Martin Van Creveld‘s book, Defending Israel: A Strategic Plan for Peace and Security is one of the most disappointing books I have ever read on the subject of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Van Creveld’s mission, like so many before him, is to propose a sustainable solution to conflict which will ensure both peace and security for the State of Israel. In many respects, his basic formula differs very little from the discourse touted by Israeli leftists and most of the international community. That is, he recommends a complete (or at least near-complete) withdrawal by Israel from the disputed territories of the West Bank (Yehuda and Shomron), Gaza (published prior to the disengagement), and the Golan Heights. Moreover, he counsels the completion of the West Bank Security Barrier and a complete overhaul of Israel’s military hardware to focus on technologically advanced early warning systems, ballistic missile defense, and naval platforms.
Where Van Creveld rhetorically departs from standard liberal internationalist claims against Israel’s presence in the territories is in his explicit attempt to ground his arguments in purely strategic reasoning. This means that he spends very little energy focusing both on Israel’s ethnohistorical claims to the territory and on the nature of Palestinian claims on “Israel proper”. He also demonstrates little explicit interest in humanitarian concerns as far as the impact the strategies he proposes would have on the Arab population at large. While a narrowly conceived focus such as his would not be flawed in and of itself, his claim to not be preoccupied with interests and challenges other than military strategy make for a both disingenuous and unconvincing argument.
Van Creveld’s primary argument is that maximalist Israeli claims in the territories are based on a weakly credible claim of “defensible borders“. This argument has indeed been the backbone of both moderate Israeli left and right wing politicians’ arguments for the retention of these territories. Believing that Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries were what made the country so potentially vulnerable to attack and military defeat between 1949 and 1967, the point is made that greater territory ensures a buffer zone against conventional attack on “Israel proper”.
The author’s attack on this position is three-fold. 1) Israel did manage to defend itself reasonably well between 1949 and 1967 without the territories in question. 2) Greater territory simply means that there is more to defend in war. 3) The settlement of Jewish residents in these territories defeats what little utility they have as buffer zones. While these arguments could be credibly defended from a strategic point of view, all three fall flat following Van Creveld’s logic.
With regard to the first point, the argument is critically flawed. To argue, as he does, that Israel enjoyed relatively sustainable security between 1949 and 1967 and that a return to this territorial arrangement would be equally reliable is to ignore the pressing security threats which existed both then and now. Indeed, Van Creveld’s image of Israeli security prior to 1967 seems to be one in which Israel was aware of the conventional threat imposed by Arab armies but where overall Israeli military superiority, effectiveness, and technological advantages allowed a relatively tranquil if tense domestic infrastructure to develop.
While he is correct to assert that Israeli state and society did manage to ward off threats from conventional sources, he almost entirely ignores the reality of terrorism prior to 1967. Indeed, 1300 Israelis were killed and wounded between 1949 and 1956 by terrorist “fedayeen” sent from bases in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon inciting Israel’s involvement in the Suez Crisis/Sinai Campaign. Further attacks by Arab commandos continuing through much of the late 50s and early 60s also contributed to regional tensions which resulted in the 1967 Six Day War in which the territories in question were captured by Israel.
Van Creveld’s second point, that more territory simply means more to defend in war, is again a weak argument for territorial withdrawal. This perspective is based in his paradoxical faith that the Israeli military could repel a huge conventional attack when its largest population centers are immediately accessible by the enemy but could not when a territorial buffer exists. He argues that because Israel lacked “strategic depth” prior to 1967, it was forced to fight every war “on the offensive whether it wanted to or not” (17). The point seems to be here that because Israel constantly faced the threat of annihilation, its strategies and tactics were necessarily better and more effective than its adversaries.
This is an awfully controversial and weakly defensible position to be taken by one of the world’s foremost civilian experts in military strategy. While I am no expert, it seems intuitive that it would be better for a country to be able to sustain an initial attack and regroup than for every battle to potentially be its last. Indeed, this strange logic rears its head again when he argues for Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights to reduce tensions with the Syrians. Giving up the high ground, he acknowledges, artillery and tanks are “ill-suited to firing uphill” and should be removed from the Israeli arsenal in favor of a more advanced airborne force (113). If relinquishing such a territory necessitates the complete and highly expensive redesign of a country’s defense strategy which has, up until now, worked to prevent conventional attack, why is this move advisable?
If any part of his argument would appear to be sustainable from a military strategic perspective, it would be his final point that Jewish settlement in the “buffer zone” makes for a very weak buffer zone indeed. Indeed, if the argument is that the state retains this territory to ensure its citizens will be less vulnerable to attack, maintaining large populations in this area undercuts this position quite drastically. Yet the argument to withdraw (forcibly if necessary) these residents from their homes irreconcilably clashes with his position that a wall should and can be built to protect Israeli citizens against asymmetric guerilla warfare or terrorism.
If he truly believes that a wall will be effective in largely preventing terrorist incidents and if his logic is as largely dismissive of humanitarian concerns as he contends, a wall which follows the pre-1967 border does not logically follow. Rather, the logical conclusion of Van Creveld’s analysis would be the establishment of small walled-off enclaves within the West Bank which separate the Arab residents from the Israeli population. Indeed, if Arab radicalization and terrorism is as concerning as he contends, it makes very little sense to allow for the creation of a territorially continuous, defensible Palestinian state absent Jewish residents and Israeli military bases.
The problem here, which Van Creveld implicitly recognizes but his logic does not allow for, is that such a move would lead to widespread, outspoken international recrimination. While he does not believe that this sacrifice is worth the added security, he does as earlier noted seem to believe that the world would ignore Israeli preemption to compensate for its lack of strategic depth once having given up the disputed territories. Many of Van Creveld’s recommendations seem to go this route. Indeed, his argument that Israel should update and augment its naval forces in order to counteract conventional threats seems ill-suited to address the current security situation. Similarly, his reliance on ballistic missile defense to deter conventional and unconventional warheads from neighboring states does not acknowledge the unique challenge posed by crude yet deadly qassam rockets fired now daily from Gaza as well as the more advanced katyushas preferred by Hezbollah.
In all, Van Creveld’s faith in high tech “revolution in military affairs” solutions to the incredibly low tech problems of insurgent warfare which dominate the strategic concerns of both Israel and most of the Middle East seems a crude mismatch of efforts at best. Moreover, his a priori defense of the maximalist withdrawal argument despite its incongruity with his own “rational” strategic concerns makes this book far from a compelling read on its own terms. Just as Van Creveld demands honesty from sectors of Israeli society which cling to ambiguous concepts of strategic depth and defensible borders so too must we demand of him intellectual honesty as to where his biases lie.