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Israel policy myth #1: security is our first concern

Although Israel does face some significant security threats, it is very hard to explain the priorities and decisions of its leadership by the need to address these threats. This is the first part in a series about the top ten myths regarding Israeli policy.

Even some critics of Israeli policy regarding the Palestinians and Arab states would concede that it is motivated by security concerns. Indeed, these policies are often attacked for being excessively focused on security, at the expense of the country’s values and long term interests. Security is the most frequent justification articulated by Israeli leaders in defense of their policies, although its prominence has receded in recent years, as threats such as Palestinian terrorism or the Iranian nuclear programs have become less salient.

Israel does face some significant and real security threats, although their magnitude and probability is often exaggerated. However, it is very hard to explain the priorities and decisions of its leadership by the need to address these threats.

Exhibit one is the ongoing neglect of issues relating to civil defense, emergency preparedness and other measures to protect civilians from harm in case they are attacked. This neglect, despite frequent warnings and exposés, is not congruent with an obsessive focus on security. In several cases (such as the Gaza and Lebanon wars), Israeli governments have been willing to spend billions on a war, putting lives on both sides at great risk, in the name of protecting their people from attack. But the same governments also refused to spend millions on measures that would protect exposed areas from the very attacks the war was meant to end.

Israel’s West Bank policy conveys a similar impression. Few Israelis, let alone outsiders, understand just how much of the country’s military resources are spent on maintaining and defending the settlements (with a non-trivial portion going to cover settler obstructionism of these efforts). In the first decade after the occupation began in 1967, Israel argued that the settlements serve security needs, but this claim has been marginalized since the country’s own High Court of Justice shot it down in the late 1970s.

Israeli policy is not randomly chosen, of course, and it is not motivated by mere malice or spite either (although a climate of anger and hatred can make some policies more extreme). There are a multitude of factors that trump security in shaping Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians and Arab states.

Israel’s security establishment is an enormously powerful institution, and ironically, its prominence would be substantially diminished if the country had a narrower focus on security. When Israel was at its most vulnerable position, in 1950-1966, it had the lowest ratio of defense spending per GDP in its history. The Prime Minister and senior cabinet members all came from civilian background; whereas of the 44 years since 1967, a third were spent under the leadership of former generals, which also headed the defense ministry for all but seven of those years.

Expansion and occupation consume far more resources, national attention and prestige than a strictly defensive posture, holding just as much land as is needed for security purposes. Of course, Israeli generals are not cynical liars. They truly believe that they are acting in the country’s best interests. But institutional incentives and inertia often induce them to adopt the position which is most convenient for them.

On a deeper level, improving security would also harm the interests of various other Israeli elites. I have elaborated on this elsewhere: as security improves, pressures for redistribution between Jews and 1967 Palestinians (i.e. an end to the occupation) rise. But redistribution cannot really be stopped along the green line, or contained between Jews and Palestinians. If begun, it will reshape the current hierarchy, and those on top certainly don’t want that. Again, these elites are not acting as cynical manipulators. They are just very naturally inclined to endorse those beliefs and attitudes that do not threaten their standing.

What about the vocal minority of Israelis that advocate expansion and national greatness for ideological and religious reasons, even at the expense of security? What is their role in dragging the country towards a dangerous course? Is the leadership willing to compromise security in order to appease them? My position on this issue is clear, and I will get to back to it later, when I discuss myth #6: “The government is afraid of the settlers and incapable of standing up to them.”

But we have a long way to go until then. The next myth I plan to discuss, in a postt that will come up this Thursday, is myth #2: “Separation between Jews and Palestinians is not based on a racist ideology.”

Read more in this series:

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Introducing: Top ten myths about Israeli policy
Israel policy myth #2: Separation between Jews and Arabs is not racist

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    1. Eitan

      Thanks for this excellent article, Roi! I look forward to the rest of the series. It is worth pointing out that significant support for the ‘myth’ status of security concerns comes from the separation wall, which is a huge part of the machinery of the occupation. Ir Amim has convincingly shown that much of it cannot be justified on security grounds, for several reasons. One, it often separates Palestinian populations from each other, as in Ras el Amud/Abu Dis (rather than Palestinian and Jewish populations). Two, there is some evidence that the existence of the wall actually increased security problems involving residents of Palestinian Jerusalem. Three, some parts of the wall are clearly intended to capture as much land as possible, without regard to security. Obviously, the disjunctures between the wall and security could be multiplied — for details you can check out Ir Amim’s website: http://www.ir-amim.org.il/?CategoryID=334. Another aspect, which someone else might want to write about, is the fact that even ‘security’ is discriminatory. For example, during the second war on Lebanon, many of the Israeli civilian casualties were Palestinian citizens of Israel. This might look like ‘irony’ to racists, but a closer look reveals the discriminatory distribution of shelters in cities like Nazereth/Upper Nazereth. The point here is that security (usually) means security for Jews alone.

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    2. Ben Israel

      There is a lot of truth in what you say, but I disagree with parts of what you write.
      It is true that the generals and top security do NOT view the security of the population as their number one priority. They are frequently quite willing to have civilians die in order to promote some other interest, such as “diplomatic advantage” or personal interest. An example of “diplomatic advantage” is the idea that the world likes “victims”, particularly if they are Jews, so if we allow a lot of Jews to die (G-d forbid), the rest of the world will feel sorry for us and we can derive some diplomatic advantage from it (e.g. a nice reception at the UN for out leaders). An example of personal interest is, for example, trying to keep a Prime Minister’s son out of prison, or pursuing a Nobel Peace Prize.
      Actually Rabin was the one who most openly denied the myth when he stated that citizens who protest terrorist bus bombings are “crybabies” and that the responsibility of the state is to ensure the continued existence of the state, but not to guarantee the lives of its citizens (why he thought that the state has the right to stick its hand in the citizen’s pocket to take tax money yet it is considered impertinent to have the citizen demand his life be protected has never been clear to me). Rabin also stated that he was NOT required to provide protection to the West Bank settlers because, and I quote “They are only three percent of the population…I don’t have time to worry about them”. Again, that is a direct quote. One settler wrote a letter to him asking if he would approve having the settlers set up an armed militia for security if he was too busy to have the IDF do the job and he backtracked somewhat, but his policy was clear.
      Another manifestation of the idea that the state is not responsible to protect the lives of its citizens is the idea that “we can take the risk of releasing the most hardened terrorists from prison because if they carry out more attacks, we can arrest them again”. This was stated recently by Ami Ayalon, Yaakov Peri and Danny Yatom.
      Starting in the 1990’s it became clear that the government preferred having civilians killed instead of soldiers. The reasoning is cold but simple……soldiers are referred to as “the children” and there is a lot of publicity if they are killed (G-d forbid) whereas civilian victims are usually from the geographic and/or social periphery of the country (i.e. working class people who take the bus instead of having their own car). They don’t draw much media attention. On the other hand, the IDF is a cherished organization the General-politician has real sentiments for (what justification there is for having an army if it is not to provide security is not clear to me, but it does provide a lot of jobs and perks to people who enjoy that kind of work), whereas, as I said, the civilian victims are out of sight and out of mind. The proof of what I am saying was the nightmare the Ehud Olmert faced during the Lebanon II War. One of the soldiers killed was the son of writer David Grossman. Grossman was able to stand up at some public gathering and berate Olmert in front of the whole nation for having his son be killed. No one knew who the 100 or so civilians who were killed in the war were and Olmert could have easily avoided any public repercussions from them.
      Finally, we all remember the thousands of Israelis killed or wounded in the whole series of suicide bombings that hit the country as a result of the Oslo PEACE process. We were assured the Rabin and Barak, who brought the situation about were “tough generals” who supposedly cared out security, but in reality, their job as “politician-Generals” was to explain how there was nothing that could be done to guaranted security except make more concessions to the Palestinians. Sharon was the next who after pulling out of the Gaza Strip he allowed the lives of tens of thousands of Israelis living near the Gaza Strip to be turned into hell because guillible Israelis were told, once again “Sharon MUST know what he is doing….do you think he would do ANYTHING to endanger the security of Israel?”. Obviously he, Barak, Rabin and the rest of that crowd ARE willing to endanger the security of the state for their own ends. Now Meir Dagan is viewed as the next savior-security expert-politiican who will once againn explain why there can’t be any security.
      Will the Israeli public once again fall in the trap of trusting one of these politician-Generals?
      It is imperative for a sane-healthy demcracy to keep military people OUT of government. The US and Britain rarely if ever have generals as leaders. The US has a law specifically preventing military people from holding the job of Defense Secretary. The fact that Israel almost always has Generals in this position is typical of banana republic and is a danger to our democracy.

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    3. richard Allen

      I don’t think the real Ben Israel left that last comment. He would never refer to “pulling out of the Gaza Strip.” His preferred term is, “expelled from Gush Katif.”

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    4. Ben Israel

      I wish to clarify that I do no consider all IDF officers, both senior and junior, to be as cynical as I pointed out above. However, it must be noted that Israel, like Argentina in past decades, developed a cadre of “political-Generals” who went beyong worrying about national security and became intoxicated by the prospect of wielding political power. I am also including the Mossad and SHABAK among these people. The fact is that virtually all the senior people who came out of the IDF, SHABAK and Mossad who went into politics ended up on the Left. This is because those people who while still a part of the security establishment realized that if you wanted a career in politics you had to toe the Leftist line, otherwise you would not be promoted. I think it is pretty clear that poltical affiliation is more important than professional qualifications at the very top.
      This was particularly manifest during the relatively poor performance of the IDF in the Lebanon II and the totally unimaginative “bomb the heck out of them” mentality during that war and the subsequent Gaza war which increased civilian casualties on both sides. (Please note, even when the Likud was in power in the years following 1977, they appointed Leftists to the top security positions, possibly due to a lack of self-confidence in trying to promote other people against the will existing Establishment which was put in place during the years before 1977 when the Labor Party completely dominated all organs of the state).
      I repeat what I said…having so much influence of the security establishment on the civilian organs of state leads to very bad consequences.

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    5. max

      Roi, it’s great to see you and BI agree! Indeed, a good post, and while I disagree with many details I do agree with the principle.
      I fail, however, to understand how you link the post to its title, as what you claim is that Israel does indeed face significant security threats, but – as you both agree – doesn’t handle them correctly.
      So the title should read “Israel policy myth #1: the significant security threats are well addressed”

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    6. Zvi

      For anyone interested in this topic and able to read Hebrew, I recommend taking a look at the collection of articles בשם הבטיחון (if you can find it): http://simania.co.il/bookdetails.php?item_id=41818

      These articles discuss how the “Security ethos [has been] placed in the heart of the collective consciousness as the criterion which is above politics centers and over public controversy.” [sorry for the clunky google translation].

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    7. Israel’s current security needs have very little to do with any legitimate defense of Israel, but rather are actually offensive operations required to “defend” and expand the Zionist colonial agenda. A thief who robs a bank and holds the customers hostage also has a pressing need to defend himself, but it’s not quite the same kind of security you suggest here. Palestinians have a far greater need for security than Israelis. And that’s no myth.

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    8. Roi Maor

      Max – I think the point of the post is that Israeli decision makers present security as their first priority, and that is a false assertion, in my opinion. One of the results is a mishandling of the real security issues that do exist, of course – but that was not the post’s main argument.

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    9. Waleed

      Israel myth # ?? : We have connection to the land

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    10. Ben Israel

      Do the Palestinians have a connection to the land? They were the ones who fled it, many without even seeing any fighting or Israeli troops. Abbas himself fled without seeing any fighting. Does he have a real connection with the land?

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    11. Arieh O'Sullivan

      Actually, despite the complaints of neglect, Israelis are the most defensively and physically protected people on earth. no worldly population comes close to us. but as the generals say “There is no limit (restriction) to security.”

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    12. Ben Israel

      Arieh O’Sullivan-I recall you were military correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. I particularly remember your flight in a jet fighter plane.
      As someone with as much knowledge as you have, how do you explain the “restraint is strength” comment by Sharon when Jews were being murdered every day, or Rabin’s “we have to take risks for peace” (i.e. they have to let people die)? It seems clear to me that “diplomatic advantage” overrode the security of the population on many occasions, and not simply “mistaken analysis” which led to violence.

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    13. Rachamim Dwek

      The author begins his argument with a lie and it only goes downhill from there. Claiming that the High Court “shot down” the argument that “Settlements” serve a defencive purpose in the Elon Moreh Case is either a blatant lie. The case did not even touch upon the nature of “Settlements.” It dealt merely with arbitrary expropriation of private- or in this case musha’a (communally held) land, predicated upon the IDF citing “Military Necessity.” If you launch a detailed argument but build it upon false information your entire argument crumbles, as it indeed did here. The “Settlements” utility vis a vis national security is the fact that prior to 1967, Israel was 12km wide at its narrowest point. Placing “Settlements” on key defencible hilltops further secured the nation against a ground assault.The author’s cavelier dismissal of Israeli concerns and his use of Illogical Fallacies- such as basing his argument that Israel cannot be truly concerned with defence if it fails to properly form a Civil Defence apparattus (false claim by the way)- serves to further drag his entire argument into meaningless partisan quibbling. Facts should matter more than partisanship.

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