Israel at 75: After defeating its old enemies, the nation faces a dangerous new foe

Iran and armed groups Hezbollah and Hamas have joined forces to build a new coalition against Israel that replaces the old Arab alliance of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan.


Israel continues to face significant security challenges that can be compared to those it confronted when it was founded in 1948.

Then, Israel’s main enemies were Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, so the balance of power was clearly against it, but that gradually changed over the years, in Israel’s favour.

Israel now is at peace with Egypt and Jordan; a cold peace, but it has survived many crises. Syria and Iraq are still enemies, but they are at a low point and have lost most of their military might.

In 2020, Israel normalised its relations with the UAE and Bahrain, two Gulf Arab states that need Israel as an ally against Iran, their common enemy.

Iran and its partners, such as the armed groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, have joined forces to build a new coalition against Israel that replaces the old Arab alliance of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan.

Israel and Iran used to be partners until the 1979 revolution in Iran, which started the conflict between them. There has been no shooting war between them, but they have exchanged blows over the years, a confrontation that has escalated in the last decade with strikes against each other at sea and in cyberspace.

Israel’s biggest concern is Iran’s nuclear programme. In recent years Iran has got much closer to producing nuclear weapons, which pose an existential threat to Israel.

In 1948, following Israel’s declaration of independence, several Arab armies attacked. Israel barely managed to hold back the Arab offensive while absorbing heavy losses in the process.

If Iran develops and then uses nuclear weapons against Israel, it will be much worse than in 1948, especially if Iran strikes first. In the worst-case scenario, a massive Iranian nuclear offensive could inflict huge losses and destroy Israel.

A nuclear war between Israel and Iran might happen by mistake, following miscalculations by one or other of them, or perhaps both. Furthermore, it is enough that Iran has nuclear weapons without using them to change the Middle East for the worse.

Other states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, might gain nuclear weapons too. Israel might be seen as a much more dangerous place to live in, which will cause many people to leave it, reduce investment, and so on.

Therefore, Israel must prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons, almost at any cost. Israel might not bomb Iran’s nuclear sites.

In 1948 the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) lacked weapons and training. Now they are much better armed and trained. Yet inflicting substantial damage on Iran’s nuclear programme will be a tall order because of the distance to the targets, which are also well protected. It would require that Israel, as it did in 1948, to demonstrate determination, creativity and flexibility.

“Steadfast support for Israel’s security has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy for every US administration since the presidency of Harry S. Truman,” the US Department of State noted in 2021. “Since its founding in 1948, the United States has provided Israel with over $125 billion in bilateral assistance.”

Israel needs the US and other powers too, such as the UK, in dealing with Iran. Despite disputes Israel has with the UK and the US, they all agree that Iran must not produce nuclear weapons. But the US, UK and others prefer not to attack Iran.

They also seek to prevent Israel from attacking Iran by itself, because that strike would provoke a major crisis. Besides, the US and UK are already preoccupied with other urgent national security matters, such as the war in Ukraine.

In 1948, following Turkey, Iran was the second Muslim state to recognise Israel. But since 1979 it has sought to destroy Israel.

Israel, on the other hand, does not seek to destroy Iran, only to eliminate its current regime. Israel, the US, the UK and other states can assist the Iranian opposition, which recently organised what was probably the most significant unrest Iran had seen since 1979. It eventually subsided but the next eruption is only a matter of time.

If it is planned right, it might bring down the regime. Despite the uncertainty regarding who would then rule Iran, any new regime would be better for Israel and for others too, including the Iranian people.

Iran has been upgrading its missiles and drones, which can be launched from Iran or from close to Israel, by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Israel has had several confrontations with Hamas. In contrast, since 2006 there have been almost no clashes between Israel and Hezbollah, which is much stronger than Hamas.

In a war with Hezbollah, the Israeli population might face its most deadly and destructive attack since 1948 when the threat came from Arab land attacks, artillery and some air bombardments.

Hezbollah can launch raids into northern Israel and fire 150,000 rockets and missiles over the whole country. In 1948 the IDF did not win a decisive victory since it could not manage to destroy the Arab armies entirely.

The IDF is now much stronger than it was in 1948, but it might not be able to annihilate Hezbollah because it would be too costly and complicated on several levels.

In 1948 Israel avoided seizing the West Bank, due to constraints such as avoiding controlling the Arabs there.

Now Israel is trying to contain guerrilla and terror activity in the West Bank without retaking the areas that are part of the Palestinian Authority. As in 1948, Israel does not want to be responsible for the Palestinians living there.

The Gaza Strip was created in 1949. Now more than two million Palestinians live there, and many struggle to make ends meet. Gaza is on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe because Hamas chooses to invest in preparing for war instead of looking after its people.

There is a fragile status quo with Israel but another confrontation might happen at any time. Israel might try to strike first so it can fight on its terms and reduce its casualties.

Yet launching a preventive war will be a gamble. If there is another confrontation, Israel could reconquer Gaza, but would rather avoid doing so because of the negative ramifications. Israel could seize Gaza for a relatively short time, destroy military infrastructure and arsenals, and then withdraw.

However, such a strategy would be costly and following the retreat there could be chaos in Gaza, which does not suit Israel.

Israel has to be ready to confront both Iran and its partners. Yet if Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear sites, it is unclear if and to what extent Hezbollah would react.

Although Hezbollah relies on Iran, the group knows the enormous price both it and Lebanon would pay in a war against Israel. Lebanon is already almost a failed state so Hezbollah might try to limit the scale of the war.

As for Hamas, it might not join in with Iran, fearing Israeli retribution. Furthermore, even if Iran manages to mobilise its allies to fight Israel, if it is a conventional war it will still be much less of a threat to Israel than the Arab offensive in 1948 because Israel was much weaker then.

Israel’s power depends not only on its military might but also on its economic and social strength. Compared with its situation in 1948, the Israeli economy is doing well. However, the current political turmoil might have negative effects.

In 1948, the Jews in the land of Israel wanted to get rid of the British Mandate, yet they kept many British laws. The British heritage includes the lack of a constitution.

The current internal unrest might force Israel to create one. Israel’s success, including in handling its security problems, depends on the ability of its people to get along, despite all the disagreements between them. In 1948 Israel had around 600,000 Jews.

Now the number is more than seven million. They have diverse cultures, beliefs and habits that cause tension and disputes. Israel has to rebuild the solidarity between its people. If not, internal discord could cripple its ability to deter and deal with its foes. Israel must not be its own worst enemy.

Dr Ehud Eilam has been studying Israel’s national security for more than 25 years. His latest book is ‘Israeli Strategies in the Middle East: The Case of Iran’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022)

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