategy worked. Under an agreement with France, the Ottoman
province of Syria was divided into two parts on a line roughly
running east-west between the sea and Mount Hermon. The northern part
was given to France and divided into Lebanon and a rump Syria entity.
The southern part was given to Britain and was called Palestine,
after the Ottoman administrative district Filistina. Given the
complex politics of the Arabian Peninsula, the British had to find a
home for a group of Hashemites, which they located on the east bank
of the Jordan River and designated, for want of a better name, the
Trans-Jordan -- the other side of the Jordan. Palestine looked very
much like traditional Israel.
The ideological foundations of Zionism are not our concern here, nor
are the pre- and post-World War II migrations of Jews, although those
are certainly critical. What is important for purposes of this
analysis are two things: First, the British emerged economically and
militarily crippled from World War II and unable to retain their
global empire, Palestine included. Second, the two global powers that
emerged after World War II -- the United States and the Soviet Union -
- were engaged in an intense struggle for the eastern Mediterranean
after World War II, as can be seen in the Greek and Turkish issues at
that time. Neither wanted to see the British Empire survive, each
wanted the Levant, and neither was prepared to make a decisive move
to take it.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw the re-creation of
Israel as an opportunity to introduce their power to the Levant. The
Soviets thought they might have some influence over Israel due to
ideology. The Americans thought they might have some influence given
the role of American Jews in the founding. Neither was thinking
particularly clearly about the matter, because neither had truly
found its balance after World War II. Both knew the Levant was
important, but neither saw the Levant as a central battleground at
that moment. Israel slipped through the cracks.
Once the question of Jewish unity was settled through ruthless action
by David Ben Gurion´s government, Israel faced a simultaneous threat
from all of its immediate neighbors. However, as we have seen, the
threat in 1948 was more apparent than real. The northern Levant,
Lebanon, was fundamentally disunited -- far more interested in
regional maritime trade and concerned about control from Damascus. It
posed no real threat to Israel. Jordan, settling the eastern bank of
the Jordan River, was an outside power that had been transplanted
into the region and was more concerned about native Arabs -- the
Palestinians -- than about Israel. The Jordanians secretly
collaborated with Israel. Egypt did pose a threat, but its ability to
maintain lines of supply across the Sinai was severely limited and
its genuine interest in engaging and destroying Israel was more
rhetorical than real. As usual, the Egyptians could not afford the
level of effort needed to move into the Levant. Syria by itself had a
very real interest in Israel´s defeat, but by itself was incapable of
The exterior lines of Israel´s neighbors prevented effective,
concerted action. Israel´s interior lines permitted efficient
deployment and redeployment of force. It was not obvious at the time,
but in retrospect we can see that once Israel existed, was united and
had even limited military force, its survival was guaranteed. That
is, so long as no great power was opposed to its existence.
From its founding until the Camp David Accords re-established the
Sinai as a buffer with Egypt, Israel´s strategic problem was this: So
long as Egypt was in the Sinai, Israel´s national security
requirements outstripped its military capabilities. It could not
simultaneously field an army, maintain its civilian economy and
produce all the weapons and supplies needed for war. Israel had to
align itself with great powers who saw an opportunity to pursue other
interests by arming Israel.
Israel´s first patron was the Soviet Union -- through Czechoslovakia -
- which supplied weapons before and after 1948 in the hopes of using
Israel to gain a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean. Israel, aware
of the risks of losing autonomy, also moved into a relationship with
a declining great power that was fighting to retain its empire:
France. Struggling to hold onto Algeria and in constant tension with
Arabs, France saw Israel as a natural ally. And apart from the
operation against Suez in 1956, Israel saw in France a patron that
was not in a position to reduce Israeli autonomy. However, with the
end of the Algerian war and the realignment of France in the Arab
world, Israel became a liability to France and, after 1967, Israel
lost French patronage.
Israel did not become a serious ally of the Americans until after
1967. Such an alliance was in the American interest. The United
States had, as a strategic imperative, the goal of keeping the Soviet
navy out of the Mediterranean or, at least, blocking its unfettered
access. That meant that Turkey, controlling the Bosporus, had to be
kept in the American bloc. Syria and Iraq shifted policies in the
late 1950s and by the mid-1960s had been armed by the Soviets. This
made Turkey´s position precarious: If the Soviets pressed from the
north while Syria and Iraq pressed from the south, the outcome would
be uncertain, to say the least, and the global balance of power was
The United States used Iran to divert Iraq´s attention. Israel was
equally useful in diverting Syria´s attention. So long as Israel
threatened Syria from the south, it could not divert its forces to
the north. That helped secure Turkey at a relatively low cost in aid
and risk. By aligning itself with the interests of a great power,
Israel lost some of its room for maneuver: For example, in 1973, it
was limited by the United States in what it could do to Egypt. But
those limitations aside, it remained autonomous internally and
generally free to pursue its strategic interests.
The end of hostilities with Egypt, guaranteed by the Sinai buffer
zone, created a new era for Israel. Egypt was restored to its
traditional position, Jordan was a marginal power on the east bank,
Lebanon was in its normal, unstable mode, and only Syria was a
threat. However, it was a threat that Israel could easily deal with.
Syria by itself could not threaten the survival of Israel.
Following Camp David (an ironic name), Israel was in its Davidic
model, in a somewhat modified sense. Its survival was not at stake.
Its problems -- the domination of a large, hostile population and
managing events in the northern Levant -- were subcritical (meaning
that, though these were not easy tasks, they did not represent
fundamental threats to national survival, so long as Israel retained
national unity). When unified, Israel has never been threatened by
its neighbors. Geography dictates against it.
Israel´s danger will come only if a great power seeks to dominate the
Mediterranean Basin or to occupy the region between Afghanistan and
the Mediterranean. In the short period since the fall of the Soviet
Union, this has been impossible. There has been no great power with
the appetite and the will for such an adventure. But 15 years is not
even a generation, and Israel must measure its history in centuries.
It is the nature of the international system to seek balance. The
primary reality of the world today is the overwhelming power of the
United States. The United States makes few demands on Israel that
matter. However, it is the nature of things that the United States
threatens the interests of other great powers who, individually weak,
will try to form coalitions against it. Inevitably, such coalitions
will arise. That will be the next point of danger for Israel.
In the event of a global rivalry, the United States might place
onerous requirements on Israel. Alternatively, great powers might
move into the Jordan River valley or ally with Syria, move into
Lebanon or ally with Israel. The historical attraction of the eastern
shore of the Mediterranean would focus the attention of such a power
and lead to attempts to assert control over the Mediterranean or
create a secure Middle Eastern empire. In either event, or some of
the others discussed, it would create a circumstance in which Israel
might face a Babylonian catastrophe or be forced into some variation
of Persian or Roman subjugation.
Israel´s danger is not a Palestinian rising. Palestinian agitation is
an irritant that Israel can manage so long as it does not undermine
Israeli unity. Whether it is managed by domination or by granting the
Palestinians a vassal state matters little. Nor can Israel be
threatened by its neighbors. Even a unified attack by Syria and Egypt
would fail, for the reasons discussed. Israel´s real threat, as can
be seen in history, lies in the event of internal division and/or a
great power, coveting Israel´s geographical position, marshaling
force that is beyond its capacity to resist. Even that can be managed
if Israel has a patron whose interests involve denying the coast to
Israel´s reality is this. It is a small country, yet must manage
threats arising far outside of its region. It can survive only if it
maneuvers with great powers commanding enormously greater resources.
Israel cannot match the resources and, therefore, it must be
constantly clever. There are periods when it is relatively safe
because of great power alignments, but its normal condition is one of
global unease. No nation can be clever forever, and Israel´s history
shows that some form of subordination is inevitable. Indeed, it is to
a very limited extent subordinate to the United States now.
For Israel, the retention of a Davidic independence is difficult.
Israel´s strategy must be to manage its subordination effectively by
dealing with its patron cleverly, as it did with Persia. But
cleverness is not a geopolitical concept. It is not permanent, and it
is not assured. And that is the perpetual crisis of Jerusalem.
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