As missiles and rockets exploded in Israel and Gaza, television news was dominated by the tragic violence, and we were warned that the battle between Israel and the Palestinians might spread because we are in a new and much more dangerous Middle East. Islamists are in power, democracies will listen to their people. In fact, as the relatively quick cease-fire between the parties shows, there is a very low likelihood of a broader regional conflict. It’s true that we’re in a new Middle East, but it’s one in which Israel has become the region’s superpower.
In a thorough 2010 study, “The Arab-Israeli Military Balance,” Anthony Cordesman and Aram Nerguizian document how over the past decade Israel has outstripped its neighbors in every dimension of warfare. The authors attribute this to Israel’s “combination of national expenditures, massive external funding, national industrial capacity and effective strategy and force planning.” Israel’s military expenditures in 2009 were about $10 billion, which is three times Egypt’s military spending and larger than the combined defense expenditures of all its neighbors — Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. (This advantage is helped by the fact that Israel receives $3 billion in military assistance from Washington.)
But money doesn’t begin to describe Israel’s real advantages, which are in the quality and effectiveness of its military, in terms of both weapons and people. Despite being dwarfed by the Arab population, Israel’s army plus its high-quality reservists vastly outnumber those of the Arab nations. Its weapons are far more sophisticated, often a generation ahead of those used by its adversaries. Israel’s technology advantage has profound implications on the modern battlefield.
The most powerful Arab military, and the one against which Israel is often judged in scholarly studies, is Syria’s. But of course the Syrian army is now in turmoil as it battles its own people and Bashar al-Assad hangs on to power.
Then there are the asymmetrical threats from groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The study takes a look at them and analyzes Hezbollah’s huge arsenal of missiles. The authors conclude that these pose no real threat to Israel because the missiles are largely unguided and thus ineffective. Hamas’s rockets are even more crude and ineffective. Israel’s response, its “Iron Dome” defense system, has worked better than expected.
As for terrorism, the other asymmetrical strategy against Israel: Despite Wednesday’s attack on a bus in Tel Aviv, Israel is largely protected from terrorists because of the wall it built in 2003.
As for larger threats, the study points out that Israel is the only country in the region with a sophisticated nuclear arsenal — estimated to be between 100 and 500 weapons, many of them on submarines — and advanced ballistic missiles.
This is why Egypt, despite being under a new Islamist government, is not going to risk war with Israel. Nor are the other Arab states. They will make fiery speeches and offer humanitarian assistance. But they will not fight alongside the Palestinians in Gaza or do anything that could trigger a wider war.
Turkey, another powerful regional player, has a government that has weakened its ties with Israel and clashed with it repeatedly over its treatment of the Palestinians. But these are verbal clashes, unlikely to amount to much more. In fact, Turkey is now facing a situation in which its efforts to become a regional power have backfired. It gambled that it would be able to dislodge the regime in Syria, which has not yet happened. Its relations with Iraq have deteriorated as it shields the Sunni vice president from Baghdad’s Shiite-led government, which wants to arrest him. And since Turkey has frosty relations with Israel, it can only watch from afar as Egypt becomes the bridge between Israel and Hamas. The only real outside broker in the region is, of course, the United States, Israel’s closest ally.
These are the realities of the Middle East today. Israel’s astonishing economic growth, its technological prowess, its military preparedness and its tight relationship with the United States have set it a league apart from its Arab adversaries. Peace between the Palestinians and Israelis will come only when Israel decides that it wants to make peace. Wise Israeli politicians, from Ariel Sharon to Ehud Olmert to Ehud Barak, have wanted to take risks to make that peace because they have worried about Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. This is what is in danger, not Israel’s existence.