Referring to the cross-border strikes of September 30 in Himachal Pradesh on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi bragged, “Earlier one heard about Israel doing such a thing, now the country has seen that the Indian army is no less”. Even Modi should have realised that comparing Indian action “along” the Line of Control with Israeli covert and military operations was hyperbole, pure and simple. But the fetishisation of Israel runs deep in the Sangh parivar and its reason is no secret – deep anti-Islamism.
Modi is, anyway, comparing apples and oranges, but in electoral politics everything is fair game. An Israeli general once brought out the basic difference to me: “We are just 15 kilometres wide at our narrowest point, whereas you are thousands of kilometres in length and breadth. Who will invade you and where will they reach even if they do?” This partly explains Israel’s continuing military occupation of Palestine while “India has never been hungry for land nor has it attacked anyone or coveted anyone’s territory,” as Modi put it on October 2.
Nothing could be more different than the histories of the two countries, even though they became modern independent states around the same time. Israel emerged as a Jewish state, somewhat akin to Pakistan’s emergence as a Muslim state, while the enormously diverse India chose to be secular.
As a consequence of the Holocaust, the need for security runs deep in Israel’s DNA. Given its geographic and demographic limitations, the Israeli defence forces have developed a military doctrine that involves fighting battles outside Israel’s home territory, whereas the Indian posture, shaped by its vast size and population, has been largely defensive. Although India’s military plans have catered for offensive actions against Pakistan, executing these plans has been difficult, given that both countries are evenly matched when it comes to conventional warfare. The operations in East Pakistan in 1971 are a notable exception.
What distinguishes Israeli operations?
There are two aspects to the Israeli operations. The first is the Mossad’s covert ops to foil terrorist strikes and deter assaults on Israeli targets, the second has been a series of military wars and operations, some launched by various Arab states and some by Israel, on non-state entities like the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Hezbollah and Hamas.
Many of these covert operations are well known, such as Operation Bayonet or Wrath of God which aimed at avenging the killing of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972. Just how persistent it was is apparent from the fact that the operation went on for 20 years and involved making daring strikes deep into Lebanese territory, using paratroopers and naval commandos as well as a campaign to bomb countries like France, Cyprus and Greece. There are many pros and cons to taking such actions, one of the significant cons being the deaths of many innocent bystanders. Mossad may have succeeded in ending Palestinian terrorism against Israeli targets abroad, but it probably enhanced Israel’s insecurities closer to home.
Israel has been involved in direct military action for decades now, beginning with the 1956 Arab-Israeli War, followed by the Six Day war of 1967, the 1967-70 War of Attrition, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1982 first Lebanon War, the 2006 second Lebanon War and more recently the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. Each conflict has brought the violence closer home to Israel and the outcome of the last two wars – in Gaza and Lebanon in 2014 indicates that Israel’s adversaries remain unbowed, armed and dangerous.
The Israeli military’s performance against its external adversaries like Egypt and Syria has been outstanding, if not brilliant. The destruction of the Egyptian air force on the eve of the Six Day war in 1967 was a coup which unbalanced the Arab front. Israel’s ability to weather the Yom Kippur surprise in 1973 and even turn the tables through launching a counter-attack across the Suez Canal and over the Golan heights was an outstanding military feat. The key driver for Israeli commanders was the feeling that, given their geography, they had no choice but to move forward. In other words, their actions were shaped as much by their geography as by the foundational insecurity of the Jewish state. Given the military balance which was deeply tilted against them in both the Suez and Golan areas, their achievement was an outcome of the skill and grit of Israel’s military professionals.
The limitations of a military approach
But these brilliant military achievements have not brought peace. Occupying territory with a large number of people who have no love for Israel is a problem that is not going away. While there is tentative peace in the West Bank, the situation in Gaza, which is under the control of Hamas, remains constantly tense. Israel has accepted that both Hezbollah and Hamas continue to pose a significant threat to the state despite its recent military campaigns against them. In both, the 2006 war against Hezbollah and the 2014 campaign against Hamas, Israel found the going tough and essentially fought to a draw, even though Palestine and the Hezbollah took much heavier casualties. An American officer’s assessment of the 2014 Israel-Gaza war indicates that the next round of conflict could be more violent and that Hamas could impose heavier costs on Israel.
When admiring Israel’s military, one must also keep two important facts in mind. The first is Israel’s friendship with the US, which comes with many benefits, firstly in the form of military and economic aid – the highest in per capita terms – as well as political support, enough to prompt some into terming Israel the 51st state of the US. The second important factor to remember is Israel’s aysmmetric nuclear weapons capability, whose role in shaping the outcome of the 1973 war is a matter of some controversy.
What all this tells us is that there is a limit to the extent that the military can be used to solve political problems. The one country with which Israel has made peace is Egypt and that was done through negotiation and compromise. The troubles in Syria, whose Golan heights have been annexed by Israel, have come as a bonus of sorts. In Lebanon, there is a standoff. But there seems to be little to no scope for finding a solution to one of the main Israeli dilemmas – the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Although the latter is not militarily occupied, its air space and coast line are under Israeli control. Israel appears condemned to being the guardian of the world’s biggest outdoor prison— peopled by three million or so Palestinians who are surrounded by a wall, not to keep them in, but to keep them out. Israel is afraid to let them go, even as it is scared of holding on to them.
There are few lessons in Israel’s handling of Palestinians that are applicable to India. Those who find Israeli methods worthy of emulation may not be aware that a large number, roughly 25%, of Israelis are Muslims who vote in elections and work alongside citizens of other faiths. Israeli policy towards Palestine is motivated less by anti-Islamism, than an old fashioned territorial quarrel – the fact that the Israelis have occupied the land of the Palestinians and the latter naturally resent this and fight back.
Hezbollah’s rise as a consequence of Israel’s successful removal of the PLO from Lebanon is a lesson in the unintended consequences of military success. With deep roots in Lebanon, Hezbollah is much more difficult to deal with. Likewise, the Israeli defeat of the PLO has led to the rise of Hamas, a group with whom negotiation is difficult. The recent cycles of violence have been intense indeed and there is no indication that they are at an end. Israel has a superb military, an outstanding intelligence service, advanced weapons and equipment, sensors of all kinds and a wall. But it is not exactly in a happy place.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.